I can’t remember exactly who wrote it, but I recall once reading a fascinating article about debates held in Westminster at the height of the Second World War. During something particularly seismic – and I think it was the Evacuation of Dunkirk – the honorary members were debating something rather more mundane but important nonetheless: a Bill tabled to radically reform the education system.
The war dominated discussions, but never totally. In fact, it was the very reality of war that concentrated the minds of visionaries like Aneurin Bevan and fuelled their efforts to imagine the post-conflict brave new world of the National Health Service, new housing, the social contract and moves to the greater European integration that would, in time, lead to the Treaty of Rome, the EEC and, eventually, the European Union. And, of course, peace.
Nobody seemed to have objected to this. It wasn’t an either / or. It wasn’t: “we’ll put the war to bed and then think about what we might want to do next”, because they knew that was too late. In the midst of winning the war, they were developing a strategy to win the peace. Far from viewing robust democratic discussion about the future as an unnecessary and even irresponsible distraction from the existential threat of the present, the need to create a better world from the ashes of this one was brought, by catastrophe, into sharper relief than ever. And I suspect if you’d said to them “now is not the time”, they might well have replied: if not now, when? Because planning doesn’t distract us from the grave issues in front of us. Indeed, it is an essential part of the solution.
This week, two things in particular caught my attention.
I could hardly have missed the first one, which was my home town, after many months of relative safety, found itself, by some considerable distance, the most Covid affected area in Scotland.
The second one you may well have missed. At least two major newspapers ran opinion pieces in which the writers questioned the wisdom of holding this spring’s Holyrood elections under the current circumstances.
I found the question a curious one for a number of reasons. Firstly, I’ve lived in various parts of rural Scotland for much of my life and have always chosen to vote in person. The village I live on the edge of now, Lochans, has around one hundred and fifty people. I’m imagining around a hundred of them have the vote. Thirty of them won’t bother to. Which means seventy people have fifteen hours to enter a muckle big draughty hall, put a cross in a wee box and leave thirty seconds later. The only other people I’m likely to see are the two women sitting by the ballot boxes, trying to make the situation tolerable by knitting and doing the Sudoku.
You get the point. If you had to invent a time and a place for easy social distancing, Lochans village on Election Day would be the safest place on the planet.
Secondly, I looked it up. From Ne’ers Day up until October 25th last year – so very much during the pandemic – I counted twenty-eight major elections worldwide and one referendum. Not one of them was postponed. And, of course, Trump v Biden – leaving aside the dreadful attempted coup at the Capitol yesterday – went ahead without a hitch. I don’t remember hearing a single person suggesting that they ought to be shelved. And they certainly didn’t suggest postponing Brexit. To which I can only conclude that the only “current circumstances” being referred to that should lead to the postponement of Scotland’s democratic process are the growing list of opinion polls confirming the inexorable rise of support for the normality of Scottish self-government.
Rightly, Scotland’s government continues to navigate a course out the pandemic. But, just as importantly, the discussions ahead of May, and in the weeks and months after should be informed by a simple question: where do we want to recover to? And who should control the levers that would allow us to get there?
An obvious example is the report into Scotland’s post-Covid economy, in which the authors stated that Scotland needed to borrow somewhere in the region of twenty billion pounds to recover from this crisis and – crucially – mitigate ahead of the near-inevitable next one. Yet, the constraints of devolution means that Scotland can only borrow a fraction – £348m – of that. Which leaves us only with the option of doing what we always do: finding money from other budget departments that really could do without losing any more funding, or asking Rishi Sunak nicely to borrow on our behalf and hope he’s in a benevolent mood and that there aren’t some Red Wall votes in England needing shored up with some dough.
So shouldn’t we all be asking: who speaks for Scotland? And aren’t we more likely to get to where we need to be if it’s us that has the power to determine the direction of travel, rather that a Westminster government whose values are increasingly opposed to our own?
And I’ll leave you with a final thought for now.
All has changed, changed utterly.
Even with a world beating vaccine (and, for Boris Johnson, everything is world beating) we may, in one sense, never be truly post-Covid. We’ll certainly never be free of the likelihood of a second pandemic. And even if there isn’t another one for a long while, we’ll be dealing with the aftermath of this one for a hell of a long time.
So our choice is this.
We think about nothing else but Covid until it’s beaten.
Or. Try to beat it whilst concurrently imagining the place that we want to live in after it’s gone, and coming up with the kind of normal constitutional arrangement that would allow us to build that brave new world.
At some point, people, we need to deal with the ongoing Covid situation and return statehood to Scotland. If we wait for the first thing to end, the second thing may never begin.
There are people alive who lived through a period in history that proves these things can happen in tandem.
And – if Scotland is to prosper after these darkest of days – then they must.
Stay safe good people. A happy new year.
I’ll meet you further on up the road.