In the middle of the most terrifying existential crisis in over a century, it’s important to find a little light relief. I’ve found some of the stuff online since the start of the crisis – daft and surreal humour, hilarious videos, crazes like the bog-roll keepy-uppy challenge and so forth – to be a great boost to morale during these deeply worrying times. It’s quite possible – in fact, it’s healthy – to think seriously about the future of society and have an opinion on the ongoing scandal of Westminster’s appalling handling of Covid, whilst also posting videos of yourself trying to chip a golf ball into a bucket. Humour, even the gallows type, is the balm that helps keep us sane.
However, this week’s light relief came from an unexpected source.
The Conservative Party, even for the small number of people who are a member of it, is surely far from the epitome of sublime comedy, particularly if you’ve ever watched Theresa May trying to deliver a punchline at a party conference. Margaret Thatcher, famously, was a woman born with a sense of humour bypass, something that even her closest colleagues appreciated. She had some great lines which she delivered in speeches reasonably well, but she had no idea why anyone might find them funny. Her PR people used to brief the press that she enjoyed watching Yes Prime Minister, but the truth is she only saw the inadequacies of fictional PM Jim Hacker, rather than the brilliant, timeless satire that it is.
So it was something of a shock that this week saw a couple of prominent Conservative politicians provide the laughter that we’ve come to cherish in these dark days.
It came about when the possibility of Scotland closing the border to protect its citizens from Covid was raised in a press conference.
It seems that there was then a hasty discussion amongst Scotland’s opposition party to thrash out the party line on this. Interestingly enough, it wasn’t “you can’t shut the border” – and, as my farming friend and fellow activist Jim Fairlie tweeted, you can; Scotland did exactly that a couple of decades ago during the Foot and Mouth outbreak – an action that went some way to delivering less culling and better outcomes in Scotland compared to its neighbours.
And it wasn’t even “you shouldn’t close the border”.
They say the secret of comedy is timing, and the Conservatives, having built towards the punchline, delivered the coup de grace.
You can’t shut the border because the border doesn’t exist.
You’ve been a lovely audience. I’m here all week.
What David Mundell actually said in a tweet immediately retweeted by Ruth Davidson was: “This is ridiculous talk. We are one United Kingdom. There is no border between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom”. It all sounded very Trumpian. Donald has his non-existent wall. Now David has his disappearing border. Maybe he’d been following DJT’s advice about the bleach a bit too closely for his own good.
So: a Borders man whose website describes his area as stretching “from the English border to ten miles outside Edinburgh”, representing a Borders constituency and promoting Borderland initiatives and who talked about a hard border during various recent referendums claims we can’t close the border because there is no border to close.
So far, so ludicrous. Enter Jackson Carlaw. “It is ridiculous to suggest Nicola could close the border. There is no border – we are one United Kingdom”, he blustered.
There was, of course, much mirth at the response. For my part, I paid Mr Mundell little heed – he sits in what is to all intents and purposes an English Parliament and therefore his opinion should carry no more weight that a representative of the parliament of Kazakhstan.
Carlow, however, is a different issue.
If he denies there’s a border, then he is effectively saying that Scotland as a country doesn’t exist. So if he doesn’t believe Scotland exists, why is he picking up a salary from sitting in that non-existent country’s parliament? what is the point of him? And if he believes this, then why is he here?
What’s equally depressing and predictable is the lazy assumption that Nicola Sturgeon’s government’s belated divergence from the Westminster four nation approach is nothing more than an exercise in political point-scoring. After yesterday’s unilateral advice over wearing face masks, one scribe wrote: “if it’s not a concerted attempt to embarrass Westminster, it’s having that effect anyway”.
Note to Westminster: it isn’t always about you.
It wouldn’t be in the makeup of this most practical and canny of leaders to get up in the morning and say: “right, how am I going to embarrass Westminster today?”, and, even if that did cross her mind, she’d surely quickly realise the pointlessness of trying to embarrass a government that couldn’t be making a better job of making a bouroch of everything if it got up early to practice.
It really shouldn’t need saying, but sometimes you feel like explaining to Westminster – very slowly, in the manner of Father Ted explaining to the hapless Dougal that while some cows are small up close up the ones in the distant only look small because they are faraway, that some things are devolved – like health, and Covid is a health crisis.
So, if the First Minister feels like telling her citizens that wearing a wee mask when you’re doing the shopping might be a good idea, she’s perfectly a liberty to do so. And what riles many Scots is the casual assumption that London knows best.
In truth, I find the criticism of the devolved and democratically elected Scottish government using its devolved powers (like health) to diverge from Westminster – as it’s perfectly entitled to do – really strange.
You either believe in devolution or you do not. Rather than trying to find non-existent motives in Holyrood’s welcome if belated use of its powers, it would would be better if some folk just admitted that they don’t like devolution and never wanted the return of Scotland’s parliament in the first place. It would save us from the absurdity of people like Jackson Carlaw working in a parliament whose very existence they ideologically oppose.
The entirely manufactured stooshie over borders and facemasks confirms once again that for unionists the United Kingdom is an act of faith, a shibboleth whose primacy takes precedence over people, just as it did with a politically motivated decision to withdraw from EU schemes to bulk buy ventilators because it wouldn’t fly with the hard brexiteer core vote. As Frankie Boyle remarks, “It seems on reflection that there are some drawbacks to electing people who are fundamentally indifferent to human life”.
It should be clearly stated that Nicola Sturgeon has no more obligation to follow Westminster than she does to follow New Zealand, or Sweden, or indeed anyone else. In fact, it makes sense to look far beyond our borders and see what works – and what doesn’t. And if that happens to annoy Dominic Raab in the process? Well, we all need cheering up sometimes.
Where stands devolution in all of this?
Unionists don’t want it. They never did. They recoil in horror every time Scotland diverges in even a small way, because it shows us for what we are – an increasingly bold, assertive, confident people finally shredding its sense of inferiority to a political system that has been shown as not just incompetent, but also, frankly, lethal.
“There shall be a Scottish Parliament” said the late Donald Dewar. And there is. But the establishment reaction to that parliament actually doing what it was established to do – serve the people of Scotland with the powers accorded to it – shows the enduring truth in Enoch Powell’s assertion that power devolved is power retained. Holyrood is a Westminster creation, and ultimately they lend the power while retaining the right to call in the loan. Don’t think for a second they haven’t thought about doing so.
In twenty short years, Holyrood has become a central part of Scotland’s political and cultural life. Most of us would like that to continue. The self-determination that recent crises have shown to be so vital means that it will. One day this will be over and the border will still be there. The possibilities for us beyond it, however, are infinite.
Keep safe, everybody. I’ll meet you further on up the road.