Scotland’s Covid restrictions – where are the Holyrood rebels?

Scotland’s Covid restrictions – where are the Holyrood rebels?

by Linda Holt
article from Wednesday 25, November, 2020

LAST WEEK I wrote a piece decrying the lack of any contrary voices in Scotland regarding Nicola Sturgeon’s Covid strategy, including her love of lockdown restrictions and her dodgy use of data. For particular disappointment, I singled out MSPs, all of whom had gone along with her tiered approach, when by contrast 34 MPs voted against lockdown measures at Westminster a few weeks ago.

Towards the end of the week, I thought things were beginning to stir a little at Holyrood. First Minister’s Questions on Thursday did not start well; Ruth Davidson danced around the question of Christmas, fishing for information on the Chief Mammy’s intentions like a child desperate to know whether Santa will deliver on her wish-list.

Richard Leonard at least seemed set to grasp the nettle – the travel ban becoming a law that “parliament will have barely scrutinised, let alone voted on” which criminalises people for travelling into or out of level 3 and 4 areas for anything but essential journeys – but he couldn’t hold on to it. He shifted focus to the muddled messaging, arguing that “the best-case scenario is that the travel ban will confuse them; the worst-case scenario is that it will criminalise them”. Then he promptly denounced the ban as “a red herring”, demanding that:

“Instead, the First Minister must take action on some of the things that members of the Scottish Parliament and the people have been calling for, such as a properly resourced test and protect system; appropriate personal protective equipment for our doctors and healthcare workers; safer schools for our children, school staff and teachers; the comprehensive testing of departing and returning students; additional support for our businesses and working people; routine testing for all front-line workers; and a public inquiry into our care homes.”

All these aspects of the Scottish Government’s mismanagement of the pandemic are pertinent, and well-known. Valid as they were, Leonard was going through the motions, and the result was predictably lacklustre: he got the well-rehearsed, much-repeated response about a First Minister doing her best, admitting she has “not got everything right” but doing what is “necessary to keep the country as safe as possible”.

There followed on Thursday a non-binding debate and vote on Scotland’s strategic approach to Coronavirus, including legally enforceable travel restrictions, which were due to come into force the following day. Plainly, the Scottish Government did not view this debate as important, as it was led by a minor minister, Cabinet Secretary for Communities and Local Government, Aileen Campbell. 

The Conservatives offered no resistance to “the general thrust of the restrictions”. Labour submitted the meatiest amendment, rejecting outright the statutory travel ban. Richard Leonard talked of “behavioural fatigue” and the lack of “hard data” justifying the tiers for local authority areas. He demanded “proof and compelling evidence that will persuade people that the measures that the Government is imposing are having the effect that they are claimed to be having”. Sadly, he did not pursue this point in any detail, preferring instead to highlight anomalies and confusions in the travel restrictions.  His main argument against the ban was that government should not be criminalising people for their own failure to implement an effective test-and-protect system. The ban, he said, “looks like a poorly conceived and ill-considered piece of legislation rather than the evidence-based intervention that we need. It risks uneven application and, as a result, uneven treatment across Scotland; it risks uncertainty that will eat away at the trust of the public; and it risks criminalising people who are understandably confused by a complex, ever-changing system of levels and a constant chopping and changing of Covid-19 rules.”

The LibDem North East Scotland member Mike Rumbles was the only MSP outside Labour to speak against legalising the travel ban. When it came to the votes, he together with the Conservative MSPs Oliver Mundell and Michelle Ballantyne voted for the Labour amendment and against the government. All other Conservative MSPs voted with the SNP when they presented a new motion incorporating some Green additions.

That evening, following protocol, Oliver Mundell (pictured) resigned from the Conservative front bench – he’d been the party’s rural economy and tourism spokesperson – explaining that he’d felt compelled to support his constituents’ interests against the whip. Then yesterday Michelle Ballantyne announced her resignation from the party over “differences arising… in the party’s positioning on policy and, indeed, its principles”.

For a giddy moment last week, I thought Labour’s amendment, and Rumbles, Mundell and Ballantyne voting against their parties signalled the stirrings of a rebellion among MSPs against the SNP’s draconian lockdown consensus. The House of Commons rebellion by Tory MPs at Westminster has since spawned a "Covid Recovery Group" led by former chief whip Mark Harper and ex-Brexit minister Steve Baker to resist new measures, with suggestions 50 Tories have enlisted. 

Sadly, I think this was wishful thinking. Neither Mundell nor Ballantyne spoke out against their party line on Covid in the debate last week – or indeed before or since. So limited are speaker slots at Holyrood the rationed opportunities are normally controlled by the party Whip – were they suppressed? At FMQs Nicola Sturgeon taunted Richard Leonard with the words of his Labour colleague, the Welsh First Minister Mark Drakeford when he justified his legally enforceable travel bans and border closures weeks ago. The problem for both Scottish Conservative and Scottish Labour MSPs is that both collectively and individually they suffer from a branch office mentality. 

So the jury is still out as to who will be the first to break ranks among the Scottish political establishment on Covid-19. As the numbers of so-called cases, hospital and ICU admissions and deaths trend downwards, while the First Minister continues to talk up the dangers, and more and more livelihoods are lost, surely it is only a matter of time before our MSPs find the courage to put their heads above the parapets?

Linda Holt is an independent councillor for East Neuk & Landward and a prospective candidate for alliance4unity in next year's Holyrood elections.

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