Law is a blunt tool for fighting hatred


Good intentions often make bad laws and the Scottish Government’s Hate Crime Bill is chockfull of good intentions.

Introduced by Justice Secretary Humza Yousaf on Thursday, the Bill seeks to drive out hatreds in our midst, whether long-understood prejudices such as racism or more modern and contested concepts like ‘transphobia’.

Yousaf says his legislation is ‘an important milestone’ and argues that its passage ‘will send a strong message to victims, perpetrators, communities and to wider society that offences motivated by prejudice will be treated seriously and will not be tolerated’. He is trying, in essence, to make Scotland a hostile environment for hatred.

Many will have sympathy for this ambition. Hatred is atavistic and innate to the human character but so too are empathy and the yearning for justice. Even the flintiest sceptic of state power feels a righteous urge to unleash the thumping might of the law onto a bully or a bigot.

The Hate Crime Bill is born of decent instincts but it is a flawed instrument for their translation into law. For one, it is a kitchen sink law: everything has been thrown into it.

There are provisions for prosecuting those who possess ‘inflammatory material’, and even for hauling actors and directors before a judge if a play they put on is deemed to contain a hate crime.

If passed as is, this would be the most sweeping and authoritarian law of the devolution era. It’s the Offensive Behaviour at Football Act, only the entire country has been designated a football match.

The dangers of the Bill lie in Part 2, which proposes a new offence of ‘stirring up hatred’. There are two ways to commit this offence. The first is behaving in ‘a threatening, abusive or insulting manner’ either with the intent to stir up racial hatred or where that is the likely outcome. The second route to prosecution drops the term ‘insulting’ but adds age, disability, religion, sexual orientation, transgender identity and ‘variations in sex characteristics’ as characteristics.

If all this legalese leaves you feeling daunted, you are not alone. My legal education extends no further than repeats of Petrocelli on ITV2 and I am indebted to a learned scholar in helping talk me through this legislation. In simple terms, the Hate Crime Bill builds on the Public Order Act which makes it an offence to ‘stir up racial hatred’ but goes radically beyond the 1986 law’s provisions.

The most immediate problem is the Bill’s use of the phrase ‘threatening, abusive or insulting’. We already have an idea of what constitutes threatening or abusive behaviour thanks to Section 38 of the Criminal Justice and Licensing (Scotland) Act 2010 — but what does ‘insulting’ mean in law? Is it what Americans call ‘fighting words’ – language that is more than just offensive and threatens to ‘incite an immediate breach of the peace’ – or would it cover plain offensiveness?

Imagine, by way of example, that someone pens a disobliging tract about the Welsh. This could be a no-holds-barred polemic or simply a ribald satire that casts the sons of the valleys as workshy, ignorant, inbred and overly fond of certain livestock. Would that fall foul of the Bill as ‘insulting’ to an entire nationality? It certainly reads that way.

Now, you might say insulting the Welsh isn’t nice, and it certainly isn’t, but, absent a probable threat to public order, is it a matter for the police and courts?

There may be a case for adding ‘insulting’ to proscribed behaviour but it would have to be defined with the utmost precision and made clear how it differs from existing prohibitions on threatening and abusive conduct. Alternatively, MSPs could adopt a narrower understanding of race than is currently reflected in law.

This might allow the prosecution of ‘insulting’ speech against racial and ethnic minorities, which can be shown to lead more immediately to violence, without capturing obnoxious but not necessarily harmful rhetoric about nationality.

The next problem with the Bill is its expansion of protected characteristics, including ‘transgender identity’. Safeguarding transgender people against offences motivated by hatred is reasonable but this Bill comes in the middle of a debate about the law on gender identity.

That debate is characterised by robust, often belligerent, rhetoric, especially on social media. In this context, we have to question how ‘abusive’ speech about transgender identity would be treated.

Many radical feminists believe sex is a biological fact of life and cannot be changed either by self-identification or surgical intervention. They contend that men who believe themselves to be women are not in fact women, even if they live their lives as such. Some contend, moreover, that transgender ideology is harmful and rooted in misogyny.

The expression of these views, not least on the instant aggression generator that is Twitter, may well strike some trans people as abusive, and a police officer or procurator fiscal surveying the evidence might agree. There is a reasonable likelihood this legislation, unless more clearly defined, could criminalise one side in an ongoing public discussion about the law.

The Bill throws up more hostages to fortune the more you read it. It contains a section on culpability when an offence is ‘committed during a public performance of a play’ (the director and performer would both be prosecuted), implying a reversion to the bad old days of censorship, with the Crown Office taking on the role of Lord Chamberlain.

There would also be a new offence of ‘possessing inflammatory material’, with or without intent to communicate it. There might be sound reasons for police to intervene where, for example, white nationalists within an area with a large ethnic minority community produced racist leaflets likely to breach the peace.

But what about the atheist artist who sketches an iconoclastic cartoon of a revered religious figure? The Bill purports to shield ‘criticism of religion’ but the most effective criticism is typically profane and insulting in the extreme. Is there a line and, if so, where is it?

The proposed law also refers to culpability when organisations ‘stir up hatred’, defining organisations in the widest possible terms. Could the law be used to prosecute a political party or movement? Could it be used to bring a newspaper editor or proprietor to court? If you think that latter example is far-fetched, the possibility has already been raised by Dr Andrew Tickell, a respected law lecturer and intergenerational Scottish nationalist.

It should be clear by now that this is not a defence of bigotry or a partisan broadside against an SNP piece of legislation. Part I of the Bill, covering offences aggravated by prejudice, is eminently reasonable. Aggravators are not a novel concept and do not create a new offence. Libertarians sometimes argue that they punish what is in an offender’s head but when what is in his head has already escaped via his fists, it is not his viewpoints that are being censured but his actions.

Furthermore, it might be argued that the Bill does not go far enough in places. If we are to head down the path of proscribing the stirring-up of hatred against certain groups, why not include political opinion or cultural identity?

For some Scots, their unionism or nationalism is as intrinsic to their identity as religion is to others. Like faith, political opinion is a choice, but for those who construct their identity around their stance on the constitution, abusing or insulting their national or cultural ideology may be experienced as no less assaultive than speech that demeans evangelical Christians or Roman Catholics.

I am a passionate partisan of free expression and I make no attempt to conceal that. But while I might envision a wider sphere of expressive liberty than many, you need not be a free-speech absolutist to be troubled by the Hate Crime Bill. There may well be a good and reasonable law here but it is currently buried under thickets of unintended consequences and threats to personal freedom.

The Justice Secretary should reconsider his proposals – or MSPs should make him.

Originally published in the Scottish Daily Mail. Letters: Contact Stephen at Image: Scottish Government via CC BY-NC 2.0.

Uneasy lies the head that sets a lockdown

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Nicola Sturgeon said she wanted to have ‘a grown-up conversation’ with us. That didn’t sound good. Politicians are never candid if they can help it.

But when the entire country has been turned into a minimum-security prison – one hour of exercise and the occasional day release to Tesco – keeping mum is not an option.

‘A return to normal is not on the cards anytime soon,’ she stated at yesterday’s media briefing. If the current restrictions were lifted too early there was ‘a real risk that Covid-19 runs rampant again’.

Social distancing would be ‘a fact of life for a long time to come’. The rest of this year, at least. Maybe longer.

Matter-of-factly she added: ‘I can’t stand here and promise you it’s going to get a whole lot easier soon.’

Each sentence fell like a blow. If lockdown has you skull-hollow bored but not quite so bored as to tune in to these daily briefings, understand that they are not sunshine and lollipops affairs.

But they generally deal with technical matters: infection figures, hospital admissions, statistical methodology updates. This one was about the horizon and how far away it is.

Sturgeon was blunt. Mass quarantine was ‘doing harm to the economy and living standards’ but it had to be done because of ‘R’.

Here came an impromptu science lesson. ‘R’ is what epidemiologists call the basic reproductive number: the rate at which one person spreads Covid-19 to others. The experts’ estimate was that, prior to lockdown, everyone who caught coronavirus passed it on to three others.

To get a contagion like this under control, Sturgeon explained, you need an R number as far below one as possible. Scotland, in the best case scenario, was currently between R0.6 and R1.

I never liked science at school and this is why. Science’s idea of hope always involves a decimal point and a margin of error.

The First Minister told us to ready ourselves for a ‘new normal’. How gratingly buzzwordish is that phrase, how ominously ubiquitous, and yet how glumly inevitable.

‘New normal’ is where we’re going to spend the next few years and soon enough we will yearn to be as abnormal as can be. Sturgeon’s expression was firm and her cadence sober. She is the one who must tell an entire country it cannot hug its grandparents.

The strain isn’t showing yet but it’s there. In an unguarded moment, and in response to a question from the BBC’s Glenn Campbell, she shared a private doubt: ‘If you’d asked me a month ago or so if I was confident that people would comply as well as they have with the lockdown, I might have said I hoped so but inside I’m not sure I would have been as confident.’

When Henry IV laments that ‘nature’s soft nurse’ soothes his poorest subjects but will not ‘weight my eyelids down/ And steep my senses in forgetfulness’, he isn’t being a self-pity merchant.

The head that wears a crown in times like these must lie very uneasy indeed.

Asked if she would keep families apart over Christmas, Sturgeon’s steady tone tore up a rough road.

‘I’m not cancelling Christmas, okay?’ She felt ‘no irritation or frustration at the media’, she claimed, but she plainly did.

No politician wants to sound like the Sheriff of Nottingham in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (‘…and call off Christmas!’) but, she conceded, while ‘Christmas will happen’, it ‘may happen slightly differently’ this year.

The Mail’s Rachel Watson observed that the former chief medical officer had given an overall number of Covid-19 infections a month ago: 65,000, to wit.

What was that number now? Sturgeon refused to give ‘precise numbers’. We had to wait for data, not rely on ‘extrapolations’.

The answer hung there with an unsatisfying grumble. You cannot turn frank conversation on and off when it suits.

Talk to us like grown-ups, First Minister, and we’ll have grown-up questions for you.


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

Will Coronavirus finally change our toxic attitudes towards older people?


Fans of Eighties TV will remember The Golden Girls, the hit US sitcom that was the first to put older people and their lives front and centre.

At its heart was the mother and daughter duo Sophia and Dorothy and the acid repartee between them over Shady Pines, the decidedly basic care facility where Dorothy had sent Sophia to live for a time.

The razor-tongued Sicilian widow would guilt her offspring with exaggerated descriptions of ‘that retirement home you stuck me in that resembled Sing Sing… my mistake, Sing Sing has a movie night’. Dorothy, in moments of frustration, would yell ‘Shady Pines, ma’ to scare the recalcitrant octogenarian into compliance. 

Behind the laughs lay a nagging ambivalence about our use of care homes. In many instances, only a residential centre can provide the 24/7 care and support that an older person needs. There are 400,000 care home residents in the UK and 70 per cent of them have dementia or severe memory problems. Their families would struggle to cope and it could even be dangerous to try.

But the reason care homes make us uncomfortable is our suspicion that sometimes they might be more convenient for us than for our elderly parents or relatives. Spend any time visiting a care home and you will meet a lot of people who need to be there but also some who, with a little support from their loved ones, could live independently or in the family home. 

Because this subject makes us so uneasy, we shunt it to the back of our minds. As a result, these institutions and their residents occupy a low position in our hierarchy of concerns. Nothing has exposed that fact quite like the horrific impact of Covid-19. In Scotland, care home residents account for one in every four deaths and the toll on staff will be traumatic. 

Twenty residents of Berelands Care Home in Prestwick have died in the last two weeks. Thirteen people passed away at Burlington Court Care Home after a suspected Covid-19 outbreak at the Glasgow facility. Nine residents of Westacres Care Home in Newton Mearns have lost their lives. 

Jack Ryan, chief executive of Westacres’ parent company Newark Care, is ‘extremely frustrated and highly disappointed’ with the Scottish Government’s response to Covid-19 and has called for a public inquiry once the virus has been brought under control. He has written to Nicola Sturgeon, who says all care home residents and workers showing symptoms should be tested, to complain that Westacres received no testing, even after reporting nine deaths. 

Mr Ryan is witheringly candid about why his residents were not tested: priorities. ’It has taken them so long to realise care homes might be an issue,’ he told an interviewer. ‘We have known from the start the people most at risk are the older population, so why is it that four weeks in we are now looking at care homes as a priority?’

It is a grim thought but does anyone think he is wrong? Older people are so easily forgotten, especially when they live in residential facilities rather than independently or with their families. Over-75s may be the demographic under the greatest peril from Coronavirus but those in care homes were simply out of sight and out of mind. When pre-Covid strains on residential care staffing and financing are taken into account, this outbreak was a perfect storm but we ignored the clouds gathering overhead until it was too late. 

As Professor Bruce Guthrie, a researcher in general practice at Edinburgh University, told a newspaper: ‘There is a historical context of societal stigma for this population. They are not a high priority, which means it is a heavily under-resourced sector and it is very fragile… That lack of attention means we seem to have a very large epidemic in care homes and possibly among care home staff.’

How many lives were needlessly lost? We will have to wait for a public inquiry to establish facts like these but the thought will haunt us all the same. So it should. The most vulnerable among us have been let down, their lives put at risk, and some condemned to die without the soothing embrace of a loved one. Yes, the thought should haunt us but it should also make us angry. No one deserves to be treated like this. 

The First Minister and her Health Secretary have now given assurances on testing for symptomatic care home residents and personal protective equipment for staff. Those promises must be carried through without delay and the opposition parties must continue to apply pressure. This is not party politics. It’s what good oppositions do: make government better. 

Governments at home and abroad have grappled with this pandemic and none have been without error. Given the nature of Covid-19, the toll on older people was always going to be lethally high but that is all the more reason why the residential sector merited more consideration. If we must speak in the cold, technical language of priorities, what could be a higher priority than care homes when fighting a virus that targets the elderly?

A new study suggests there could be almost 4,000 Coronavirus deaths in UK care homes that have not been registered as such because of reporting methodologies. This under-reporting could have influenced the decisions of both home staff and ministers to the detriment of residents. This is not only a scandal but a moment of profound national shame. 

What has been done cannot be undone but it can be learned from. Care homes and governments alike will have to reflect on their actions but all of us will have to reflect on our attitudes towards senior citizens and especially those with care needs. 

When Coronavirus first hit, there was a strange relief at being separated from parents and elderly relatives. It was dangerous for them to be with younger loved ones in case they caught the virus. Then came Mothering Sunday and a wave of regret. Yes, there were video chats and WhatsApp messages but an emoji is no substitute for a hug. 

For all the talk about families being cooped up together, most families are not together. Granny and granddad, the backbone of many a family, are on their own, separated from their children and aching to see the grandchildren again. For those who live alone, the trials involved in getting a supermarket delivery or making it out to the nearest open shop have been exacting. That those in residential care have suffered the brunt of this virus does not mean that people who live independently have got off lightly. 

But care homes and the service they provide are an indicator of the value we place on the elderly. The way we treat older people, the way we speak about them, can be callous, insulting and at times even hate-filled. If we behaved this way towards any other group, it would be called prejudice but contempt for the elderly is inevitable in a society so thoroughly turned on its head that children are venerated as wise and virtuous and their parents disdained for making the messy compromises adulthood requires.

This apocalyptic cult of youth tells each generation that its future has been destroyed by the generations that went before. In this cartoonish morality play, age becomes evidence of corruption and youth a symbol of purity. No wonder no one wants to grow up. 

The culture we need to build in the wake of Coronavirus is one that values human life regardless of age or health or economic cost. Part of that involves rethinking how we care for the elderly and asking if we are too reliant on residential homes and whether families should be doing more to look after their loved ones. 

Life is precious. We know that now more than ever. We must start acting like it.


Originally published in the Scottish Daily Mail. Letters: Contact Stephen at Image by Sabine van Erp from Pixabay.

Covid-19 could kill off newspapers. You’ll miss them more than you think


Coronavirus is laying waste to whole industries. The spectre of mass unemployment looms. Economists forecast a slump to rival the Great Depression.

Against this backdrop, the future of newspapers might seem a point of niche interest but the Covid-19 lockdown is edging our trade closer and closer to the wall. Journalists don’t expect to be trampled by well-wishers but we look at free-falling circulations and advertising revenues and understand something more than next month’s rent money is at stake.

Readers are stuck at home and many outlets where they would ordinarily pick up a paper are either closed or grinding under unprecedented queues. The shutdown of all but essential services means there is much less to advertise and an existential disruption to high street trading means ad spends are far down the list of priorities for many firms. Readers cannot get to newspapers and the revenues that supply oxygen to the press have suddenly shut off. After years of strain and ill-health, print journalism is suffering a massive heart attack. 

The newspaper industry needs immediate attention or much of it will die. Last week, the Times paid to place an advertorial in several newspapers urging support for the local press, which it described as ‘a fourth emergency service’. In times like these, newspapers, and especially local ones, are vital to communicating accurate information, raising awareness of medical advice and giving a voice to smaller communities. As the Times put it: ‘Rarely has access to reliable news been more important in saving lives.’

Given the scale of this pandemic, it is tempting to dismiss the woes of one industry as a concern of a lesser order. Tempting, but a fatal error. The existence of a free press able to hold authority to account is fundamental in the best of times but in the worst all the lofty talk about seeking truth and defending freedom ceases to be academic. Britain is locked in its fiercest battle since 1940, basic civil liberties have been suspended, and 10,000 lie dead with many more expected to join that toll. 

Now more than ever, the facts must be recorded, public health responses understood, and governments questioned. Now more than ever, when the state has vastly expanded its own power (albeit for good reason), we need the press to function as both national informer and sceptical awkward squad. 

Those who would wave away these points and reassure themselves that other forms of media can fill the role of print journalism understand neither the industry nor the moment. A well-informed population is essential to the speedy remedying of the Covid-19 outbreak: messages about quarantines, medical services, shopping deliveries and much more must reach every nook and cranny of the country. 

For the most remote parts, where broadband services are not as robust, a printed newspaper can be a more effective public information tool than the most digitally savvy awareness campaign. True, broadcasters are trusted but they are also heavily centralised and offer only minimal locally-produced content. Covid-19 doesn’t spread uniformly. Lochaber has different concerns than London and needs journalism that reflects those differences. 

Locally and nationally, newspaper readerships also skew older. This is the very age group most at risk right now and also the one most likely to read and trust printed newspapers over online media. It’s all very well getting public health messages trending on TikTok but the people who need to hear them aren’t on TikTok and would cast a decidedly askew glance at anything that appeared alongside videos of celebrities trying to do handstands. The attitudes and value systems of older Britons have to be taken into account when fighting a contagion that thrives on even the smallest pockets of non-compliance. You can’t ‘OK, boomer’ coronavirus. 

‘What about the BBC?’ you might ask, but there are things Auntie cannot do because of her charter. BBC reporters peppered government with questions about face masks and testing for NHS staff but only newspapers, not least the one you’re holding right now, could campaign and editorialise for ministers to change their approach. Newspaper leader columns still put the fear into the powerful and long may they continue to do so. 

It is not just our response to Covid-19 that risks being undermined by the abrupt disappearance of well-established newspapers and the dumping of their staff onto Universal Credit. Let the watchdogs go and you let the dogs off their leash. Think of the relief felt by a councillor on the take, a minister up to no good, or an employer underpaying his workers when they hear there will be even fewer journalists to investigate and expose their activities.

I am not the only one filled with foreboding at what coronavirus could mean for print journalism. John McLellan, chair of the Scottish Newspaper Society, warns: ‘Historic titles which have been a bedrock of their communities, some for over 200 years, are facing collapse by the end of the month unless the Scottish Government steps in to help. This is not scaremongering but the reality facing Scotland’s local press and hundreds of jobs are at risk.’

I asked McLellan what practical steps government could take to alleviate the situation. Top of the ticket for him is extending the rates holiday already announced for retailers and others businesses to news organisations. ‘For reasons the Scottish Government has not explained it is clearly reluctant to do so,’ he says. Representations have already been made to Finance Secretary Kate Forbes and Economy and Culture Secretary Fiona Hyslop. Forbes in particular should heed the pleas for rates relief. Her Highland and islands constituents will be among the hardest hit by the closure of newspapers. Indeed, all MSPs should be alive to the danger of losing the most reliable link to their local communities.

McLellan also laments the Scottish Government’s decision to spend a chunk of its communications budget on Google and Facebook, money that could go to Scottish outlets producing native content and employing Scots. It is a bizarre upturning of standard practice from the Nationalist government at Holyrood. It is also perverse to reward the very social media platforms where coronavirus misinformation is spreading beyond all containment. The Scottish and UK governments could both support the newspaper industry by investing in a large-scale print advertising campaign that would keep the public informed and keep as many journalists as possible in jobs. 

The banks have a role here too. McLellan says some are ‘taking a very hard-nosed approach to emergency loan applications’. Banks should look at news organisations as essential services and government should remind an industry that was bailed out itself not so long ago that it has a duty to the public interest.

We all do. Taking out a newspaper advert, if you are a business, or simply buying a newspaper, if you are a member of the public, is an investment in an open and well-informed society. 

McLellan believes in ‘assistance rather than a handout’ from government but if coronavirus is with us as long as I fear it will be, the Treasury may have to consider a bailout package as a last resort. The young, the metropolitan, the digitally literate, and Left-wing critics of the Press might object to such an intervention as corporate welfare. Print is an industry of the past and if it can’t sustain itself through this crisis then market forces should be allowed to take their course. It doesn’t take much to turn some socialists into social Darwinists.

But to their readers, newspapers are part of daily life. They are the extra family member at the breakfast table, the break-time friend and afternoon companion. They inform, entertain, provoke and reassure. They unify in times of disaster and comfort in times of grief. A paper is the news junkie’s fix and the casual reader’s diversion. It is a lifeline to the lonely and a champion to the unjustly treated. 

Newspapers are not perfect. Nothing that is the work of human beings ever can be. At their best, they are a load-bearing wall of free societies, and they are more often at their best than their reputation allows.

I am a romantic of print, of the deadly thrill of a newsroom approaching deadline, of the cynical idealism and cut-throat solidarity that drives this industry in ways outsiders could never understand and insiders barely can either.

But this is about more than inky sentiment: newspapers are essential to overcoming coronavirus and they will be no less important when we come to rebuild society on the other side. There is a lot to do right now but take the future of newspapers seriously. You wouldn’t like living in a country without them.


Originally published in the Scottish Daily Mail. Letters: Contact Stephen at Image by USA-Reiseblogger from Pixabay.


Zoom without zoomers: the first virtual FMQs

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Do you Zoom?

You simply must. Everyone is Zooming these days. It’s the latest in video-conferencing techno-wizardry, allowing businesses to hold meetings with quarantined staff via webcams. At least now you can mute Dave from marketing when he starts on about onboarding diversification of core verticals. 

Now Holyrood is Zooming too. Yesterday, Presiding Officer Ken Macintosh hosted the first ever Virtual First Minister’s Questions. They told us the future would be jet packs and flying cars but it turns out to be Willie Rennie beamed into your front room in a highly unnerving close-up. 

VFMQs was an improvement on the old way of doing things, mostly because technological limits meant only the party leaders could take part. Instead, we got a 40-minute long FMQs without any questions from James Dornan or John Mason. Zoom without the zoomers. 

Macintosh, chairing from his office in Thornliebank, appeared alongside the party leaders in a six-way split screen that cut back and forth as each one spoke. If you’d ever wanted to see a remake of 24 set in Richard Leonard’s front room, here was your chance. Rennie and Patrick Harvie appeared from home, too, though Jackson Carlaw was being zapped in from his parliamentary office. (His butler wouldn’t let our sort through the door anyway.)

After wishing the Prime Minister a speedy recovery, Carlaw got down to brass tacks — or, rather, the lack of them. Had there been ‘effective distribution’ of Personal Protective Equipment? ‘So many people are still contacting directly to say they don’t have it,’ he pressed. 

‘I think we do now have an effective distribution in place,’ she told him, but couldn’t promise there wouldn’t be issues here and there. ‘I have got family on the frontline of the NHS and we all want to see these workers protected properly,’ she added. 

Next the Conservative leader asked why Sainsbury’s was still waiting on the full list of vulnerable people to be prioritised for online delivery slots. The First Minister replied that there were 136,000 in the so-called shielded group and all had received letters and texts about signing up. Just under 6,000 free food packages had been ordered and 4,200 had been delivered so far. 

Aware how tough times are for businesses, Carlaw asked why Scottish firms were promised UK funding would be passed on only for grants to be limited to one per business, rather than one per outlet as in England. Sturgeon maintain that her government was ‘thinking carefully about the support we’re giving to businesses’ but didn’t account for the broken promise.

With clear, methodical questioning, Carlaw had exposed three failings in the Scottish Government’s coronavirus response. He did so without political point-scoring, which made the points all the more powerful. 

He also got this stark but inevitable statement out of Sturgeon: ’There is no likelihood of these measures being lifted after the Easter weekend.’

Leonard ventured that immediate relatives of those in hospices could be tested to allow them to visit their loved ones. Sturgeon wasn’t unsympathetic but she pointed out, tactfully, that our limited testing capacity had to be deployed ‘strategically’ and that these tests only worked if a patient was already symptomatic. 

Willie Rennie, God love him, was his usual optimistic self, averring that everyone was taking the chance to exercise more. Sturgeon eyed him sceptically: ‘I’m willing to bet you are embracing your physical exercise responsibility more enthusiastically than the rest of us.’

The Lib Dem leader asked what provision had been made for NHS staff and carers given the toll of Covid-19 on their mental health. That’s another fallout we’ll be dealing with for years to come. 

The inaugural Virtual First Minister’s Questions gave us some insight into how politicians are handling the lockdown. It also gave us a chance for a nosey around their front rooms.

It turns out Patrick Harvie and I own the same bottle-green gourd vase. One of us will have to return it now. 


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

Why the chief medical officer had to go

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Seldom has a public servant’s stock risen so sharply only to collapse so quickly.

For several weeks, Dr Catherine Calderwood was the public face of the Scottish Government’s response to Covid-19. In television ads urging us to ‘stay at home’, her beefy Belfast-by-way-of-Cambridge tones reassured a nervous populace with cool expertise. Scotland’s chief medical officer seemed made for a crisis and was managing this one with dedication and poise. 

Then came those photographs. It’s always baffling when the smartest people do the dumbest things, but we are all human and prone to mistakes. Dr Calderwood’s mistakes, however, made her position untenable. The First Minister told a press conference yesterday that she couldn’t do her job without the current chief medical officer, even though we now know she made two weekend jaunts to her holiday home while telling everyone else to stay indoors. 

Dr Calderwood made a litany of judgement errors and Nicola Sturgeon made a major one in standing by her. The chief medical officer failed to follow her own clinical advice. She twice put herself at risk of contracting the virus and spreading it both at her retreat in Fife and at St Andrew’s House when she next went into work. In doing so, she provoked a row that, without her resignation, would have distracted from the coronavirus fightback for some time.

The clinician’s most fundamental breach was hypocrisy. Scots will tolerate severe restrictions on their liberty when there is a sound public health basis, but not if those articulating the rules are privately flouting them. The snapshots of Dr Calderwood and her family ambling cheerfully along the Fife coast while the rest of the nation is in lockdown poked that throbbing nerve of resentment that there is one rule for the elites and another for the rest of us. You can’t have a chief medical officer who is so committed to staying at home that she can’t decide which one to stay in. 

The impression of a decision-making caste indemnified against their own decisions will only have been hardened by Jason Leitch’s defence of his colleague. The Scottish Government’s national clinical director told the BBC: ’Nobody knows those guidelines better than Catherine and the rest of us’. Catherine and the rest do know the rules; they just don’t seem to think they apply to them.

Dr Calderwood’s reckless ramble not only undermined all her previous good work, it imperilled the broad but shallow consent ministers have built up for the emergency restrictions put in place to slow transmission of Covid-19. These measures are extraordinary in their scope and unparalleled in peacetime. Families are barred from the bedsides of their dying loved ones, the dead denied the respect of a funeral service. If the chief medical officer gets an exemption to pop up to her rural bolthole, why shouldn’t the rest of us get exemptions to visit elderly parents or take cooped-up kids for a day at the beach? 

This is our second reminder in a week of how fragile is the social contract haphazardly thrown together for the age of coronavirus. The Scottish Government’s proposal to suspend the right to trial by jury, wedged into the Coronavirus (Scotland) Bill, had to be hastily yanked back out after lawyers and opposition leaders balked.

The new coronavirus contract between the state and the citizen is this: the government will take far-reaching action to safeguard your health, public services, job or business but in return you must accept equally far-reaching infringements on your personal freedoms. As the backlash against jury suspensions made clear, this compact is not without parameters. Government has its red lines and so does the public. 

I have been thinking a lot in recent days about the political philosophy classes I took at university more years ago than I am prepared to disclose. When we came to study the limits of liberty, professors and students alike were always concerned with freedom of speech or belief or association. These were the personal rights that went to the core of what it meant to be a human being. Even though the Human Rights Act’s guarantee of ‘freedom of peaceful assembly’ was qualified by exceptions for ‘public safety’ and ‘the protection of health’, few of us could imagine a scenario in which our movements would be restricted for long periods. 

Two weeks of lockdown is worth two dozen volumes of political theory. The freedom to move, to gather, to socialise and to interact with others is as intrinsic to the human experience as the right to have your say on religion, protest a law or join a union. Whether you live in a sprawling country pile or an inner-city high rise, there is a yearning that goes beyond mere restlessness to be outdoors, around nature and people, enjoying the fresh air and being in control of where you go and when.

For now most of us are prepared to have these freedoms stymied in the interests of public health. But the longer lockdown continues, the more frayed tempers will get and the thinner people’s patience will wear. 

Hardyal Dhindsa, Derbyshire’s police and crime commissioner, warned a Sunday newspaper of the danger of ‘isolation fatigue’. He said: ‘In this early phase of isolation, people’s awareness is quite high, but the longer it goes on, people’s frustration at not being able to do what they want to will grow. The real test will be in two or three weeks’ time. How long can we keep a lockdown going?’

Isolation fatigue will especially afflict the under-40s, who represent one per cent of fatalities, but are as stringently under lockdown as those 80 and over, who account for 53 per cent of deaths. Some are already beginning to question why their lives must be put on hold, and the pictures from London parks confirm that a number of young people are openly disregarding social distancing. 

Their behaviour is selfish, callous and irresponsible but in the coming weeks and months their attitude could spread to others. In those circumstances, the task of policing the quarantine and therefore halting the progress of coronavirus could prove too much for the authorities to handle. 

If times of emergency remind us of the limits of liberty, they also lay bare the limits of the state’s coercive powers. Chief constables across the UK are getting their names in the papers by issuing tough-sounding statements about zero-tolerance for those breaking the rules, but every one of them knows that even a modest outbreak of non-compliance would quickly overwhelm policing capacity. 

The late French theorist Louis Althusser, a Marxist, fretted that the police formed part of a ‘repressive state apparatus’ upholding the rule of capitalist ideology over the working classes. Louis, you should be alive today. Now it’s the rozzers’ job to keep the shops closed and the workers at home. Yet the plain fact is that, far from repressive, the police simply lack the numbers to quell multiple incidents of mass disobedience. If it gets to that, things could take an ugly turn quite quickly. 

This is why public consent is and must remain the basis for the lockdown and any further restrictions on individual freedom. It is imperative that the people trust those in charge, be willing to follow their instructions, and feel that measures are being taken solely in their interests and for the well-being of the wider community. There must be no opportunism, no power trips and no heavy-handedness. We really are all in this together. 

There must also be no double standards. The rules must apply to everyone, including those who set them. The chief medical officer not only endangered public health, she will have encouraged the UK Government to consider harsher still burdens on our personal liberty. The anger such measures would kindle could ignite in disobedience and disorder that makes coronavirus even deadlier. It is right that Dr Calderwood has resigned but now Nicola Sturgeon will have to explain why she stood by her. 


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

How Sturgeon defended then dumped her chief medical officer

Screenshot 2020-04-06 at 12.38.58

Her resignation came eventually, late last night, but until then Dr Catherine Calderwood had intended to continue in post.

On Sunday, as she arrived for the daily briefing on coronavirus, there was one question on everyone’s lips: Is there a doctor in the house, and which house is she in? 

This was no routine check-up. The chief medical officer was facing the cameras for the first time since photographs emerged of her enjoying a jolly weekend at her holiday home in the middle of the Covid outbreak. No wonder you can never get a doctor’s appointment these days. 

Before her arrival, Dr Calderwood had already been defended, then forced to apologise, had the wagons circled around her, and the Old Bill at the door. On social media, members of the public were giving her their second opinion — and third and fourth and many more. They were stuck at home watching Escape to the Country, she was out doing it. The doctor’s patients had some bad news for her: they wanted her gone.

Then, at 2.30 pm, she filed into the briefing room at the recommended distance behind the Health Secretary and the First Minister. Each took her place at an assigned podium. Jeane Freeman looked relaxed and was silent throughout. When the brickbats are flying in someone else’s direction, keep your head down and thank your good luck.

Along a little the First Minister peered grimly at the sheet of journalists’ names. There were a dozen or so down to grill the woman standing to her right.

Dr Calderwood also stared at a piece of paper, giving one last read to whatever apology had been drafted for her by the spin doctors. The medic appeared calm given the circumstances. That kind of composure can make you look in charge; it can also make you look aloof. Aloof, when ICU admissions and death tolls were about to be read out. There was no chance of this going well. 

The First Minister announced those totals but for once the figures — almost 200 in intensive care, 220 dead overall — did not send the reporters into a frenetic burst of keyboard-jabbing. All waited for the story for which they were beaming in via video link-up.

The time came for Sturgeon to address the elephant two metres away from her. The chief medical officer had ‘made a mistake’ — ‘she was wrong and she knows that’. Sturgeon trained her eye on the invisible audience before her. Her features were drawn, as though her facial fury muscles had experienced a thorough workout in the past 12 hours. 

Whatever rage she felt at Dr Calderwood’s weekend walkabout, Sturgeon stood by her. ‘Her advice and expertise have been invaluable to me and continue to be so,’ she averred. ‘I need her to be able to focus on the job that she is doing,’ the First Minister continued, a job she said Dr Calderwood was doing ‘extremely well’. A bold performance evaluation given the circumstances but Sturgeon must have figured that losing her top health adviser in the middle of a pandemic would have hurt her more than putting up with some disobliging headlines for a few days. That calculation now looks naive, ill-conceived and frankly political. 

When we got to hear from Dr Calderwood herself, her countenance was serious and a hint of a tremor entered her voice once but emotion was minimal. She began by stating that she had done this before — twice in ten days. All her weeks of effort against coronavirus seemed to evaporate in an instant. Florence Nightingale had turned into Typhoid Mary.

Dr Calderwood spoke the language of remorse in the flat, steady tone of a printer. She regurgitated some of the comments directed at her on Twitter: ‘People are calling me a hypocrite, people have told me that I’m irresponsible and that I have behaved as if my advice does not apply to me.’ 

‘I am sorry and it will not happen again,’ she whirred. It was ‘a fundamental mistake’; ‘I cannot justify it,’ she buzzed. 

Sturgeon attempted to spin the incident as a teachable moment about how the rules applied to everyone, including the chief medical officer. This was red meat to ITV News’s Peter Smith, who tore into Dr Calderwood in a terrier-like interrogation: ’You may have the confidence of the First Minister but I would put it to you that the majority of this country has lost confidence in you. We need a leader, an expert that we can believe in. So why on Earth do you think you can be the public face of a message to stay home, protect the NHS and save lives?’

For the first time, Calderwood looked a little shaken, but the printer just fed out the same lines. Sturgeon was visibly irate. But a chief medical officer who jaunts off to the seaside more often than Judith Chalmers while keeping the rest of us under quarantine had forfeited the public’s confidence. She had to go and finally she did.

But this row isn’t over. Sturgeon said she couldn’t do her job without Calderwood’s counsel. What conclusions are the public to draw from that? 


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

Businesses must distance themselves from coronavirus capitalism


Coronavirus is showing the best and worst of British business.

We have all heard the stories: some firms are being responsible and decent while others are treating the deadly pandemic as business-as-usual or even a chance to lay off workers at short notice. I doubt I’m the only one who won’t be forgetting which firms rolled up their sleeves and put country first and which acted like spivs and scuzzballs. 

First, let’s hear it for those doing the right thing. Hospitality giant Whitbread, which owns Premier Inn, Beefeater and Brewers Fayre, has pledged to keep all its staff on full pay until the Chancellor’s 80 per cent salary scheme kicks in.

Former Manchester United defender Gary Neville has closed his two hotels to the public and turned them over to NHS staff, all the while keeping his own employees in work. Chelsea FC is doing something similar with the Millennium Hotel, the lodgings house it runs at Stamford Bridge. Coffee chain Costa is guaranteeing its staff eight weeks’ pay.

Then there are the unacceptable faces of capitalism. Take Mike Ashley, a one-man argument for trade unions. The billionaire owner of Sports Direct tried to keep his shops open by passing them off an an ‘essential service’ before being forced to back down and profess himself ‘deeply apologetic’ after a backlash.

Last week ITV News obtained a list of price changes at Ashley’s stores that saw some items soar by £10 and £20, with one branch manager accusing the business of ‘price-gouging’, something parent group Frasers denied. 

Then there’s Tim Martin, the Wetherspoons tycoon who said employees of the low-price pub chain would not be paid until Rishi Sunak’s furlough payments came through. Martin, who should sue Harry Enfield’s Loadsamoney for copyright infringement, was similarly compelled to retreat once his remarks were made public, though not before he had suggested his workers take a job at Tesco if the opportunity arose. 

Elsewhere, the GMB union accused online clothing retailer ASOS, which remains open, of having ‘thousands of people under one roof’ and ‘not enforcing social distancing’, describing the situation as ‘disgusting’ and looking ‘exactly like a hot bed of infection’. ASOS rejected the union’s characterisation, saying it ‘typically’ has 500 staff working in its facility and has ‘strict social distancing protocols in place’.

Unite has urged whisky producer Diageo to halt operations at its Scottish plants, contending that ‘hundreds of people are working beside each other for hours a day and then travelling home often on public transport to their families’. Diageo claims it has put in place ‘strict safety protocols which go beyond government guidelines’. Greater Manchester mayor Andy Burnham says his office has received complaints about 150 companies in the city not observing social distancing rules. 

Capitalism gets a bad enough rap as it is. Marx wrote that ‘one capitalist always kills many’ and, as if to oblige, Hollywood has supplied a century of cigar-chomping industrialists who brutalise their workers and poison their customers and even the odd commodities trader with a sideline in serial-killing.

Folk singers from Woody Guthrie to Bruce Springsteen have strummed their guitars to the laments of working men who found themselves on the wrong side of the American Dream. It was left to Eighties new wave ensemble Oingo Boingo to protest that ‘there’s nothing wrong with capitalism’ — unless you’re ‘a middle-class socialist brat… and you never really had to work’. 

There is plenty wrong with capitalism but nowhere near as much as its critics charge. Capital and property are distributed unevenly but every revolution to reallocate them ‘fairly’ has ended with much less to go around. All revolutionaries travel the same road: first they rail against the wealth-hoarders, then they overthrow the wealth-hoarders, then they become the wealth-hoarders.

Where it has been granted an untrammelled run, socialism has not redistributed resources from the haves to the have-nots — it has redistributed membership of the haves from one elite to another. Meanwhile capitalism, maligned as selfish and uncaring, has done more to lift billions worldwide out of poverty than any other system or idea. 

That is why it is galling to see some British businesses play into the hands of those who would exploit this moment to push crude economic populism. At times of acute crisis, free-market economics come under acute threat. When people are afraid, they fear their precarious situation and resent being made to feel precarious in the first place. The quick, brutal remedies of state power, assuaging their anxieties with a soothing promise that the government will take care of them, become infinitely more appealing than in normal times. 

These are not normal times. Families are on lockdown while an invisible killer stalks outside. Many have only a few days’ supplies but find supermarket shelves barren when they venture out to restock. They are worried for their loved ones, their jobs and the roof over their heads. The sight of straight-to-video Gordon Gekkos trying to make a fast buck while oozing contempt for the plight of the rest of the us incenses them. Some of the worst-behaved companies might find themselves staring down a boycott if they don’t get their act together. 

While the Great British public follow the government’s advice to pull the country through this crisis, they expect firms that call Britain home to do the same. Yes, you can enjoy access to a customer base of 67 million people and some of the most favourable corporate tax rates in Europe but in return you are expected to do your bit when times are tough. A little bit of patriotism wouldn’t go amiss given the circumstances. The national interest trumps self-interest. 

Capitalism deserves more representatives like Whitbread and Gary Neville and fewer Mike Ashleys and Tim Martins. Markets have no innate moral code; they are just a mechanism for exchanging goods and services for payment. To prove their merit in times of calamity as well as times of plenty, they need to be guided by men and women who appreciate more than just the bottom line. There is such a thing as compassionate, responsible capitalism and it is needed now more than ever. 

A skim through the history books tells you that eruptions of social and economic tumult are usually followed by sharp divisions of politics into the far fringes of the Left and Right. You could be forgiven for thinking we’ve seen all the populism there is to see in recent years but you would be mistaken.

There is fear and rage out there and wherever they are, demagogues are seldom far behind. If the UK emerges from this situation with mass unemployment, it will get the politics of mass unemployment: big government, high taxes and public ownership. Every company that acts like a caricature of capitalism will bring us closer to a government that is a caricature of socialism. 

Jeremy Corbyn slinked off last week after four and a half years of his pious miserablism reduced the Labour Party to its lowest point in 85 years. The British public rejected him in December but would they have rejected him this December, or the December after?

I like to think so but there will be other, more effective Corbyns, characters unburdened by his weaknesses and gifted an electorate that knows desperation like no other since the war. Keeping people in jobs and in their homes keeps them from the clutches of men like Corbyn and safeguards the economy from the ideological vengeance they would wreak on it given the chance. 

Businesses are doing it tough and even the most well-intentioned chief executives don’t have bottomless pockets but the chancers and the charlatans, those who line their pockets while sowing needless human misery, will reap terrible consequences for everyone.

Now is the time for the private sector to practise socialist distancing: embrace compassionate capitalism to keep the alternative as far away as possible. 


Originally published in the Scottish Daily Mail. Letters: Contact Stephen at by wendy julianto from Pixabay

What next for Alex Salmond?

It is an iron law of Scottish politics: never write off Alex Salmond.

The former First Minister’s acquittal by a jury on a series of sexual assault charges brings to an end what he described as a ‘nightmare’.

The political fallout, however, is still to come. Joanna Cherry, a senior Nationalist at Westminster, said: ‘It goes without saying that Mr Salmond must be allowed to rejoin the party without delay, if that is what he wishes to do, and that his place in the party’s history must be restored to the prominence it deserves.’

Readmission to the SNP would represent just the beginning. Consequences there will be and they will be relentless.

The allegations against Mr Salmond were first reported in August 2018 and when they hit, they rocked Scottish politics and public life. He had been a fixture for three decades and the most powerful man in the country for seven years.

A divisive figure, to be sure, but one with a substantial body of admirers who extolled his virtues as a patriot and a leader. They could not – would not – believe the claims against him.

Those claims were lodged with the Scottish Government in January of that year and involved two female members of staff who accused Mr Salmond of inappropriate conduct five years earlier during his tenure in Bute House.

He vigorously denied the accusations and sought a judicial review of the government’s internal inquiry into him. Before the Court of Session could render a judgment, the Scottish Government conceded that it had acted unlawfully.

This represented an ‘abject surrender’ in Mr Salmond’s estimation and he was awarded more than £500,000 in legal costs.

The former Nationalist leader, now outside the party, next came under the scrutiny of a police inquiry, which led to him being charged with 14 sexual offences, one of which was attempted rape. One charge would later be dropped. Mr Salmond vowed to clear his name and now he has.

A great deal of pain and anguish has fallen upon a great many people. The women who came forward and gave evidence in court have been through a nightmare too. While we survey the political terrain in the approaching distance, we should not lose sight of the wretched human toll of these past two years.

As Nicola Sturgeon acknowledged yesterday, ‘there will be further discussion around this issue in due course’.

However, Ms Cherry’s remarks went to the heart of the matter: ‘This verdict of acquittal is the culmination of two very lengthy investigations by the Scottish Government and Police Scotland and two court cases.

‘In both cases, Mr Salmond has been vindicated and serious questions now arise about the background to these cases especially given the considerable sums of public money which have been expended.’

How this came about, what happened behind closed doors, and whether those in authority acquitted themselves fittingly will be the subject of intense scrutiny.

Mr Salmond believes he was the target of a conspiracy, telling journalists: ‘There is evidence I would have liked to have seen led in this trial but for a variety of reasons we were not able to do so. At some point that information will see the light of day.’

There is already a parliamentary inquiry in train at Holyrood and Ms Cherry’s call for an internal investigation into the SNP’s handling of the matter will not be a lonely one. Already, former Scottish Government Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill has urged ‘resignations’.

For Mr Salmond, rebuilding his public reputation will be a priority and he may indeed decide to re-enter the political arena. Like it or not, the verdict entitles him to do so. The man’s politics do not come into this and nor does his abrasive personality. He may be a boor and a demagogue. He may be, as he conceded, ‘no saint’. But the law says he is not a criminal and we must accept its verdict.

As far as his political career is concerned, Mr Salmond has two options: rejoin the SNP or form a new party. The former is the likelier, for he has dedicated his life to the party he has led twice (so far).

However, readmitting him poses grave danger for Nicola Sturgeon. She is a creature of his success, the protégée he mentored. He is the man who made her deputy First Minister, who put her in charge of the campaign for independence, and who ultimately handed her the crown. She is in large part where she is because he put her there.

The question is whether Mr Salmond still considers her a loyal ally. Cleared in court, his status as a hero to the SNP grassroots will only be polished more brightly. He may now choose to return to Holyrood, either by convincing a friendly backbencher to resign or by clinching selection for a seat ahead of the 2021 election. There he could serve as party elder, providing Miss Sturgeon with counsel and political reinforcements. Or he could decide to take back what he gifted to her.

It is no secret, however, that their relationship has been strained. The second option, then, is more plausible – grimly plausible for Miss Sturgeon’s political future. She already finds herself on the wrong side of the party base. She has promised to deliver a second referendum on Scexit time and again. Time and again, she has failed to do so.

She has neglected to translate Brexit and Boris Johnson’s unpopularity north of the Border into a solid majority for secession. She has led her men to the edges of the battlefield only to retreat so many times that some want the old general back.

Biding his time until coronavirus is under control and, crucially, until the Holyrood probe into the Sturgeon government would shield Mr Salmond from charges of opportunism. It would also allow him to assemble the sharpest team and plan his next moves.

The old king holds all the cards and he will deal them at the optimal moment.


Originally published in the Scottish Daily Mail. Letters: Contact Stephen at Feature image © Scottish Government by Creative Commons 2.0.

Hope and despair in the Age of Corona

hands-4934590_1920It’s been ten days since I left the house.

I developed a dry cough while visiting my parents and have been self-isolating in my teenage bedroom, surrounded by hand sanitiser and Backstreet Boys posters. I waited for the other dread symptoms to follow — fever, shallow breathing, loss of taste and smell — but so far none have. Probably just the old asthma playing up again. 

There is a perverse disappointment in this: the quicker I got it, I reasoned, the faster I could be back on my feet and able to look after my parents. Both are cursed with underlying conditions, as am I. I am well aware of what this means. 

Isolation is nothing new. Clinical anxiety is a constant companion and one that jealously keeps me indoors for long stretches. Now the rest of the world is having a panic attack but this doesn’t make it any easier. When you are off-kilter you envy everyone else their even-keel but you also draw solace from it. 

Yesterday morning, I ventured out to the front step to write this. What does the outside world look like? At once familiar and uncanny, a pedestrian scene without pedestrians. Crows still congregate in the three barren oaks on the hill across the way, but now they go undisturbed by smartly-dressed ladies on their way to church or heathen husbands on a pilgrimage for bacon rolls and back pages. 

Family saloons usually on manoeuvres in the war zones of Ikea and B&Q lie decommissioned in driveways. Back street league fixtures have been called off, a mercy for garden fences and garage doors but I secretly miss the reassuring thump of vulcanised rubber.

Glory be to God for humdrum things: the pneumatic gulps of the bin man’s lorry, the dutiful footfall of the postman on slab steps, even for the junk mail and gas bills he brings.

What was mundane days ago is unimaginable now. No more popping down the pub, no more nattering with Tariq, the local newsagent, who sells you the paper and provides his commentary on the headlines for free. How fragile our lives turned out to be, how ill-founded the certainties of modernity. 

Medical science had a pill for everything but it has nothing for this. We are not invincible after all. The reach of technology is straining and with it our illusory superpowers: summoning taxis and takeaways at the tap of an app no longer seems so appealing. 

The open society struggles against a virus that turns our openness against us and hijacks our interconnected world as a transport network for its spike proteins. Cheap flights and city breaks are over and the airliners that offer them might be too.

Economic migration will crater — Australia and New Zealand have already closed their borders — though the prospect of Covid-19 refugees looms down the line as developed nations acquire vaccines that the developing world will struggle to afford or administer. Social distancing means one giant frustrated swipe left on dating apps. Coronavirus will do more to curtail casual sex than Aids or Mary Whitehouse.

Glumly, repressive states have been more effective at containment than free ones. Russia has a population 232 times the size of Luxembourg but only a third as many cases. Israel only has four times the population of Gaza but 500 times the recorded infections. True, authoritarian regimes are probably massaging the figures but the contrast is still stark.

Here in the UK, the Chancellor and the Prime Minister have assumed the roles of Good Cop and Bad Cop. Rishi Sunak has announced state intervention in the economy that would have made Nye Bevan blanche. First, there was his £350billion bailout for businesses, then his pledge to pay up to 80 per cent of the salary of any employee unable to work because of the outbreak.

The Chancellor is under pressure to extend this coverage to freelancers; meanwhile the Institute for Fiscal Studies estimates that even if just 10 per cent use the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme, it will cost the Treasury £10billion over three months. Now, Sunak has unveiled a £1,000 boost to the Universal Credit payment for the coming 12 months, at a price tag of £7billion. 

Boris Johnson has found himself as the Dirty Harry of this crisis: Go ahead, punk; wash your hands. As Sunak gets to dole out the carrots, the Prime Minister must wield the stick. It falls to him to urge pubs and restaurants to close and soon it will fall to him to order them to do so.

Today Parliament will debate sweeping new emergency powers that will allow the police and public health officials to detain anyone they suspect of being infected, force them to isolate and levy fines of £1,000 if they fail to comply. The government says such powers are necessary as long as there remains a ‘serious and imminent threat to public health’.

This is a Britain that could not have come from the pen of even the most dystopian of science fiction novelists. The measures announced — and there will be more and more drastic ones — are an indication of the gravity of the moment. This is not a bad flu outbreak; this is the close of one way of life and the opening of another. 

Peggy Noonan, former speechwriter to Ronald Reagan, observed after the September 11 attacks: ‘It was the end of a world, the drowning of illusions… the end of the assumptions that ease and plenty will continue forever’. The Age of Corona is pulling our illusions under, too. The easy and plentiful times that seemed like they would last forever are over. Now a cough can kill a loved one and a thriving business can collapse overnight. 

In the Age of Corona, we will be more circumspect, less confident, perhaps even more humble. We will certainly become more dependent on government and more obedient of authority. The Chancellor’s measures, in the round, seem wise and necessary but this suddenly inflated Leviathan will be difficult to cut back down to size. Once whetted, our appetite for big government will become harder to sate.  

The Prime Minister’s measures, in the round, seem wise and necessary, too. I bow to no one in my civil libertarianism but, as Thomas Jefferson argued: ‘The laws of necessity, of self-preservation, of saving our country when in danger are of higher obligation.’ Or as the American jurist Arthur Goldberg put it, while a constitution ‘protects against invasions of individual rights, it is not a suicide pact’. 

The duty to preserve life and public order make these new powers imperative but MPs from Left and Right are being reasonable in asking for a sunset clause to keep them under parliamentary scrutiny. Whether they succeed or not, the state will likely prove as reluctant to surrender its stick as the public will be to return their carrot. Those of us fortunate enough to survive will be living in a country with a bigger state and less freedom but we will at least be living. 

Dark days lie ahead but spot the glimmers of hope, too, for they shine with the promise of human potential and perseverance. The Israelis and the Australians are working on a vaccine; the Americans and the Chinese are already testing early prototypes. The world’s finest perfumeries Givenchy and Christian Dior have switched to producing hydroalcoholic  hand gel. Fashion designers Christian Siriano and Dov Charney are turning their talents from high couture to surgical masks. 

Coronavirus will change the world but it will not end it. On the other side there will be industries to rebuild and new ones to found where the old ones cannot be revived. Innovations will ensure we are better prepared for the next crisis and future technology will offer solutions just beyond our grasp today. Families will put themselves back together, mourning those they have lost and welcoming new members around their hearths. We have succumbed to the Age of Corona for now but not forever. 


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