There is a type of Scot who enjoys nothing more in life than the opportunity to impart bad news. The words that come from their mouth may carry tales of the most appalling woe, but inside they are beaming.
Who knows where it comes from, this trait? Most likely some hangover of Presbyterianism, an ultra form of that puritanism which H.L. Mencken summarised as “the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy”. Scottish joy at the opportunity to impart bad news is some extension of this: the knowledge that someone, somewhere, may have been happy and that the universe has finally made them pay for it.
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The thought recurred to me as I watched Nicola Sturgeon addressing the Scottish people on Wednesday night about a fresh outbreak of coronavirus in her native land. The tableau was almost perfect in its grimness. The Scottish First Minister stood at the podium with a black background. Slightly off to one side behind her was a woman who was signing, not deemed necessary on all political occasions and adding to the solemnity of the event. Nor did it help that the signer was wearing dark clothes, so that her alabaster-white arms and face were the only things flashing out from the pitch-black. If this tableau had been given a paint name it would have been “Banquo’s ghost”.
Mrs Sturgeon’s words, too, were of the darkest hue. ‘This virus hasn’t gone away,” she began: “If you doubted that then today we have evidence of how true that is. It is still out there. And it is still highly infectious. And it is still highly dangerous. The outbreak in Aberdeen is a sharp reminder of that. It shows what can happen if we let our guard drop. And it should serve as a warning to all of us.”
Using the language of fires, firewalls and firefighters, Sturgeon warned: “Our job as citizens, as human beings, is to try to make sure that the fires don’t start in the first place.”
Always good to hear a politician to remind us that we are human beings.
Of course, to hear this talk you would think that the Scottish people are dropping dead at an even faster rate than usual. As it happens a certain level of panic should exist in the voices of Scotland’s politicians at all times: life expectancy in Glasgow, for instance, is the lowest (for men and women) in the whole of the UK. During the years of SNP rule life expectancy in parts of the country, such as Dundee, has actually fallen, a phenomenon rarely seen in modern times outside of Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe.
But for the SNP to address such problems on their watch would be to take some responsibility, and Scottish Nationalists like Nicola Sturgeon never take responsibility. Not when there is “Westminster” to blame, and the opportunity to grandstand by issuing the direst imaginable warnings.
Yet what was striking about Sturgeon’s words were not just how grim, but how misleading they were. True, the general public in Scotland might have got used to being mislead by Ms Sturgeon, but even by her own standards, Wednesday’s doom-mongering was extreme. Her words about the lockdown in Aberdeen suggested that the city and wider country was facing a death toll on a gargantuan scale. The figures say something very different.
The fact is that there have been exactly zero confirmed Covid-related deaths in Scotland over the last three weeks, an astounding figure. Meanwhile what non-public sector employment exists in Scotland has been decimated, as everywhere, by this shutdown, a shutdown that we are told is crucial in order to save lives.
It is a shutdown that has become contestable as more and more evidence emerges, but what is not contestable is that what remains of the private sector will be unable to survive repeated shutdowns of the kind now being imposed. To imagine that they could is to engage in the economics of fantasyland in a country already used to consuming several economic fantasies each day before breakfast.
The lockdown announced in Aberdeen is a consequence of exactly 18 new corona cases, including 13 linked to a single pub. This tiny number of cases is the justification for Nicola Sturgeon to quarantine an entire city, a quarter of a million inhabitants who are now once again forbidden to enter each other’s houses, forbidden to go to restaurants or pubs, and forbidden to travel for any purposes other than work.
Of course all of this could be seen as a terrific and necessary precaution. Or it could — and perhaps should — be seen as a wild and politically-driven over-reaction. Here is displayed a strange dynamic, which is not peculiar to Scotland, but is certainly epitomised in the place — ultra-caution on the part of the politicians for reasons that do not directly have any bearing on the case at hand.
It now seems clear that the total shutdown of the UK that started in March was primarily put in place in order to stop the embarrassment of the National Health Service being overwhelmed by corona cases; specifically to avoid similar scenes to those emerging out of northern Italian hospitals. Underneath this ultra-caution another dynamic existed, which was the decision that the NHS could not be put under such strain during the time of a Tory government.
For years the Conservative Party has been pushing back at Labour efforts to portray them as in some ways callous or uncaring towards the NHS (or even seeking to privatise it). While never sincere and never less than cynical, still the Conservatives deeply feared this line of attack, and worried that Italian hospital-like scenes would offer their domestic political opponents a weapon for many years to come.
A similar dynamic is seen in Scotland. The SNP exists for a single purpose — to remain in government, to be seen as ultra-competent in the tasks of government and from there to be able next time (whenever that might be) to persuade the Scottish electorate that a one-party state ruled forever by the Scots Nationalists will be a land of milk and honey. Or oil and whisky. Whatever your poison is. That is now, as it always has been, the sole ambition of the SNP. Anything that deviates from that goal is of no interest to them.
So how to explain Wednesday’s speech? Simply that Nicola Sturgeon would rather do anything — including shutting down the Scottish private sector, such as it is — than have another coronavirus death on her watch. This isn’t because of the extreme and unusual “compassion” of the Scottish people that the SNP claims exists (in fact we Scots are at least as bloody and vengeful a people as any) but rather because Sturgeon knows that if her own mortality figures come out any worse than England’s then she and her fellow Nationalists may be held responsible for the fact.
Just as if the death tolls in England turn out higher than those in Scotland, then Sturgeon and co will highlight this as yet one more example of “foreign” malfeasance and incompetence which only highlights the case for independence. Of course, happily for them the SNP can further wreck and immiserate the Scottish economy, safe in the knowledge that they will be able to continue relying on the support and largesse of taxpayers in the South-East of England.
So it is that after weeks of zero deaths Sturgeon stands in front of the Scottish people and warns them of fires, and gloom and doom and the importance of taking action “as human beings” to avert a catastrophe that was in fact averted weeks if not months ago. Shutting down Aberdeen for a dozen cases of corona portrays Sturgeon as a strong but determined leader.
When the financial consequences of her decision hit then she can portray them as further evidence of how much better off the Scots would be without the English yoke. The grim warnings Sturgeon issued on Wednesday will have given her the greatest possible satisfaction. Not just because she is a Scot, but because she is a Scots Nationalist who knows that everything — including the worst possible catastrophe — can all be made to work very happily in her own favour.