Editor's Note: Salmond vs Sturgeon, in praise of the Oxford vaccine and why we must cherish Melvyn Bragg

The hatred between Salmond and Sturgeon has Shakespearean depths, and beyond their personal struggle the unity of the kingdom is at stake.

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Here’s a story about the vaccine. My 84-year-old mother received her first jab on 30 December. On 14 February she spent the day with my younger sister and her family at their house; she was in their lockdown bubble. That afternoon my sister began to feel ill – she had back pains and cold symptoms – and a few days later, as she became increasingly unwell, she tested positive for Covid-19 (she has now recovered). Her son and daughter also tested positive, but her husband strangely did not. And my mother, inadvertently exposed to the virus, was perfectly fine and has remained so ever since. The vaccine had evidently worked for her. This is a sample size of one, of course – but interesting all the same. 

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I had my first jab at a local school on the evening of 19 March – the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine, so absurdly maligned by Macron, Merkel, Von der Leyen and co. My appointment was at 6pm and I arrived five minutes early. I was checked in and shown straight to a table where I was greeted by a friendly nurse and a nursing assistant. Nearby uniformed service personnel from the 4 Armoured Medical Regiment were helping out. I chatted briefly to the nurses, I was asked to read a medical questionnaire and then I was jabbed, one of more than 900 to be so at the school that day. I left the building at exactly 6.02pm, the whole experience being both moving and extraordinarily efficient. As I walked home a line from an Edmund Blunden poem floated into my mind: “God bless us all, this was peculiar grace.” 

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The independent Hamilton inquiry has ruled that Nicola Sturgeon did not breach the ministerial code over the tortuous Alex Salmond affair. The First Minister’s opponents had hoped to use the inquiry to topple her and derail the independence train. She will now lead the SNP into the Scottish parliament election in May, revitalised and emboldened. She is an implacable and relentless opponent (but too cocksure for my taste), and not even her former mentor, who is equally relentless and a true Machiavel, can thwart her. 

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The hatred between Salmond and Sturgeon has Shakespearean depths: once so close, they are locked in a struggle to the political death. Salmond does hate his former protégé as he does hell pains, and Sturgeon and her husband, Peter Murrell, the SNP’s chief executive, hate Salmond just as much. What motivates such mutual loathing? The truth of the matter is that what is at stake here beyond the immediate future of the First Minister is the unity of the kingdom itself. If the SNP wins even a narrow majority at the Holyrood elections in May, as seems highly likely, the party will claim that it has an unequivocal mandate for a second independence referendum. How long can Boris Johnson resist? 

[see also: Nicola Sturgeon can breathe easier thanks to her incompetent opponents]

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George Osborne, the former austerity chancellor, recently wrote that “the future of the UK [is] the central political issue of the coming decade”. He is right about that but wrong in his conclusion that the response to the nationalists’ demand for a second referendum is simply to ignore it. “The only way you can have [a] legal path to independence is through a referendum that is voted for by the House of Commons,” he wrote. “So don’t vote for one. Whatever the provocation. Just say no, Boris.”

But saying no will not be enough, as Will Tanner and James Blagden point out in a new report, State of the Union, commissioned by the Onward think tank. “The UK government’s response to the SNP’s referendum plan is the make-or-break moment,” they write. “There is a ‘first mover disadvantage’ for both sides: the best way for the UK government to inadvertently boost support for independence would be to refuse a referendum outright; the best way for the Scottish government to boost support for the Union would be to hold a unilateral vote. Unionists should avoid denying Scotland its right to decide its own future, and instead reiterate what most Scottish voters themselves believe: that ‘now is not the time’ and that repairing the economy and society after coronavirus must take precedence.”

In short, the answer to an SNP demand for a second referendum is not to say “no” but “not yet”. To which the SNP will say, “If not now, when?” But something else is in play in the Covid pandemic era and Tanner and Blagden understand this. As we emerge from lockdown, the crisis has gifted us all a second chance to look again at what both the Brexit process and the pandemic have revealed about what isn’t working within and between the nations and regions of the United Kingdom. If we miss this opportunity, if we fail to rise to the level of events and squander the opportunity for renewal, the Union will not survive, nor will it deserve to survive.

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Quite often when I travel or go on a long car journey, I listen to episodes of Melvyn Bragg’s In Our Time. It’s a wonderful radio programme with a simple format: Bragg and three academic experts (different ones each episode) discuss a big philosophical idea, or a great book or poem, or a concept in science, or a defining historical event, and so on. Bragg probes, simplifies, summarises, harries and keeps the whole thing on track. At all times, in his role of public educator, he is thinking of the ordinary listener, never assuming too much knowledge, never talking down to them. My elder sister (who uses her married name) recently wrote to him to say that, as a non-graduate with a “hunger to learn”, she greatly values the programme and its mission to inform and entertain. It was a measure of the man that he wrote back to her. Incredibly, Melvyn Bragg is now 81 – but long may he continue. 

[see also: A kingdom of fragments]

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article appears in the 24 March 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Spring special

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