11 March 2020
By Kenny Farquharson
Coronavirus will shape us. As well as reducing the population it will change the mindset of those it spares. This seems inevitable. The only question is how. Take the tension between individualism and communitarianism, a hot topic ever since the ancient Greeks codified the concept of community as a public good. In the weeks to come, as the state asserts itself to protect the health of all, some people will resist it and some will accept it. Any shift in the balance will leave its mark on our politics.
Here in Scotland another factor is at play. Over the coming weeks the state will undoubtedly loom larger in our lives, but which state? Scotland has two governments, one in Edinburgh and one in London. Each will have a role to play but there is a tension here too. Will the crisis nourish Scottish nationalism or will it test Scottish nationalism’s most basic assumptions? Two factors are at play. One is fear of the globalisation that brought this virus from an exotic animal market in China into our homes. A reflex reaction, if not always a helpful one, is to retreat from the world, behind national borders.
One lasting consequence of the coronavirus could be an upsurge in nativist nationalism that shuns the world. There is no reason to think Scotland would be immune to this, even if such an attitude was discouraged by the leadership of the main nationalist party.
Conversely the crisis could encourage faith in international co-operation. Hadrian’s Wall is no barrier to the virus, any more than the North Sea or the English Channel. Combating it requires governments to work together for the common good. People might get used to politicians working together. They might emerge with new-found faith in multinational political partnership.
For what it is worth I think the effect on Scottish opinion will be, on balance, a renewed respect for a United Kingdom that for the first time in a long while is working as it should. Working in common cause with Whitehall is the right thing for Nicola Sturgeon to do but it does not support an SNP narrative.
A quirk of Scottish nationalism comes into play here. Supporters of independence like to talk up their internationalism, especially in the age of Brexit. On this reading, British nationalism is isolationist but Scottish nationalism wants to embrace the international community. The problem with this is obvious but little discussed. The SNP’s internationalism is selective. It is enthusiastic about political union with the nations of continental Europe but not Scotland’s most immediate neighbours within the British Isles. This is like choosing to work with people in the tower block across the road rather than your neighbours in the tower block where you live. It makes no sense.
Coronavirus puts this inconsistency under new strain. On an island like ours, what matters most during an epidemic is working with your immediate neighbours. A good relationship with other more distant countries is essential but not to the same degree.
A reasonable question to ask is this: how would the coronavirus crisis be panning out if Scotland were independent? My instinct says it would not be very different at all. Scotland, as now, would have its own government and its own NHS. Yet we would need a co-ordinated approach across the island on which we live, travel, work and take holiday. There would need to be a pan-British version of Cobra regardless of Scotland’s constitutional status. Even if there is no United Kingdom there must be a united approach.
However, there is little in the SNP’s independence plan about what Scotland’s relationship with the rest of these isles would look like. This is one of the blueprint’s major flaws. All kinds of crucial issues would require a pan-British approach after independence. Energy. Defence. Public health. Counterterrorism. Criminal justice. The environment. Even contentious issues such as immigration and currency may eventually demand a common British approach.
The range of shared and overlapping interests will be wide. You can try to manage these solely through a series of bilateral agreements but at some stage there needs to be some kind of common political infrastructure, as the European Union provides on the Continent. An independent Scotland’s relationship with the UK will need to be formalised in some way. In fact, a new political union of some kind will be necessary.
One of the big tasks of Scottish independence will therefore be reconstructing the UK, or at least aspects of it. The end point of this process is, in my view, a kind of British confederation. Yet this is seldom acknowledged by SNP politicians for the good reason that it muddies the waters. Why fight for independence if Scotland will eventually require a union with England anyway? Why not reform the union we already have?
The coronavirus crisis will be a learning experience for us all. Early days, of course, but my guess is that the lessons will do no favours for the cause of Scottish independence.
You can access the full article on The Times website here.