Unhappy hour

There was something mildly Calvinist about Nicola Sturgeon, as she stood there dividing the Elect and the reprobate into their respective tiers, pronouncing judgement on their drinking establishments as she went.  

Much of the central belt was slung in Tier 3, which means pubs have to close at 6pm and are forbidden to sell booze. It turns out there is something more lonesome, morbid and drear: standing in the bar of a pub full of beer but being required by law to order a soda and lime.  

Lanarkshire narrowly escaped Tier 4 after what Sturgeon called ‘a borderline decision’. For the home of Albion Rovers and Airdrieonians, having a borderline decision go in their favour will have been an exciting new experience.

However, the First Minister pleaded with locals to ‘help ensure that the rise in cases continues to slow’. Not that there’s anything still open in Lanarkshire. At this point, a pub lock-in involves breaking out the dandelion and burdock at half-six while someone keeps watch on the door for a passing constable.  

To help us resist temptation, she warned: ‘I cannot rule out a move back to nationwide restrictions in the next few weeks, including at level 4’. That was for really serious incidents, like ICU wards being overwhelmed or SNP MPs buying cross-country rail tickets.  

Richard Leonard thought it was ‘clear that some local communities are at a lower tier than was predicted but some are at a higher tier than was predicted’. He wanted to know what economic measures would be put in place to protect jobs and businesses, especially in Tier 3.

There would be a bigger impact on jobs and the economy if the virus went unchecked, she responded, pointing to the situation in France and Germany. The gist was that there would be no extra money, though Sturgeon took the opportunity to have a dig at the Chancellor’s job support scheme: ‘I think that Richard Leonard and I agree that it should go further, but it is there for businesses to take advantage of.’ 

All was forgiven and forgotten a few questions later when Labour’s Colin Smyth raised the plight of pubs in his region that, lacking beer gardens and kitchen facilities, would be forced to close even when their tier designation didn’t require it.

Suddenly, Rishi Sunak wasn’t a monster after all. Sturgeon said: ‘I agree that we have to support all businesses, not just those that are legally required to close. The job support scheme does that by having different strands for businesses that are required to close and those that are not.’

Cold comfort for landlords, though she sounded pretty impassive. She’s shut more pubs than the temperance movement.  

There was a telling moment with Willie Rennie. The Lib Dem leader interrogated the decision to transfer Covid-infected patients from hospitals to care homes, noting Sturgeon’s ‘carefully chosen words’ on the matter.

She offered a rote apology, then added: ‘The one thing I will always, not through carefully chosen words but through emotion probably more than anything else, rail against is the idea that we were somehow not caring about what happened in care homes.’ 

Did you catch it? Rennie did: ‘I didn’t challenge on the motives. It’s the facts and the decisions that we all want to get to.’  

Asked a question about something tangible (government actions and their consequences), Sturgeon had pivoted to something intangible: her feelings. She would not allow anyone to suggest she didn’t care and it didn’t matter that no one had suggested anything of the sort.

She deftly moved the conversation from her performance to her character and by implication critics of the former were impugning the latter. The audience for this sleight of hand was not in the chamber but in living rooms across the country. She governs like a politician but talks like a regular person. That’s how she gets away with it.

Originally published in the Scottish Daily Mail. Letters: scotletters [insert @ symbol] dailymail.co.uk.

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