I’m going to start with the usual caveats.
I live in the country. While agriculture won’t be immune to the impact of Coronavirus, people need to eat and I’m therefore fortunate to work in an industry that people are now deeply appreciative of, perhaps for the first time ever.
Farming life is going full pelt, in Stranraer as much as everywhere. Lambing, calving, sowing – and the mild winter and recent great weather has seen an early start to the silage season. The air is better and the rivers are cleaner. Turns out it wasn’t the coos killing the planet after all. Who knew?
In common with many people, I’ve found much to do in lockdown – not least work from home, which is what I do the rest of the year anyway. My reading has become more eclectic than ever, I’ve subscribed to Netflix, and I’ve been cycling up the twenty miles a day and therefore feel fitter and – this is the best bit – happier than I’ve been for years. I’ve thus far resisted joining the craze for home baking, so no matter how bad this gets, the world will be at least be spared the results of my attempts to make banana bread.
But I’ve also been doing a lot of thinking.
Did I miss it? The email, I mean? The one that said we had to put our cognitive skills into cold storage for the duration of the crisis? To package up our brains and put them in box marked “now is not the time”? To consign any thoughts about what this crisis tells us about the deep structural flaws in our constitutional arrangements into cold storage, along with any suggestions about what a future Scotland might look like? Because I’m getting a sense that the narrative being peddled, and not just from the usual suspects, is that any of that treasonous separatist chatter is somehow a betrayal of the Better Together lockdown spirit, and that the whole independence thing should be mothballed until sometime far into the future.
No it shouldn’t. Now is not the time, to borrow a hackneyed phrase, for political quietism. Governments are very good at enacting emergency legislation during a crisis. History shows they’re not so clever at repealing it when the situation eases. We must be vigilant. As the strapline of The Washington Post says, “Democracy dies in darkness”.
I posted this, about the near-centenarian Captain Tom Moore’s admirable fundraising, on my Facebook page a few days back.
“I don’t want to kill the mood here, but while it’s great that a man who’s nearly a hundred is raising millions for the NHS, the normalisation of the NHS as a charity rather than a fundamental tenet of government funding is a deliberate tactic to asset-strip it further. What is on one hand an uplifting good news story is, on the other, a further damning indictment of neoliberal greed and conscious cruelty. The result? You’ll have had your facemasks. Here’s a wee badge from Matt Hancock. And a round of applause.
“It’s one of the dark ironies of these worrying days that a man whose heroism helped bring about the welfare state and the social contract finds himself in his one hundredth year fundraising to mitigate the terrible damage wreaked upon one of its crown jewels, the NHS, by intellectual pessimists who epitomise everything that true political giants like Bevan rightly despised.
“That he’s a truly remarkable individual is not up for question. He probably should be knighted, if you’re into that sort of thing. But that he should have to do it at all is an utter disgrace”.
While the analogies with wartime are both both unhelpful and wearing (and let’s be frank, if Covid-19 is a war, we’re losing), in this case one might be useful. The NHS that Captain Moore was raising money for didn’t come from nowhere. As several have pointed out, the Beveridge Report of 1943 set out plans for the future of post-war Britain. It identified the main issues facing British society, including disease, and laid the foundations of what would become known as the Welfare State. When Labour came to power in 1945, an extensive programme of welfare measures followed – including a National Health Service (NHS).
Intriguingly, in Scotland, the roots of healthcare based on need not ability to pay go much deeper.
The Highlands & Islands Medical Service, a publicly-funded healthcare system, was established in Scotland in 1913. It formed the basis of NHS Scotland, formed in 1948. Unlike NHS England & Wales it isn’t accountable to the UK Secretary of State for Health, and since 1999 the Scottish NHS has been fully administered by Holyrood. Health, like so many other key aspects of life, has always had a distinctly Scottish dimension.
My point is the wartime leaders didn’t feel the need to wait for the guns to go silent before drafting the Brave New World. Similarly, we need to be drafting post-Covid Scotland now, and making the case that the society we want to live in requires complete self-governance and nothing less.
So, actually, rather than mothball our intellects and make endless sourdough, it falls to all of us to think what kind of society we want to live in, and demand that those who deign to lead us deliver. Because I’m with Frankie Boyle on this. “There is no normal for us to go back to”, he writes. “People sleeping in the streets wasn’t normal; children living in poverty wasn’t normal; neither was our taxes helping to bomb the people of Yemen. We need to make something better in Scotland”.
He is surely right.
A journalist in the New Statesman wrote this week: “…only the most diehard will be worrying about future constitutional arrangements rather than their jobs, their kids’ schooling and their granny’s survival”.
These things are of fundamental importance, of course. Leaving aside his assumption that we’d be incapable of holding multiple thoughts at the same time – (has this thing mutated? Does it now attack the brain cells as well as the lungs? I think we should be told), we should naturally be asking whether we’d get better outcomes in all of these areas – grannies included – by staying with a union whose broad-shoulders couldn’t even purchase enough facemasks, or if perhaps achieving the normalcy of independence might be better – something that a majority of Scots now seem to be pursuing – which is probably why the opinion polls on the matter appear to have dried up entirely.
I had an entertaining and enlightening text exchange with a friend earlier in week who shares my love of etymology.
She told me that “Crisis” comes from the Greek word “krisis”. It means a turning point in a disease or a decisive state of things, a point at which change must come, for better or worse.
“Pandemic”, interesting, literally means “all of the people”. So, taken together, the words mean “all of us are at a turning point”.
As a description of the state of play, it is perfection. It’s also, amidst the terror, really exciting.
For film buffs, this is a Sliding Doors moment. Get the train or stay on the platform. One choice. Two futures.
Last week the Sunday Times – normally a Tory supporting paper, published the most damning report imaginable on the UK Government’s handling of the pandemic. It’s a long read, but essentially it revealed:
It would not be until March 2 that Johnson would attend a Cobra meeting about the coronavirus. But by then it was almost certainly too late.
Britain was on course for one of the worst infections of the most deadly virus in more than a century
One day there will inevitably be an inquiry into the lack of preparations during those “lost” five weeks
There will be questions about when politicians understood the severity of the threat, what the scientists told them and why so little was done to equip the NHS
Any inquiry may also ask whether the government’s failure to get to grips with the crisis in those early days had the knock-on effect of the national lockdown being introduced days or even weeks too late, causing many thousands more unnecessary deaths
It took just an hour on January 24 lunchtime to brush aside the coronavirus threat. Matt Hancock bounced out of Whitehall after chairing the meeting and breezily told reporters the risk to the UK public was “low”.
Boris Johnson had been absent from the Cobra meeting. He had found time that day to join in a lunar new year dragon eyes ritual as part of Downing Street’s reception for the Chinese community, led by the country’s ambassador
This investigation has found Britain was in a poor state of readiness for a pandemic. Emergency stockpiles of PPE had severely dwindled and gone out of date after becoming a low priority in the years of austerity cuts
Johnson may well have been distracted by matters in his personal life. Aides were told to keep their briefing papers short and cut the number of memos in his red box if they wanted them to be read.
The key point I’d make is that these aren’t necessarily “mistakes” in the truest sense. This didn’t come from nowhere. This – top heavy governance, the cult of leader, procrastination, group-think – is the default mode of the UK governing establishment, regardless of who is the Prime Minister. It always was, and all Covid has done is reveal it. The emperor has no clothes.
Perhaps history will show that the turning point came just after four o’ clock last Wednesday. That was the moment when a senior civil servant told a Select Committee that the decision to not take part in EU plans to purchase life-saving ventilators was entirely politically motivated. It is a matter of public record that when Gove et al talk about missing an email, they are in fact lying. They chose not to take part because it wouldn’t fly with their core voters. They prioritised political advantage over human lives. People are dead because of this ideologically driven madness.
Think about that. Get angry. Keep score.
The case for Scotland remaining in the United Kingdom, if it exists at all, rests in the belief that a more enlightened, progressive age of governance will emerge from the ashes of this terrible time.
I hae ma doots. History shows that England votes for right wing governments more often than centrist of left-leaning ones. The elephant in the room is that tens of millions of people have watched successive Conservative administrations asset-strip the NHS, cut its funding, shelve a pandemic training programme because of Brexit and bury a report stating the utter unpreparedness of the UK to face an almost inevitable health crisis – and voted for Boris Johnson. And then put a rainbow on the window and applauded the nurses.
And, while a progressive Labour government can be voted in, it can just as easily be voted out. Whatever happens, Scotland’s future continues to be determined by another country’s government, which is the fundamental problem – and, while that stifling situation continues, there is very little we can do.
There’s been much to admire in Scotland’s handling of this crisis, and the increasing divergence from Westminster is to be welcomed. But we need more of it. Starting now. This thing will one day pass. Act as if you’re living in the early days of a better Scotland.
I’ll keep up the reading and the gardening and the cycling. But I won’t give up thinking. I won’t give up campaigning for independence.
And, while I know I shouldn’t be saying this when we’re all supposed to be be making bloody sourdough, I’m going to say it anyway.
Bring. It. On.