Sturgeon’s grandstanding in the pandemic: it’s what she does

Sturgeon’s grandstanding in the pandemic: it’s what she does

by Tom Gallagher
article from Monday 6, April, 2020

SCOTLAND’S FIRST MINISTER is a boundless talker.  Unfortunately for her there is only one inflection – boundless self-assertion. For five years she has used bluster and invective as the facts about how appallingly her administration performs on different policy fronts become harder to dodge. The quasi-independence that her devolved regime enjoys is all that matters and has to be asserted at every turn.

The Coronavirus has only exemplified what many, not all outside her own party, would see as megalomania. Remarkably, there has been no cessation of normal hostilities such as that seen in wartime when Clement Attlee was in charge of Labour or, much later, during the Falklands crisis when Michael Foot had that role.

Instead, Sturgeon has emphasised a Scottish response to the crisis even though her government lacks the able people, know-how, resources or energy to do more than implement what is being rolled-out in England. Its ineffectiveness is highlighted by the Edinburgh Childrens’ Hospital which was built on her watch but lies empty because design faults mean it is too dangerous to receive patients.  

Against the background of a growing fracture in the SNP, Sturgeon is seeking to carve out a role as the central, indispensable figure in the crisis. Regular press conferences, in which little that is original or purposeful in terms of holding back the pandemic emerge, direct the essential limelight towards her. There is none of the delegation that is a feature of the broader UK response. The Chief Medical Officer, Dr Catherine Calderwood, a gynecologist, is widely seen as the cipher of her omni-competent political boss. She was banished to the sidelines (but not sacked) after it was revealed on 4 April that she was flouting her own social distancing advice to the public by visiting her holiday home in Fife on two consecutive weekends. Only belatedly was her second offer of resignation accepted by the First Minister.

Nor does the Scottish press corps interrogate her closely which is the norm at the daily press briefings in London. The failure of journalists to grill her on the gimmicky Scottish embroidery she attaches to the local response is not that surprising because too many apply a faux Scottishness to their own news gathering work.

Her decision to set up a Scottish Council of Medical Experts was accepted as normal. More probing hacks might have seen it as a ploy to conjure up a professional body which could be used to diverge from, or criticise, UK crisis management if this fell down in various ways. Similarly, she added a spurious Scottish gloss to a central decision to set up military field hospitals across the UK. It was quickly announced the one in Glasgow would be named after an obscure Scottish nurse, Louise Jordan who had succumbed to infection while nursing in World War 1 Serbia. When a nurse in the Mayhill district of Glasgow, where Jordan had been born, asked the local SNP MSP Bob Doris if he had heard of her before the announcement, she was promptly blocked by the politician.

Sturgeon is careful never to acknowledge the increasingly critical role that the British Army is playing in this crisis. When justice minister Humza Yousaf was asked whether he would request the help of the army to watch over prisoners due to staffing difficulties, he immediately rejected the idea out of hand.  Not by one iota has this crisis reduced the appetite of ruling nationalists to distance themselves from British institutions. The name of the game remains ‘othering’ Britain and especially England.

The emergency has also activated the SNP desire to use events, planned or unforeseen, to mount a power grab. But even some of those hardened to SNP methods were left astonished when Yousaf announced on 31 March that a package of emergency legislation would include abolishing trial by jury in Scotland for the duration of the crisis. The UK had already introduced a set of emergency measures and the only distinctive feature of the Scottish follow-up was its highly restrictive nature.  Adam Tomkins MSP immediately criticised the measure and was soon followed by the Faculty of Advocates which branded it ‘draconian.’ It was hard to find a judge in favour other than Lord Carloway, Scotland’s most senior judicial figure (seen as unsurprising given partiality towards the nationalist world view shown since his elevation in 2015).   

The outcry was immense but the proposal was only ditched when it became clear that it lacked complete support on the government benches.  Joanne Cherry MP, a notable thorn in Sturgeon’s side had warned: ‘the right to a jury trial & the rule against hearsay with only the strictest exceptions are cornerstones of our criminal law. They should be guarded jealously & I am sure MSP colleagues will want to consider these proposals very, very carefully.’ @joannaccherry

Sturgeon and Yousaf were seemingly oblivious to the fact that trials subject to these rules could later have been subject to appeal on the grounds of procedural fairness, at great cost to the taxpayer.

There was, however, unanimous SNP backing for the decision before the Holyrood parliament to neuter Freedom of Information (FoI) legislation which required applicants to see official documents within a set time period.  This legislation has long been loathed by the SNP because it acts as a curb on its power-hoarding and secretive ways. Sturgeon and other key figures have taken to communicating with officials outside the customary channels to foil transparency. Now the Covid-19 crisis proved a deliverance: the deadline for public agencies to respond to FoI requests from citizens was extended from 20 to 60 working days.

The Scottish Government was already being evasive in its release of information. It refused to reveal how many prisoners could be freed under its emergency release policy. Now, thanks, to the casting vote of the parliamentary presiding officer, it would be far harder to obtain a clear picture of Sturgeon’s handling of the pandemic.

It is perhaps no surprise that combative SNP figures like Ian Blackford MP have been to the fore in demanding that areas like the Highlands be placed in lockdown so as to prevent second homeowners from occupying their properties during the pandemic.  For a party with such a territorial outlook, wealthy incomers are often viewed with suspicion in normal times. But the news that Dr Calderwood had been spotted at her holiday home on the Fife coast, where she spent the night with family members despite having explicitly urged people to stay at home except where absolutely necessary, exposed double standards. Critics of the SNP concluded that emergency laws were not meant to deter privileged insiders and Sturgeon had refused to accept her resignation despite her unprofessional behaviour. If she had, then she might have given into pressure to place the handling of the medical response in the hands of Chris Whitty, the respected chief medical officer for the rest of the UK.   

Meanwhile, lacking friends at court, the small and medium business sector found itself a looming casualty of Sturgeon’s emergency measures.  The former trade minister under Tony Blair, Brian Wilson claimed on 4 April that the SNP administration was refusing to pass on the same levels of support for business as announced for the rest of the UK.  Fiona Hyslop, the economy minister, had announced on 18 March that ‘we will replicate the package of measures’ announced by Chancellor Rishi Sunak. But her government is making only one payment of £25,000 per company no matter how many outlets. The implications are ‘catastrophic’ according to representatives of Scottish retailers. 

Sturgeon is using the crisis to pursue separate SNP priorities, maximise power and draw attention away from the party crisis that has opened up thanks to the botched strategy of neutralising her predecessor Alex Salmond.  In the teeth of much contrary evidence, she is proclaiming that Scotland is different and better in its approach to this terrifying scourge.  She herself is seeking to prove her indispensability by the way she is handling it.  

This might seem a reckless course giving the recurrent crises in the health sector ever since her many years in charge as minister up to 2014.  But so far it has paid dividends for her.  The SNP continues to poll well.  The main opposition party, the Conservatives, appear unwilling to offer public criticism of her conduct and it was even thanks to Ken McIntosh, the Labour MSP who is the Presiding officer, that the FoI legislation was passed. Press critics of Sturgeon such as Euan McColm, have praised her statesmanship, a cry taken up by several luminaries in civil society outside the world of separatism.

Sturgeon is refusing to modify her ‘take no prisoners’ political style as the rest of the population is required to drastically alter their conditions of life.  Independence, if it ever came, would require far more sweeping basic restrictions as material well-being declined. Yet she ‘others’ London and institutions like the army as before.  Perhaps she feels there is no point in going down without a fight as her territorial vanity project falls a likely victim to harsh new times.    

Tom Gallagher is a retired political scientist who divides his time between Cumbria and Scotland. His book on the SNP, Scotland Now: A Warning to the World was published in 2016. His twitter account is @cultfree54


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