Reading through the account in the Guardian of the report into the UK’s catastrophic failings in the early weeks of the pandemic, I initially got the impression that the ludicrous fiction that there was never any herd immunity policy was being maintained. But thankfully no. The distinction being drawn is simply that the authorities didn’t necessarily believe that mass infection was desirable, but thought that any other outcome was impossible and so ‘fatalistically’ decided to give up on trying to stop the virus and instead merely managed the supposedly ‘inevitable’ herd immunity process. The report makes clear that all the governments of the four nations of the UK wholeheartedly adopted this approach in the early stages, leading to a large number of wholly avoidable deaths. This won’t be news to those of us who followed the antics of the Scottish Government’s National Clinical Director Jason Leitch during his Grand Complacency Tour of the TV and radio studios in February and March 2020. Instead of offering much-needed information about how the public could play their part in stopping the virus in its tracks, he was propandising for total and abject surrender. All that was left for us, he explained, was to form an orderly queue and wait patiently for our turn to catch the virus, so that mass infection happened slowly enough to ensure the NHS wasn’t overwhelmed – a contradiction in terms, as it turned out.
The fact that the Scottish Government got it so badly wrong during those crucial weeks is an uncomfortable truth for the independence movement, which explains why many Yes supporters are still in denial about it. Some still defend the indefensible by suggesting that Leitch and co were simply following the science as it was then, and that the science subsequently changed. Frankly, that is complete rubbish. Leitch was explicitly rejecting the clear advice of the world-leading WHO experts, which was to test every suspected case, to trace the contacts of anyone who tested positive and to isolate them. Crucially, the WHO had established that coronavirus did not behave like flu – the speed of transmission was not rapid enough to make suppression through contact tracing impossible, as the experience in both China and South Korea was demonstrating before our eyes. The British scientific advisers, though, were in love with their own sense of resignation, and simply refused to believe this growing body of evidence. Newspapers were briefed with gibberish about how the virus was supposedly just ‘hiding away’ in South Korea, implying that the country’s apparent success in suppressing the virus was illusory.
In a nutshell, then, there was world science and there was British science, and the Scottish Government plumped for British science without a moment’s hesitation. That perhaps isn’t a surprise as far as the civil service aspect is concerned, because ultimately people who work for the Scottish Government are part of the UK civil service and have to serve two masters. But as for ministers themselves? Why would the leading members of the Scottish National Party “think British, not global” at the most critical moment of government decision-making since the Second World War? Ultimately, that is why this episode is even more uncomfortable for unionism than it is for the independence movement, because the only possible lesson to draw is that the Scottish Government did make a terrible error, and that error was to be too slavishly loyal to the British state, to the British system, and to the myth of British exceptionalism. As soon as we departed from UK government policy, the situation improved markedly.
Curiously, though, I’m not sure even the SNP leadership themselves have fully learned that lesson. They still seem to instinctively prefer a Westminster-led ‘Four Nations’ approach wherever possible, including on oil, of all things. There are also some symbolic giveaways of the underlying attitudes behind all this, for example the comments from Nicola Sturgeon about how it was so exciting to have Emma Raducanu to support in the way that we’ve always supported Andy Murray. Now, I totally understand being excited by Emma Raducanu as an individual player – she’s a sensation who may well go on to dominate women’s tennis for the next decade. But if you bracket her with Andy Murray, and say those are the two players who excite you, and imply that it’s because of something they have in common, then that something can only really be that they’re both…British. Which implies that you regard yourself as British and feel a strong loyalty to Britain as a country. Maybe I’m missing something here, but I’m not sure what that could be.