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Modern Unionism: in Lock-step to Nowhere
As Unionism discovers that ‘when the chips are down’ it cannot actually live up to its hyperbolic assertion of competence, security or wisdom but is actually as bumbling, feeble and witless as everybody feared; it is now changing its tack in Scotland. If you keep insisting that government consists not in governing but issuing soundbites as if they are decrees: ‘Take Back Control’; ‘Better Together’; ‘No’; ‘world beating’; ‘Test and Trace’; ‘lock-step’; they do eventually become a hostage to fortune, and in time return, only to haunt you. We have found over time, and bitter experience that with Boris Johnson, ‘taking back control’ is actually government losing control; that ’No’ means only that nothing works; that ‘better together’ means worse together, especially in a pandemic; that ‘world beating’ means somewhere close to, the world’s worst; that ’test and trace’ in England means privatisation of the service, loss of critical local organisation, and a failure to trace even half the required people (Scotland thankfully had kept its local public heath organisation); and that ‘lock-step’ has really meant, in ‘lock step’ to nowhere, often in entirely the wrong direction.
Lock-step actually makes sense in the UK in a pandemic, because Scotland is still in the Union and ‘lock step’ had to be the opening default position for the Scottish government; and even if Scotland had been independent, lock-step could still work, for nobody prefers closed borders, providing everyone is actually putting public health issues first, consulting closely, combined with a health policy that ensures the cautious, but also in reality the fastest, safest and most secure and stable return to full economic activity. Lock-step doesn’t work if one party continually changes policy, dithers and panics.
The biggest, albeit perhaps understandable mistake the Scottish government made in this pandemic was to take the Union, the structures and competences, the preparedness of British government seriously, in an international pandemic that was initially the British government’s proper province of responsibility under the Union; a responsibility to set the overall framework in the first weeks; however, it also meant the Scottish government unfortunately allowed a British Government, incapable either of leadership or competent management, to continue to run its Union first show in blundering fashion – for a few weeks too long.
The only mantra the British Government ever delivered on was ‘austerity’, for the British government, over ten years, actually managed, systematically to annihilate the Union’s capacity to fight a pandemic; a world pandemic it had been advised would come, and that it even checked its preparedness for such an outcome, in a desk ‘dry run’ in 2016; found Britain’s preparedness was badly wanting (from ICUs to PPE), and still did nothing about it. The Pandemic has revealed something Unionism wished kept hidden; the Union does not work, not least for Scotland and the Scottish people; and the Government, and the Union’s flawed inadequacy has now been found out, at last not hidden by the usual official or bureaucratic secrecy, but out in the world; but it took a world pandemic to reveal the reality beneath.
In Scotland, the British government is now faced with the political consequences of the scale of its own failure; the quantum is 65,000+ “excess deaths” in the UK, one of the worst excess death rates as a consequence of the pandemic in the whole world. The Union and Unionism have thus been reduced to their only reliable defence; conflate and confuse the responsibility for the failure of the UK government, and pass it off as the responsibility of Holyrood.
Unionism attempts to do this because relatively few people, either in Scotland or the UK know what powers are devolved, and what powers are reserved. It is a classic policy of calculatedly sowing confusion and creating popular soundbite division. Unionism feeds frenziedly off the the very division it both sows and deplores; division is the oxygen of Unionism. They do this because, whatever the Scottish Conservative Party says about believing in Holyrood, as it has done dutifully from time to time in the past (when it is polling badly and feels obliged to appear conciliatory), in its heart Scottish Conservative Unionism wants Holyrood not just to fail, but to be erased from the face of the earth. No longer is Unionism primarily for Scotland, or for Scotland at all; the gloves are off.
Scottish Unionism has therefore decided that Scotland is already independent, and therefore Holyrood is responsible for everything. We remain in the Union, but the British Government is responsible for nothing. Scottish Unionism has thus given up on everything in politics, except blanket, all-consuming Unionist propaganda. This means we will live a paradox from now on; like the one about ‘there are no borders’ when of course there are, for they define the limits of Holyrood’s authority, which stop at the border. At the very same time the Unionist policy is to eliminate Scotland altogether (whether an effective parliament, or of Scottish quality food labelling). Increasingly the British Government will attempt to use its financial muscle directly in Scotland, over Holyrood and the Scottish governments’ heads to consolidate British government hegemony in the effective use of British influence. Meanwhile, the post-Brexit powers of Westminster will be used gradually and systematically to deprive Holyrood of power and finance, in deciding what power returned from the EU stays in Westminster; and further depriving Holyrood of power, probably using the Brexit ‘Henry VIII’ powers, if need be.
Holyrood will be responsible for everything but with decreasing resources of money or power. Westminster will have the money and power, and will use patronage to govern Scotland directly (as it has done in the distant past in Scotland) and ensure it takes the credit; but this time Holyrood will still be responsible for everything else, and absolutely everything that goes wrong in Scotland. Unionism will drink deeply from that well. Unionists today are not like the Tory Jacobites of old; Unionism today wants comprehensively to erase Scotland from public consciousness altogether. Scotland will therefore simultaneously exist and not exist in Unionism. Unionism is not for Scotland, and Scotland is now surplus to requirements. Only Britain matters. This is Unionism today, and tomorrow. Anything can mean anything, or nothing. Make sense of that.
Sir David King, a past UK Chief Scientific Officer believes that pandemic policy in Britain should be to try to eliminate the virus in the UK: this is already the policy in Scotland. It isn’t the policy in England. Nobody quite knows what the policy in England is; whether the veterinary ‘herd immunity’ much talked about, ignored and now recycled informally, or something even more vague. This lack of clarity is deliberate, but also tells us much. We are in lock step with a British government, which has effectively given up fighting the pandemic altogether; a British government that is prepared to live with the virus endemically, perhaps permanently in the community, and with a continuing, unspecified, indeterminate number of deaths. The British government expects Scotland to fall in line with both the vagueness of policy, and all the consequences that flow from it.
The British Government just wants the economy back running full-tilt, no matter what; and they want it now, the fantasy of ‘business as usual’, of the normality of bread and beer-garden circuses today, before austerity and cuts come tomorrow; now that really would be ‘business as usual’. In Scotland we are in lock step with a post-virus timetable in the middle, not the end of a dangerous and virulent pandemic; in lock-step with a post-Brexit, no deal economic policy, in the middle of a recession and with the real and imminent threat of depression and deflation, if austerity should follow. We are in lock-step with an atavistic, ideologically driven, neoliberal government in a world that must and will soon have to leave neoliberalism behind in the dust of history. We are in lock-step with the ghosts of times past; of austerity, of stagnation, of climate indifference, of rampant inequality, of tax havens and money laundering; of latent racism passed by; we may be in lock-step but if we are, we are going nowhere worthwhile: that is modern Unionism.