Monday 29 March 2021

Sturgeon is a plaster saint


The two major debates in Scotland of recent years about Scottish independence and EU membership are most often framed in terms of economics but are really about something else entirely. They are about identity and virtue.

The Yes campaign decisively lost the economic argument in 2014, because it couldn’t answer the crucial question about currency. Yet it still won 44%, because it was seen to be positive, hopeful and virtuous. Since 2014 the economic argument for Scottish independence has got worse, so bad indeed that it must be that independence supporters either don’t understand it, deny it or don’t care. Scotland spends vastly more than the revenue we raise, and independence would make that situation worse by potentially putting a trade barrier between Scotland and the other parts of the former UK. Yet while receiving billions from the British Government support for independence and the SNP began to approach 60%. Whatever else the argument is about it clearly isn’t about economics anymore.

Nicola Sturgeon did a very good job of projecting virtue. She was caring while those nasty Tory Brexiteers were responsible for spreading Covid and killing Scots. If only we could cut off Scotland from England and become like New Zealand, we wouldn’t have any Covid at all. Then we could be virtuous internationalists by joining with our fellow Europeans. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to look down like Holy Willie on those vulgar UKIP supporting England supporters with their tattoos, thick necks and that dreadful Nigel Farage and his partner in crime Boris Johnson.

The argument about the EU wasn’t really about economics either. Whether or not it would be beneficial for the UK to leave the EU is a matter for debate. There are plusses and minuses to be calculated depending on what sort of trade deals Britain will make in the future and whether the UK can become more efficient than the EU. But having left the EU, there is no question whatsoever that it would be damaging for Scotland to leave the UK in order to join the EU.

This is simply because Scotland trades much more with the other parts of the UK than with the EU and because EU membership would mean Scotland could not plausibly use the pound unilaterally, because we would have to promise to join the Euro. The border between Scotland and England would become the EU’s external border but unlike Ireland there would be no thirty years of terrorism and no Belfast Agreement to force the former UK to keep it open. The idea that this would be beneficial economically for Scotland is preposterous, but Holy Willie doesn’t care so long as he feels virtuous about the English.

As the argument for Scottish independence became worse after Brexit those Scots who most influence public opinion began to reframe the argument so that it became about Scottish good intentions versus Tory Brexiteer selfishness and vulgarity. Nicola Sturgeon was a nice Remainer who would reverse and rejoin. She was nice and fair and caring and if her economic arguments didn’t add up these could be safely ignored because she was the equivalent of Joe Biden, while Boris Johnson was just like that nasty Donald Trump.

But recent events have destroyed the virtue argument that led Nicola Sturgeon’s popularity briefly to soar like Icarus. The SNP may be able to raise the pay of nurses, but it can only plausibly do so because it has received vast amounts of money from the Treasury. It’s all very well complaining about those selfish Tories, but if we had voted for independence in 2014, we wouldn’t have got that furlough money at all. Would those nice people in the EU have given it? They were after all wonderfully generous to the Greeks.

Being in favour of high public spending and equality makes us Scots virtuous, but we like to look down on where the money comes from like Victorian snobs muttering about someone’s money coming from trade. But without Treasury money we might be equal, but we would be equally poor. Still those Tories are wicked for sending us free money.

Nicola Sturgeon portrayed herself as a saintly figure, but a saint who shares our problems using self-deprecation and that little laugh she does so well just to emphasise that she is one of us. But the plaster saint began to crack when we discovered that the Scottish Government resembled the Borgias more than it resembled the Waltons.

Bute House on some accounts became the 120 Days of Sodom in the years leading up to the referendum in 2014, but virtuous Nicola Sturgeon noticed nothing until it was time to get rid of Alex Salmond. At this point everybody except Sturgeon noticed everything and the whole court tried to find ways of ridding her of her turbulent Salmond.

Even if you didn’t follow all the details the Scottish Government could no longer plausibly be portrayed as virtuous. Rather it looked, corrupt, secretive and vindictive. Now the SNP has also split in two with Salmond forming one hydra head and Sturgeon the other. Can you imagine if there was a second independence referendum? Which head would lead the debate, or would they eat each other?

In addition, the EU doesn’t look quite as virtuous as it once did. It isn’t just that the EU has made a catastrophic mess of vaccinating its people while Britain has been hugely successful. More importantly the EU has been behaving particularly nastily towards Britain not merely with regard to trade but also by trying to stop us receiving the vaccines we have ordered and paid for. If Scotland had voted for independence, we would have by this stage vaccinated 40% less of our population and many of those people would have died. If we had listened to the SNP last summer and joined the EU’s vaccine programme, we would not be close to getting out of lockdown, we would instead be looking at extending it into the summer. The lives saved by leaving the EU make Brexit already worth it or do Remainers think trade is more important than lives? That doesn’t seem quite such a virtuous viewpoint.

Scots who saw virtue in Nicola Sturgeon and the EU now have a chance to reassess. Do you really think you would have been better off today if Scotland had voted for independence in 2014 and then joined the EU? Where would our money have come from and where would our vaccine? There is nothing virtuous about poor people dying from Covid. Nothing at all.