Does Sturgeon deserve her Holyrood halo?

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There is a peculiar phenomenon taking place in Scottish public opinion.

Scots hold drastically different assessments of the performance of two governments which have handled coronavirus in broadly similar ways with broadly similar results.

An Ipsos-MORI poll for the BBC shows that more than four in five Scots approve of Nicola Sturgeon’s handling of the Covid-19 outbreak, while less than a third say the same of Boris Johnson. The survey was carried out before the Dominic Cummings row broke and therefore has not been coloured by that.

An outsider would conclude that, while Johnson’s government has handled this crisis poorly, Sturgeon’s has been a paragon of success. Yet the facts are entirely at odds with that. The Scottish Government has fallen down on the job at least as often, and as badly, as its UK counterpart. The First Minister is no longer encouraging us to compare her performance with that in England and Wales.

The Cummings affair may have undermined public trust in the Johnson government but the Nike affair is arguably more damning of Sturgeon’s administration. Her government was aware of a Covid-19 outbreak at a Nike conference in Edinburgh in late February but withheld the information from the public. Professor Denis Kinane now says the event ‘could have been one of the “ground zeros” in Scotland’, and a number of firms suspect their staff became ill with coronavirus as a result of contact with conference attendees.

Had a similar cover-up been conducted by the UK Government, it is not hard to imagine Cabinet resignations, calls for a Civil Service inquiry and demands that the Prime Minister consider his position. Certainly, public opinion would have reflected dimly on this sort of behaviour but that has not happened in Scotland.

Another pitfall has been the substandard provision of personal protective equipment. Several weeks into the pandemic, 100 medical professionals penned an open letter to Scottish ministers raising ‘grave concerns about the adequacy’ of their PPE.

In April, a newspaper report identified half a dozen firms which had offered to provide PPE but were ‘ignored’ by the Scottish Government. The underuse of testing capacity has further alarmed health professionals. In the first week of this month, figures showed only one-third of capacity was being used, a proportion dwarfed by the more active testing regime in England.

Allyson Pollock, clinical professor in public health at Newcastle University, wrote to the Scottish Government in March urging it to adopt ‘community contact tracing and testing’, but received no reply. The First Minister originally promised 2,000 contract tracers but questioned on the BBC this week, admitted only 660 had been hired while a further 750 were ‘in process’.

Among the most harrowing problems is the situation in care homes. The Scottish Government moved elderly patients from hospital to care homes to increase ward capacity but did so in many cases without testing, prompting fears that this is how Covid-19 entered some facilities.

Care home staff and bosses repeatedly asked for sufficient testing but their pleas fell on deaf ears. Workers at Highgate care home in Uddingston, Lanarkshire, were still not tested after an outbreak linked to the deaths of 22 residents.

A report from pro-independence think-tank Common Weal described the situation in Scotland’s nursing homes as ‘an unmitigated disaster’ and concluded that Covid-19’s rampage ‘possibly represents the single greatest failure of devolved government… since the creation of the Scottish parliament’.

These decisions have put pressure on Health Secretary Jeane Freeman. She told parliament the number of elderly patients discharged from hospitals into care homes was one-third of the true figure. Sturgeon said her minister made ‘a mistake in articulating numbers’ because she was ‘a bit tired’. Earlier this month, Freeman was left red-faced in a TV interview after being asked about ‘new’ care home guidelines, which she had not seen. A draft of the updated rules had been published on the Scottish Government website by mistake.

Protection of those Scots most vulnerable to coronavirus has also left a lot to be desired. The groceries delivery scheme for those ‘shielding’ – that is, people at highest risk from Covid-19 – took longer to set up in Scotland than in England because supermarkets had to wait for Scottish ministers to provide lists of vulnerable shoppers.

Sturgeon’s own leadership has been called into question. Boris Johnson was fiercely criticised for missing Cobra meetings about the virus but it has since emerged (with much less media attention and political criticism) that Sturgeon did the same.

When Dr Catherine Calderwood defied lockdown twice to retreat to her second home, the First Minister said her chief medical officer had ‘made a mistake’ but insisted that she remain in post. Eventually, she accepted Dr Calderwood’s resignation but the difference in her stance and that of the Prime Minister was a matter of political calculation, not ministerial judgment.

Why, after a performance like this, do Scots give so much credit to the Scottish Government while scorning the efforts of the UK Government?

Sir John Curtice, the Strathclyde University politics professor, chalks it up to the Scottish Government being more in line with public opinion north of the Border on the easing of lockdown. Sturgeon has maintained the restrictions for longer than the UK Government and that chimes with the more than three-quarters of Scots who fear the perils of letting our guard down too soon.

Professor Curtice also advances the Holyrood ‘halo effect’, an angelic glow that means ‘credit for what is done well in Scotland is attributed to Holyrood and blame for poor performance is laid at the door of Westminster’.

Professor Curtice makes a solid point, but fairness requires us to acknowledge that a portion of Sturgeon’s high ratings are earned. Some Unionists’ choleric hatred of her makes them incapable of registering her very considerable abilities in communications and presentation.

The First Minister knows how to talk and, even if she doesn’t say very much, the way she says it calms and reassures many. She is good in a crisis – not necessarily good at managing the crisis, but good at projecting confidence and leadership. Nicola Sturgeon’s tone – emotional, sympathetic, apparently sincere – more closely reflects how the average Scot feels about what is happening at the minute than the cool detachment with which most UK ministers conduct themselves.

Beyond the image and the inflection, however, lie several more pedestrian explanations. The first is tribalism. Positive tribalism may lead those who identify strongly with the SNP as a political prospect to identify strongly with Sturgeon and her handling of the crisis. Equally, negative tribalism – identifying yourself against a tribe rather than with one – could be at work. If you are one of the sizeable majority of Scots who disfavour Boris Johnson and his government, the temptation to side with whoever is his most powerful and articulate rival will be great indeed.

Another consideration is localism, in the sense that electors tend to feel more favourable towards the level of government that is closest and most responsive to them. Scottish exceptionalism plays its part too. The myth of Scottish moral superiority, especially to England, is nigh on impossible to shift. It feeds a hunger in the national soul for recognition that what Scotland lacks in size it makes up for in virtue. The halo hangs above our heads as much as the First Minister’s.

And institutional factors pertain. If ministers have gone largely unopposed, it is because of the quality of the opposition. Jackson Carlaw showed this week with his flip-flopping on the Cummings affair that his leadership has a long way to go to match Ruth Davidson’s for potency.

However, even before this week’s row came along, Carlaw’s performance on Covid-19 had been patchy, with the Scottish Conservative leader seemingly unable to decide between a consensual and confrontational style in questioning the First Minister.

The Scottish Government also benefits from a media culture that is less adversarial than that in place in London. There is no Piers Morgan on TV here monstering ministers day after day, reinforcing the perception of the government as feckless, reckless and making an almighty hash of things.

Where ITV News has challenged the UK Government on PPE, care homes and testing, STV News’s coverage will be remembered for the extraordinary video it posted of children thanking Sturgeon for keeping them safe. Ministers still have to worry about the newspapers but, even there, they enjoy at least one title that is dedicated to presenting everything they do in the most glowing light.

While many will find all this profoundly frustrating, few want to confront the structural underpinnings. Tribalism, exceptionalism and poor oppositions are nothing new but what yokes them together into a shambling Frankenstein’s creature of bad politics and worse policy is legislative devolution.

The Scottish parliament and the political infrastructure that has been erected around it provide a focal point closer in geography and culture to most Scots than the House of Commons.

During the 1997 referendum, devosceptics were called alarmist for suggesting that Holyrood would create a rival seat of legitimacy but they were in fact understating the danger. Within two decades of devolution, Holyrood has become the expression of the Scottish political will and the UK Parliament an alien afterthought.

In this context, it is hardly surprising that most Scots rate the Scottish Government’s performance over that of its UK counterpart. It is their government and they hold a stake in its success or failure, unlike that cold and distant palace 400 miles away.

Holyrood is Scotland’s team and, however dismal its performance on the pitch, we still cheer it on. The ‘halo effect’ is driven by identity, not ignorance. Devolutionists built an institution around Scotland’s distinct political identity and have been astonished to watch as it made that identity all the more distinct.

There is a similar dynamic over coronavirus playing out in New York at the moment. State governor Andrew Cuomo has seen his approval ratings soar to dizzying heights while New Yorkers take an ever-dimmer view of Donald Trump. Yet Cuomo’s sluggish response to the virus, in particular the time it took him to institute a lockdown, echoes the failings of the Trump administration.

Across the pond, however, there is no angst about a larger significance for the US political system. Federalism works there because New Yorkers share a strong state and national identity and there is no political movement of any significance agitating for a divergence between the two. Devolution does not work because there are competing political identities in Scotland that channel loyalty to one level of government or another. US federalism promotes unity, devolution institutionalises division.

Until Scottish Unionists are prepared to confront the devolution problem, there is little sense in them stamping their feet and gurning at the public for giving pollsters the wrong answers. Almost by its very nature, devolution invites Scots to make a binary choice between two governments and two political establishments. That most pick the one closest to home is very human and so is the tendency to be more forgiving of an institution which they see as theirs. If the UK were still a member of the European Union, we would almost certainly see the same dynamic play out in public opinion south of the Border.

But just as inquiries will be established to scrutinise the governmental response to Covid-19, there will have to be some candid talk about how devolution drove yet another wedge between Scotland and the rest of the UK, and did so in circumstances that ought to have brought us together. Labour established devolution in the belief it would run the show forever. The Tories say they could make devolution work for rather than against the Union. No one dares ask whether legislative devolution and national unity are simply irreconcilable.

That is the politics but the facts remain. The Scottish Government’s handling of coronavirus has been at least as flawed as that of the UK Government. There ought to be accountability but instead ministers preen under an unearned reputation for competence. Their gold halo is no match for their brass neck.

Originally published in the Scottish Daily Mail. Letters: Contact Stephen at

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