The rise of Scotland's Covid nationalism

19 August 2020

2:40 AM

19 August 2020

2:40 AM

Whenever some London celebrity with a hamster’s grasp of Scottish politics simpers about moving north to escape the flaxen-fringed Franco in No. 10, the cybernat rank-and-file briefly down pitchforks to assure them ‘we’ll get the kettle on’. Like all megachurches, Scottish nationalism loves nothing more than a convert and English progressives all the more so for their loathing of the political and cultural character of England today. In so far as Scottish nationalism has anything as coherent as a philosophy, it is that Scotland is more politically progressive and therefore more virtuous than England. This fusion of national identity and moral superiority claims to be civic nationalism and, while it is less queasy-making than the nationalism of early (and not so early) leaders of the SNP, it nonetheless exists on a continuum with altogether uglier ideas.

Overt statements of Anglophobia are vanishingly uncommon in the SNP now, certainly at elected or ministerial level, and English people who move to Scotland are viewed warmly – provided they support independence or aren’t evidently against it. Where less-than-civic nationalism gets its business done is in dog whistles. ‘Westminster’ is spat out with the same vituperation that ‘England’ once was. The Scottish Conservatives, Scottish Labour and the Scottish Liberal Democrats are referred to as ‘the London parties’ and their corporate or constitutional links to political parties headquartered in You-Know-Where are highlighted to impugn their loyalty to Scotland. Of the twin vices of Scottish nationalism (hating the English and hating Scots who support the Union), the former seems a relic of the past even as the latter has become more respectable.

What, then, are we to make of polling from YouGov that shows 40 per cent of Scots oppose allowing English people to enter the country unless they have been quarantined first? Those who voted against independence in 2014 back unrestricted entry from England by a 19-point gap over those who voted to exit the UK. A majority of Scottish Brexiteers – by a margin of ten points over Scottish Remainers — want English people to be allowed to travel freely to Scotland. As might be expected, hostility is highest among supporters of Nicola Sturgeon’s party, of whom 54 per cent are against. The SNP is the only party in Scotland with a majority of voters who reject quarantine-free movement of English people across the border. This hostility does not extend to incomers from Wales, Northern Ireland or even the Republic. The kettle has been unplugged and all the good biscuits hidden in the cupboard.

The idea of an English quarantine did not spring from nowhere. For almost two months, Sturgeon has refused to rule it out and a Scottish government adviser, professor Devi Sridhar, warned over the weekend that Scotland and Northern Ireland, two jurisdictions she considers to have effectively controlled community transmission, ‘face a stream of incoming infections from England and Wales’.

Professor Sridhar appeared to link this to the fact that ‘neither nation has control over its borders because they are parts of the United Kingdom’. The Edinburgh University academic has previously opined that it was ‘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’, and claimed that ‘Scotland is now doing well in its response to COVID-19 which seems to anger anti-Scottish, pro-UK people (“unionists”)’. She later clarified that she had ‘mispoke[n]’ and had been trying to describe for an international audience what she regarded as the view of opponents of independence.

Days after Sturgeon said she had no plans for a border quarantine but was ‘not ruling anything out’ – ‘we’re going to have to be really hard-headed from a public health perspective’ – a small contingent of Scottish nationalists gathered on the boundary with England. Their vehicles, the Edinburgh Evening News reported, were ‘festooned with Saltires, SNP flags and independence slogans’. Some wore hazmat suits and reportedly shouted ‘plague carrier’ at motorists crossing over from England while a banner declared ‘Keep Scotland Covid Free’. One nationalist said: ‘Basically, what we’re saying is, stay the fuck out’; another: ‘If they’ll not stay at home, we’ll shame them to death’.

The rhetoric around the English and the virus falls chillingly on Unionist ears. Professor Sridhar seems well-meaning and, as an American and an academic, may not fully apprehend the political arena in which she now finds herself, nor the unintended subtexts that certain terms or ideas can appear to bear. Her use of ‘anti-Scottish’ to describe non-nationalist Scots would certainly suggest so. Sturgeon has no such excuse. She is a seasoned politician and communicator and has been only too ready to condemn other politicians for the xenophobic effect of their rhetoric. Yet she has used her daily BBC platform to claim the prevalence of Covid-19 was ‘five times lower’ in Scotland than in England, an assertion the UK’s chief statistician rebuked for being based on unpublished, unsubstantiated data. Trifling matters of methodology pale when set against the need to prove Scotland is better than England.

Paired with her refusal to rule out a quarantine, taken in the context of an impending Scottish election, and juxtaposed with developments at the border and in the polls, Sturgeon’s rhetoric is unwise, irresponsible and unseemly. Framing defined groups as sources of disease or contagion, whether internal minorities or external ‘others’, has an unpleasant pedigree, one Sturgeon would be the first to raise were the circumstances altered.

Concern for public health is not a green light for loose and reckless language nor, quite frankly, does it explain why quarantine measures might be necessary between England and Scotland but not between NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde (5,135 cases) and NHS Fife (967 cases). Another question that warrants an answer is why the Scottish government reportedly had references to attracting holidaymakers from England removed from a VisitScotland press statement, even after the tourism agency warned it was under ‘a lot of pressure from the industry’ in light of booking cancellations it linked to recent ‘anti-English’ sentiment.

Scotland may be at risk of developing a new strain of chauvinism – Covid nationalism – that hides old prejudices behind the imprimatur of a public health rationale. It is no longer acceptable to say in polite company that the English are oppressors but what of casting them as infectors? Eradicating coronavirus is properly the chief priority of government but when government speaks about it foolishly or carelessly or even slyly it threatens to give birth to another virus entirely.

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