Robin McAlpine: The virus put unionism in crisis – their best hope is a compliant SNP

“The unionists (and indeed the advocates of globalisation) are going to find it hard-going-on-impossible to argue that giant lumbering countries are best at dealing with crises of this sort because the absolutely overwhelming evidence is they are not. Richard Leonard’s ‘die for the union’ pitch is unpersuasive.”

Common Weal Versus the Virus: The virus is exposing the reality of the weaknesses in our economy, society and democracy. Over the last six years Common Weal has been showing that the weaknesses can all be fixed. Over the next few weeks Common Weal Director Robin McAlpine will write a series of columns showing how Common Weal policy is the best way to survive this virus and then rebuild when its over. Today – the crisis of unionism

UNIONIST commentators seem to have written about virtually nothing other than independence since the virus broke – column after column after column about how we should move beyond division by totally giving up and entirely conceding the constitutional argument to them.

This doesn’t reflect reality. Unionism is in crisis and has no obvious way out of it.

Anger is never at the crisis – it’s about the aftermath

If you want to understand the crisis in unionism say this out loud: “unionism’s fate is irrevocably tied to how well Dominic Cummings rebuilds Britain during a great depression”.

Even if the UK had handled the crisis well (we’ll come to that) it probably wouldn’t matter. As Larry Elliot argues persuasively here, it is rare for leaders to get credit for handling crises. People move on alarmingly quickly – it’s always about the aftermath.

I’ve been surprised by how slowly people are realising how bad this is going to be. It should have been clear from the beginning – we’re going into a kind of ‘strangulation economy’ for the foreseeable future and entire industry sectors (tourism, hospitality, events) won’t reopen.

This is economic devastation of a type for which we have no experiential background. We’re going to suffer, and suffering is not an abstract concept. At the moment there’s some kind of equity – we all suffer a bit, some more than others.

That will change when the doors open. Some people’s suffering will come to an end, some people’s suffering will spike and stay there. It will mean vast regional differences. Cities built on retail and hospitality will need emergency answers. Regions built on tourism will need to reinvent themselves overnight.

It wouldn’t matter if there were some truths in the ‘pooling and sharing’ arguments (how many times do we need to be outperformed by smaller countries before we get it?), it will not feel like it. It will hurt.

And you know what we do when we’re hurting? We blame those in power. I almost feel sympathy – it’s almost unfair that Westminster and the British system will get blamed.

But it will. All the visual indicators of Britishness (Westminster, London, Union Jacks, city traders and all) will adorn a response that makes us angry. Even if Johnson does a level-decent job, the chances are that Scotland will be looking for an Atlee moment pretty soon.

And the Tories will screw it up anyway

That’s the generous interpretation; even if they did a decent job, they’ll probably cop the flack. But don’t let me give you the impression that they’ll do a decent job.

The only thing I can say is that it would probably be worse if it was George Osborne; at least Cummings gets the point about regional anger. But this is still the Tory Party we’re talking about here, and it’s still the UK economy.

This means they don’t have a means of operating which does not begin with securing the City of London and its banking institutions. In turn, that means they need to prop up the machinery of a financialised economy, like property prices and corporate shares and debt and borrowing.

That has an immediate knock-on effect – once again everything else will need to be twisted round banks. The shape of the response (unless they do something genuinely surprising) will be an iron spine of bank-and-corporation protection with a load of optional add-ons for everyone else. Unlike the spine, none of the add-ons will be fundamental. They will be disposable.

In the early months you’ll be asked to look at the add-ons – a scheme for this, a fund for that, a guarantee for the other. You probably barely know the scale of the current bank-and-corporation bail-out. There’s not much commentary about it, but it is unprecedented in human history.

That’s how they like it. When they get given trillions upon trillions of US dollars of bailout, they prefer that to happen in private. Everything else will end up at the back of the queue; everywhere else will end up at the back of the queue; Scotland will watch London be escorted past the red rope.

So unless the Tories can find another receptacle for public anger, they have a problem. And I think they’ll find it harder to get our anger directed towards the ‘undeserving poor’ because of the sheer number of new entrants into that category.

Any government is going to get a kicking over what comes next. Tory governments create uneven outcomes (it’s kind of their philosophy). And I’d put money on Scotland and its economy getting the uneven treatment.

Let me put another way. “The massive deindustrialisation of the 1980s will be much easier to handle if the UK pulls and shares responsibility. It will kill devolution in Scotland stone dead. There just won’t be any calls for Scottish devolution by the 1990s.”

Then of course there’s the autopsy to come

Apart from their sheer need for it to be true, the other primary driver of unionist confidence that they have reached the end of history and that they won is the rosy glow of anxious, shocked solidarity (or paralysis, take your pick) that sets in for the early lifecycle of a crisis.

For a few weeks, it was easy to run the ‘pooling and sharing’ line because everyone was queuing for tins of beans. It felt like that war unionists are always going on about.

Here’s the thing though – the UK Government’s response has been cack-handed and lacking in competence. It is trying to hide behind officials but in the end we ignored the World Health Organisation, invented a cockamamie theory about herd immunity and didn’t get necessary equipment together.

And already, just a few weeks on, the reality of the picture is being exposed. All those ‘science’ committees involved political strategists and nudge-theory economists. ‘Led by the science’ is a nice idea of what happened.

To my mind, the economic response has been equally unbalanced. It still isn’t clear to enough people, but it will be – most people are taking a hit but not the banks and the landlords. They’re being allowed to collect all debts, people who can’t pay the debts are being given money to pass straight on to the banks, and then there’s that absolutely massive bailout…

There will be an autopsy on all of this. And despite the fact that it will be littered with words about ‘how hard’ and ‘how much pressure’, it will expose the reality of bad government. It’s will not be an argument for clinging on.

The frame will change

This is really important and I’ve explained it in more detail here, but the frame of political debate will change. The idea that the future is ever-more dispersed and ‘globalised’ and that the only way a nation-state can play is to be big and strong will decline. Instead, national debate will have more of an element of ‘access to resources’.

The UK will argue that in the fight to get our share of oil resources we need to get our inadequate body armour back on and start shooting more Middle Easterners. Scotland can (and absolutely should) argue that we can replace the petrol with bountiful renewable electricity and plastic with wood-based bioplastics.

The UK will be the last people clinging to the wreckage of the old financial order (really the last people – they invented it. The whole unionist argument about minnows not being able to play in that tank will not be persuasive if the ‘minnows’ start building more secure financial arrangements. Again, Scotland just has to pretend the Growth Commission never happened.

And perhaps above all, the unionists (and indeed the advocates of globalisation) are going to find it hard-going-on-impossible to argue that giant lumbering countries are best at dealing with crises of this sort because the absolutely overwhelming evidence is they are not. Richard Leonard’s ‘die for the union’ pitch is unpersuasive.

Frankly, by far the best bet for Scotland would have been for Nicola Sturgeon not to fall into lockstep. It is smaller, more nimble nations who have handled things best (or in the case of Germany, much more decentralised ones).

Unionists believe that buffing up at the gym until you’re pure bulging with muscles is the way to defeat any foe – then on the way home they get attacked by a swarm of wasps. Bet they wish they’d put some time into speed training and had worked on their balance and dexterity.

Plus unionists are wrong about this a lot

Remember all the things you were told would kill the independence movement stone-dead: the opening ceremony of the London Olympics, the anniversary of the First World War, the Queen’s Jubilee, a Royal Wedding, losing the Indyref, a Royal Wedding, ‘the public being sick of divisiveness’, the 2016 Scottish election, the 2017 General Election, the People’s Vote (hate borders!), Jim Murphy, Douglas/Wendy Alexander, Kezia Dugdale, Ruth Davidson, Jo Swinson, Boris Johnson’s big majority.

And the virus. The virus will definitely kill it. For sure this time.

So they need an emergency plan

Let’s say you’re a more thoughtful Scottish unionist and you are thinking a bit about these things and, even if you manage to come up with some pros to the cons I’ve outlined above, you at least accept the cons are there. What do you do?

This is a problem. First, there isn’t really a solution for them at the UK level for at least five years. ‘The union will work again as soon as we get a moderate Labour government’ isn’t a feasible strategy.

On the whole, even Scotland’s Tories are uncomfortable with the Boris Supremacy. Everything from his social class to his metaphors to his actual policies just grate against the broad political culture of Scotland. Unionists loved Davidson because she didn’t seem like a conservative; Boris Johnson is the very essence of privileged aristocratic Toryism.

They don’t have a contender for Scotland. Richard Leonard is startlingly clueless and Scottish Labour doesn’t have any agreed sense of what it is for as its civil war rolls on.

The Scottish Tories are what they are, but the fact that I have a mental block on Jackson Carlaw’s name isn’t about my memory (I’ve had to do a web search on his name three times since the virus. Try it – the lead answer is ‘Ruth Davidson’).

So the Fruit Machine of Unionists Dreams spins on and on. Two Murphys and a Swinson. Better luck next time.

And as I point out above, they’ve had one story since they had to have a story and I really do believe the frame has changed such that it won’t work any more. At the moment, soft unionists like Rebecca McQuillan remain certain there is no link between that the impact the virus has had and British society and its government and economy.

But I bet if she thought really, really hard, she might link lack of PPE to precisely the faulty British priorities nationalists like me have been warning about for ages. ‘Bairns Not Bombs’ was a slogan with a meaning – it was about priorities. Let’s see how those stack up in retrospect.

So what’s the new story? I don’t see what it is. And they won’t be able to keep this ‘shhh for the union’ stuff going indefinitely. They desperately need a leader who will prevent a new pro-independence story from developing and someone who will suppress campaigning for independence.

Finally, they really, really need their newspapers to get bailed out and they need that to happen with no strings attached. Their biggest fear would be a left-of-centre, reform-minded independence supporter who wanted to see a more balanced media as an outcome from throwing public money at them.

If they can’t come up with a leader, they need to adopt one, to co-opt one. So they need someone who, when setting up a committee to rebuild after the virus stacks it with right-wing unionists. They need someone who absolutely does not prepare a better crisis plan for Scotland than the cack-handed mess of the UK.

They need someone with an absolutely solid track record of finding reasons not to campaign for independence and who never supports others who do. They need someone who will never use a crisis to achieve change. They need someone who is very deeply interested in their own self-image. They need to find that person and protect them with their lives.

They really, really need Nicola Sturgeon.

So why do we behave like we need them?

With its placed stories, placed letters and placed praise-raining columnists, ‘Save Sturgeon Sunday’ was not a sign her ‘virus months’ are going well. As the media has finally discovered, she’s made no better a job of the lockdown than Matt Hancock.

Initiatives to distract public attention are accumulating a lot faster than testing kits, PPE or a solid action plan. ‘Sounding good’ saves no lives and ends no lockdowns.

Likewise, far from being over her dual with Alex Salmond is still to reach its terrible crescendo. One side has fired everything they have; the other is having a cup of tea and polishing his Exocet missiles. With that and parliamentary inquiries to come, describing her position as vulnerable would be an understatement.

It is not and never has been hard to see what the First Minister gets from her love-in with the Scottish establishment and its unionist journalists. After all, she promised a government of national unity on day one and they have rewarded her with praise and counsel ever since.

What has been a total mystery to me is why the hell the rest of her party is so insistent that they too get something out of this relationship. They were (somehow) persuaded that being the ‘good pupil’ would (somehow) get them rewarded. I suppose there were plenty jobs in it, but not much else.

The SNP had absolutely no need to play the establishment game, but they did anyway. If they do this again while the unionists are in this crisis then hell mend them. Nicola Sturgeon may need the approval of the establishment she gets from handing them control of the narrative of recovery by appointing them to her new committee.

What the SNP and the independence movement needs is a new economic story about Scotland and its future. Why oh why do they sit around, see what is happening – and yet stay silent? No people, this is not going to deliver those mythical ‘unionist votes’, it is going to undermine the cause of independence on day one of recovery.

The unionists need their First Minister and their First Minister needs them. The SNP needs to stop self-sacrificing the cause of independence in the pursuit of a kind of ‘respectability’ it does not need and should not want

The trick of a real leader is to find a way to deliver just outcomes for everyone now which also help move history in the direction of that leader’s true mission. At the same time.

The trick of a political party is to make sure they have such a leader. Winners don’t comply.

Next Up: governance – why the way we run things should change