Stephen Daisley

Scotland’s Covid nationalists

Scotland's Covid nationalists
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One of the rare upsides of living in a country run by nationalists is that nationalists are not great at hiding their true feelings. When you’ve got a superiority complex, it’s hard to prevent it from bursting out, often at the most inopportune times. Efforts to explain to outsiders that the SNP isn’t actually a more left-wing version of Labour, but a strategically savvier version of Ukip may fall on deaf ears but, sooner or later, the subjects of your hand-wringing will just come out with it by themselves.

On Saturday, a modest band of Scottish nationalists just came out with it in dramatic fashion on the border with England. Here is how the Edinburgh Evening News reported the event:

‘[A] small convoy of cars and vans festooned with Saltires, SNP flags and independence slogans parked at a rest area on the A1 route towards Berwick-upon-Tweed. Eyewitnesses claimed campaigners wearing hazmat suits and masks could be heard shouting “plague carrier” at northbound vehicles, reading out number plates on live streams and brandishing banners with messages such as “Keep Scotland Covid Free”. One such banner was tied to the sign welcoming motorists to Scotland.’

Videos of the proceedings were shared on social media. In one, a man announced: ‘Basically, what we’re saying is, stay the fuck out.’ In another, we learn that the registration details of camper vans entering Scotland from England are being recorded. ‘If they’ll not stay at home, we’ll shame them to death,’ another man declares.

The McMinutemen are hardly a surprising development. Nicola Sturgeon has spent the past week refusing to rule out quarantining visitors from the rest of the UK to Scotland. She insists she won’t forgo any measure that might be in the interests of public health, but equally says she has no plans to quarantine at present. One of the reasons why it was important for her to reject this approach was because of its inflammatory nature.

The spectre of quarantining English people — and, let’s be honest, that is who would mostly be affected by such a policy — carries unpleasant moral baggage quite divorced from any public health rationale. Even leaving the option open effectively frames coronavirus as something foreign to Scotland with English people the danger. Hence, ‘plague carriers’ and ‘Keep Scotland Covid Free’. In the eyes of some Scottish nationalists, the English have become the virus.

There is a long, ugly history to framing other groups and nationalities as infectious or threats to public health. For some reason, Scotland’s enlightened intelligentsia, sensitive to such matters in other political contexts, are noticeably quiet in this instance.

Someone who isn’t noticeably quiet is Professor Devi Sridhar, a member of the Scottish Government’s Covid-19 Advisory Group. On Saturday, she tweeted that ‘it is the tragedy of history that when a serious pandemic hit the world where leadership & good governance were required, Donald Trump was US President & Boris Johnson was UK Prime Minister’. When opposition politicians objected to her political intervention, Prof Sridhar complained of ‘cheap attacks’ on ‘an independent academic’ and went on to add: ‘Scotland is now doing well in its response to COVID-19 which seems to anger anti-Scottish, pro-UK people (‘unionists’).’ She has since deleted and been forced to apologise for these tweets.

Earlier in the week, the academic tweeted: ‘Truly fed up with the number of people saying “Zero COVID” is not possible. Scottish govt, local public health boards & the public have shown that it’s totally possible & there’s a better way than lockdown and release cycles. But England has to cooperate with this strategy too.’

When a member of the public replied accusing her of ‘playing politics’, she responded: ‘How can anyone living here want Scotland to fail?’

Prof Sridhar is entitled to express her political opinions and the fact she advises the Scottish Government should not be used to silence her criticism of Boris Johnson. The Tory MSPs who had a go at her for doing so would be among the first to object in the highly unlikely event that SNP politicians, famed for their pluralistic instincts, went after an academic not to their liking. She is also volunteering her expertise at a time when she could retail it for top dollar and deserves gratitude for her spirit of public service.

However, when she brands ‘unionists’ (half the Scottish population) ‘anti-Scottish’, and appears to imply that others want their country to fail, she echoes the McCarthyite demagoguery routinely deployed by the ruling Scottish elite, to which she clearly feels herself drawn. Scotland does not consist of patriots and traitors, and supporters of the opposition are not angered by reductions in infection rates and deaths. No one should try to stop Prof Sridhar speaking but she might be advised to stop herself.

Speaking of her right to freely express her opinion, regular readers might remember Edinburgh University’s Global Chair in Public Health from a curious incident last month. On July 16, Prof Sridhar tweeted her ‘personal view’ that ‘schools should re-open as normally as possible (kids back full-time & able to play/interact together)’. At the time, this ran counter to the SNP government’s position, which was that children should only return part-time. Funnily enough, the very next day, Prof Sridhar changed her mind and tweeted that she was ‘completely aligned’ with Nicola Sturgeon, who ‘has kids (& teachers, parents) best interest in mind so better to go slowly’.

Now that she has been saved from the clutches of wrongthink, Prof Sridhar is a hero for telling it like it is about those self-loathing Unionists. The Scottish establishment loves a convert and it thinks it's found one.