Yesterday BBC Scotland broadcast a report about a study which found that if Scotland had gone into lockdown two weeks earlier than it did we would have suffered only a small fraction of the deaths that we’ve actually seen. It could have been possible that we’d only have had 20% of the currently recorded deaths. The report was widely criticised on social media by independence supporters who saw it as yet another attack upon Thatessempee by the state broadcaster. The science behind the report appears to be impeccable, the disagreements were about the way in which it was presented by the BBC, and its implicit politicisation.
The report was presented by the BBC as a study of Scotland in isolation. The impression was given that the Scottish Government could have entered lockdown two weeks earlier, and its failure to do so meant that hundreds of people had died who might otherwise still be with us. There was no consideration of the wider UK context in which Scotland finds itself as a part of the UK. This is what made the report unfair and misleading.
There are certainly ways in which the Scottish Government could have responded better in the early stages of this crisis. Large public gatherings could have been banned earlier. Schools could have been closed earlier. The Scottish Government could have demonstrated a bolder approach in its willingness to adopt a different strategy from Westminster. But we cannot overlook the wider UK picture, which is precisely where the BBC Scotland report failed.
We must not forget that the Scottish Government operates under constraints which are not experienced by the governments of – say – Ireland or Denmark. Holyrood does not have the full range of financial or legal powers at its disposal to introduce a full lockdown. For example the Scottish Government does not have the power to introduce the job retention scheme or the financial support for self-employed people brought in by the UK Chancellor of the Exchequer. The Scottish Government does not have the legal powers to impose checks on the borders or to prohibit entry into Scotland for travellers coming from abroad.
Any attempt by the Scottish Government to introduce a strict lockdown which was not backed by Westminster would have opened the Scottish Government up to the accusation that it was depriving workers of their livelihoods. And the BBC in Scotland would have been leading that charge. Scotland could have requested the powers to do so from Westminster, but as we all know, this is not a British Government which has displayed the slightest willingness to extend any further powers to the Scottish Government. Indeed it’s sought to claw power back. Boris Johnson’s administration would not have consented to any request from Nicola Sturgeon for even a temporary extension of Holyrood’s powers in order for Scotland to follow a distinctly different strategy in dealing with the virus.
Most damningly of all for those who seek to lay the blame at the door of Holyrood, Scotland’s scientific advisors were not allowed to participate fully in the UK Government’s SAGE meetings. Questions from the Chief Medical Officers and scientific advisors to the devolved governments had to be submitted in advance for consideration. They were reduced to the status of passive observers at meetings in which Dominic Cummings participated fully. It appears clear that the attitude of Westminster was to bully and intimidate the devolved nations into slavishly following the Conservative government’s line. Even in the scientific advice, the view of the Johnson administration was to reinforce an unequal relationship between Westminster and Holyrood. A fair report from BBC Scotland would have examined the consequences of this.
However, perhaps even more importantly, Scotland does not have a domestically controlled media of its own. The Scottish media, and BBC Scotland is the most obvious example, is controlled by and answerable to governing bodies outwith Scotland. That media has been sharp in its criticisms of any attempt by the Scottish Government to diverge from the policies of Westminster. Had Scotland attempted to introduce a strict lockdown weeks before the UK Government followed suit, again BBC Scotland would have been amongst those leading the charge against the Scottish Government. Holyrood would have been accused of undermining the UK strategy, of attempting to politicise the epidemic, and of scaremongering. When Nicola Sturgeon announced that she was banning large public gatherings before the British Government appeared willing to do so, she was subject to a torrent of abuse from British nationalist commentators in the media.
The effect of this upon the Scottish public is to reinforce the prejudices of British nationalists in Scotland who are not disposed at the best of times to heed advice from a Scottish Government controlled by Thatessempee. Those who felt that they could defy the advice of the Scottish Government because different advice was being given by the British Government would have felt validated and empowered to do so. This would have undermined any efforts from the Scottish Government to introduce stricter measures without the support of Westminster. This is an issue which nations like Ireland or Denmark simply do not have to consider. The media in any country is not merely a reporter on this epidemic, it is also an actor in the response to it.
We are seeing the exact same thing right now as the British Government is mired in confused and mixed messages about coming out of lockdown, while the Scottish Government’s advice remains to stay at home. On social media and anecdotally there are many reports of people who are politically opposed to independence and to the Scottish Government declaring that they will not be dictated to by Thatessempee. Such people are validated and emboldened by a British nationalist media which strives to undermine the Scottish Government politically, because fending off the threat of Scottish independence is their first priority. Lives are being put at risk.
BBC Scotland was right to highlight this report, but what this report really proves is that the UK as a whole needed to enter lockdown much earlier. It is a condemnation of the British Government first and foremost, because within the UK it’s only the British Government which disposes of the full panoply of powers and authority to introduce a complete response to the epidemic. The British Government failed dismally to do so, and the Scottish Government has been left playing catch up with both hands tied behind its back and having to contend with a hostile media which attacks it for any divergence from the British Government. Scotland cannot be blamed for Boris Johnson’s negligence. BBC Scotland and the British nationalist media in Scotland seek to lay the blame at Holyrood’s door for the shortcomings and failures of the British state.
And finally, because we could all do with some cheering up during these difficult times…
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