Lessons to be learned for the Unionists after Tory ‘lockstep’

LOCKSTEP. Now there’s a word I’d happily never hear again. This parade-ground epithet has been everywhere in Scottish politics for the last month. The catechism of Unionist cliché – briefly – found its new slogan. No more.

If you’re anything like me, you may well be struggling to remember what day, week or month it is, or who said what when – but in this instance, a little forensic remembering will do you some good.

When loose spirits in Downing Street first began selectively briefing the Westminster lobby that the UK Government wanted to bring an end to the sustained social distance of the past two months, the Scottish Tories dutifully began softening up public opinion in support of whatever the Prime Minister decided. When Boris Johnson initially cried “caution” instead of “freedom”, Jackson Carlaw and his colleagues looked craven and previous, the poor suckers who believed the briefing and rushed off to do their partisan duty, only to find the boss had changed the script at the last minute.

Not satisfied with one embarrassment, Scottish Conservatives have been determined to experience another in the past fortnight. And so we come to “leaving lockdown in lockstep”. Seemingly without reference to any health statistics, prevalence data, incubation periods or geographical differences between the extent of the outbreak north and south of the Border – the Scottish Tories decided British is best.

Original, n’est-ce pas? Led by our redoubtable Secretary of State for Scotland, concerted efforts were made to delegitimise the idea different parts of the UK might end the lockdown in different ways. In Scotland, it was presented as nothing short of a separatist ploy. This analysis – encouraged by Andrew Neil and others – achieved remarkable traction in the most indy-sceptical corners of the metropolitan press.

And so, feeling the wind in his sails, just 12 days ago, Alister Jack took it upon himself to write a column in the Daily Mail. In it, he insisted that “when Scotland is ready to emerge from lockdown we should do so in lockstep with the UK as a whole”. Why? There were, he said, “strong, practical reasons” for doing so. According to the Secretary of State, it was “important, as Scotland’s two governments make such onerous, difficult demands on people to stay at home and to stay away from family and friends, that we speak with the same voice”.

Less than a fortnight ago, Jack insisted it was vital the different administrations in these islands “present a simple, clear, united message”. Free-thinking Carlaw promptly agreed, maintaining just over a week ago that “simplicity saves lives” and arguing “we must come out of lockdown together”.

Even under Covid’s boot, two weeks is a long time in politics. Jack didn’t have to write that tabloid column. Carlaw didn’t have to jump in so hard behind it. But they did. And what have they gained from it? Best I can reckon, this week they have: watched their Prime Minister blithely ignore their advice, change the “one-nation” script, muddy the message, disregard all the perils Jack wrote about, leading England out alone into its puddle of socially distanced sunshine.

And what’s Jack’s song now the Prime Minister has decided Britain doesn’t have “to leave lockdown in lockstep”? Scotland’s grand panjandrum has demurely admitted he was “persuaded that England should be able to relax its rules ahead of the rest of the country”, but reportedly lamented the “divergence”. If he lamented, he lamented extremely quietly.

If you’ve any sense of irony, there’s a very bleak kind of humour in this second awkward spot the Prime Minister has put his loyal Scottish colleagues into. Yet again, they’ve done exactly what they thought their UK leader wanted – only to find themselves, yet again, encamped in an abandoned position, reinforcements retreating, looking like pliable chumps. You’d think the Scottish Tories would have the good grace to feel briefly self-conscious about how silly and confected the PM’s one-nation approach to the lockdown has made their interventions look – but now they’re doing their best to radiate a jaunty unselfconsciousness entirely at odds with everything they felt with such passionate intensity when they hoped they could blame Nicola Sturgeon for it less than a fortnight ago. Like all well lubricated politicians, they’re hoping to sluice past this awkward spot, with fingers crossed nobody remembers what diddies they’ve made of themselves in a few weeks’ time.

But step back from the temporary pink Jack and Jackson find themselves in. Take a moment to appreciate how epically feeble their whole “lockdown in lockstep” campaign was. If you were truly confident in the enduring character of your Union, if you really believed in the social weight of the British solidarity you extol at every opportunity – you should have confidence in the the idea that folk in Wales, England, Scotland and Northern Ireland can cope with the idea of regional differentiation in responses to this pandemic, without “strengthening the separatist agenda”.

You don’t need Machiavelli’s grasp of statecraft to understand that a virus which is spread by human contact may prevail more readily in some environments rather than others, or to comprehend that an outbreak in a densely populated district here may merit a different response to a low-incidence rural community there. You don’t have to be a frumious cybernat to think introducing geographical differences represents a legitimate and proportionate way of striking the balance between public health on the one hand, and our basic liberties on the other. Glasgow isn’t Argyll. Aberdeen isn’t London. People understand that.

If Newcastle, God forbid, became a hotbed of infections while the situation in the rest of the country seemed in hand, you wouldn’t find many English politicians perishing with anxiety that treating the north-east differently would lay an axe to the root of English national unity.

CONSIDER the European parallels. Take France. At the beginning of this month, health minister Olivier Véran published a detailed map of France’s 101s départements, distinguishing between red and green regions depending on infection rates and hospital capacity, with different lockdown rules applying in different regions, and a dynamic approach to loosening its social discipline. The situation in the Île-de-France isn’t the same as in Ariège. The French aren’t fretting about drawing these distinctions for the sake of a rag on a pole. The integrity of the republic isn’t threatened by these temporary measures.

But in Scotland? The very prospect sends these lads into conniptions, and when their own Prime Minister drives the divergence they dreaded, they’re forced to choke it down gratefully like cold tapioca. That regional divergence in Scotland provokes such fears in leading Scottish Tories reveals – perhaps unwittingly – the quiet apprehensions some Unionists are feeling about the resonances of this strange period in our shared history, and the lessons the electorate may take from it about the best way for this country to be governed.

The anxieties Carlaw and Jack don’t talk about may be well founded. This week, the University of Edinburgh’s large-scale Covid Life survey found that 62% of Scots thought Scottish ministers were capable of preventing a second wave of coronavirus, while just 37% expressed the same confidence in Her Majesty’s Government. This faith may or not be well placed. But the fact public opinion seems to be breaking down in this way may help explain the anxieties causing senior Scottish Tories to lash out in this unproductive way.

Two weeks ago, the pollster YouGov found three quarters of Scots reckoned the SNP were handling the pandemic reasonable well. This included 85% of the party’s voters, a similar percentage of Liberal Democrats, and 70% of Tory and Labour voters north of the Border. Some 71% had confidence in Nicola Sturgeon’s capacity to make the right decisions. When it comes to the UK Government’s handling of the coronavirus crisis, however, Scots are more dramatically split, with 47% saying the Johnson administration has handled it well, compared to 48% who think the Prime Minister has performed poorly. This contrasts rather dramatically with the findings south of the Border, where 59% give the UK Government a positive rating. You may think these ratings fair or unfair. They are just straws in the wind, snapshots of public opinion taken at a strange moment in our politics. Perceptions may change as the crisis develops, as mistakes are examined and answered for, as decisions are justified.

There are more urgent, more important issues to contend with at this moment – but senior Unionists must be looking at these figures with dismay. A few weeks by, I suggested that this crisis may be a “teachable” moment in our politics. Whether we want it to or not, this pandemic will teach us all something important about what our values are, who we trust and what we value. Scratch all the “lockstep” flimflam from the Scottish Tories, and you will find only anxiety the UK Government will stagger away from this crisis, its credit further downgraded, the story of the Union still harder to tell.

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