A recent poll from Panelbase for the Sunday Times provided some heady tonic for the Westminster establishment and Unionists regarding the current mood in Scotland surrounding its constitutional future and the 2021 Scottish Parliament elections. The recent numbers suggest that the SNP is on course for an emphatic victory next year, with the party potentially winning 73/129 seats. What’s more there a suggestion that a sustained pro-independence sentiment is developing, with 54% across the nation, with 54% of voters in Scotland now in favour of independence.
Concurrent with these recent increases has been the coronavirus pandemic. The responses of the Scottish government and the UK government have not been drastically different from each other, with most lockdown conditions and easing of these following similar patterns. The most obvious difference has been the timeline, with many restrictions lifted in Scotland a week after their English counterparts. Some difference in policy has been observed, such as the mandatory wearing of face masks in shops in addition to public transport. Yet First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has enjoyed one of the highest approval ratings for her handling of the coronavirus pandemic of leaders across Europe. A poll from Ipsos Mori found that 82% felt Sturgeon had handled the pandemic well compared to others such as Boris Johnson (30%), Emmanuel Macron (51%) or Angela Merkel (79%). Similarly, 78% approve of the Scottish government response compared to the 34% approval of the UK government.
Sturgeon and the Scottish government are enjoying far more favourable sentiment than their UK counterparts and it is important to probe the relationship between these increases and the coronavirus fallout beyond face value. With lower numbers of infections and deaths than England, Scotland appears to be combating the virus more effectively than her neighbour. Is it that largely similar measures have succeeded in Scotland but failed in England and could this be linked to the surge? Factors such as population density, the urban-rural divide, proportionality and relativity muddy the waters enough to make any judgement here somewhat speculative and open to interpretation and spin. In addition, supporting the SNP does not necessarily translate to support for independence and vice versa. It is a complicated relationship and suggesting that the increases in support for the SNP and independence are interrelated would be naïve, else we might expect the numbers to be much closer than reported. Furthermore, to what extent can we consider this a definitive shift in political mood in Scotland? At this point it is too early to comment with any certainty. What can be approached with some degree of confidence, and which may offer some insight into the swells, is the conduct and discursive repertoires of the respective players in Scottish politics during the coronavirus response up to present moment.
It is important to note that during the media briefings of the Scottish government, Nicola Sturgeon has been a constant presence. Punctual, articulate, prepared, straight-talking, Sturgeon’s body language alone exudes confidence and authority in both her delivery and position. Compare this to the revolving door and organised chaos of the UK briefings. Granted, Johnson has faced a period of illness and recovery from the virus, but the performance and preparedness of UK ministers has often been criticised and sometimes ridiculed. Sturgeon by contrast has been seen to be taking the bull by the horns, providing a sense of continuity and responsibility, a thankless task that she has fully embraced. Presence and charisma are powerful tools.
Considering Sturgeon’s tone and delivery, two elements become apparent. The first is her grounding of the pandemic and humanizing the fallout. She makes the point to stress the personal and human tragedy behind the numbers, standing in contrast to the UK’s ‘heroic’ discourse. The second element is a comparative lack of critique of the UK government and Johnson compared to members of her cabinet or the wider Scottish and UK public. This is not to suggest that she hasn’t been critical of Westminster, but what she critiques and when she does so, has been carefully thought out. It would be easy to bombard Johnson; the wider public and the media are doing that for her, so much so that further input from Sturgeon would be akin to beating the dead horse. Where Sturgeon has gone on the offensive has been almost exclusively in response to perceived threats and undermining of the Scottish response. The highest profile of these have been the idea of border restrictions on tourists and the ongoing fallout regarding the non-consultation of the Scottish government on the opening of air-bridges. This restraint combined with the negative coverage of the UK response has afforded Sturgeon and the Scottish government some degree of breathing space regarding the scrutiny of their own actions and response to the pandemic.
This has not been lost on the Scottish opposition and Unionists and has in part contributed to recent calls to ‘de-platform’ Sturgeon. Both the Scottish Tory Leader Jackson Carlaw and Shadow Finance Secretary Murdo Fraser recently made complaints to the BBC and on twitter that the briefings are nothing more than ‘party political broadcasts’. Aside from the fact that any airtime in any format could be labelled as such, the message from the Scottish Tories and opposition parties here reflects an effective tactic. Prior to the onset of the coronavirus, opposition discourses have always raised the question of the SNP’s record in government and this has continued through attempts to reframe the discussions to policy and its implications, forcing Sturgeon and the Scottish government onto the backfoot. For example, after a period of intense criticism and pressure from opposition and campaign groups the Scottish government were forced into something of a U-turn on the return of Scotland’s schools in August. Similarly, the Scottish government has faced severe scrutiny regarding the handling and safety of care homesand the roll-out of testing in comparison to England. But these successes have also been tempered by both developments out-with the opposition’s control and their responses to them.
In reacting to and approaching new developments and events, Sturgeon and the Scottish government have been far more effective in capturing the initiative. Take for example the two different responses of the Scottish and UK governments to the breaking of lockdown protocols by Scotland’s then Chief Medical Officer Catherine Calderwood and Dominic Cummings. In Calderwood’s case, opposition figures immediately demanded that she resign or be sacked. Action was swift, within a day of the news breaking, following “long conversation” with Sturgeon, Calderwood had ‘resigned’. Contrast this with the case of Cummings. The Scottish Tories in particular, were conspicuous in their hesitation and in some cases silence to condemn and call for Cummings to suffer the same fate. This handed the initiative straight back to Sturgeon and the SNP as charges of hypocrisy and exceptionalism were returned and amplified. Under intense pressure to act, Sturgeon’s response and handling of the situation has been heralded by the SNP and wider independence movement to demonstrate decisive and effective leadership, putting the well-being and interests of people ahead of self and party.
Interventions from UK ministers have also been to the detriment of the opposition. In response to reports that the Scottish government could place restrictions on tourists crossing the border, Boris Johnson asserted that there was no border between Scotland and England. Jacob Rees-Mogg also claimed that Sturgeon wanted to build a metaphorical wall across said border. These comments are reflective of the Tory Unionism in the mould of Thatcher, but in this instance, it has damaged rather than aided the position of Sturgeon’s critics. Jackson Carlaw has publicly called the interventions unhelpful and it is not difficult to understand why. At a time when support for the SNP and independence is rising, such comments accentuate and emphasize a disconnect between Scotland and Westminster as well as offer fuel to the argument that Scotland and England are two very different countries with diverging needs and preferences. This is a sentiment that the SNP and Sturgeon have often utilized in public policy, now given a new angle as a very real threat to Scottish efforts to combat coronavirus which only the SNP are capable of combating.
Coronavirus has had some influence on the recent surges in support for Sturgeon, the SNP and Scottish Independence, but it would be extremely naïve to suggest that this has occurred by chance. Similarly, it would be wrong to suggest that Sturgeon and the Scottish government have had an easy ride. Both sides have been forced to play the hands they have been dealt and events of the previous four months have demonstrated that Sturgeon has played her hand far better than her critics and opposition. The challenge now for Sturgeon and the independence movement is to maintain the momentum and carry it through to the 2021 Scottish Parliament election and beyond. For Westminster, unionists and opposition groups, the challenge remains to convince people that the constitutional status quo still works for them; a challenge that the coronavirus pandemic appears to have made that much more difficult moving forward.
Craig Love is a PhD candidate at the Centre for Ideology and Discourse Analysis in the Department of Government at the University of Essex.