Nicola Sturgeon and the dead-eyed Yesbots

Sometimes you can’t beat a Left-wing firebrand.  Elaine Smith is an old-school socialist who speaks her mind where others might tread more delicately. There was nothing delicate about the Labour MSP’s broadside against the Scottish Government ahead of yesterday’s sham debate on Covid restrictions.

MSPs were meant to get a proper debate and a vote but ministers pulled a fast one.  Smith used a procedural gambit to hold up parliamentary business and, although she knew her efforts would be in vain, she took her chance to tell the First Minister exactly what she thought about her performance of late.  

She inveighed against the ‘completely unacceptable’ decision to keep parliament in the dark about ‘draconian’ new rules while briefing them to journalists. It was vital that MSPs could ‘scrutinise the effectiveness of the strict 16-day restrictions Scotland had been subjected to’ and said she had even tried to have parliament recalled last week to discuss the matter.  

Smith was calm but unrelenting, rebuking ministers for their failure to consult while pouring scorn on the results of lockdown so far: ‘It’s not short and sharp because it doesn’t seem to have worked’. 

Noting the impact on the hospitality sector, she ended with a plea to the rest of the chamber to take a stand, railing against the U-turn that denied MSPs a say. ‘We are merely observers,’ she decried. ‘What is the point in voting on the motion when we are being asked simply to note the government’s decisions?’

Finally, with a despairing sigh: ‘Why are other parties going along with that?’ 

It’s difficult to gauge the mood in the chamber these days but Smith was swiftly voted down, so her cri de coeur evidently failed to impress. Still, it was a tonic to see someone stick their head above the parapet and remind forelock-tugging MSPs how real parliaments are meant to behave.  

When the debate proper got under way, Ruth Davidson told the First Minister she objected to the SNP motion ‘taking a swipe at the UK Government’ — but the Tories would be voting for it anyway. That’ll show ’em. Davidson at least brought along some practical ideas: a Covid business advisory council, improvements to data collection and a festive loneliness strategy.  

Mind you, the latter is redundant. The First Minister has no intention of being depicted as the Grinch who stole Christmas. Whatever ministers say today, a way will be found to allow the masses to guzzle down their overcooked turkey and cremated roasties while raising a grateful glass to the founder of the feast, Ebenezer Sturgeon.  

Not that she needs any more adulation. The self-congratulation is nearing Trumpian levels. ‘I’ve probably answered more questions than any leader of any government anywhere else in the world,’ she told Richard Leonard. She’s a great question-answerer — the greatest. Anyone saying otherwise is fake news.  

When UK ministers dodged parliamentary scrutiny, Commons Speaker Sir Lindsay Hoyle read them the riot act. Yesterday, Ken Macintosh read out a statement with all the passion of a printer instructions manual. He is resigning at the next election, becoming the first presiding officer to vacate the chair before anyone noticed he was in it.  

One after another the dead-eyed Yesbots got up to ‘fully welcome this strategic framework’ — the same pre-programmed turn of phrase was buzzed out each time. Fulton MacGregor, one of the newer-model automatons, cited a conversation with a worried medic and prated: ‘We must listen to people on the frontline’.

Neil Findlay, another stalwart of the Old Labour awkward squad, intervened to ask if he agreed that, as well as listening to frontline workers, we should also be regularly testing them. ‘Test and Protect is working well in Scotland,’ droned Dalek MacGregor. 

Richard Leonard spoke of the plight of the hospitality sector and insisted that ‘some parts of the night time economy can be kept open’. It’s come to a pretty pass when the doughtiest defenders of Scottish business are all members of the Campaign for Socialism. 

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

The Union is in crisis. Can anyone save it?

There is a crisis in Unionism. It did not begin with polls showing a majority for independence, or the arrival of Boris Johnson, or even Brexit, though the latter has sprayed accelerant on the flames. The unravelling of the United Kingdom began with legislative devolution in 1999.

Devolution was not a bad policy; in principle, local control is often more desirable than the remote diktats of centralised bureaucracy. The fault lay in the design of the settlement, which lacked safeguards against the misuse of devolved institutions to undermine devolution and replace it with independence. Devolution was a grand palace with the keys left under the plant pot. 

When the SNP took control of the Scottish Executive and immediately renamed it ‘the Scottish Government’, the direction of travel was clear. Instead of confronting the problem, successive UK governments adopted the time-honoured stance of the ostrich. And that was when they were being resolute; at other times, they favoured the composure of the headless chicken, fleeing this way and that, before clucking triumphantly about their latest transfer of powers to a demonstrably broken system.

Churchill said appeasement was feeding the crocodile in hope of being eaten last, but the Tories’ approach (and Labour’s is identical) is to plate up the Union limb-by-limb in hope the crocodile will eventually get indigestion and leave something behind.

David Cameron served the crocodile a referendum on its chosen terms and two tranches of new powers either side of it. In doing so, he tacitly endorsed the proposition that, although the constitution is reserved, the SNP can override this by sticking reserved matters in its Holyrood manifestos. Cameron effectively devolved devolution to its adversaries, putting the SNP in charge of the parameters of the settlement and withdrawing the UK Government from the enforcement of its terms. 

At the same time, he attempted to sate the Tory Right with English Votes for English Laws and an EU referendum. Politics is so fractured and tribal on the pro-Union side that there are Unionists adamant Cameron was wrong to cave in to Scottish nationalism and Unionists adamant he was wrong to cave into English nationalism but precious few who say he was wrong to cave into either. Concessions are statesmanship when you approve of them and appeasement when you don’t. 

A memo leaked earlier this week suggests Downing Street wants to chuck immigration and additional financial competencies into the crocodile’s jaws. All that will do is what it has done before: energise the separatists to go further. Come next May’s Holyrood election, the SNP manifesto will include a provision on another referendum and if (or rather when) the Nationalists win they will claim another mandate. 

One prime minister’s frail resolve and strategic myopia should not bind his successors. Boris Johnson ought to take the Theresa May approach and reject out of hand demands for another plebiscite. As he does, he should explicitly repudiate Cameron’s foolish stance and reassert both the original terms of the devolution settlement and the sovereignty of the UK Parliament. 

‘No’ is necessary but it is no longer sufficient. Unionism has to be about more than preventing independence. A life spent on the defensive is no life at all. Unionists need a vision for Scotland’s future as part of the United Kingdom. Why is the Union important? How can it be strengthened? Where does it go from here? 

I have long maintained that Scottish nationalism is philosophically barren, a spasm passing for an ideal. It is a theology of division with one hymn and one note: the Union is the original sin that created all of Scotland’s ills and national redemption requires that it be cast out. But Unionism, too, has grown empty and directionless, its doctrines loosed from conviction and hewing to whichever passing principle seems most likely to hold the nationalists at bay a while longer. 

Part of the problem is the calibre of political party representing the cause. One of them even bills itself the Conservative and Unionist Party, a description that should have given rise to a Trading Standards investigation years ago. The Tories lost the argument on devolution in 1997 and have yet to come up with another since. There is no Conservative theory of devolution, no wrestling with the constitutional consequences of Labour’s blueprint.

This is not helped by ineffective and unassertive policy advisors. Number 10 has its own ‘Union unit’, though I can’t discern whether it’s meant to be pro- or anti-. Given some of the decisions to come out of Downing Street of late, it is doing a better job recruiting Yes voters than Nicola Sturgeon ever has.

South of the Border, Conservatives have come to see the Union as a matter for Scotland alone, conveniently enough at the very point when their policy agenda is brimming with schemes organised around ideological self-indulgence rather than the interests of national unity. These Tories may rail against Sturgeon from the green benches but they are doing her work for her. 

Worse, there are some — including figures close to the Prime Minister — who do not want to defeat the SNP. They see Sturgeon as a convenient bogeywoman to scare Middle England out of voting Labour in 2024; a revival of the poster of Ed Miliband in the SNP leader’s pocket, with Sir Keir Starmer photoshopped over his predecessor.

It is a cynical and short-termist calculation and betrays a disregard for the future of the United Kingdom that ought to be incompatible with service in a Tory government. No Conservative should ever gamble with the Union to win an election, but then there are any number of characters in Downing Street who are not Conservatives. 

The UK Tories have to decide if they are still a Unionist party. Some already see Scotland as a fiscal millstone around England’s neck, rather than an integral part of the United Kingdom, and this tendency is gaining momentum. The canniest minds in the SNP have always understood that independence is as much about turning England against Scotland as Scotland against England. They are succeeding on both fronts. 

If the Conservatives’ problems lie mostly at Westminster and Number 10, the inverse is true for Labour.

Sir Keir has inherited a Scottish party going through an institutional nervous breakdown for a decade now. Scottish Labour’s problems began shortly after its greatest triumph: the formalisation of its fiefdom via a parliament and an executive. The man who helped convince Tony Blair that this was wise, Donald Dewar, died one year into the experiment. His untimely passing robbed devolution of its architect before the scaffolding was even down. 

Since then, the building has been squatted in by its foes, who present as the guardians of a settlement they daily work to undermine. Labour’s response has mostly broken off in two directions. The first are those motivated by tribal hatred of the SNP rather than a substantive argument against its goal. Their ‘No’ is a dead No, lacking ideas, or even curiosity, for reforming devolution or making the Union work better for Scotland.

The second group are those who cringe before the SNP’s frown and accept that independence is inevitable, or even a welcome development that would allow Scottish Labour to escape the constitution and become once more a viable party of government.

Unfortunately, for the pro-Union movement to return to strength, these two parties will have to get their houses in order.

The UK Tories have to reacquaint themselves with the Union they claim to revere. The appearance of the word ‘Unionist’ in the party’s name is a reference to Irish home rule, not Scottish, but it is also an admonition that this party is not an English nationalist party. It is meant to stand for broader values and a greater number of people than the population of the Home Counties. The Prime Minister, let us not forget, styles himself ‘Minister for the Union’ and occasionally even visits the parts that lie outwith SW1. 

To rediscover their Unionism, Conservatives must become conservatives again. A populist or nationalist party cannot hope to govern the UK because its appeal will always be to the values and instincts of the largest population. A narrow and insular politics of English identity is as incompatible with Unionism as the mean-spirited parochialism of the SNP.

The changes Scottish Labour needs to undergo will be a more personal grief. Two decades after his death, Donald Dewar enjoys a sainthood of sorts within this party, a deference that holds Labour back from taking a more open-minded — and more politically useful — assessment of his legacy. Instead of standing him on a pedestal, Scottish Labour should critically examine his legacy to learn from both his qualities and his flaws. 

Dewar was a patriot, a hard worker, a canny strategist, and someone who knew how to keep the Nationalists at bay. But he was also arrogant, aloof, and made fundamental errors in the structuring of devolution. Because his motivation was as much the forging of a power base for himself as it was the founding of a new way of governing Scotland, Dewar was the framer of a settlement heavy on executive power and light on checks and balances, a system that drastically empowered Holyrood at the expense of Westminster under the assumption that the former would always be run by parties sympathetic towards, or willing to tolerate, the latter. 

These arrangements were the practical outgrowth of Dewar’s theory that the United Kingdom would be strengthened (or at least not fatally undermined) by giving institutional structure to its regional political differences. With hindsight, this was historic folly but it was not Dewar’s alone. His theory was shared by almost every Labour and Liberal Democrat politician as well as academia, the civil service and the mainstream media. In the 1980s and 1990s, there was scarcely a more widely held shibboleth. 

Yet, respect for Dewar’s memory cannot occlude the fact that his grand project, in the form it took, is why we are where we are today. His devolution is why the SNP has been in power for 13 years and may well be for 13 years more and another 13 after that. It is why Nicola Sturgeon can dominate a minority parliament in a way that Boris Johnson could only dream of with his landslide majority. It is why the SNP has been able to weaponise a faultily drafted settlement against the very letter and purpose of that settlement. 

Donald Dewar was a fine politician but a terrible founding father, one whose founding did not survive his death by even a decade. There are Labour veterans involved in the Holyrood project who concede behind closed doors that they failed to take seriously the threat of the SNP capturing the institutions of devolution. Private admissions are all well and good but integrity demands these grandees make their remorse public and help to right their wrongs.

If Scottish Labour wants to become relevant again, it need not abandon the Union on the wishful assumption that the voters will be waiting with open arms on the other side of independence. Instead, it should learn from the best of Donald Dewar while unlearning the worst of his legacy. Scottish Labour should be a party that expresses patriotism through values and vision, not constitutional policy. Labour ought to be the champion of a return to hard work and excellence in Scottish public life, to integrity in government, to the accountability of the powerful. 

It should confront the full-time independence campaign and occasional government in St Andrew’s House and tell it to get its finger out or get out of office. Scottish Labour cannot be more Scottish than the SNP but it can be more Labour. That does not mean a lurch to the fringe left but rather a revival of the sensible, social democratic Scottish Labour that, though drab and managerial, actually got things done.  

Even with these two parties back on sounder footing, Unionists would have to think hard about what they believe, why and how they hope to achieve it. A great deal of laziness has crept into how opponents of independence talk about the Union. On this side of the Border, we must stop framing the case as a financial transaction by hymning the glories of the unfair and outdated Barnett formula. Subsidy unionism irritates the English and is more likely to push Scots in the direction of nationalism. Pride is a pittance in the pocket but a bounty in the soul. 

Down south, believers in the Union will have to do more than believe and start to practically support it. The Union is a shared endeavour and it cannot be maintained by one side alone. The UK Government must think as such — a government for all of the UK, not just the south-east and the more affluent parts of London. 

A fundamental question underlies all this: what exactly is the Union? We know it cannot be constitutional structures and fiscal subvention alone, but what else is there that unites the people of our four nations? The first order of business is forging a shared sense of identity, a passport of the head and the heart that draws on history but appeals to the future and reflects our evolution into a multi-racial society.

We need a common culture of belonging, shared reference points that remind us who we are and how we are connected to one another. The SNP has been effective at enlarging its version of Scottishness at the expense of a more fluid identity and so the Union requires a broad and easy UK identity that is more appealing than mono-nationalism. 

There is a crisis in Unionism and it is a crisis of confidence. Voters like confidence and nationalists have it because they know what they believe. There must be an end to defensive unionism, the hand-wringing angst and compulsive concession-making that has only emboldened the separatists. Unionists must believe in the Union and give the people a Union they can believe in too.

Originally published in the Scottish Daily Mail. Letters: scotletters [insert @ symbol] Image by Dean Moriarty from Pixabay.

The economy must reopen for business — now

The economy has taken on the character of a Thomas Hardy novel. We are aware something grim is coming, the only question is when. At some point, Sue Bridehead will go into the children’s bedroom, Tess will face the hangman and Wildeve and Eustacia will be taken by the depths of Shadwater Weir. At some point, too, the coronavirus economy will succumb with Hardy-esque inevitability to the tragedy of mass unemployment. 

There is an unspoken consensus that we should not talk about this for now. It is challenging enough to herd the population through the labyrinth of regulations and restrictions without telling them that the end point is likelier to be Universal Credit than a universal vaccine. Putting off the facts, however, does not change them. Bad times are coming and the country appears wholly unprepared for their impact. 

However else ministers have handled Covid-19, one example of smart and effective policy has been Chancellor Rishi Sunak’s Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme (CJRS). As of last month, 9.6million posts had been furloughed under the programme, which has meant the difference between dignity and the dole for families across the country and allowed small business owners to make it through the last seven gruelling months.

It may seem ironic that a Tory chancellor has given us all a lesson in the virtues of state interference in the market but in a time of acute crisis Sunak’s initiative has kept the UK economy afloat. 

The problem is that it cannot go on forever. Conservatives are fond of quoting the Margaret Thatcher aphorism that socialist governments ‘always run out of other people’s money’, but the same eventuality awaits any government that continues to spend while failing to grow (indeed, artificially depressing) the economy.

Sunak has pushed public sector net debt above £2trillion for the first time and into excess of GDP for the first time since 1961. Labour governments may run out of money but this Tory government will soon run out of IOU slips. 

When that happens, the UK will be confronted with social and economic straits most of us assumed had been relegated to the history books and old Pathe newsreel footage. Mass joblessness and bankruptcy or sequestration, the failure of thousands or more businesses, and knock-on effects including an eruption in homelessness, crime and physical and mental ill-health. Alarmist though it might sound, this is what happens when an economy collapses and government is no longer able or willing to prop it up. 

Nor would the fallout end in our pocketbooks and mortgage agreements. A return to 1930s-style unemployment could bring with it a revival of 1930s-style politics. That is why those who harbour an ideological objection to the CJRS (and even the more modest Job Support Scheme that will soon take its place) are dabbling in reckless fantasy of a kind that would devastate the lives and wellbeing of millions of families. Leave the performative libertarianism to Young Tory after-dinner speeches. 

Writing in the Mail last week, Dr Stuart McIntyre, head of research at the Fraser of Allander Institute, credited the CJRS with saving around 800,000 jobs in Scotland alone. He noted that it is ‘only as government financial support is phased out that the full effects of the pandemic on the jobs market crisis will start to hit home’.

The respected economist warned that steady unemployment figures were a product of the Treasury’s interventions and that the true costs of lockdown — already hinted at in a 49 per cent spike in redundancies and a 40 per cent plummet in vacancies UK-wide — would only become apparent after the Chancellor withdrew his fiscal life support. 

‘We must tackle the public health crisis with appropriate restrictions to contain the virus,’ Dr McIntyre cautioned. ‘But we must also act to combat the looming economic crisis.’

This is why it is vital that we begin to reopen the economy promptly. It will not be easy; public opinion is heavily on the side of caution. A Channel 4 poll published yesterday found 61 per cent of Britons support ‘circuit-breaker’ lockdowns and while 30 per cent cite their finances as the their biggest concern during the pandemic, twice as many say it is the risk to their health. Almost half want the government to spend more money saving jobs and businesses. 

The public can hardly be blamed for worrying when politicians and public health advisors have spent the seven months telling them to worry in daily TV adverts and social media warnings. There was and remains cause to be concerned but the authorities may have made the country too alert — that is, scared out of its wits.

Strong leadership and level-headed communication by the experts will be needed to coax people back out of this state of national fright. We cannot go on living our lives like Thomas Hardy’s wretched creations, caught up in the relentless march of fate, unable to direct our own lives and waiting for dread Providence to arrive at our door. 

The response to Covid-19 must be bifurcated into a health strategy and an economic strategy, neither of which should take priority over the other. The health strategy should be dedicated to suppression and eventual eradication of the virus while the economic plan directs its efforts to resuscitating the private sector.

In practice, this would mean managing the virus based on risk and demography, perhaps by applying lockdowns and other restrictions on the basis of individual factors (age, co-morbidities, household composition) rather than the current one-size-fits-all model. 

Younger, healthier people could be at greater liberty to work from the office, socialise and travel, while those in greater jeopardy from Covid continue to be kept safe. This would be a welcome development not only for the individuals in question but for sectors of the economy — including hospitality and tourism — which cannot sustain themselves through much more of the blanket approach. Those at the least risk from coronavirus would regain some, though not all, of their freedoms while businesses would regain some, though not all, of their customer base. 

By splitting health and economic wellbeing into two separate priorities, it would be easier to pursue each without feeling hindered by the other. We could continue to tackle coronavirus while ensuring we still have a dynamic economy for workers to return to once all are able. The inevitability of coming out of a pandemic and into an economic and social catastrophe would no longer seem quite so inevitable. 


Good on ya, Jacinda Ardern. Over the weekend, New Zealand’s prime minister won a second, landslide term for her Labour Party. 

The 40-year-old has attracted admirers the world over for her focus on growing quality of life as much as the economy and for making a dent in New Zealand’s housing, child poverty and mental health problems. 

Although her ministry marked a break from her predecessor’s in terms of policy, she has striven to bring people together rather than sow division. She also appears to regard government as an opportunity to make people’s lives better rather than a mechanism for accruing power for herself. 

Surveying Ardern’s character and priorities, it’s hard not to acknowledge the parallels with a rather prominent woman in Scottish politics. Kezia Dugdale, a friend of the victorious Kiwi, was among the most talented politicians of her generation. Ardern’s success is her own, of course, but it feels like a glimpse of what could have been in Scotland had the lots fallen differently. 


At least 20 police officers on the Dundee force have had to self-isolate following a seven-a-side football game. The boys in blue and their spouses were ordered into quarantine after one of the players subsequently tested positive for Covid-19. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: exercise is bad for your health. 

Originally published in the Scottish Daily Mail. Letters: Image by Peggy und Marco Lachmann-Anke from Pixabay.

Sturgeon lacks empathy for small business owners

I can recall my first trip to the cinema as though I was holding the ticket stub in front of me: My Girl 2. Summer 1994. The Odeon at the Parkhead Forge. It wasn’t a great movie – really a weak retread of the original designed to rake in more box office cash – but the experience sparked a lifelong affection for the flicks.

A cinema is more than an auditorium and overpriced popcorn. Each is a dream factory where young (and not-so-young) minds are exposed to the thrilling possibilities of art and life in 90 minutes of suspended disbelief.

Whether you first toddled along, jam jar tucked under your arm, to marvel at Roy Rogers riding Trigger into battle, or queued amid a fog of hairspray and hormones to trill along to Grease, or were taken to the multiplex by your parents to ogle in wonder at the magic of Harry Potter, you too may have been hooked by the fantasy that life could be as bright and bold as those images on screen.

For true cinephiles, the habit is hard to break. The cinema-goer is caught, in the words of French critic Roland Barthes, in a ‘twilight reverie’ which ‘leads him from street to street, from poster to poster, finally burying himself in a dim, anonymous, indifferent cube where that festival of affects known as a film will be presented’.

That reverie has been rudely awakened by coronavirus and the measures taken to slow its spread.

Last week, Boris Johnson urged us to visit our local cinema but not before Cineworld, which employs 5,500 Britons, announced the temporary closure of its 127 UK branches, or before Odeon announced it would be opening weekends-only at some locations.

Movie theatres have been left with less product than usual thanks to Covid-19’s impact on filming, and the decision to postpone the next Bond film, No Time To Die, until 2021 has not helped.

But Cineworld and Odeon are experiencing the same uncertainty affecting much smaller firms across the economy. While it’s welcome to hear the Prime Minister encourage support for cinemas, it does sound like the person who unlocked the gate in the first place trying to refasten it after the departure of the horse.

The frequency with which rules and guidance have changed, and the general alarm that restrictions and rhetoric have fostered, have meant all the expensive refits to make cinemas safe have been a waste of money.

Other firms don’t have such deep pockets, and the haphazard execution of lockdown on either side of the border has left some questioning whether their shop or restaurant or supply business can survive much longer.

Yes, there has been help. Chancellor Rishi Sunak stepped up with the job retention scheme, job support subsidies and Eat Out to Help Out. The Scottish Government has offered assistance such as the Covid-19 restrictions fund.

Just as this pandemic has shown the good that government can do, it has also reminded us of its tendency towards bureaucracy, arrogance and incompetence. Nicola Sturgeon has been a particular offender in this regard, demonstrating her unfamiliarity with small businesses and hospitality outlets and the complexities involved in running them. Restrictions continue to be imposed in a seemingly ad hoc manner and with scant notice, if any.

The cafe debacle is a case in point. A 16-day shutdown of licensed premises is a policy choice with far-reaching consequences and one that ought to be rolled out smoothly, not towed in behind a clown car rushing to get the First Minister in front of the nearest TV camera.

Proprietors were bewildered by ministers’ definition of a ‘cafe’ and it quickly became obvious ministers themselves didn’t have the first clue. ‘If a premises is in doubt, they should close until an environmental health officer tells them that they think they fall within the definition,’ Sturgeon abruptly told the sector, with the breezy attitude of a woman who has never had to do their job.

Hospitality venues can’t simply turn their operations around at a click of the First Minister’s fingers. Sturgeon’s aloof response to cafe owners has confirmed her position as the Marie Antoinette of Scottish politics. Let them serve cake.

There is a disconnect at work here between the First Minister’s life and that of those she rules over. Going to the cinema or for a bite to eat and then onto the pub may not be the Sturgeon-Murrells’ idea of a good time but it is how normal people spend their weekends. That has been taken away from them, again, and with it the hope that this horror of a year was getting better.

The disregard for punters is mild compared to the indifference towards hospitality and other small business. The First Minister has deployed an empathy strategy during lockdown, repeating how exacting her job is for fear of being seen as a remote imposer of rules rather than a co-victim of coronavirus.

What is absent from her repertoire of affected chuckles and practised grimaces is any understanding of how frightening these times are for the private sector.

There is a distinct lack of entrepreneur empathy, an ignorance of what is involved in running a business and a failure to appreciate how heartbreaking it is to see the effort of a lifetime torn down with a single ministerial fiat. One of the reasons for this is the distance between those who make the wealth and those who make the decisions.

The decision-makers are, generally speaking, drawn from a narrower pool of talent, most of whom attended the same universities, pursued similar careers and hold barely distinguishable views. Vanishingly few have ever run a business. Fair enough, small enterprise isn’t for everyone but that makes it all the more imperative to listen to business owners and try to understand the market in which they operate.

Lockdowns mean something entirely different to state employees than to staff and proprietors in the productive sectors of the economy. Public health officials don’t spend their days fretting about where their next shift is coming from, while government ministers are in a job that comes with its own back-up job if you get sacked.

When advisers advise and ministers impose another round of business restrictions, they tell themselves they are harming profits to help people but in truth both are harmed. Firms are not an abstract of pounds and pennies on a balance sheet; they are people, owners and workers alike, trying to get by.

We are not talking about corporate leviathans such as Google and Coca-Cola. More than 99 per cent of businesses in Scotland are small or medium- sized enterprises and they account for 55 per cent of private sector jobs. Around 1.2million livelihoods are made here. That’s food put on tables and roofs kept over heads.

That’s not counting the knock- on effects for other sectors. Last week, a taxi driver in his fifties told me from behind a wall of polyethylene about his time in the industry. He had worked hard for more than 30 years, he recounted with no little pride, so that at this point in his life he could be more selective about which shifts he worked – daytime was better and meant avoiding the sometimes rowdy Saturday night runs. Now he was back to going out every night and barely scraping £40 a day before tax or licence fees.

Whether in hospitality or entertainment or elsewhere, entrepreneurs are not demanding clarity because they are greedy or unconcerned with their workers’ safety or eager to exploit their labour. They know how close to the wall they are. They open up that same spreadsheet every night before bed and see the assets column nosediving while the bottom line for creditors stays the same. They are the ones who will have to do the laying off, not Nicola Sturgeon or Jason Leitch.

Sooner or later, we will have to move beyond the failed strategy of lockdowns, but until then some measures will be unavoidable and some industries doomed to suffer. That is why it is vital small businesses be given clear guidance and ample warning ahead of fresh restrictions.

Every family firm, built by sweat and sacrifice, is a dream factory in its own right and every shutter pulled down for good a ‘closed’ sign hung on someone’s hopes for a better life. Nicola Sturgeon doesn’t have to care about these people, but she ought at least to listen to them.

Originally published in the Scottish Daily Mail. Letters: Image by Tobias Heine from Pixabay.

NHS must awaken from its Covid coma

Much of the romanticism that attaches to the NHS flows from its founding principle of providing medical services ‘free at the point of need’. In the wake of the grief and sacrifice of war, the health service represented another great coming together in a peacetime endeavour for fairness and decency. 

A less lofty but more pivotal phrase is this: ‘[A] comprehensive health service designed to secure improvement in the physical and mental health of the people of Scotland and the prevention, diagnosis and treatment of illness.’ These, the opening words of the NHS (Scotland) Act 1947, are not quite as stirring but they are the operative description of the health service. 

While removing the burden of insurance fees and charges was a central virtue for Minister for Health Aneurin Bevan, what set the NHS apart was its scale and comprehensiveness. It would meet all needs for all people in all times. That is why the Act made ministers responsible for ‘the effective provision of services’. 

One of the necessary fictions of the past seven months has been that of a plucky NHS plugging on in spite of everything. In the words of Health Secretary Jeane Freeman: ‘Throughout the pandemic NHS Scotland has remained open, delivering emergency services and vital care.’ We all know this is not true. Since March, the NHS has not been comprehensive. It has not been improving physical and mental health. It has not been preventing, diagnosing and treating illness to the same extent. 

A significant part of the health service was placed in a temporary coma to accommodate the response to Covid-19. While a global pandemic was always going to disrupt its operation, the degree to which basic NHS functions have been suspended is far-reaching and unprecedented. Everyone will have their own story, from personal experience or that of a friend or loved one. The cancelled surgery, the extended stay on a waiting list, the bureaucratic assault course that lies between picking up the phone and seeing a GP. 

The statistics confirm just how common these occurrences are. There were almost 16,000 fewer planned operations in July 2020 (the most recent month for which figures are available) than for the previous July. Nearly 65 per cent of patients waited longer than the six-week target for a key test result and half for longer than 13 weeks. The backlog meant 7,500 extra patients waiting for an endoscopy and 2,500 more for a radiology test than this time last year. 

The target for 95 per cent of new outpatients to be seen within 12 weeks of referral has simply ceased to exist. By the summer, those seen under this standard had plummeted 66 per cent on summer 2019. The same goes for the Treatment Time Guarantee, which says that all eligible inpatients should be seen within 12 weeks of a decision to treat. In fact, the number of patients being treated under this guarantee plunged 79 per cent on last year. 

We get daily updates on coronavirus but not on the human toll of making coronavirus our only priority. That cost includes a 64 per cent drop in referrals to IVF treatment, an 80 per cent decrease in chronic pain sufferers seen and a fall of more than half in children and young people referred to mental health services. This is no one’s idea of ‘the effective provision of services’.

Eventually, waiting times will return to normal, which, in most cases, means targets still being missed but by less. However, the anguish caused by these months of disruption cannot not be undone. When these people needed the NHS most, it closed its doors to them. 

The resumption of services is under way, albeit gradually. Breast cancer screening has restarted and there is a plan to ‘remobilise and redesign’ cancer care. Community optometrists are handling patients with long-term and sight-threatening conditions whom hospitals could not help under their emergency measures. Dentists are at last seeing people left in pain for months, though access to dental services remains a more complicated picture than high registration rates would suggest. Slowly, the NHS is being brought back round. 

That process must be accelerated, especially as we head into winter, where the double whammy of Covid-19 and flu could bring the health service grinding to a halt once again. The signs are already coming into view. An additional 800,000 people are eligible for the flu vaccine this year because of coronavirus and the rush has so far caught NHS bosses off-guard.

NHS Fife told older patients to stop calling its flu jab hotline because its eight call handlers could not deal with the 1,000 calls coming in every hour. To her credit, chairwoman Tricia Marwick apologised swiftly, admitted the health board ‘had not prepared adequately’ and drafted in more telephonists. Better than expressions of regret is proactivity to make sure these scenes are not repeated in other health boards. 

The logistics of delivering the vaccine also need to be looked at. MSPs are hearing from constituents who ought to be getting the injection but have no car to drive to the centralised locations where it is being offered. They face the choice of making multiple journeys on busy public transport or going without the jab. It is vital that these problems are remedied promptly for flu and factored into the planning for any coronavirus vaccine. 

To find its footing again, the NHS must recall the terms on which it was established. It exists to secure improvement in the physical and mental health of the people of Scotland, not some of the people of Scotland, some of the time and for some conditions but not others. Unless the health service returns expeditiously to its original purpose, the purpose which has earned it the respect and affection of generations, its fitness for the task assigned it may start to come into question. This is particularly the case for priority conditions such as cancers, heart disease and strokes, but for many other illnesses too. 

An NHS free at the point of need is only as good as its availability at the point of need. An NHS that yanks down the shutters when times get tough is one failing to live up to its founding spirit, which is a spirit of service. These are, we hope, extraordinary times and treating Covid-19 will naturally be at the forefront of what the NHS does, but it can no longer be all or most of what it does. The NHS belongs to us, not to ministers or managers, and we must insist that it reopens to us — now. 


Finally someone said it. Douglas Ross’s conference speech was a long overdue rebuke to self-indulgent Tories down south, who have either stopped caring about the Union or simply lost their nerve for the struggle against separatism. 

The Scottish Conservative leader told virtual delegates that these faint-hearts were not only complacent but complicit; ‘doing the SNP’s work for them’ in his bracing words. More incendiary still was his declaration that: ‘The case for separation is now being made more effectively in London than it ever could in Edinburgh.’ 

Ross didn’t just issue his southern colleagues a wake-up call. He lamped them around the head with the alarm clock. Speeches are important but actions count more and now we must see the UK Government stepping up and defending the Union politically and legislatively. Law-breaking capers aside, the Internal Market Bill is a good start but nothing more. Douglas Ross has shown he has the right idea. The Prime Minister must show he has the right plan. 


Aberdeen is marking a political milestone: the 150th anniversary of The Grill. The Union Street pub has been serving thirsty Dons since 1870 but it is also the preferred watering hole for MPs and journalists during party conferences in the Granite City. How many scoops must have begun life over a pint in this venerable establishment. May it see another 150 years.

Originally published in the Scottish Daily Mail. Letters: Image by Darko Stojanovic from Pixabay.

Ruth Davidson goes to war

This is war. Whatever gloves were still clinging tendentiously to government and opposition hands over the Alex Salmond inquiry were roughly hoiked off at FMQs yesterday.  

In the laws of the schoolyard, Ruth Davidson started it. Truth be told, her FMQs outings since rejoining the Tory frontbench have been solid but nothing more. Yesterday marked the return of the old Ruth, and not the impish banter queen who tripped herself up in the past.

No, this was her serious face, that side of her political personality that is ruthless, brutal, even a touch thuggish, and more than a little self-righteous. Like Tony Blair in opposition, Davidson is, on her best days, a stone-cold demolition merchant, sending a wrecking ball through ministerial spin and happily flattening nuance along the way.  

Last January, the First Minister undertook to provide all documents requested by the Salmond inquiry, something which the inquiry chair says hasn’t happened. What, Davidson prayed, had ‘made the First Minister break her word’?

The Nationalist jefe had her answer ready: ‘I have recused myself from making decisions about the Scottish Government’s submissions’. This was clever: promise to cooperate then step down from any decisions about cooperating.  

Davidson was onto her: ‘The Nicola Sturgeon who is First Minister likes to pretend that she is not the Nicola Sturgeon who is also leader of the SNP’. Everyone knew, though, that she could ensure the documents were handed over ‘with a snap of her fingers’.

Sturgeon gawped and she grumped, snarled and squealed. If you want to shut down an allegation quickly, go in hard and make a big enough noise to scare off your pursuers. The First Minister’s am-dram theatrics had the opposite effect, making her appear rattled and desperate. It was like a courtroom drama and the SNP leader was all 12 of the angry men. 

When growling failed, she turned to guile. She swerved here and limboed there, substituting acrobatics for answers as she avoided questions and even her own words read back to her. This slick manoeuvring meant she couldn’t be pinned down but it left her looking slippier than a weasel in an olive oil factory.  

No more so than when Davidson raised the matter of alleged messages sent by Sturgeon’s husband, and SNP chief executive, Peter Murrell that reportedly suggested ‘pressurising’ the police over Salmond.

First, Sturgeon appeared to blame the committee for the disclosure, then she ducked behind the police investigation, then pivoted to the ‘outrageous’ fact that she had still not been called to give evidence. She wanted to be scrutinised, you see.  

‘She’ being the operative pronoun. The First Minister declared: ‘Call the people who the messages are purported to come from and ask them the questions; call me and I will answer for myself.’

Forget two metres, she was putting two miles between herself and Mr Sturgeon. Suffice to say the conversation across the Bute House breakfast table this morning will have been a little more terse than ‘who put toast crumbs in the Flora?’. 

Davidson accused the SNP of a ‘shabby abuse of power’, which is mild for a government beginning to look dodgier than a day-old prawn bhuna. 

Jackie Baillie, a one-woman airborne division, Zoomed in and opened fire: ‘As a member of the committee that is considering the handling of harassment complaints, I say to the First Minister that the SNP government is being disrespectful to the committee and, by extension, to the parliament.’

Direct strike. No sooner had the target been engaged than she deployed another sortie: ’Contrary to her briefing, the information provided at this point has been partial, witnesses have come before the committee with surprising memory difficulties and there is a complete refusal to hand over the legal advice for the judicial review.’ 

The presiding officer called time, no small mercy for the First Minister, who retreated back to the bunker. This is war and she’s on the back foot. 

Originally published in the Scottish Daily Mail. Letters:

Danger on a train

In late May, at the height of the row over Dominic Cummings’ Durham excursion, SNP MP Margaret Ferrier summoned her umbrage and opened up Twitter. 

‘Most people have all been abiding by lockdown guidelines for weeks & months now, making sacrifices to protect others & the NHS,’ she intoned. ‘Extremely difficult for many with no visits to family & friends, no visits by grandparents to hold newborn grandchildren, not getting to attend funerals.’

Not content, she turned her ire on Boris Johnson for defending his chief adviser. ‘One rule for #DominicCummngs and one for the rest of us,’ she opined. 

Fair enough. Many of us were unhappy about the appearance of rule-bending by the very people writing the rules. Margaret Ferrier had made a valid political point, a landmark moment in itself. Her admission, then, that she went on a 400-mile train journey after testing positive for Covid-19 is something of a U-turn on the morality of rule-breaking. 

It should go without saying that everyone wishes her a full and speedy recovery. It should also go without saying that this is one of the stupidest things an SNP MP has ever done, quite an achievement by any measure.

Ferrier’s apology reads like a plot line rejected by The Thick of It as too implausible. The Rutherglen and Hamilton West MP came down with symptoms, took a coronavirus test, travelled to London by train, was informed that she had the virus, then travelled back home by train. Even Nicola Murray would’ve cottoned on before then.

To endanger one train full of passengers may be regarded as a misfortune; to endanger two looks like carelessness. Rail services from London to Scotland are typically busy. Yet, at no point in her itinerary of infectiousness did Ferrier stop to consider that travelling for hours in a confined mode of public transport would risk spreading the virus to others. 

We cannot be certain how many passengers she may have infected on each train and how many they might have infected in turn. They quarantined Typhoid Mary for less. 

But it is not only Covid Margaret’s myopic misjudgement that is at issue. She and her party were at the forefront of calls for Dominic Cummings’ head to roll. Nicola Sturgeon said he should go for the ‘integrity of vital public health advice’. Last night, Sturgeon criticised Ferrier’s actions and Ian Blackford removed the whip.

Yet Ferrier remains an MP. She has not had to resign to safeguard ‘the integrity of vital public health advice’. Benefit of the doubt for me but not for thee. This is familiar fare from SNP politicians: demand the most exacting standards from their opponents but practise not one word of what they preach. When your party has an inflated sense of its own virtue in place of a philosophy, this is the kind of thing that happens.

Ferrier’s apology raises more questions than it answers. For one, she writes that, having returned from Westminster on Tuesday, ‘I have been self-isolating at home ever since’. If that is the case, why did we have to wait another 48 hours before being told any of this had happened?

She says she travelled to London to attend Parliament. Did she share a lift with anyone at Portcullis House? Did she mingle with fellow MPs? Did she wear a face mask at all times — and during her two train journeys? We have a right to know the full story.

Beyond the stupidity, beyond the hypocrisy, lies the gnawing feeling that there is something rotten in Scottish politics. The First Minister is holding us prisoner in our own homes, telling us not to go to work, forbidding us to have next door round for a coffee and sending in the police to break up house parties.

We go along with this because we recognise that there is a deadly virus out there and sacrifices are necessary to defeat it. Those sacrifices are tempered, or at least they were, by the assurance that they applied equally to everyone. No special treatment for the privileged and the powerful. We were all in it together.

Now we are told that an MP disregarded the laws the rest of us must obey. Not once, but twice. And she did it while infected with the very virus that we are fighting. Don’t bother getting angry; your anger won’t do anything. Don’t bother getting outraged; strategic concerns, not your opinions, are behind the decision to withdraw the whip.

We are governed by people who sit above the directives they impose on us. As Margaret Ferrier might say, there is one rule for them and one rule for the rest of us. 

Originally published in the Scottish Daily Mail. Letters: Image by Nuclear Information Service via CC BY-SA 2.0 on Flickr, cropped.

Lockdown cannot go on forever

These are not glad times for individual liberty. Covid-19 has occasioned some of the most sudden and far-reaching extensions of state power seen in peacetime. Government ministers dictate our holiday plans, the number of worshippers who may congregate in church and even who we allow into our homes.

Worst of all, at the very moment liberty is most vulnerable, the business of defending it has been left up to cranks and conspiracy theorists.

Let us dispense, then, with some housekeeping: coronavirus is real; comprehensive measures are required to suppress it; restrictions on basic liberties are not part of a nefarious plot; ministers and scientists have and will get some of this wrong; where they do, it is a function of human fallibility and institutional dysfunction, not cunning conspiracy.

The mainstream has failed to articulate both the need for a robust response to the virus and alertness to the impact of restrictions on fragile freedoms. Yet only by recognising the gravity of the health crisis we face can we begin a serious discussion about what remedies are necessary, which ones work and don’t and the balance between eradicating the virus and upholding precious rights and liberties.

Nothing dramatises the need for this quite like the sight of university campuses transformed into impromptu detention centres. For young people on the cusp of adulthood, living away from home for the first time, this is not what they envisioned their fresher experience to be. University is constant movement, from lecture hall to library to tutorial room to student union, stopping to take in a protest or two along the way. Confining undergraduates to halls of residence not only restricts their movements, it guts university life of its very spirit.

For parents watching helplessly from home, there is mounting anger about the double injustice dealt their offspring. The school pupils put through a week of anguish by the exams scandal are now the university students barricaded into cramped accommodation, far from their families, cut off from friends and social events and stuck with distance-learning software that is sleek and shiny but which cannot replicate the interactive learning that university is all about.

Some retort that, while these circumstances are not ideal, earlier generations of 18-year-olds were sent to war or suffered other privations to which a few partyless weeks cannot compare.

In a sense, this is true and a much-needed reminder that, despite the extreme scenario that grips the globe today, we live in a world of choice and convenience our grandparents could not have dreamed of and their grandparents could not have imagined.

But our world is not theirs. It is a society structured around the individual and an architecture of self-government, a rights-based order that maximises autonomy and limits what burdens the state can place upon our freedoms.

Coronavirus has slammed into the foundations of our way of doing things like a wrecking ball from out of the blue.

Two weeks ago, I argued for the Scottish parliament to have a vote on the imposition of fresh restrictions. On Thursday, Central Scotland MSP Graham Simpson made much the same case to Nicola Sturgeon at First Minister’s Questions. The First Minister responded with a voice that visited me a few times while writing that column: this is a fast-moving, global pandemic; parliament can’t be convened every time the rules require to be updated for this council area or that.

That is a reasonable voice, but so is the one that says: we have no idea how long the current emergency will last. It may be years before this pandemic becomes endemic and ministers cannot believe that retaining emergency powers until then is either politically sustainable or democratically healthy.

Regulations of the kind currently in situ are not inconsistent with democracy but, kept in place for a number of years, they will begin to become inconsistent with the particular genre of democracy that we favour in this country. A parliamentary democracy rooted in individual liberty and which has evolved to encompass defined legal rights requires a political and statutory environment that is both stable and transparent.

We shouldn’t get too hung up on the constitutional theory. What matters is that long-term emergency powers, imposing regulations that change sharply and wholesale, exercised with no parliamentary approval beyond post facto review, makes for an unpredictable and opaque form of government.

MPs at Westminster are growing concerned about the operation of these powers in England. Sir Graham Brady, chairman of the 1922 Committee of backbench Tories, has tabled an amendment requiring that MPs get a vote on any further lockdown measures. Labour grandee Harriet Harman has emerged as one of the motion’s most prominent backers.

This is not about party politics. It is about ensuring restrictions to suppress coronavirus are accountable to Parliament. Any such right of approval should apply not only to the Commons but to Holyrood, Stormont and the Senedd, but absent that MSPs ought to find a way of securing a similar arrangement for the Scottish Parliament.

Boris Johnson must worry about what Tory backbenchers think because they are not programmed to follow him into whichever division lobby he toddles. While the Commons seeks to hold the executive to account, the same is not the case at Holyrood. The automaton bloc-voting of SNP backbenchers, hardwired into them by the monopolitics of nationalism, renders Holyrood subservient to the First Minister. Perilously, this muffles the early warning system backbenchers provide to a government becoming too insulated from the country it rules over.

Laws made behind closed doors will always want for the legitimacy of those debated and decided in the open forum of parliament. Not only opposition members, but Nationalist backbenchers should grasp the value of including the citizenry, via their elected representatives, in the crafting of regulations to be imposed upon them.

Fidelity to parliament is a higher loyalty than that owed to party. This is a test for Holyrood and for those who want it to be a better legislature, in particular those who say it should have even more powers or all of the powers.

It should not require a parliamentary revolt for the First Minister to reassess the present arrangements. She has nothing to fear from the electoral power of students, a chronically apathetic group who, when they do vote, are typically attracted to the idealistic and impractical. (So, they’re already on board with independence.) Their parents are a different matter and so, too, are the wider public.

The country is with the Government for now, but the longer these impositions continue, the more aggressively they will wear away at popular consent. Most of us have written off 2020 and made peace with a lost year of our lives, but how many are prepared to take the same view of 2021, 2022 and beyond?

The case for a rethink is ethical, not electoral. The more months that go by with ministers enacting the advice of public health officials into law with scant legislative scrutiny, the further we inch away from parliamentary democracy and the closer to rule by technocrats. A scientocracy might sound benign enough — who better than scientists to take the important decisions during a pandemic? — but it would soon come to collide with popular sentiment.

Epidemiologists will always err on the side of caution and there will always be something to be cautious about. Where parliament has a say, a workable balance can be struck between public health and the public’s desire for a normal life. Where ministers act as enforcers for an enlightened expert class, every new restriction will be even more essential than the last. Good data and good intentions are not enough for good government.

Restoring parliament to its rightful place as maker of laws and scrutiniser of executive power is important, but it is not enough. If Covid-19 is to be with us for years to come, we will need to rethink the use of national curfews and blanket restrictions in favour of more tailored measures. Coronavirus must be eradicated – but our liberties cannot remain in lockdown until it is.

Originally published in the Scottish Daily Mail. Letters: Image by Klaus Hausmann from Pixabay.

Boris and Sturgeon put Britain on the naughty step

Anyone fed up being treated by government like a tearaway caught scrumping apples without a face mask, look away now.

After weeks of being cajoled, then scolded, then threatened into doing as we were told, yesterday brought the punishment.

In a TV broadcast last night, Boris Johnson outlined harsher restrictions on free movement and assembly. In Scotland, he was followed by Nicola Sturgeon, who did the same thing but with a Saltire behind her.

Earlier at Holyrood, the SNP leader had insisted that these measures were ‘not a lockdown’. Rather, ‘they are carefully targeted at key sources of transmission’. Ronnie Biggs didn’t rob trains. He carefully targeted swag bags at key sources of locomotive loot.

First up, pubs would have to call last orders for ten o’clock every night, in line with the Prime Minister’s announcement for England.

If you missed it, we are back to the four-nations strategy again. Or, rather, the First Minister needs the cash to keep flowing from the Treasury if her lockdown rules are to remain in place.

The quarantine Nationalists dream of setting up at the Border applies to English people, not English money.

‘Now, people sometimes ask me why we don’t just close pubs again altogether,’ the First Minister mused, ‘and I understand that sentiment’. There speaks a woman who’s visited a Wetherspoons.

Restrictions in the home were more severe still, with a nationwide interdict on mingling with other households. The Lib Dems’ Mike Rumbles sputtered to life, railing that ‘for the state to say that people cannot meet their family at home but can meet in the pub is simply wrong’.

‘I suspect that he is much more of the libertarian view that we should let people live normally and let the virus take its course,’ the SNP leader replied, coldly.

‘This is outrageous!’ Rumbles roared.

The First Minister broke off in a rare moment of humility. ‘I apologise to Mike Rumbles. Perhaps I was a bit intemperate. I did not mean to offend him in that way. I hope that he will accept that. I was being generalist and I should not have been. I apologise to him for that.’

Most people wait a lifetime for an apology from Nicola Sturgeon. Rumbles got two in ten seconds. Later, as she swept from the chamber, she paused to apologise to him again, clutching her hand to her chest.

At least Rumbles put up some resistance; many of the other questions were head-nods given verbal form.

The First Minister essayed a sympathetic tone when addressing the yoof: ‘Let me say to teenagers, in particular, that I know how miserable this is for you and I am so grateful for your patience.’

They’re teenagers. They love being miserable. If you let them do whatever they wanted, they’d be miserable about not getting to feel miserable.

Further attempts at empathy didn’t go down much better. ‘We are all struggling with this – believe me, we are all struggling,’ she intoned. No doubt, but most of us aren’t doing our struggling in the historical townhouse of the fourth Marquess of Bute.

‘We cannot and must not be complacent about Covid,’ she pronounced. ‘It kills too many old and vulnerable people.’ Of course, there are some in her party who consider that sort of thing a ‘net gain’ in Yes-voters.

Sturgeon feels the need to mewl like this because Covid-19 has given her immense powers over everyone’s daily lives and she fears the public will sour on her if she doesn’t make a song and dance about how she’s doing it tough like the rest of us.

The ‘decisions that we all make as individuals’, we were told, would decide whether the new restrictions were effective. This the First Minister held up as proof that ‘we are not powerless against this virus’. That’s why pubs aren’t allowed to use the volume button on their TVs and we can’t give neighbours a lift to Tesco. Because we’ve got the virus right where we want it.

For all the infantilising of the public, it was Sturgeon and Johnson who looked small and helpless and, yes, a little scared last night. Mummy and Daddy haven’t the faintest clue what to do next and sooner or later the children are going to figure that out.

Originally published in the Scottish Daily Mail. Letters:  Feature images © UK Government by Creative Commons 2.0, flipped horizontally, and © Scottish Government by Creative Commons 2.0, flipped horizontally; collaged.

BBC should serve the nation, not the Nationalists

What a guddle BBC Scotland has got itself into. First, Auntie announced that it would no longer carry Nicola Sturgeon’s Covid-19 briefing live every day and instead base its coverage on ‘editorial merit’.

This was welcome news for opposition politicians, who had grown concerned about the Corporation giving a daily platform to the First Minister, ostensibly to update the public on coronavirus, but which she had repeatedly used to make political statements.

Of course, Nationalists were furious, but they get furious over flags on shortbread tins. However, their concerted backlash, including a petition with 55,000 signatures and relentless attacks on the BBC from a pro-government publication, paid off. On Thursday, Pacific Quay reverse-ferreted and confirmed it would continue the live broadcasts ‘over the coming weeks’.

BBC Scotland director Donalda MacKinnon wrote in an email to staff: ‘We’ve said now that we’ll look at the briefings in the round – meaning we’ll broadcast them live on TV when we are in a period of the pandemic when there is significant public information being shared, such as new measures being introduced and implemented, rising rates of cases, a three-weekly review update or other public information.’

If you hold that statement up to the light, it reads: ‘Please make it all go away.’

When the original decision was announced, I commented that it would end up satisfying no one. If I was the sort of person who is above saying ‘I told you so’, I wouldn’t bring it up. But I’m not. I told you so.

MacKinnon has succeeded only in enraging the Nationalists, who are already perpetually enraged at the BBC, by proposing first to remove and now to alter what they recognise as a valuable soapbox. She has also confirmed to the other side of politics that BBC Scotland is so terrified of upsetting the ruling party it has given its supporters an effective veto on editorial decisions.

In an attempt at compromise, MacKinnon says that ‘other voices and perspectives’ will now feature alongside the briefings. If you’ve ever wondered what Ruth Davidson thinks about the use of meta-analysis in epidemiological research, now is your chance to find out.

This silliness springs from a fundamental dishonesty. If the briefings are purely a means for communicating public health information in the middle of a pandemic, it is bizarre to ‘balance’ this by platforming Tory or Labour spokespeople. How do you balance social distancing guidance? Bring on someone to recommend getting canned up and inviting the neighbours round for a session?

It is because the BBC knows the First Minister is using her briefings to make party political points, even if it cannot admit it, that it must strive for impartiality by giving slots to other politicians to make their own points.

All this could have been avoided at several stages. For one, BBC Scotland should not have seen it as its duty to hand over an unspecified length of air time every day to the First Minister. Yes, we found ourselves under the cosh of a pandemic and it is right that the BBC provides up-to-date coverage, but the daily briefing set-up was trouble from the start.

Public health experts say the format helps important messages reach more people, but while the demands of public health are primary right now, they do not suspend other considerations.

Given the unprecedented impact on individual liberty of ministerial decisions; the political row around the former chief medical officer; and concerns about the provision of PPE, testing and the decision to transfer elderly patients to care homes, the proper place for the briefing was in parliament, where MSPs could question decisions.

The First Minister’s swipes at Boris Johnson and the Tories during these briefings should have prompted action sooner from BBC Scotland. The Corporation’s responsibilities to its charter and licence fee payers include ‘acting in the public interest, exercising independent judgment and neither seeking nor taking instructions from government ministers or any other person’. At the very least, MacKinnon has allowed the spirit of those obligations to be undermined.

Nor will her new policy be the end of the matter. In three-and-a-half months’ time, we enter the regulated period for the Holyrood election, which brings with it more stringent impartiality requirements for broadcasters. Who knows where we will be with Covid by then but giving the leader of the SNP a long daily slot will be politically unsustainable.

How did BBC Scotland end up here? The answer lies with the Nationalist campaign of intimidation and delegitimisation waged against it since the early days of devolution, intensified with the coming to power of the SNP and reaching fever pitch in the 2014 referendum.

The aim was to cow the BBC into tamer coverage of the Nationalists for fear it would lose the trust of half the population otherwise. Research since suggests that has happened anyway. Scexiteers see BBC Scotland as no less an enemy than Westminster or the British state.

That troubles Pacific Quay, but if it believes it can pander its away out of the problem, here is something else to trouble executives: I am beginning to hear mainstream pro-Union politicians talk about the Corporation in a way comparable to the SNP’s rhetoric. Supporters of the Union know what the BBC itself knows: it was entirely fair and balanced in its coverage in 2014. If anything, it pulled its punches in interrogating the Yes campaign’s flimsy and fanciful proposals and costings.

Instead of defending the integrity of its journalists and editorial processes, Pacific Quay seems to have decided to concede a false premise then try to overcorrect it. This can be seen not only in its handling of the Covid-19 briefing but in the tone and content of the BBC Scotland channel and some politically questionable output from BBC: The Social. 

Appeasement has not inspired any greater warmth from separatists, and now the broadcaster is at risk of alienating the opposite camp. They look at the BBC falling over itself to please the sorts of people who descended on its headquarters in angry mobs and first shake their heads, then start to get ideas. If it worked for them…

The BBC is one of our great institutions and is deservedly a source of pride for millions of Britons, but it is losing its way north of the Border. BBC Scotland has forgotten a simple truth: it is the nation’s broadcaster, not the Nationalists’. 


Angus Robertson used to be the Westminster SNP leader until he lost his seat to the current Scottish Tory leader. Now he’s trying to get into Holyrood by winning the seat currently held by the previous Scottish Tory leader.

He’s undoubtedly a man of ability and would fill the Mike Russell-shaped hole opening up on the SNP benches.

Which is why his musings on the mortality of No voters is such a grievous lapse of judgment. Robertson noted ‘the underlying change in the electorate’, with more young Yes voters and ‘55,000 predominantly No supporting older voters passing away every year’. This was ‘a likely net gain’ of more than 100,000 Yes backers.

For one thing, members of the party that has presided over the highest rate of Covid care home deaths in the UK should probably avoid this subject entirely. More to the point, the deaths of elderly people are no kind of gain at all. This sort of crass cynicism is why normal people hate politics.


An email from Scottish Labour arrived in my inbox yesterday. Subject line: ‘SNP must show they have learnt lessons’. It was about preparedness for a second lockdown but it struck me that those seven words sum up Scottish politics. The SNP keeps failing and the opposition keeps failing to attach a political price to that failure.

Originally published in the Scottish Daily Mail. Letters: Feature image © Batchelor at English Wikipedia by Creative Commons 3.0.