They’re at it again. We were assured by the unwavering flyers of the red white and blue that the London Olympics and all its oozy woozy better togetherness was going to kill off any hope of independence. Then it was the result of the independence referendum in 2014. Then it was the oil price crash that was going to do the trick. Then it was Ruth Davidson’s election as leader of the Conservatives’ Scottish branch office. Then it was Brexit. Then it was the SNP’s loss of seats in the 2017 Westminster General Election. And now it’s the coronavirus epidemic that’s going to provide the coup de grace on Scotland’s hopes for independence.
In the fond hopes of British nationalists in Scotland, there’s always going to be some external event that will come along and destroy the independence movement without the British state having to change anything about itself. It’s a hope that’s founded in a delusion, the delusion that the desire for independence in Scotland has nothing to drive it except some mythical hatred of all things English, or the equally mythical chip on the stereotypical Scottish shoulder, or that it is entirely a product of Thatessempee.
Yet independence does have a driver, and that driver is the way in which the British state is incapable of being simultaneously the union that it tells Scots that it is, and the unitary state which it behaves as. You cannot be two opposite and contradictory things at once, not even if you believe yourself to be the almighty and uniquely exceptional British state. It’s the tension between those two opposites, between claiming to be a union of nations yet acting as a unitary state and claiming to be one nation, which is what is really driving the desire for independence in Scotland. That is why the only possible way in which the British state will be able to destroy the drive for independence as a serious political force would be by making fundamental root and branch changes to the very structure of the British state itself. It shows not the slightest inclination to do so, and so its supporters are constantly turning to the political equivalent of winning the lottery in order to save them from themselves. They are left forever dreaming of some external event that will radically alter their fortunes for the better without them having to do any of the heavy lifting themselves.
The latest incarnations of British nationalist hopes of winning the political lottery come from Chris Deerin in the New Statesman and John Lloyd in The Times. Well I say the latest, the pair of them have been trotting out the same tired old British exceptionalism for years now. Both of them claim that the coronavirus epidemic has destroyed the previous arguments for independence. Chris wants us to know that it has made the Great British Family of Nations come together as one in joyful harmony all singing Kumbaya and so Thatessempee will have to come up with an entirely new set of arguments for “separatism”.
So for example we’re being told that the government bailouts which this crisis demands “prove” that we need the British government. But the British government is not giving us anything. It’s using the central bank to create money out of nothing, and its borrowing on the international markets. These are both things that an independent Scotland would be able to do. The British state is borrowing money which it’s going to spend in ways which are not necessarily the best for Scotland, then it’s going to lumber us with increased debt repayments and tell us that we’ve got too big a decifit to become independent. We’ve seen this trick before.
However the real problem with the happy family analysis is that it assumes that the British government is going to come out of the other side of this crisis as the beneficiary of public gratefulness for saving us from the virus. That’s an unwarranted assumption since it sadly looks as though the UK is on track to become one of the worst affected states in Europe, with a higher death toll than neighbouring countries despite the UK having a head start in making preparations for the coming catastrophe. A head start which the British government squandered. After we get through the current crisis, there will be a demand for explanations. The British government is not going to come out of that process well.
The way in which this British government has handled this crisis has gone through five approximate stages. Stage 1. Boris Johnson decided that his real priority was to spend time sorting out his complex personal life. We got “Crisis? What crisis?” Even as scientists and doctors warned that an epidemic was on the horizon. Stage 2. We got taking it on the chin and the British state would uniquely stand tall as the only place in Europe that would remain open for business during the crisis. So we got herd immunity and Boris Johnson making speeches comparing the UK to Superman. Stage 3. There was an “oh shit” moment as the government realised that its strategy meant that there could be as many as 250,000 deaths and that it was woefully unprepared. Then we had stage 4, when the British government desperately tried to play catch up. Nothing to see here. We’re following scientific advice and everything is in hand. Vera Lynn. Dunkirk spirit. And now we’re in stage 5. The latest phase of the British Government’s mishandling entails finding someone, anyone, else to blame for the fact that the UK is one of the worst affected places in Europe and where the NHS is struggling. It’s all the fault of the scientists. It’s WHO’s fault. It’s the fault of NHS management. Mostly it will be the fault of some working class people, and not government ministers. Never government ministers. This is not a recipe for a grateful Scottish nation deciding that it’s better off with Westminster.
For Scotland, being subordinate to Westminster has meant that we were forced to remain tightly aligned to the British government’s handling of this crisis. The result has been that Scotland has already suffered a higher death rate than other northern European nations of a comparable size. The price of union has been paid in human lives. Scotland did attempt to deal differently with the crisis within the constraints of the devolution settlement, yet even those limited and partial attempts to do things differently were subjected to a torrent of criticism and threats from the British government and its cheerleaders in the British media.
None of this is a convincing argument for the so-called union. Indeed, it’s a powerful and compelling argument for independence. If we had been able to deal with this crisis without having to contend with British exceptionalism or the UK government’s disastrous herd immunity policy and its failure to test and trace, and even now its failure to test travellers arriving from abroad, we could have done a whole lot better. And that means that some of those people who have so tragically passed away might still be alive today.
Right now there is a willingness on the part of the independence movement to put campaigning to one side to focus on the issue at hand. British nationalists confuse that with capitulation at their peril.
And finally, because we could all do with some cheering up during these difficult times…
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