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No more house parties: COVID policy and the dynamics of division

Updated: Oct 1, 2020

Erin Withey

“You can sleep when you’re dead!” is a well-worn rallying cry recognised by revellers everywhere. Often invoked in the small hours, from the bowels of a cramped student kitchen bathed in kaleidoscopic LED light, it is a universal last-ditch attempt to revive spirits and stoke the final embers of any floundering house party. This is not, then, a phrase we can expect to hear any time soon. Or at least that was the message from Holyrood to Scotland’s would-be merrymakers on Friday.

New police powers outlined by the First Minister now stipulate, in no uncertain terms, an eight-person cap on indoor gatherings as we head into COVID-19’s inaugural autumn. For those concerned for the composition of their future guest lists - invitees should hail from no more than three different households. Police Scotland Chief Constable Iain Livingstone presented the ruling, which bestows unprecedented powers of entry upon the force, to the Holyrood Justice Committee as both “proportionate and legitimate.” Despite insisting that encouragement over enforcement would be the favoured modus operandi, it is worth noting that a breach of this guidance does ultimately constitute an offence.

For her part, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon identified spirit-soaked indoor get-togethers as key COVID-19 “super-spreader” events in her explanatory missive. This is a fact hard to dispute and explicitly speaks to Scotland’s thousands of returning university students, keen to re-establish means of social connection in their respective cities and campuses this September. Holyrood sought to act decisively in a social landscape sans nightclubs by pre-empting the perfect storm - house parties. Drunkenly leaning in, uninhibited, to get Kitty from Chiswick’s Tennent’s-fuelled take on boating down the Canal-du-Midi and racing home to beat the quarantine will score no points for clout this semester.

Yet this goes deeper than inane social observations and attempts at satire from a jaded fourth year. This legislative update is significant for its role as a critical piece of behavioural messaging. If police power of entry will only be invoked, we are assured, as a last resort, then this headline-grabbing move fundamentally serves a more symbolic function in its targeting of activities with which ‘The Young’ famously engage.

It harks of Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conti’s remarks in March, as a COVID-beleaguered Italy first locked down. He diagnosed the root of the Italian malaise not to be a general lack of preparedness, or the unprecedented nature of the situation, but specifically the youth - “and their nightlife.”

There is a bona fide body of scientific evidence supporting the culpability of nightlife in superspreading, and I make no attempts to disprove this. I accept it. However, I am inclined to question the wisdom of indelibly and exclusively linking the causation of COVID-clusters with young people. Whilst there is certainly correlation, there will surely be political implications to this blanket characterization of old and young as victim and villain. This is a process that has long been underway – take the rise of ‘OK, Boomer’ meme culture on TikTok. It spoke to a fervour with which late Millennials and Generation Z feel resentment towards the middle-fifties that burst the housing bubble in ’08 and emulsified the Gulf of Mexico in 2010. Now, in a global health emergency where mortality is disproportionately skewed in favour of the young, this antagonism risks becoming aggravated.

Scotland’s is an economic environment where the vast proportion of asset-ownership is conferred upon older generations. The text framing this ruling, which in its preamble explicitly points a finger at “young people,” thus establishes a clear binary. Intergenerational solidarity, and the general compliance that Holyrood has so far banked on, is at risk of morphing into polarisation if factionalizing messaging is sustained.

But just how realistic is a generational reckoning? In one respect, the binarizations of yore that have hitherto divided the UK – questions of leave or remain, left or right, independence or unionism – temporarily melt away at the feet of the biologically tangible – life or death. As long as this remains the focus, there shall be no great revolt. COVID has focussed minds upon the need for a collective effort, and many applaud the First Minister’s handling of the pandemic. Yet at the same time, this goodwill risks erosion by crisis fatigue and a political lexicon in which ‘The Young’ are forever condemned.

COVID-19 has placed the UK’s political institutions in a unique bind – in a post-Brexit era where the reservoirs of public trust are much depleted, clunky and opaque institutions must find new ways to leverage what little remains to ensure compliance. The Scottish political appetite can typically swallow only one dualism at a time. It surely makes sense, then, to ensure the struggle du jourremains life versus death, rather than old versus young. Unlike Kitty from Chiswick, generational polarisation has yet to find a home in Scotland. Let us keep it that way.

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