Well it’s happened again. And there was me yesterday thinking that we’d reached the absolute nadir with the Scotsman blaming Nicola Sturgeon for, you know, doing her job. New depths have been plunged in the British media’s desperate attempt to find some reason why Scotland shouldn’t be independent. The Mariana Trench in the Pacific Ocean has traditionally been cited as the deepest point on Earth, but it at least has a bottom to it. Someone ought to write to the Guinness Book of Records to let them know that the deepest point on Earth is actually the space inhabited by the anti-independence media in Scotland and their deep level sub-barrel bottom scraping attempts to find some reasons why we shouldn’t vote yes.
Today it’s Kenny Farquharson’s turn in the Times. The coronavirus, he tells us, makes Scottish independence far more difficult and less likely because it demonstrates that it’s essential for Scotland to cooperate with Westminster. This is no time for Scotland to self-isolate, warns the headline. Now I will confess, I am not entirely sure what Kenny’s reasoning is here, because the article is behind Rupert Murdoch’s paywall and fades out at approximately the same paragraph at which the reader loses the will to live.
However I would hazard a guess that one of the flaws in Kenny’s logic is that the coronavirus doesn’t merely mean that it’s essential for Scotland to cooperate with Westminster, it also means that it’s essential for Scotland to cooperate with Dublin, Paris, Brussels, Rome, Beijing, Hanoi, and Ouagadougou – amongst others. The other flaw is that currently as a part of the UK, it’s Westminister which is self-isolating Scotland from international cooperation such as the EU’s early warning system for epidemics.
The Early Warning and Response System is a European wide system allowing health authorities to cooperate across international frontiers in order to get ahead of looming health crises. ERWS is an online system which was launched in 1988. It allows the European Commission, governments, and health agencies to share information about potential threats to health. This is vital because a virus or a microbe is no respecter of international borders. EWRS helped health authorities to tackle the SARS and bird flu epidemics. Health officials have warned Downing Street that leaving the EWRS potentially puts public health at risk, yet Number 10 decided to leave it anyway because Brexit and Taking Back Control. Scotland’s health agencies also have had to leave, because of a decision made by Westminster, a decision which Scotland was neither consulted about nor allowed to have an opinion on.
It was also reported on Wednesday that Brexit means that the UK is no longer cooperating with the EU on medical procurement or drug approval. It’s likely to take a year or more before a vaccine is ready, by which time the UK will have left the transitional period and will most likely be outside the authority of the EU’s medicines regulation authority, the European Medicines Agency. The medicines agency represents a pool of over 500 million people, making it a far more attractive market to a drug company than the UK. The EMA has a special fast track for approving a vaccine more rapidly during a pandemic, and so could give approval to a new vaccine against the coronavirus within 70 days of the vaccine being developed instead of the usual 210.
The greater clout of the EU will give it an advantage when it comes to negotiating the price of the vaccine with whichever drug company develops it. This means that any vaccine which is developed against the virus could cost the UK more than it will cost the EU and be available to the UK later than it will be accessible to health authorities in other European countries. It is possible that the UK could ask for special access to the EMA given the seriousness of the coronavirus epidemic, but EU nations will quite naturally insist upon prioritising their own citizens and health authorities before the UK is allowed a look in.
What we’ve seen from the British government so far during the coronavirus is a mixture of incompetence, short term expediency, political grandstanding, and English exceptionalism. In other words, pretty much how the British state approaches any international crisis. At a time when we need mature and calm leadership we have Boris Johnson suggesting that the UK could take the virus “on the chin”, and Jacob Rees Mogg telling us to wash our hands while singing God Save the Queen. There are no health checks or controls on people coming into the UK from areas where the outbreak is more advanced – what was that about taking control of our borders? Mass gatherings such as the Cheltenham Festival are going ahead as normal.
None of this is an argument convincing anyone that Scotland is better off leaving part time Prime Minister Boris Johnson to deal with the epidemic. Yet, at least judging by its headline, the Times article misses the entire point of independence, no doubt deliberately so. It views independence purely through the lens of Westminster control-freakery. The point of Scottish independence is not to isolate Scotland from anywhere, it’s to allow Scotland to plug itself directly into international networks without all our contacts with the wider world being mediated by a Westminster which as we have seen does not have the interests of Scotland as its first, second, or even third priority. It’s like replacing a shonky dial up internet with superfast broadband, and then being accused of isolating yourself from the out of date technology of the dial up modem which constantly drops your connection.
In the Westminster bubble they see themselves as cosmopolitan, global, and representing the entire world, so naturally anyone who no longer wishes to be subordinate to Westminster must wish to isolate themselves from the planet. The concept that an independent Scotland might be capable of forging its own connections and relationships with the rest of the world can’t possibly occur to a Westminsterista. The concept that the government of an independent Scotland could seek to forge a relationship with Westminster as an equal is utterly unthinkable.
Independence isn’t about self-isolation, it’s about connections, and making international relationships as an equal partner who is treated with respect. That’s something we’ll never get with Westminster controlling Scotland’s access to the wider world. If the coronavirus epidemic has any effect upon the Scottish independence debate, it will be to make more people realise that. There’s a whole world of opportunities out there. Scotland needs to plug itself in directly.
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