Back in the distant days of 2014 when Brexit was nothing more than Nigel Farage’s wet dream and you could eat in restaurants and hug your granny without fear of dying from a terrible disease, the referendum campaign focussed exclusively on the risks to Scotland of becoming an independent country. It was taken for granted by the British media and British politicians that being a part of the UK conferred upon Scotland a blessèd status, with the accent and everything, protecting this nation of childlike Caledonian savages not merely from the dangers of the wild world out there but also from our own worst instincts. The British state, they told us, gave us the best of all possible worlds.
The independence campaign implicitly accepted this framing. Our efforts in 2014 were almost exclusively about making the case for an independent Scotland, and rebutting the arguments of those who at the time we were still content to call Unionists. It was a campaign which had to fight on two fronts, not merely to present the arguments for independence, but also to normalise the idea of independence amongst a Scottish public which had been bathed since infancy in the ideology of British exceptionalism. While we narrowly failed to achieve the first goal, we succeeded in the second in a way that our opponents never expected and which they’ve still not come to terms with.
Brexit and the coronavirus have changed everything in a nation where the idea of independence has already been normalised. The biggest difference between the second independence referendum and the first is that the second campaign won’t just focus on the risks of independence, it will also focus on the risks to Scotland that come from being a part of the UK. It will be a campaign which will not be content to accept the framing of our opponents.
Supporters of independence will no longer accept that this is a debate between the nationalists who want independence and the non-nationalists who oppose it. Brexit has revealed the ugly nationalism of the British state in its vilest and most xenophobic form. It has stripped away the mythology that the British state is comprised of a union between equal member nations. It has revealed the lie at the heart of the union – there is no union at all. There is only a British unitary state with some devolved competencies where the smaller nations are expected to do the bidding of the largest. It’s now clear to everyone that supporting the British state does not give you a free pass from nationalism, it makes you a supporter of one of the most regressive and conservative forms of nationalism in modern Europe.
The coronavirus epidemic has destroyed the myth that the British state is exceptionally well governed. Being a part of the UK doesn’t keep Scotland safe, quite the reverse, it exposes us to a lethal incompetence founded upon the arrogance and exceptionalism of a British ruling class which does not recognise or accept that the rules that it makes for the rest of us should also apply to it. At every step along the way, the response of the British Government to this crisis has been cack handed, mistimed, chaotic, and incompetent. The British Government threw away the natural advantage bestowed upon the British Isles by geography and its failure has led to the UK having the highest death toll in Europe.
For all its claims to be following the science, the British Government is now in open disgreement with those very scientists it claims to be following. On The Marr Show on BBC1 on Sunday, Professor John Edmunds, an epidemiologist at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and a member of the UK Government’s SAGE committee, expressed his regret that the UK did not enter lockdown much earlier than it had done and said that he believed the failure of the British Government to do so had cost a lot of lives. Speaking on the same programme the Conservative Health Minister Matt Hancock denied this, and insisted that the British Government had made the right decisions at the right time. Asked, “You are sure locking when you did and not earlier did not cost lives?”, Matt replied, “I’m sure.”
So who to believe, a world renowned expert in epidemiology, or a man who insisted that there had been no privatisation of the NHS in England after his party siphoned £9.2 billion of NHS money off to private companies. It’s unfair to say that Matt Hancock is unfit for office, because that implies that his cabinet colleagues are any better than he is. In a lot of cases they’re far worse.
The widespread and growing public dissatisfaction with the British Government’s mishandling of the crisis has found its face in Dominic Cummings. He has come to symbolise the arrogance that drives the Tories to eye tests at Barnard Castle, the contempt with which the British state treats the public, and the exceptionalism of a British elite which has failed at the most basic and fundamental duty of any government – the duty to keep its citizens safe.
It’s all a very far cry from the confident predictions of British nationalist apologists in Scotland as the coronavirus crisis began that the epidemic would signal the end of the independence movement and their arrogant belief that Scotland would realise that it couldn’t cope alone in the big bad world. Instead the opposite has happened. It’s made people in Scotland realise that we’re being dragged down by the dead weight of British arrogance and exceptionalism. A dead weight which is literally killing people.
The recent opinion poll commissioned by Scot Goes Pop has found that a large majority of voters in Scotland – 59% – believe that the mishandling of the coronavirus epidemic by the British Government makes Scotland less safe. A similar percentage are now more confident that an independent Scotland would be well-governed.
The next independence referendum campaign is going to talk a lot about the failures of the British state. It’s going to talk a lot about how the British state fails Scotland, about how it endangers us and damages our opportunities. It’s going to talk a lot about the dangers of British nationalism. The breezily confident sense of British superiority that once drove British nationalism in Scotland has been blown away by the British state itself. Few people in Scotland believe in British exceptionalism any more.
And finally, because we could all do with a laugh during these difficult times …
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