Nicola Sturgeon’s coronavirus victory

Boris Johnson’s political stock is low. The First Minister’s could not be higher. Yet Scotland’s grip on Covid-19 has been no more sure than London’s

The UK has fared badly in the Covid-19 test. A high death rate, policy mistakes and a crippled economy suggest our leaders have failed. Yet while Boris Johnson’s political stock is low, Nicola Sturgeon’s could not be higher.

An Ipsos Mori poll in late May gave Scotland’s First Minister an 82 per cent approval rate among Scots, with a majority thinking Johnson had done badly. Less than a third of the British public think the PM has done well, according to an Opinium poll, with his own approval rate at -6.

In April, Downing Street briefed that Sturgeon was using the crisis for constitutional ends. That doesn’t hold water, but she has enjoyed a credibility boost, and lockdown has cemented the idea of the UK as a place of four nations.

Many Scots caricature Johnson as a wicked pantomime dame, Christopher Biggins’s evil doppelgänger. It’s not hard to look better than him, and Sturgeon effortlessly did so at the beginning of the crisis. She led all the public briefings, and has done so throughout the pandemic. Her own seriousness was reinforced by a spoof voice-over of her daily addresses to the nation by comedian Janey Godley. Combined, the nation was reassured sensible women were in control.

Yet Scotland’s grip on Covid-19 has been no more sure than London’s. There was shock when Boris Johnson missed five Cobra meetings before lockdown. Sturgeon missed six of them. When UK government policy switched against track and trace, so did Scotland. The directive to move the elderly from hospital beds to care homes was copied.

Academic Allyson Pollock pointed out that, as ever, Scotland’s talk of difference was not supported by the evidence. In truth, Edinburgh copied London. However Johnson, Hancock and Rabb lack the credibility chromosome. Downing Street was exuding incompetence. In comparison, Sturgeon looked in charge.

Criticism was heard, but not enough to wound. Scottish government officials were caught out with second jobs and going to second homes. Ministers put in charge of commercial aid made a mess of organising relief to businesses. PPE had not been stockpiled. Bizarrely, Sturgeon at one point asked the nation to dream of a better world, when most just wanted a face mask and loo roll.

The Scottish Government tried to restrict freedom of information rules at the early stage of lockdown. Holyrood blocked this. At the beginning of June officials said they didn’t have copies of the briefings Sturgeon claimed to have read in the run-up to lockdown. They later admitted none existed.

Then, Sturgeon’s version of what was known about care home advice appeared not to match that of her health secretary Jeanne Freeman. By this time, people had begun to add up the numbers and come to the arithmetical conclusion that Scotland had one of the worst death rates from Covid-19 in the world, per head of  population.

Grand dreams of post-virus Scotland were dropped from the agenda when the fatality in care homes became obvious. When one home in Skye reported cases, the first on the isle and many weeks into lockdown, public trust took a knock. How could vulnerable people, six weeks into shielding, be falling ill?

Much like England, the answer seemed to lie in the lack of clear direction to care home owners. Just as this might have become the issue which undid Sturgeon, the Cummings scandal broke and Scots thought nothing could be as bad as Downing Street.

The blunders did not stop there. It emerged the Government had not told Scots of an early outbreak of the virus at an Edinburgh conference hotel. Then, that a scenario planning exercise two years ago had not been acted upon. Promises were made that all care home workers would be tested, which had yet to happen a month later.

The health minister Freeman looked out of her depth, unable to get a grip on the bureaucracy of the NHS. The Education minister John Swinney looked no better when he published a return-to-school plan which kept children at home. Another minister didn’t know the distancing rules he was meant to have written. Yet the Scottish National Party, riven by the Alex Salmond sleaze trial, baffled by the independence issue and long out of policy ideas, is polling higher than ever, according to YouGov.

The explanation of this perception gap between two nationalist leaders (Brexit being seen by many Scots as England’s bid for freedom) lies partly in the difference between the patriotic visions. Scotland’s confected image of itself is of a centrist people sharing a common interest. Johnson’s Englishness is more triumphant. Thus Sturgeon’s attitude was always going to play better in a “conflict” the UK was clearly losing.

Since Thatcherism, no Scottish politician has ever lost votes by posing as a defender of the common weal. Perhaps also Scottish political culture is more inclined to rally round, than rail upon. Where welfare and the public sector are held in high regard, a national call to help the NHS could not fail.

Sturgeon gives good podium. Firm stance, clear messages. It’s how she rose through the ranks—fighting against pompous men and a political culture that long hated what she stood for.

After thirteen years in Government, seven as a health minister, she knows the rules of the game. By contrast, Johnson appears baffled that politics involves policy and delivery. Scots don’t like poshos who are at it, whatever “it” may be. The “Boris bounce” at the last election got the Scottish Tories 25 per cent of the vote. Nearly double that number voted for Sturgeom.

Often described as the best leader Scottish Labour never had, Sturgeon embodies a caricature of the upright Scot. When Johnson defended Dominic Cummings, he seemed to highlight all that was wrong with modern conservatism. Most of all, devolution allows the SNP to be both Government and Opposition. When things go well, its thanks to Edinburgh. When things go badly, it is Westminster’s fault. But as that is the UK as designed by unionists, you can’t blame Sturgeon for playing the better politics. 

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