When does a public health crisis become a constitutional emergency?
In the case of Scotland, when there’s clear evidence that continued exposure to a system of external rule is detrimental to human life.
A year on from the start of the Covid crisis, the costs of Scotland’s continual failure to observe safe political distancing from Westminster is now tragically clear.
With now over 6500 registered Covid deaths in Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon’s decisions to follow most of the UK’s lamentable agenda has proven to be deeply mistaken.
Primary culpability, of course, rests with Boris Johnson. It’s staggering that someone who has led an advanced, wealthy state with the highest Covid death rate on the planet can still be sitting in office.
Yet, it’s only the scale and spectacle of Johnson’s criminal negligence that’s provided relative political cover for Sturgeon’s own ‘superior’ performance.
Sturgeon appears ascendant in the public mind over her hands-on management of the virus. But the essence of that approval lies in general perceptions of her more engaged presentation than actual delivery of serious alternatives.
We’ve seen this over her government’s early abandonment of test, trace and isolate (12 March 2020), its care home negligence, failure to control borders, and absence of quarantine measures, all in line with failed UK policies.
More effective lockdown, and belated test and trace measures have had some mitigating effects.
Yet while Scotland’s Covid death rate has not exceeded that of England, most notably the main English cities, it has still, most particularly in the second wave, tracked fairly close to it.
Sturgeon’s latest decision to go beyond Johnson’s curbs on international travel is laudable. But there’s no easy flight from the bigger truth that both the UK and Scottish Governments have both been standing vacantly at the same open international gate, a year too late in imposing full and comprehensive restrictions.
In what could have been deduced by primary infants doing their home schooling, a major study has now confirmed the obvious consequences of the UK’s open door policy since early last year:
There’s also overwhelming evidence that the main source of the second wave infections came through UK-approved summer travel to and from Spain, Greece, France and other European countries. At a point close to effective elimination of the virus in Scotland, yet warned of the consequences of opening up travel, why didn’t the Scottish Government act even at this stage to close its airports and borders?
Preliminary findings on the possible inefficiency of the Oxford vaccine in protecting against the South African variant now only increases the urgency of such measures.
Nor are Sturgeon’s public sector commitments convincingly evident here. While pledging to defend the NHS and avoid Johnson’s crony handouts to corporate friends, the Scottish Government has just handed a non-tendered £2 million contract to private-sector giant KPMG for ‘vaccine advisory services’.
And so it’s been since the start of the crisis: Sturgeon, in risk-averse mode, following much the same, ‘safe’ default line as Westminster.
If the benchmark for successful public health interventions is New Zealand, a society almost free of Covid fatalities and largely back to normal, Sturgeon’s actual record and readiness to act looks like a feeble, far-off failure.
A constitutional as well as public health emergency
Sturgeon’s aversion to taking bolder public health action in fear of political fallouts is mirrored in her consistent refusal – despite multiple mandates and the ‘significant and meaningful change’ for Scotland of Brexit – to make the decisive push for independence. This despite increasingly clear public support to do so.
While the Tories still enjoy a coherent lead over Starmer – his ‘New Variant Blairism’ unable to put even a dent in a government responsible for such human carnage – Johnson and his ilk are widely reviled in Scotland. Poll numbers show those in Scotland desiring an end to Johnson, Tory rule and the Union itself are now consistently over 50 percent.
And with this comes the increasingly vital question: when will Nicola Sturgeon finally do what’s needed to deliver that ‘protective political vaccine’ against dangerous Westminster rule?
The Covid crisis may have taken obvious precedence here. But it has also allowed Sturgeon to keep the independence issue safely parked.
Seemingly careful to avoid entry into any ‘local’ political fray, leading (independent) adviser to the Scottish Government Professor Devi Sridhar has nonetheless stated that Scotland would have done considerably better with the Covid crisis under independence.
But that’s not just a retrospective truth. It’s a present and pressing reality.
Sridhar fairly praises Sturgeon for having a more caring, dedicated approach to the pandemic, and, more latterly, for seeing – as Sridhar has consistently advocated – the need for an actual elimination strategy.
Besides invaluable track-records on how to confront a public health crisis, Sridhar and others around her have also brought commendable, compassionate positivity in helping people through it.
And we should view the pandemic challenges facing Sturgeon in similar human vein. Who would truly want that task?
But that doesn’t mean overlooking her administration’s actual record. The same rational examination of Johnson’s government must also be applied to Sturgeon’s.
Yet, if seemingly reticent in seeing Sturgeon’s own policy mistakes, Sridhar’s key point still stands: that small independent countries like Norway and Denmark have done considerably better in confronting the pandemic.
So, even aside from the main political reasons, why isn’t the actual need for independence being pushed by Sturgeon as an urgent public health issue?
There’s a perverse paradox here. As national leader, Sturgeon has been at pains not to be seen ‘politicising’ a public health crisis in order to give it her most urgent, caring attention.Yet, if independence offers better instruments and prospects for dealing with that public health crisis – namely, saving lives – then she has an absolute duty to politicise it by giving it that most urgent, caring attention.
This is not the moment for political posturing or preening political profiles. It’s a time for advancing every possible means of tackling a present and ongoing threat to people and society.
Johnson’s recent trip to Scotland, in blatant violation of Covid rules, shows that the establishment is once again mobilising for its own political emergency: to save the Union.
Again, if only he had been so readily deployed to set about protecting the 113,000 and rising lives now so needlessly sacrificed.
We must still hope for a day of reckoning for his reckless coterie and all the neoliberal, ‘take it on the chin’ hubris that allowed such a human catastrophe to unfold.
Yet how convenient for a lame SNP leadership to use his buffoonery and negligence over Covid as cover for its own failings.
How easy for Sturgeon to be lauded over this blustering Etonian. How impressive, it seems, for SNP Westminster leader Ian Blackford to keep insisting that Johnson ‘must respect democracy’ and grant a section 30 order. How ‘noble’ they all sound in fostering notions of the SNP as the ‘protective voice of Scotland’.
Yet, on examination, how empty all those words are. What practical use of a party so rhetorically voluble from the green benches of Westminster, yet so lacking in decisive delivery at Holyrood?
A little less condemnation, a little more action, one might say.
The SNP has formed a Westminster bubble
Much was made of Joanna Cherry’s removal from the SNP’s Westminster front bench, with many party and Yes figures expressing outrage over the sacking of someone so reputedly talented. Cherry made her own feelings clear in denouncing the decision.
But it’s her follow-on tweet, less well covered by the media, that carried the more uncomfortable truth:
Westminster is increasingly irrelevant to Scotland’s constitutional future and @theSNP would do well to radically re-think our strategy.
Here, Cherry has gone even more dangerously off-message in questioning the very purpose of her party’s residence in a place where it holds no effective power or ability to advance independence.
Of course, Cherry herself might have been rather more forthcoming on that view prior to her demotion.
But her awkward observation does cast critical light on the SNP’s party-first interests and posturing priorities.
With its access to ‘Short Money’, parliamentary committees and other privileged remunerations, the SNP are not about to pass-up the ‘coveted status’ of official opposition.
Consider just some of their pretensions to ‘high office’:
Shadow Foreign Secretary – Alyn Smith
Shadow Defence Secretary – Stewart McDonald
Shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury – Peter Grant
Shadow Culture, Media and Sport Secretary – John Nicolson
Shadow Home Secretary – Stuart McDonald
Shadow Justice & Immigration Secretary – Anne McLaughlin
Shadow Scotland Secretary – Mhairi Black
Shadow Northern Ireland/Wales Secretary – Richard Thomson
Shadow Attorney General – Angela Crawley
Shadow Leader of the House – Peter Wishart
Shadow Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and Minister for the Cabinet Office – Stewart Hosie
Why does the main party of independence for Scotland need
a ‘Shadow Scotland Secretary’?
What UK militarist, Nato and Cold War interests is Stewart McDonald serving as ‘Shadow Defence Secretary’?
How quaintly part of the establishment fold now is Pete Wishart as ‘Shadow Leader of the House’?
And what pompous prestige does Stewart Hosie enjoy as Shadow Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster?
What a collective shadow they, indeed, cast – over their supposed roles as advocates for independence.
As many ‘common’ street voices for Indy now ask, just how does such patronage, occupancy and posturing titles assist the primary task of constitutional change this party was supposedly founded to deliver?
Purging the discontents
But questioning the SNP’s cosy Westminster tenure is only part of a now much deeper disenchantment.
Sturgeon’s decision to move against Cherry shows that she and her cabal are now ready to purge any dissent. Blackford’s ‘reshuffle’ also saw the exclusion of Kenny MacAskill and Angus MacNeil, like Cherry, both allies of Salmond and critics of Sturgeon’s performance on independence.
It’s a desperate attempt to halt a leading challenger and contain the three-fronted threats to Sturgeon’s authority which Cherry now so openly represents: her hostility over the SNP’s gender reform policy; her support for, and help in exposing the fitting-up of, Alex Salmond; and her close alignment with a brooding Yes movement over Sturgeon’s failure to progress independence.
Sturgeon is now on the back-foot on all three counts, deploying her inner guard in a toxic fight for survival. Again, much of this is being conveniently hidden by the daily Covid crisis.
Meanwhile, her acolytes attack and ridicule all those ‘malcontents’ for ‘feeding division’ and failing to get behind the party. But they attach no such blame to the party itself in creating such discord.
There’s no recognition that the leadership is responsible for allowing this war over gender to commence, fester and explode. It’s the leadership and its calculating aides that moved, with disastrous results, to purge and persecute Salmond. And, after five years of mandates and promises, it’s the same leadership directly responsible for the failure to advance independence
If the leadership thought that there wouldn’t be respondent rancour and division on all these counts, what does this say about the actual competence, never mind motives, of such leadership?
Reality of divisions, exposure of abuse and entitlement
With a major element of the party and invigorated Yes movement now pushing to make the May election an effective independence referendum, the stakes couldn’t be higher for Sturgeon and her circle.
Nor has her faux ’11-point Plan for independence’, produced in seeming haste to fend-off discontent, quelled the rebellious mood.
Unionists and an establishment media will, of course, play such divisions to obvious effect. But, as yet another impressive poll shows, there’s little reason to suggest that the fallout will adversely affect actual popular demand for independence.
It’s uselessly dishonest to pretend that such divisions don’t exist or can be easily repaired. Indeed, any real politics of change will throw up major conflicting views and positions.
This is not actually unhealthy. What’s really unhealthy is a leader and careerist select trying to enforce its rigid ‘discipline’, protect its own back, cover its deepening corruption, and pour scorn on anyone threatening to withhold yet another ‘vital’ mandate.
Whatever conflicts and schisms in plain view of the electorate, it’s safe to say that it still comprehends the more fundamental case for independence. And the pandemic has been vital in focusing minds on the urgent benefits of escaping the Union.
Sturgeon will no doubt lay claim to that shift. Fine. Let her take such (undeserved) ‘credit’. But, in doing so, she must also accept large responsibility for all those Westminster-shadowed policies.
Like the failings of her administration over Covid, none of this can now be hidden or conjured away.
A party and administration for so long now luxuriating in high office, safely complacent in its own sense of entitlement, is now seeing all that laid bare, its authority stripped away.
The deeper truth is that the SNP has now become ensconced in the same entitled way as Old Scottish Labour, and policy-shaped in the same neoliberal centrist ways as New Blairite Labour.
This is a party that’s been crafting centralised forms of control, where “the focus is on maintaining the power of the Leader and her supporters, as opposed to the primary aim of the constitution – independence.”
From Westminster to Holyrood, the SNP has become a ruling establishment rather than a vehicle for meaningful social change.
To “cover its failures” after 14 years in power, it “has opted instead for government by announcement and a series of applause breaks.”
And, most damningly, it’s a hierarchy that has had to be dragged kicking and screaming to the independence task – an elite that cannot even bring itself to partake in an actual indy rally.
Shamefully, with all the resources at its disposal, the SNP hasn’t even sought to test the legal case for holding a referendum, the job left to a crowd-funding campaign and still being pursued through the courts by activist Martin Keatings.
Yes resolve and unity of purpose
Such resilience shows that, whatever the multiple failings and self-inflicted war now raging within this party, a strong unity of purpose still prevails across the wider Yes movement.
The momentum for independence is plainly evident, as is the refusal to accept either the UK state’s dogged refusal to grant it, or Sturgeon’s apologetic excuses for not pursuing it.
Constitutional change is the immediate goal. But the work of radical independence goes on simultaneously. And that has to be driven by a serious class politics rather than the contrived identity politics that has so invaded this administration and constrained real progressive change.
The SNP is now, more than ever, a means to an eventual end. The point is to use it accordingly and then let it seek its own better function or retirement.
The more immediate viability of the SNP as a coherent political body now depends on its readiness to make this coming election the real moment for independence.
Not permission for independence, not even a demand for independence, but an actual declaration of independence.
And the critical pandemic situation we now face should be used as a decisive means of driving-up consensual public support for it.
Rather than Sturgeon’s ad hoc interventions and comforting words, rather than passive acceptance of more alien rule and human loss, this is the moment to raise collective awareness that this public health crisis is a political issue requiring an expedited constitutional solution.
With the staggering level of daily UK fatalities has come a seeming ‘normalisation’ of death rates. As Dr Rachel Clarke so pointedly asks:
“When did we become so inured to mass casualties, so blasé? These are mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers. Loved and treasured human beings. Please don’t accept it. Please fight for better.”
Here in Scotland, and in service to others elsewhere, what more urgent, non-accepting and fighting response to that plea than to seize the independent means of m
aking it better?
The tragedy of so many of our lost and loved souls, with worryingly more to come, is reason enough to make that emergency call. Now.