FIRST MINISTER NICOLA STURGEON will today address Holyrood to outline further Covid-19 measures and spell out the future of the lockdown. This emerges against a backdrop of major developments: leaving aside internal SNP troubles, there is Brexit, the closure of schools and workplaces, and the vaccination programme. From all this, questions arise concerning Scotland’s wider relationships to the UK and the European Union.
By most accounts, the pandemic has shamed all British institutions and especially the Westminster leadership. The recent lockdown and vaccine rollout, however, has so far been judged a qualified success. Politically, in pure numbers, this has benefitted both the SNP and the Conservatives, both of whom are enjoying a “vaccine dividend”. The Conservatives are dominating polls again, and British voters now believe Boris Johnson makes a better Prime Minister than his rival, Sir Keir Starmer, with Labour’s progress stalling.
Equally, what is good for the Tory goose may be good for the independence gander. Poll leads for Boris Johnson in England merely reopen questions about the future of the Union. Justly or not, Scottish voters tend to view Johnson as a bumbling dissembler and unfit for office. The looming prospect of another Conservative victory would mark electoral domination that will have outlasted the Thatcher-Major era. And Scotland’s Tory vote has been no healthier in this last period than it was under the Iron Lady.
Nonetheless, the qualified success (so far) of Britain’s vaccine rollout has contrasted with the bungling of the European powers. The EU has been widely condemned, by a motley alliance of Brexiteers, Europhile liberals and Irish nationalists, for threatening to impose a vaccine border between the Republic and Northern Ireland. Just a month into new Brexit arrangements, it was an extraordinary irony, after the EU continuously waved the sacrosanct Irish peace process – and the prevention of a “hard border” – as its moral trump card in negotiations.
Sturgeon, sadly, appeared to defend Brussels when even #FBPE diehards have abandoned them on this sordid matter. This has disappointed even her allies. “The truth of the AstraZeneca row is that all sides are wrong to some degree – but, unquestionably, Europe was the greatest villain,” notes Neil Mackay, an unlikely Eurosceptic and an even less likely Sturgeon critic. “To date, Europe has bungled its vaccination roll-out. Britain is far ahead in comparison…Amid the AstraZeneca feud, Sturgeon blundered in with both feet, laying down threats to publish details of vaccine supply data… It looked as if Sturgeon was jumping in to back Brussels at the expense of Britain, no matter the cost or cause.”
Negotiating Scotland’s new circumstances requires level-headedness. Westminster has bungled so much during this pandemic that there is little need to engage in reflexive Tory bashing. In all likelihood, by next week the Conservatives will have accomplished some new blunder. Equally, the EU is no angel. It’s also a notorious (and often somewhat amoral) bungler: witness the Eurozone crisis, Catalonia and drowning deaths in the Mediterranean. Defending the indefensible hardly testifies to national dignity.
Without wishing to pre-empt the Holyrood election, we are about to enter a new phase of Scottish history. Like it or not, our every move relative to Westminster and Europe will be interpreted through the lens of the national question. Recently, Sturgeon has always bested Westminster in the PR battle, even if some would question the underlying performance. However, on the vaccine row, as Mackay puts it, “The public sees Ms Sturgeon siding with a bully.” Not a good look.