The Times: Devolution has benefits in politics of survival

18 March 2020

By Kenny Farquharson

I am not usually a fan of Scottish exceptionalism. My heart sinks at the sound of “wha’s like us?”, especially when making a comparison with England. And yet I believe an opportunity exists for Scotland to achieve a degree of social cohesion in the face of coronavirus that will prove difficult south of the border.

This is not down to Scotland’s much-vaunted communitarianism, nor the sense of moral superiority that is one of the more tedious aspects of our national self-regard. Instead the opportunity is a simple consequence of the way Scotland is governed.

Consider the position in England. In the general election in December, Boris Johnson’s Tories won handsomely with 47 per cent of the English vote on a turnout of 67 per cent. This was impressive by any standard. Yet it still meant his supporters were a minority of those who voted and an even smaller minority of the English electorate as a whole.

Mr Johnson, therefore, faces an uphill task. To achieve a united English response to the virus he has to win and secure the consent of tens of millions of English people who are not naturally well-disposed towards him. We all have politicians we don’t like, whose beliefs are not to our taste, whose judgment we distrust, whose good faith we question. In England, Mr Johnson enters the coronavirus crisis with an inbuilt public scepticism about him personally and his government as a whole.

Here in Scotland the situation is different and, I would argue, potentially more encouraging. Because of devolution, Scotland has two governments, one in Edinburgh and one in London. The London one is run by Tories, supported by 25 per cent of Scots at the general election in December, and the Edinburgh one is run by the SNP, supported by 46 per cent of Scots at the last Holyrood election in 2016.

One or other branch of government is therefore supported by 71 per cent of Scots. This substantial majority of voters is personally invested in either Mr Johnson or Nicola Sturgeon.

This is an opportunity that is ours to grasp. As long as these two leaders can agree on the way to tackle coronavirus, as long as they sing from the same hymn sheet, albeit with different accents, Scotland can achieve a high degree of public buy-in to the social revolution demanded by this moment. If Mr Johnson and Ms Sturgeon can unite, Scotland can unite to an impressive degree.

Social cohesion is precious at the best of times. During this crisis it will be a treasure more precious than gold. Containing this virus requires a population that does what it is told by ministers. Being broadly sympathetic to the government and therefore more prepared to follow its advice will save lives.

The obverse is also true. A population distrustful of its political masters, suspicious of government motives and unwilling to follow ministerial advice will undermine the public health response. Scepticism remains a virtue but cynicism and reflex nonconformism will cost lives. This is not a time for rebels.

In an age where we take personal agency for granted, where the only responsibilities we really take seriously are those to our family and to our personal needs, this is a novel and unsettling feeling. Nevertheless, this is where we find ourselves.

So can the first minister and the prime minister keep up the common front? There was a wobble last week when Ms Sturgeon announced her intention to ban gatherings of more than 500 people when there was no such indication from Downing Street. Since then, however, the Scottish government has gone out of its way to minimise divergence. When a difference of emphasis arises, ministers and officials are at pains to stress this is all it is, not a disagreement on fundamentals.

Ms Sturgeon went out of her way earlier this week to rein in those among her supporters talking up cross-border disagreement. And yesterday she told Holyrood that despite being a politician “to her fingertips” she had never been less interested in party politics. As for the opposition, Jackson Carlaw, leader of the Scottish Conservatives, used Twitter to douse flames of unionist outrage at a perceived split between the two administrations.

Of course, Ms Sturgeon and Mr Carlaw disagree on a great deal. Notably they disagree on whether the United Kingdom should exist or be broken in two. Yet normal hostilities have been suspended, perhaps for some time. This detente is both welcome and necessary.

I can think of only two scenarios where the unity between the two governments may fracture. One, if there is a difference of opinion between the Scottish and UK medical officers; and two, if one or other administration strays from the course dictated by the scientific advice.

I see no immediate sign of either of these happening. Nor do I see any attempt by either side to take advantage of a global pestilence for party political ends. There is a very good reason for this. The voters’ verdict on anyone who tried to use coronavirus to further their political ambitions would, I suggest, be brutal.

We are witnessing a new kind of politics. You could call it the politics of survival.

You can access the full article on The Times website here.

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