Has devolution served us well during Covid-19?

Has devolution served us well during Covid-19?

by Linda Holt
article from Friday 24, April, 2020

OFFICIALLY, CONSTITUTIONAL HOSTILITIES have been suspended. There is an eerie silence from leading politicians akin to the World War One Christmas truce. The customary manoeuvres about Westminster Tories and indy-obsessed Nats are nowhere to be seen.

The First Minister says she has “never been less interested in just reducing something to party politics”, though many dictators would envy her daily broadcasts to the nation.

The Sunday Times story of Boris Johnson’s failings in addressing the pandemic earlier this year has been seized upon by his critics from across the political spectrum, yet Nicola Sturgeon refused to pile on. In an uncharacteristic show of magnanimity, she said at her briefing on Monday:

“We are all trying to do the best things, based on the best information we have got, applying our best judgement… We will all have and continue to make mistakes and that is in the nature of dealing with something none of us have ever dealt with before. But you know I know how hard the Scottish Government is working, I know how hard I am working to try and make sure we take the best decisions at the right time, based on the best evidence. I have no reason to believe that is not what everybody in a similar position to me is seeking to do and we have got to work together as well as we can”.

At First Minister’s Questions on Tuesday, having previously been unable even to mention the British army’s role in setting up the temporary hospital in Glasgow, she waxed lyrical about their “invaluable” help.

The opposition at Holyrood has also been bending over backwards to play nice.

At the previous FMQs, Jackson Carlaw praised the Scottish Government’s “good announcements”, and the First minister for a “helpful point”. He said he “respect[ed] the First Minister’s assurance that progress was being made”. When stated, criticism was tentative, conditional, qualified. Carlaw said “it might (sic) have been a mistake” to limit care homes to three tests each. He cited reports from vulnerable constituents complaining about not receiving letters, chucking Sturgeon the easiest of balls: “I ask the First Minister whether she is now certain – or can say when she will be certain – that every vulnerable person is now getting the help that they need”.

Perhaps someone had a word with Carlaw, because there was less overt praise for the First Minister at the next FMQs, but his tone remained mild. He found plenty of opportunity to thank the First Minister, to agree with her and to empathise with her about the inevitable complexity of the issue where “specific numbers can seem hard to come by”. There were no effective follow-up questions, and given that he was talking literally about matters of life and death for staff, care home residents and his constituents, a staggering lack of urgency or passion. He was going through the motions, but his heart wasn’t in it. By contrast, Richard Leonard sounded passionate and engaged.

Of course, the conciliatory tone our leaders have tried to project has not prevented skirmishes from over-excited or perhaps just bone-headedly diehard nationalists like the Dunfermline MSP Douglas Chapman.

The SNP leadership appeared, at least publicly, to ignore these skirmishes, which cheered foot-soldiers on both sides. Only the suggestion that English manufacturers were denying Scotland access to PPE presented too delicious a dog-whistle for Nicola Sturgeon and Jeane Freeman to pass up.

No one should be deceived, however, by this new-found bonhomie among our leaders. I’m sure that spin doctors on all sides have advised that politicians risk public opprobrium if they are seen to indulge in anything resembling constitutional bickering. Hence the mock outrage from the SNP as well as the commentariat when unionists criticised the re-naming of the Glasgow Nightingale hospital and Jackson Carlaw suggested that Indyref2 was off the agenda.

So Brian Monteith’s piece in the Scotsman this week is salutary. He warns that under the guise of the public health emergency, nationalism is being elevated as an ideology that comes before policy. I would say that it was ever thus; it’s just we are being invited to think the current crisis precludes it. Monteith then provides a useful recap of all the hay the First Minister has sought to make out of the current crisis. By pre-empting COBRA and Westminster announcements, she attempted implicitly to trump the Prime Minister in the pandemic leadership stakes. Instead, she undermined the trust and co-operation vital to effective pan-UK action.

“There has hardly been an instance of delivering the UK-wide approach in Scotland that Sturgeon has not rescheduled, reformed or renamed as the property of the SNP Scottish Government”, Monteith writes, before listing examples: Scottish versions of the NHS Nightingale in Glasgow, of the UK-wide volunteer scheme, of the UK-wide support for businesses, of the listing and writing to vulnerable people who need to be shielded and the communication of these names to supermarkets, of the UK-wide help to independent care homes. One instance Monteith overlooks is the differing advice given to Scottish care workers about PPE, which was rapidly withdrawn after unions protested that its lower standard was a cover-up for inadequate supplies in Scotland.

As the Scottish Government has sought to “Scottify” – i.e. amend, adapt and make distinctive all these UK-wide initiatives – we have seen their roll-out in Scotland stopped, delayed or made more complex. This has created disappointment, confusion and anger; Scottish citizens see those elsewhere in the UK benefitting from initiatives which, following announcements from the UK government, they rightly assumed would also apply to them.

Monteith thinks that the purpose of this Scottification has been to suggest that “the Scottish Government is making the difference, that it is in control, that were we independent we could cope”. I think it’s more than that. The actual and symbolic value added is supposed to show, first, how much better Scotland is doing than the rest of the UK thanks to the SNP, and, second, how it could do even better if it were independent.

Like the most bitter of sibling rivalries, the competition between the Scottish and Westminster governments informs every breath the SNP takes. But that rivalry depends on misrepresenting the Scottish Government as an independent national government like the UK (a fiction that entirely suits the SNP), when it is really a devolved executive administration.

The real question raised by the Scottish government’s actions is: are they making the situation worse or better? When the chips are down, in times of national crisis, does devolution help or hinder?

The answer will be mixed and complex, and will also depend on whether devolution per se is held to be responsible, or the separatist, nationalist party that happens to be at the devolved helm. A unionist government at Holyrood would probably have had no ideological problem taking on UK-wide initiatives, and fewer practical issues in doing so.

The next Holyrood election, whether in May 2021 or later, will provide voters in Scotland with the opportunity to deliver a verdict on the SNP’s performance during the Covid-19 pandemic. The issues highlighted by Monteith are, unfortunately,  likely to be drowned out as the SNP reverts to an open Nicola vs. Boris contest, underwritten by the fantasy of an independent Scotland vs. the continuation of ‘subjugation’ by Westminster.

Nevertheless, I can’t be the only unionist who regrets that the current opposition under Jackson Carlaw lacks the stomach to challenge the devolutionist consensus. It is giving the SNP the softest of rides in the interests of upholding “national unity” and its cosy roost in the Holyrood establishment.

Will the Scottish Conservatives ever, with flaming anger, tally up the infections, deaths and bankruptcies inflicted on us because we live in Scotland under an ideologically obsessed government, rather than in England or Wales?

If ever there was a time to take stock of the devolution settlement, that time is now. We must stop going along with the nationalist intuition that more, rather than fewer, devolved powers is the answer. We need to begin to rethink the devolution settlement in terms of a constitutional strengthening of the union for the sake of national security. After all, “the broad shoulders of the union”  will prove more vital than ever during the economic recovery from the pandemic, and the consequence of that fact needs to be more than rhetorical.

Linda Holt is an independent Councillor for East Neuk & Landward


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