Four nations sat in reverential silence at 7pm last night waiting for a Churchillian pronouncement according to which they would live the rest of their natural lives. Only kidding. Some folk down south were still having their big bank holiday BBQ or sharing a beer laden knees up in the park. Why ever not when their fave tabloids had told them last Thursday today was to be their lockdown release date? His most rapt listeners and viewers were the leaders of the three devolved nations hoping against previous experience that the blond bampot would not offer up another dangerous departure from what was supposed to be the communal script.
The omens had not been good. The Telegraph, the Tory leaflet dispenser and focus group formerly known as a newspaper, had already done the big reveal. The “Stay Home” messaging the First Minister had declared crucial to maintain consistency was being binned. Now we were advised to Stay Alert, Control the Virus, Save Lives. As a definitive set of guidelines, this gibberish failed the first basic test of successful sloganeering: nobody had the smallest scooby what it meant! Alert? As opposed to being comatose? Control an invisible viral threat? Save lives by introducing more risky behaviour?
The Johnson spinmeisters used to be quite adept at this slogan lark. “Taking back control” was the principal myth of the Brexit campaign. To be followed by “Get Brexit Done” when Theresa May fled the scene following a number of nasty parliamentary accidents. You will have noticed a bit of a theme here. The boys in the backroom are big on the power of three. Sometimes it’s three separate injunctions, sometimes three single words. But this only works if you a) get the basic message right and b) stick to it throughout.
As soon as you ditch the most potent bit – in this case Stay Home – you unleash the forces of incomprehension. That might not matter if you were selling something of mere transient importance like, say, a Prime Minister. But getting it right has never been more crucial than now. Consider and shudder at what this team of third raters have actually done. At a stroke they have holed the four nation strategy below the water line. (Whaur’s Yer Better Thegither Noo?) They have risked all the gains made by weeks of sacrifice, and, not at all incidentally, the lives of many thousands of their own citizens.
It is a crazed piece of self indulgence by an administration whose verbal incontinence and indiscipline is emblematic of its incapacity to lead; its disinclination to think through the consequences of its actions and its pronouncements. As I tweeted in frustration the other morning, this lot are giving the back of fag packets a bad name. So now what? The four nation game is a bogey. No responsible country can buy in to this folly. Yet the stark truth is we are not yet a responsible nation, at least not one which can plough its own determined furrow without consequence.
When the Scottish cabinet’s Finance and Business Secretaries wrote jointly to the Chancellor last week they sought reassurance that the furlough scheme and its employment subsidies would survive a return to work being differently paced in different areas. On Tuesday, Rishi Sunak is due to tweak the existing arrangements and what he says will partially determine the Scottish Government’s room for manoeuvre.
This is the moment when we come face to face with both the opportunities and limitations of devolution. (Though a remarkable number of Westminster ministers don’t seem to have quite grasped this, areas like health and education have long been devolved. Which is doubtless why some were floating a return to school when the Scottish summer break would already have happened.) Yet there is very limited scope for that manoeuvre on tax and social security, and extremely limited room on borrowing powers. Like it or not, too much still rides on Sunak’s hands being on the main purse strings, and whether he and his boss would choose to create maximum difficulty for any administration which didn’t toe their express line. They have proved before that they can find inelegant ways to body swerve the Barnett formula when it suits.
People have written so often that Scotland is at a crossroads you begin to think it’s not just the UK government which has difficulty in finding a road map. Yet now, this summer, may well be the pivotal moment at which the independence timeline is drawn. By general consent, the constituent parts of the UK economy are all about, to use a technical term, to be screwed by the collateral damage of Covid 19. Plus, those close enough to read the relevant runes now believe the UK government is indeed prepared to shove everyone off the Brexit cliff edge at the end of the year. There seems to be little hope of the extension which would allow us to build some sort of decent future relationship with our erstwhile European partners.
Instead the zealots at the heart of Johnson’s government want to take the Maoist route – pull down everything and hell mend the peasants. And thus will the economy, everyone’s economy, face a catastrophic double whammy. The pessimists view of the looming catastrophe is that nobody will want this period of maximum uncertainty and insecurity to be exacerbated by a referendum campaign. Then again, the pessimists have taken this view of almost any period.
I believe we’re past the time when ca’ canny can serve as a legitimate battle cry. Talk of waiting on better and more consistent polls and carefully building support among potential switchers is undoubtedly rational. Seductive too, if fear is your companion of choice. But that was then.
For myself, by far the scariest thing is to face a future laced with all manner of devastating hazards – economic and medical – still joined at the hip to a thoroughly discredited UK government devoid of wisdom, deficient in leadership, and – if not actually mad or bad – most certainly dangerous to know.
FIRST PUBLISHED IN THE NATIONAL 11.5.20