Throw the extremists red meat (and turn a blind eye to prejudice)
IT’s easy to forget in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic that an election campaign is under way.
Indeed it’s been in full swing throughout the attritional months of lockdown – and it’s about to intensify.
Every so often, there’s a reminder of what’s at stake, as we saw on Sunday with Nicola Sturgeon’s threat to quarantine English tourists.
The subtext of her argument is that we’ve more or less beaten the virus into submission, while the Tories are still struggling to contain it.
She can’t rule out imposing quarantine for visitors from England who may be unwitting carriers of the lurgy as they cross the Border.
This is nothing to do with politics, Miss Sturgeon insists, and it’s not a course of action she will definitely take: it’s only one that she might.
But the problem is that even if she doesn’t see it as a dog whistle, elements of her support base do, and have taken it upon themselves to mount a Border patrol.
Sinister images of activists on a bridge over the M74 near Ecclefechan, Dumfriesshire, waving black Saltires, show how some have taken Miss Sturgeon’s rhetoric to heart.
When the First Minister was asked about the idea of quarantine for English visitors by Andrew Marr on Sunday, she again said she couldn’t rule it out, but claimed it wasn’t politically driven.
Despite having stressed previously that those self-appointed Border commissars did not ‘speak for her’, she knew her words would reignite the row – and might provide a morale boost for the bigoted amateur virologists who believe they are acting in her name.
But then Miss Sturgeon’s claim not to be politically motivated is about as credible as George Bush’s infamous pledge: ‘Read my lips: no new taxes.’
Her determination to beat the virus isn’t in question, even if her claim that it’s five times more prevalent in England appears to be built on shaky foundations.
Indeed the battle against coronavirus is now being framed through official channels in terms of Scottishness, as if nationality were a significant factor in keeping the virus at bay.
The Scottish Government’s Twitter feed urges that ‘moving forward means working together and sticking with it, for yourselves and each other’, with the hashtag ‘WeAreScotland’.
The tweet links to a video showing images of a child painting a rainbow on the inside of a window, while a voiceover with an appropriately Scottish brogue intones various platitudes which are rhymed, in the style of William McGonagall.
One couplet promises that: ‘A brighter future is in sight/If we do this right’, adding for good measure: ‘We’ll stick to it with all our might.’
We are told to ‘stick with it, Scotland, for ourselves and each other’. Well, so much for a ‘four nations’ approach to lifting lockdown.
The message is clear: We are Scotland, we’ve beaten the bug, just about, and we’ve done it a distinctively Scottish way that shows how we’d thrive as an independent nation.
It’s a proposition that overlooks some inconvenient facts: the care homes disaster, shambolic testing and chaotic plans for the resumption of state education are among them.
Nationalists are keen to portray the pandemic as the soundest of reasons for dismantling the Union, pointing to Miss Sturgeon’s presentational prowess, in stark contrast to Boris Johnson’s faltering performance.
But many of the Prime Minister’s most vocal critics among the pro-independence ranks would have been out of a job months ago without the UK Government’s stratospherically expensive furlough scheme.
And the idea that in a debt-laden independent Scotland a furlough scheme on the same scale would have been even a remote possibility is a clearly a pipe-dream.
So if we do want to draw any constitutional lessons from this still-unfolding public health emergency, the most important one is that pooling resources in a time of crisis is crucial.
And without the Union, and the millions flowing into our coffers in the form of ‘Barnett consequentials’, there wouldn’t be enough cash for those portentous promotional videos emphasising the importance of Scottishness in warding off coronavirus.
(Border protests: activists gather to keep ‘the English’ out)
Nor would there have been any cash for the costly vanity projects such as baby boxes, which in pre-coronavirus times were wheeled out roughly every ten seconds as one of the SNP’s key achievements in office.
As for Miss Sturgeon’s credentials as a communicator, her style at the gruelling daily coronavirus briefings suggests a growing irascibility – a politician who has run out of patience with pesky journalists asking uncomfortable questions.
They are also part of the election strategy the SNP is pursuing, providing a kind of presidential platform for the First Minister to make party political capital even as she updates us on the latest virus stats.
Having her economic adviser Benny Higgins on hand last month allowed her to set out her stall for the creation of something called a ‘well-being economy’ as part of our recovery from Covid-19.
While repairing profound economic damage wrought by the virus should be a priority, it’s not clear that the briefings are the best forum for unveiling these aspirational plans, as vague as they were.
The lines have been blurred between pandemic management and party political point-scoring.
Mr Johnson has set the bar low when it comes to presentation, and the Dominic Cummings fiasco was a mistake – though the latest polls suggest any electoral damage has been limited.
Even so, it’s possible to accept that Miss Sturgeon has made a better fist of what her squad of highly-paid public relations executives might call ‘the optics’, while also acknowledging that she hasn’t missed an opportunity to advance her Nationalist agenda.
The consensus among the separatist commentariat is that Miss Sturgeon’s approval ratings are high, and support for independence has risen, because ministers have switched their strategy away from telling to showing.
Don’t tell people how wonderful an independent Scotland would be, demonstrate it through your actions.
But those trivial matters such as what currency we’d use after the break-up of the UK haven’t gone away.
The pandemic means ministers haven’t even had to dodge those questions, because they weren’t being asked.
And in any event, those who lost loved ones in care homes, or parents of children who have missed out on months of schooling, might not agree with the claim that ‘the show, don’t tell’ tactic has gone quite so swimmingly.
What they have shown us is how to destroy the morale of an army of parents abandoned to home-schooling without the requisite hardware or backup from councils or government quangos.
And they’ve show us how to preside over the worst public health scandal of modern times as hundreds of vulnerable elderly people were condemned to die in disease-ridden care homes.
But most of all they’ve shown how to throw red meat to their increasingly crazed core supporters as they assemble on motorway bridges, masked and bearing Saltires.
The core reason the SNP’s cause will ultimately fail, despite its poll bounce, is that every so often the ugliness at its heart seeps out into the open.
And its goal will remain out of reach for as long as the party’s leadership turns a blind eye to prejudice that has been allowed to fester for too long.
*This column appeared in the Scottish Daily Mail on July 14, 2020.