There is a dangerous virus spreading in Scotland. Yes, coronavirus infection rates are much lower there than to the south of the border in England — but this other virus will indeed be far more harmful to the health of the United Kingdom should London fail to act quickly and decisively in the coming months. The mood for independence is festering once more in Scotland — and coronavirus itself has helped spread that dangerous pestilence.
As things stand now, Scotland is on the verge of eliminating coronavirus. In England, the government there is still focused on containing its spread. In Edinburgh, the government has laid out clear, concise and decisive measures that have boosted the standing of First Minister Nicola Sturgeon and her Scottish Nationalist Party. In London, the government of Prime Minister Boris Johnson has been slow to act, sent out mixed messages, been inconsistent in its policies and generally lost the goodwill of many in England — with the PM’s close adviser Dominic Cummings doing more single-handedly to undermine the fight against coronavirus.
Is it any wonder then that come next May when Scottish voters head to the polls to elect a new parliament at Holyrood, Sturgeon and the SNP look set to win a substantial majority?
By then too, the full effects of coronavirus — second wave or not — will be clear for the entire UK. And so too will the full effects of leaving the European Union, the end of the transition deal and the effects of a deal or no deal Brexit trade agreement.
Sturgeon and her party will have one goal when they take power again — she is limited this time around by being two short of a majority in the 129-seat Scottish parliament — a second independence referendum. The last one was held in September 2014 and Scots voted against their own way by a majority of 55.3 to 44.7 per cent. That result was supposed to put the independence genie back in the bottle for a generation — but a lot has changed since then.
How the Scots voted
Brexit, where Scots voted overwhelmingly in favour of staying in the EU by a 62 to 38 per cent majority.
And last December, while Johnson was riding a crest of popularity south of the border to a majority of 80 seats at Westminster on a pledge to get Brexit done, his Conservative party lost seven of the 13 seats they held in Scotland, taking just six of the 59 seats north of the border. Sturgeon’s SNP romped to a landslide, with 48 Members of Parliament — leaving the First Minister crowing that her nation had rejected Johnson, the Tories, reaffirmed its support for remaining in the EU and made the need for a second independence vote all the more pressing.
For his part, Johnson has consistently said that the results of the 2014 sovereignty vote should stand for a generation and he won’t be signing off anytime soon on authorising a second referendum. That in itself is adding fuel to the Scottish independence fire — even without coronavirus or Brexit added to the combustible mix. Former British PM David Cameron may have been prepared to gamble with the future of the union in 2014. He won on that occasion, but his EU Brexit referendum blew up in his face. Johnson, for all of his bluster and self-anointment as the Minister for the Union, knows only too well that plebiscites empower plebs — even Scottish ones.
Under the UK’s laws that created separate regional parliaments for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, healthcare is the responsibility of devolved governments. The cynics might say that at the time the plan to put health responsibilities in the regions meant that politicians there would have to take the heat for any budget cuts that were imposed by the Treasury in Whitehall. A cunning plan — but one as with a lot of other plans and agendas came undone by the advent of coronavirus to the UK in early March.
Make no mistake, Scotland didn’t do everything right — the rate of deaths in care homes north of the border was disproportionately higher there — but Johnson and his government are seen to have done so much more wrong.
When a top public health official in Scotland broke lockdown rules and visited her holiday home, she promptly resigned. In England, when Cummings was caught visiting his parent’s home more than 900-kilometre round trip from London, he refused to apologise — never mind resign — and instead berated those who questioned him in an extraordinary display of arrogance from the Rose Garden of 10 Downing Street.
Sturgeon’s officials have kept a tight rein on infections, kept schools closed, maintained restrictions on movements for longer, and have made the use of face masks mandatory. At one stage in late May and early June, as Johnson rushed to open up the economy and get people back to work, there was the very real prospect of Scotland closing its border to anyone travelling up from England. The modern-day Hadrian’s Wall would have kept the English out while maintaining the safety and health of the Scots.
What the opinion polls say
Sturgeon was quick too to follow the advice of a separate scientific panel assembled in Scotland to weigh and amend the public health advice coming from Johnson’s scientific and health advisers in London.
Her health officials were quicker too to rollout more widespread testing and, instead of waiting for UK health officials to develop, approve and rollout a contact-tracing app, Scots relied on tried and tested paper systems to get a grip on who might have infected them.
The latest opinion polls in Scotland show support for independence now at 55 per cent. It’s small wonder then that when Johnson last week made a rare trip north of the border, he didn’t make a courtesy call into Holyrood to meet Sturgeon. It had nothing to do with maintaining social distancing — but everything to do with not having to answer serious questions about Scotland’s future place in the union. That’s a topic that’s simply too hot for the Minister of the Union to answer right now.