Why coronavirus will force the SNP to entirely remake the case for Scottish independence

In a new era of uncertainty and risk, a return to the old arguments for separation is no longer possible. 

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The SNP likes to consider itself politically radical – an anti-establishment insurgency that would run Scotland more virtuously, more harmoniously, more Scottishly, than the British state has managed for the past 300 or so years. That the SNP has been in government for 13 years – by which time Alexander the Great had no more worlds to conquer – and that its record, to be kind, is mixed, undermines neither its claim to plucky upstart status nor to proficiency (at least, according to the SNP).

If true, then the post-coronavirus era promises to be a good time for the party, as it does for radicals everywhere. A world waits to be remade. Sacred cows are for the broth pot. The fusty are at bay. It is a rare chance to try new things.

Independence is itself a big idea, of course, if a somewhat blunt one. Before the pandemic struck it seemed entirely achievable, as a posh, right-wing, pro-Brexit Conservative government at Westminster moved the UK further and further away from what we might term the Scottish ideal. The trials, tribulations and revenge lust of Alex Salmond aside, there was no real threat to the SNP’s eminence, or to Nicola Sturgeon’s status as First Minister. The party would walk the 2021 devolved election – the only questions were whether it would secure a majority of seats to enable that second independence referendum, and whether it could tempt the Scottish electorate’s floating middle over to its side of the argument.

How quaint those times seem. Like a village suddenly overwhelmed by a burst dam, the independence debate sits submerged in the Covid-19 flood, overwhelmed by this massive natural force – out of sight, out of mind, its foundations subject to sudden and intense new stresses, the possibility of rescue as yet unclear.

There is no fresh polling to tell us where the public now stands on independence, in part because our newspapers are fighting for their existence and don’t have the cash for costly surveys. And, anyway, only the most diehard will be worrying about future constitutional arrangements rather than their job, their kids’ schooling, and their granny’s survival.

But that doesn’t mean coronavirus isn’t upending the debate. It is, after all, upending everything else. Sturgeon’s focus is on fighting the pandemic, a task she is dispatching with impressive grace, empathy and honesty. But somewhere in her mind, in that space permanently reserved for calculating the odds on independence, alarm bells will be ringing.

This crisis has delivered a lesson in the power of the British state and its institutions. Rishi Sunak has added something like £60bn to public spending, and another £330bn in loan guarantees to companies. The most impressive and reassuring presences on our TV screens have been chief medical officer Chris Whitty and chief scientific adviser Patrick Vallance, flanking whichever cabinet minister has been sent out for the day, like a pair of super-brained, line-graph-wielding bodyguards.

The Thursday night applause for the NHS has no national boundaries – Scots are banging their pots as much for doctors, nurses and care workers in Bolton or Swansea or Belfast as we are for those closer to home. The terrible stories of the plague’s victims – mothers, father, sons, daughters, immigrants and natives alike – elicit emotional solidarity. The plight of Boris Johnson and the Queen’s pitch-perfect broadcast will have tugged at many Scots’ humanity and even half-submerged patriotism. The governments in Edinburgh and London are largely working together in the way devolutionists intended. There hasn’t been a coordinated global response to Covid-19, but the British family has come together to look after each other.

All that enforced home time means people are spending hours with BBC news presenters, with Lorraine Kelly and dreary afternoon quiz shows and perhaps even Eamonn Holmes and Piers Morgan. The country, in short, is functioning as one, culturally, politically and economically, in a way that was perhaps thought lost for good.

In due course we will learn what, if any, impact this has had on voters’ constitutional views. The pre-crisis crisis of Brexit had already raised some questions about Scots’ tolerance for layering economic uncertainty on economic uncertainty. Add to that two million UK unemployed, businesses going to the wall, cuts to GDP, and high levels of debt and it doesn’t make for great pro-indy propaganda ads: “We’re completely broke – let’s throw the dice, ya bass!”

It is also the case that there will be some serious governing to do and some big choices to be made. The state and the private sector are financially intertwined as never before – how is that unravelled? What is the future role of the state? How do we balance this new metric of value – key workers, community, health – against a return to market economics and wealth creation? 

As Mark Carney wrote in the Economist last week, “entire populations are experiencing the fears of the unemployed and sensing the anxiety that comes with inadequate or inaccessible healthcare. These lessons will not soon be forgotten.” 

Society would in future expect that “public values help shape private value”, wrote Carney. “When pushed, societies have prioritised health first and foremost, and then looked to deal with the economic consequences. In this crisis, we know we need to act as an interdependent community, not independent individuals, so the values of economic dynamism and efficiency have been joined by those of solidarity, fairness, responsibility and compassion.”

This is what confronts Sturgeon, as it does Johnson and many other world leaders. The scale of the opportunity for progressives and would-be radicals is matched only by the scale of the challenge. Amid this titanic task, in a newborn era of uncertainty and risk, a return to the same old arguments about Scottish independence holds little appeal. The case for separation, like everything else, must be addressed anew.

Chris Deerin is the New Statesman's contributing editor (Scotland). 

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