World

A Tale of Two Countries

Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon delivers a speech on Brexit day in Edinburgh, Scotland, January 31, 2020. (Russell Cheyne/Reuters)
Scottish nationalism in the wake of the coronavirus

Britain is now reporting around 1,000 new cases of coronavirus a day, but the vast majority are in England. On June 29, Scotland accounted for only five out of 815 new cases across the whole of the U.K. Now, Scotland may be only weeks away from having no new cases. But something stands in its way, or so Scottish nationalists claim: the plague-ridden English!

Scotland’s first minister, Nicola Sturgeon, a staunch pro-independence campaigner, said that while she had “no plans” to quarantine visitors from England, she couldn’t rule it out. Prime Minister Boris Johnson then accused her government of “astonishing and shameful,” “disappointing and divisive” rhetoric, making the bizarre statement that there is “no such thing as a border between England and Scotland.” Sturgeon responded in kind, calling out his “frankly disgraceful” politicization of the pandemic.

Though health policy is a devolved power and Scotland has, by and large, made its own decisions on how to tackle the coronavirus, in truth, the two countries’ approaches have been more similar than not. Take the mistakes made, for instance. The calamitous handling of care homes was an error made both north and south of the border. During its worst weeks, Britain saw a 300 percent increase in care-home deaths in England, while Scotland saw a comparatively lower 200 percent increase, though it’s worth mentioning, as writer Alex Massie has noted, that “if the overall Scottish casualty rate remains lower that likely only reflects the fact that Scotland had fewer cases, proportionately, when lockdown was introduced.”

It is true that Scotland has had a stricter version of lockdown (and a slower easing out of it). Nevertheless, the guiding principles have been more or less the same. The most noteworthy policy disparity has been their initial plans for reopening education. Johnson wanted to bring schools back in June but was met with a fury of resistance that this was “too soon.” (His latest approach is for “every child” to go back by September, helped by a £1 billion “catch up” plan.)

Sturgeon took the opposite approach, but it was similarly unpopular. She initially suggested a type of “blended” education, in which children come into school one and a half days a week and spend the rest of the time doing remote learning. Parents, teachers’ unions, Conservative, Labour, and even fellow Scottish National Party members denounced this proposal, which the former SNP health secretary, Alex Neil, called “absolutely unacceptable.” “We are looking at the moment as if Scotland is potentially going to be the only one of the four nations in the UK not planning for or at least trying to get a full time return to school in August,” Neil said. Not so much better than England, after all?

Nevertheless, despite their fair share of mistakes and controversies, the polls show that the Scottish government (unlike Westminster) still maintains a healthy majority of public trust and support. A poll by Ipsos Mori on behalf of BBC Scotland showed that most Scots still believe that the first minister has handled the coronavirus crisis better than Boris Johnson. Similarly, a YouGov poll taken in late May shows that 74 percent of Scottish people approve of the Scottish government’s response to the pandemic (and 71 percent support the first minister).

Of course, none of this really has that much to do with coronavirus. Rather, it is a symptom of the increasing hold of Euro-socialist nationalism that’s been bubbling in Scotland since the Brexit referendum and that was heightened by the Tory landslide last December. One expression of this hatred of the English was symbolically demonstrated by a group of Scottish nationalists last week when they drove to the border, dressed in hazmat suits and masks and shouting at passing cars (according to eye-witnesses), “plague carrier” and “stay the fu** out.” Another expression of the same sentiment is the cultish worship of a political leader, such as the upcoming Scotland-wide “clap for Nicola Sturgeon,” organized to coincide with the first minister’s 50th birthday next week. Boris Johnson may be deeply flawed as a leader, but at least the English seem to realize it.

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