Challenging Coronavirus Chauvinism
If decisions are better made in Scotland, then why aren’t better decisions made in Scotland?
The George Orwell essay which this newsletter is named after makes the following observation:
“Every nationalist is haunted by the belief that the past can be altered.”
Ever since it became clear that the SNP Government made serious mistakes in dealing with Coronavirus, we have seen repeated attempts to rewrite recent history. We are told that Scotland would have handled the coronavirus outbreak better as an independent country, that ‘we’ would have made different decisions from ‘them’.
As per the last edition of this newsletter, the claim that the most international of problems really required a nationalist solution is so daft it could just be laughed off. But I think this one is so outrageous it deserves a longer rebuttal.
In what follows, there are some important arguments I’m going ignore. For example, it was, and is, Nicola Sturgeon’s policy that an independent Scotland would operate under sterlingisation (posh for using the pound without a central bank). So, outside the UK we would not have been able to pursue the billions of pounds of Quantitative Easing (posh for printing money) that has allowed the UK state to pay the wages of millions of workers while the economy is locked down. I’ll also leave aside what the impact on NHS preparedness might have been from giving up £10billion for public services - equivalent to the entire Scottish hospital budget - our share of the money redistributed around the UK from the South East.
We’ll park those points for now because I want to focus on the attempt to create a nationalist mythology around coronavirus.
As I’ve touched on before, core to Scottish nationalism is the idea that what matters in policy making is the Scottishness of a decision rather than its soundness. If you doubt that, read the Herald story this week where it was discovered through Freedom of Information that, while the pandemic was burning through our vulnerable people, the SNP were worried whether their response felt Scottish enough. Or just read the First Minister’s missive to every household.
There is a complacent exceptionalism that chokes Scottish politics. In normal times criticisms of the failures of the nationalist government are attacked as criticism of the nation, rather than a necessary and essential part of democracy.
The SNP have always argued that successful delivery by a devolved government was the way to create confidence in an independent government. If that is true, then so is the inverse: the failures of the SNP government undermine the case for independence. Voters will ask: if decisions are better made in Scotland, then why aren’t better decisions made in Scotland?
I start with this because it is why the SNP would rather enjoy self-congratulation over imaginary successes than engage in self-criticism over their many failings. The problem is that during a disaster like the one we are living through, their failure can’t be deflected as easily. The chauvinism of Scottish nationalism makes it impossible to concede that the fault could lie in us, with our leaders. So expect more claims that it was the union that was really to blame for the suffering that has accompanied the pandemic as the Scottish Parliament election approaches.
The UK’s management of Coronavirus has been woeful, but any honest reading of the record shows this is a disaster as much made in Bute House as in 10 Downing Street.
Being clear about this matters, because while frontline workers are interviewed by the police over deaths in care homes, the politicians who seeded those homes with infected patients have yet to be held accountable. It is also important interrupt the SNP’s myth making because having failed with the disease the SNP are now failing with the cure, lagging far behind the rest of the UK on vaccinations.
Below are a series of short video clips on the key coronavirus decisions, many of them now viewed as mistakes. All the way through, the SNP made the same choices that Boris Johnson did, while other neighbouring governments opted for more cautious strategies.
For starters, remember the 3rd of March when Boris Johnson was condemned for telling people it was ok to keep shaking hands? The only difference that day with the message from the SNP Health Minister was her accent – though as discussed, for some that’s what matters. For contrast, I’ve included the French Health Minister’s advice earlier that same day. To close this video, I’ve included the Scottish Government’s advice on hand shaking a full 11 days (!) after Boris Johnson’s perceived hand-shake gaffe.
Next let’s look at the advice on contact with older people. Compare the message from President Macron saying older French citizens should avoid contact with others, or the Irish Taoiseach’s warnings, with the ‘hug your granny” message from the Scottish Government.
Probably the biggest scandal in the handling of the virus was the decision to send infected patients into enclosed environments full of the most vulnerable people. Compare the UK and Scottish approaches with the approach to testing by New Zealand’s Jacinda Ardern.
Another key decision was around closing schools earlier. Both Scottish and UK governments chose to keep them open while surrounding countries told children to stay at home. Compare the position of the French President and Irish Taoiseach in the same 24 hour period.
Another area where Johnson’s Government were criticised was in allowing the Cheltenham Festival and other mass gatherings to go ahead once the virus had begun to spread. As the clips below show, the SNP government chose to allow mass sporting events to continue in Scotland in the same period. Compare with the approach taken in Ireland.
If, after watching that you doubt that herd immunity was the SNP Government’s policy early in the outbreak, here is the National Clinical Director could not have been clearer on the 10th March:
“you want to gradually increase the number of people over a very controlled period so that we get herd immunity in the community”
The issue here goes deeper than individual judgement calls, both governments shared the same underlying philosophy in dealing with the virus. Compare their herd immunity approach to Jacinda Ardern’s repudiation of the strategy of letting people get the virus.
A persistent fiction cultivated by the SNP is that they wanted an earlier lockdown but were prevented from doing so. The reality is that while countries around us were locking down, every single day the Scottish Government were arguing against locking down.
The point here is not to criticise the public health officials in these videos. They are public servants struggling to deal with a terrible disease. They do not make these decisions, the Ministers they are communicating on behalf did. Many of these decisions may have been the best decision on the basis of the information they had at the time, but the point of all of is they *were* decisions made by Scottish Ministers. Other choices were available, they weren’t chosen.
A government shouldn’t get points for empathising more effectively with those who have suffered as a result of their errors.
For nationalists to reach for the tired blame-England deflections rather than taking responsibility for what went wrong then, and what is going wrong now, is distasteful and dangerous. It is perhaps the worst example of what is wrong with a politics dominated by people for whom there is only ever one question and one answer.
With more than seven thousand Scots dead, instead of asking ‘wha's like us?’ surely, just once in Scottish politics, the question should be ‘what went wrong?’
I’ll share the videos here on twitter over the next few days in case you want to use them yourself.
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