Nicola Sturgeon is having a good crisis — on paper, at least.
According to an Ipsos MORI poll published on May 26, 82 percent of Scots think the Scottish National Party (SNP) leader — who heads up Scotland’s semi-autonomous government in Edinburg — is handling the coronavirus outbreak well and a further 78 percent believe her administration at Holyrood has made the right decisions over the course of the pandemic.
By comparison, just 30 percent of Scots view U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson in positive terms.
Buoyed by strong approval ratings, the SNP hopes to secure another nationalist majority in the Scottish Parliament at next year’s election and, with it, a second referendum on Scottish independence.
“Rather than killing independence, COVID-19 has seen [Scotland and England’s] paths diverge,” said Kenny McAskill, the SNP MP for East Lothian and former Scottish Justice Secretary. “As the economic strength of Britain is reduced, the choice of a different future for Scotland is highlighted — and for many that will be critical.”
However, the longer-term implications of a projected economic downturn, spiraling public deficits, and rising unemployment may yet increase pressure on the SNP.
“The British state is suddenly a much bigger player in the U.K. economy, and if that isn’t substantially diminished after the health threat dies down, it will mean a lot of Scottish voters with a much bigger material stake in the Union than before,” said Rory Scothorne, an Edinburgh-based writer and academic.
Given the U.K. Treasury’s multi-billion pound bailout of the British private sector in April — and the fact that tax revenues from North Sea oil have all but evaporated in recent years — it’s not clear how an independent Scottish state, lacking its own currency and central bank, would fare in the midst of a global recession sparked by coronavirus.
Senior nationalists are already sensing danger and pushing the case for a policy rethink.
“While dealing with the public health emergency and saving lives must be the priority of the Scottish government, the SNP as a party should be looking to our overall strategy and our policy direction,” influential MP Joanna Cherry wrote on May 8.
“After this crisis is over, people may well be in the mood for radical change in Scotland. We need to make sure the SNP is the party of that radical change.”
Independence debate on hold
COVID-19 was meant to have a unifying effect on British constitutional politics. The economic uncertainty caused by coronavirus has “made Scottish independence even less likely,” the Economist argued on April 30.
If anything, the opposite now appears true.
Some of the SNP’s popularity reflects Sturgeon’s astute PR response to the pandemic. The first minister has been widely praised by the Scottish media for her calmly reassuring press conferences and for the relative clarity of her rhetoric around public health.
“She has handled the political side of things exceptionally well,” said Scothorne. “She’s good at the lawyerly projection of confidence and expertise, as well as coming across as a human being, both of which are things people desperately want from their political leaders right now.”
Scottish nationalists have also benefited from the U.K. government’s occasionally cavalier approach towards Britain’s system of devolution, which has come under strain over the course of the crisis.
Tensions between London and Edinburgh boiled over on Sunday, May 10 when Johnson signaled a shift in Whitehall’s coronavirus messaging.
The U.K.’s previous slogan, “Stay Home, Save Lives,” would be replaced, Johnson said, with a new — and arguably less precise — directive to “Stay Alert.”
At the same time, a handful of lockdown restrictions that had been in place since mid-March would be eased.
Problematically, Johnson failed to note that these changes were relevant only to England. Despite speaking as prime minister of the United Kingdom as a whole, Johnson’s address did not make clear that with healthcare and policing powers devolved, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are free to implement their own rules.
Nor did the Conservative leader appear to brief Sturgeon about his revised strategy before making it public.
“The Sunday papers is the first I’ve seen of the PM’s new slogan,” Sturgeon tweeted earlier that day. “It is of course for him to decide what’s most appropriate for England, but given the critical point we are at in tackling the virus, #StayHomeSaveLives remains my clear message to Scotland at this stage.”
Johnson’s failure to grasp the nuances of Scottish home rule may bolster the belief — held by a sizable section of the Scottish electorate — that London is indifferent towards Scottish interests.
“The prime minister seems to be unwilling or uncomfortable to make the distinction, in his communications, about when he is acting for the U.K. as a whole and when he is acting for England alone,” said Nicola McEwen, professor of territorial politics at Edinburgh University.
“That seems to be a return to some of the practices we saw around Brexit, where the devolved governments haven’t had the opportunity to shape [negotiating] positions that are meant to be for the entire U.K.”
Not over yet
Conservatives accuse Sturgeon of politicizing the crisis to promote a separatist agenda.
Scotland’s decision to remove lockdown restrictions at a slightly slower pace than England shows the first minister is “intent on having a different policy to Boris Johnson” and “willing to sacrifice the Scottish people on the altar of nationalism,” the Tory MP Andrew Bridgen said on May 21.
Sturgeon staunchly denies the charge. “Scottish Ministers are fully focused on dealing with coronavirus,” a spokesperson for the Scottish government said. “Our first cases came later than England’s and so we may be at a different stage of the infection curve … This is the biggest challenge we have faced in our lifetimes and the measures we take to deal with it must reflect its magnitude.”
Nonetheless, the SNP leader is acutely conscious of political optics and will be closely assessing how the pandemic could impact Scotland’s future prospects for independence.
Emily St Denny, an academic at Stirling University, thinks Sturgeon’s crisis-management has been guided in part by a desire to showcase Edinburgh’s capacity for strong, responsible, and autonomous government. “Everything the SNP does is intended to give a sense of stateliness and distinctiveness to Scotland, as a way to systematically underscore the argument that the country could succeed as an independent state,” she said.
Whether coronavirus ultimately weakens the Anglo-Scottish union or strengthens it, Sturgeon will at some point have to account for the strategic decisions she took at the height of the pandemic.
The first minister faces questions about a spate of coronavirus infections at a business conference in Edinburgh in late February, which the Scottish government chose not to publicize at the time. And some observers believe Sturgeon should have diverged much faster from Johnson’s initial approach to the outbreak and imposed lockdown sooner.
Figures from the National Records of Scotland indicate that around 3,700 Scots have died from factors related to COVID-19 since March 16.
According to a study conducted by a team of scientists at Edinburgh University, as many as 2,000 deaths might have been prevented if lockdown measures had been introduced two weeks earlier in Scotland.
A quicker lockdown could have “easily taken effect and reduced death rates,” Professor Rowland Kao, who led the team, said on May 11. “[Our projected mortality figures are] substantially below what actually happened.”
There’s no question the SNP leader has performed well “from the point of view of public opinion,” according to Scottish political journalist Ben Wray, a prominent critic of Sturgeon’s coronavirus response. “But when the death tolls are tallied up and compared internationally, Scotland is going to look very far from a star performer.”
Read the original piece at politico.eu.