Alex Massie

The nationalists’ vaccine fallacy

The nationalists' vaccine fallacy
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The trouble with nationalism of any and every sort is that, in the end, it eats your brain. As evidence of this we may simply note Nicola Sturgeon’s assertions this week that the success of Britain’s vaccination programme should in no way encourage the thought an independent Scotland might have struggled to match this happy development.

According to Sturgeon, there is 'absolutely no evidential basis to say Scotland would not have vaccinated as many people as we’ve vaccinated right now' if it were an independent state. This is, to use the technical term, bollocks on a tartan pogo-stick. It would be vastly closer to the truth to argue the contrary, noting there is precisely zero evidential basis for thinking an independent Scotland would have vaccinated anything like so many of its citizens as has been made possible by the United Kingdom’s startlingly successful vaccine procurement programme.

But because it is axiomatic in the SNP’s world that Great Britain is a failing state lacking even the self-awareness to recognise its true and miserably diminished reality there can be no possible advantages to being a part of it. Nationalism — again of all stripes — invariably bumps into reality from time to time and when these collisions occur it is reality that must give way. If that means making a fool of oneself then so be it, for nationalism’s keenly held convictions brook no room for nuance. Black must be considered white, for if it were not the entire rickety construction might collapse.

Brexit has not, of course, made much of a difference to the UK’s vaccine programme. There is very little, if anything, the government has done on that front it could not have done as a member of the EU. Nevertheless, even if you consider Boris Johnson’s government a dreadful one there is little point in denying its one great shining achievement: taking a punt on vaccines before it was popular to do so and in advance of there being any guarantee such a gamble would produce a happy return.

Would an independent Scotland have made comparable decisions? There is no evidence to support the contention it would have and plenty to suggest it very much would not. For, assuming — as Sturgeon would like us to do — Scotland was a member of the European Union, it seems vastly more probable it would have signed up to the EU’s vaccine programmes rather than striking out on its own.

We may infer this from the SNP’s reaction to the UK’s decision to opt-out of the EU vaccination scheme. Mike Russell, the party’s constitution spokesman, declared that: 'This idiotic refusal is all about Brexit and nothing to do with the pandemic. It will cost lives.' Other SNP ministers suggested drug companies would overlook the UK and supply the EU instead, dubbing it 'a deliberate car crash' and an 'irresponsible' act of 'lunacy'.

So, yes, there is ample reason to think an independent Scotland would have followed the EU path and that, as a consequence, more than half of those Scots who have been vaccinated would still be awaiting their appointment with a syringe.

Granted, there would have been nothing to prevent an independent Scotland from making the same choices the UK has. It merely seems most unlikely it would have done so and not just because any Westminster government is the great Other against which any Scottish government measures itself and whose example must never be followed. So if you believe Nicola Sturgeon would have looked at what Boris Johnson was up to and thought ‘I’ll have a piece of that’ then you are welcome to consult the extensive portfolio of bridges I have for sale.

Those Unionists, however, who harbour gentle hopes the vaccination programme might boost the UK’s popularity in Scotland are liable to be disappointed. For it is an unerring rule of Scottish politics that the Scottish government earns credit for nice things that are not its responsibility while the Westminster administration is blamed for anything disagreeable, including plenty of disappointments for which it is not in fact responsible.

According to a recent survey conducted by YouGov for the Times, 43 per cent of Scottish voters believe the vaccination programme’s success is chiefly due to the Scottish government’s decisions while just 17 per cent credit the British government. Some 24 per cent allow each administration a share of the credit.

Since the vaccine programme has progressed at broadly the same speed across all of the United Kingdom it seems likely its success exists independently of political management. In England, it has been administered by a Conservative government, in Wales by a Labour ministry and in Scotland by the SNP. Party ideology and indeed governmental competence appear to have little to do with it.

What counts, and where the UK really has made a difference, is the success of the vaccine procurement contracted out to Kate Bingham’s task force. To deny this is to deny plainly observable reality. Sometimes even the United Kingdom can do something right.

None of which should be confused with any expectation voters will allow these truths to influence their vote in next month’s Holyrood election. Or, indeed, persuade them to rethink their constitutional preferences in any significant fashion. It will remain the case that the SNP will earn credit for decisions the Scottish government did not make while slipping away from responsibility for errors made as a consequence of some of the choices it did. This is an in-built and structural advantage enjoyed by any Scottish government but especially a nationalist one.

In response, Unionists might be tempted to wave more flags and shout more loudly. Doing so would cheer up some of the troops but nothing more than that. The UK cannot win a game of flags or identity and, this being so, the only way to win the game is to refuse to play it in the first place.