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Politicising a pandemic

Tom Wileman

As the various glorious leaders of this great nation have been guiding us through the Coronavirus pandemic in the last six months, there have curiously been disagreements between Holyrood and Westminster on how to proceed. During an (inter)national crisis, both sides have accused, and been accused of ‘political point-scoring’ regarding lockdown rules, and much of the ire has been levelled toward First Minister Nicola Sturgeon.

The main source of contention has revolved around Scotland’s coronavirus updates, hour-long briefings taking place at St. Andrews House, Edinburgh, each weekday. Shortly before resigning on the 30th July, then-Leader of the Scottish Conservatives Jackson Carlaw claimed:

“It was quite right for the First Minister to embark on these daily briefings at the outset of this crisis, and for them to continue in the months that followed.

“But increasingly, as the statistics have improved and there’s inevitably less to say about them, the First Minister has turned to political point-scoring.”

Covid-19 positive cases have been below 50 active cases since the beginning of June, and trending downwards. Similarly, Scotland has not recorded a single confirmed Covid-19 death in over a month (as of 15 August 2020). Now these stats indicate that the virus has been all-but banished from Scotland, and is a testament to the Scottish National Party’s handling of the crisis, but does this undermine the need to dedicate five hours a week to televised briefings from Nicola Sturgeon?

Absolutely not, as cases are on the rise again due to an outbreak in Aberdeen, and these briefings act as an ideal vehicle to communicate key information on policies regarding the reopening of schools, for example. Sturgeon’s comments on how to proceed with the Scottish Premier League was the top news story on Sky Sports News almost instantly after her address on the 11th August. While coronavirus may be nearly defeated, it’s impact on Scottish culture is far from over.

However, Carlaw’s comments are not without justification. Sturgeon’s manner in such briefings gives the impression that Scotland is already an independent nation (I imagine not unintentionally). I am sure that the SNP are also acutely aware that support for Scottish Independence hit 50% (for the first time in almost five years) last month.

The SNP has also seen itself in hot water a few times this summer; while still recovering from Derek Mackay’s resignation following revelations that he had been frequently messaging a sixteen-year-old boy, Nicola Sturgeon has been repeatedly caught up in the investigation into Alex Salmond’s sexual misconduct. More recently, the Scottish exam results ‘fiasco’ has dominated front pages. The First Minister has used part of the 10th August’s ‘coronavirus’ briefing to apologise for the debacle, and explain her policy going forward. With Holyrood elections on the horizon next May, these briefings are looking like a decent tool of damage control for the SNP.

These accusations of political point scoring are by no means one-sided however. Sturgeon has also been vocal about Westminster’s ‘politicisation’ of the virus, hitting back at Chancellor Rishi Sunak’s view that the United Kingdom has only been able to implement the furlough scheme and fight the virus effectively because it is exactly that: united. This has subsequently been branded as ‘nonsense’ by Scotland’s First Minister. Prime Minister Boris Johnson has also used the pandemic to display the ‘sheer might of the union’ with little to no explanation behind his claim, bewildering Scots, Welsh and Northern Irish alike. Not to be denied a slice of the mud-slinging, Scotland’s only Labour MP has also gotten in on the action. Ian Murray has taken the opportunity in recent weeks to criticise Sturgeon’s “obsession” with the border, stressing an emphasis on “jobs, jobs, jobs”.

As seemingly always, both Holyrood and Westminster come out looking like pots complaining about the darkness of the other’s kettle, as it would be foolish not to try and gain some political capital during such a monumentous event as the coronavirus pandemic, especially in the politically-charged Britain of 2020. The Conservative and Labour parties are flapping at the SNP’s seemingly increased grip over Scotland, as the SNP aim to educate all about who is seemingly really in charge north of the border.

Image: Scottish Government via Flickr

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