“The new normal” is not the kind of phrase you would usually find in a government report – too trite and buzzy, lacking in establishment gravitas. It is perhaps a sign that we are indeed moving into a “new normal” that it appears a number of times in the Scottish government’s paper on how the nation will emerge from the Covid-19 lockdown.
It is a remarkable document, and I recommend reading it in full. Its clarity, transparency and humanity are of a piece with how Nicola Sturgeon and her expert advisers such as National Clinical Director Jason Leitch have approached this pandemic, and suggest an unexpectedly beneficial consequence of these difficult times: a resetting of the relationship between the elected and their electors, between the governors and the governed, to something more like equivalence. This is something cabinet ministers in Westminster could learn from.
Language in government reports usually acts as a barrier to understanding – the chilly jargon and legalese, the baffling acronyms and technocratic lingo seem deliberate, an almost semiological assertion of the gap between the elite and the experts on the one hand, and the rest of us on the other.
The new Scottish report does none of that. It is aimed at everyone, from policy mavens and scientists to businesspeople and shopworkers. It makes its points in plain English but doesn’t talk down; it makes it clear this is a journey we are on together, that there are things the government does not – cannot – yet know, and that we all have a role to play in getting to the other side. If this pandemic has been something of a public lesson in how to read data and science, it has also been a lesson in how to explain that data and science in ways that ordinary people can understand.
The nation’s guiding values should be “kindness, compassion, openness and transparency”, the report says. It’s encouraging to see the first two words in there – one thinks of Boris Johnson’s broadcast to the nation on being released from hospital, when he talked of the NHS being “powered by love”. The language of our politics appears to be moving away from its brittle traditions, even among the hard men of Brexit.
The Scottish government promises to “explore new ways to engage with the public as this pandemic progresses” and to “share our thinking at every stage”. Emerging from the lockdown will probably involve “tailoring options to, for example, specific geographies and sectors, or parts of the rural economy, or those able to work outdoors”. But going to the pub or attending public events is likely to be “banned or restricted for some time to come. Each one of us will have to adapt to this as the new normal, at least until we are sure that we can be more protected by a vaccine or treatment.”
Letting us in on the thinking is a smart and unifying move. Politics has never really caught up with the communications revolution brought about by social media. Campaigns have found ways to abuse it, but the general business of politics and those carrying it out have seemed stuck in practices that literally belong to a different century. This has only exacerbated the trust gap between Britons and their institutions.
There is an obvious contrast here between the Scottish government’s approach and that of the Westminster government, which has so far refused to share its own forward thinking on the end of lockdown with the British electorate. There is still the sense that the man in Whitehall not only knows best (which on this occasion he arguably does), but that the voters shouldn’t worry their little heads about this kind of thing. Sturgeon is treating Scots like grown-ups, as she said she would. If you’re trying to build trust in the ultra-connected, non-deferential era, which option would you recommend?
The Covid-19 crisis, awful as it is, offers a chance to address this by allowing governments to be more open, more honest, and more human about the challenges they face. The days of omniscient power are behind us. This is a change Sturgeon has been keen on for some time.
“We face a major challenge in navigating the uncertainties that the virus has created and rebuilding our economy and public services,” says the report. “But we want to go beyond rebuilding, and look to the social and economic reforms necessary to achieve the best future for Scotland. The pandemic has… driven forward changes that we have already been pursuing such as using online tools to reduce the need for travel. It… has meant radical action to change how we use our NHS or to tackle social problems such as homelessness. It has taught us about the art of the possible under the most demanding circumstances”.
The report ends on an optimistic note: “When things come apart, there is always the opportunity to put them back together differently.” The new normal is here to stay.