YOU can understand his frustration. Labour politicians like Sir Keir Starmer can’t understand why the Scottish National Party is so successful. It’s just not fair. Nicola Sturgeon doesn’t walk on water. Why are the media not doing more to expose her? His much-heralded John P Mackintosh speech on the constitution said very little about the national question and turned instead into a litany of the First Minister’s supposed failures: worst drug deaths in Europe, third-highest Covid death rate in EU, endemic child poverty, the attainment gap, low life expectancy ...
I could have added a few myself: hospital building fiasco, privatisation of dentistry, ferries fiasco, BiFab, Hate Speech Bill, Named Persons... the older a government gets, the easier it is to tot up all the things that have gone wrong and present a semi-convincing charge sheet. And this Government has been in office a very long time indeed. The SNP’s more memorable achievements are mostly in the past, like abolishing tuition fees, same-sex marriage, prescription charges.
There are still things to talk up, of course: the Child Payment, the Scottish National Investment Bank, minimum unit pricing, but they aren’t headline grabbers. And when governments start listing among their successes things like “publishing a town centre action plan” and “keeping Scotland’s water in public hands” and even “Scotland’s independence referendum” you know that it has moved into the consolidation phase.
Of course, it is difficult to talk about this Government’s record without mentioning Covid. Here Ms Sturgeon has won hands down in the battle for public confidence, despite making most of the same mistakes as the UK. The Scottish Government halted community testing in March, failed to protect care homes, and got in a terrible mess over exam algorithms. But Ms Sturgeon’s personal popularity and that of her Government have never been higher.
Presentation has a lot to do with it. There is just no comparison between Ms Sturgeon’s informed, dignified and above all coherent presentation of the Scottish Government’s pandemic response and the bumbling, confused meanderings of Boris Johnson. Ms Sturgeon has had an ideal opportunity to showcase her intelligent down-to-earth style at her daily press conferences.
Labour and Tory politicians are incensed at these hour-long “political broadcasts” as Lord George Foulkes has called them, and have asked, futilely, for a right of reply. The press conferences have sometimes been used to wrong-foot the Westminster operation and indulge in pointless one-upmanship, for example over lockdown timings. And why did the Scottish Government reject the instantly understandable and memorable catch phrase “hands, face, space” in favour of the confusing acronym “FACTS”.? Even I can’t remember what the letters stand for.
But the pandemic has been a great opportunity for nationalism as well as for Ms Sturgeon personally. The biggest negative about independence has always been the idea of separatism: nationalists are accused of wanting to turn the clock back, look inward, erect borders and become insular wee Scots. Well, we saw how that went with Brexit, which silenced talk of the SNP being narrow nationalists.
The pandemic has done much to rehabilitate national borders after decades in which they were seen as barriers to modernity. Indeed, as recently as January, Donald Trump was accused of “xenophobia” when he closed the borders against China. When he barred travellers from the European Union the next month, his outraged EU critics said “coronavirus is a global crisis, not limited to any continent”. Brussels wasn’t saying that this week when British travellers were banned from most of Europe.
Attitudes to border control began to change when the New Zealand premier, Jacinda Ardern, took the unprecedented step of closing her nation’s borders to all comers in March. No one accused her of being xenophobic. Britain left them open until June, allowing some 18 million people to arrive without proper screening. The Home Affairs Select Committee reported in August that “it is highly likely that this contributed to the rapid increase in the spread of the virus ... and to the overall scale of the outbreak in the UK”.
We can see how much attitudes have changed by the rapidity with which France blocked the Dover crossing this week to keep out the new mutant strain of Covid. Lorry drivers rarely leave their cabs, so this was a pretty extreme measure. Nothing like it happened during the first lockdown, even as people were being locked down in their homes and schools were shut.
Nor indeed, was Ms Sturgeon so keen to close the border with England, as she effectively did this week. Previously, the First Minister had been reluctant to be accused of Covid separatism, even when her key adviser, Professor Devi Sridhar, had been insisting last summer that infections borne by English people might be preventing Scotland from eliminating Covid 19 altogether. 
So, one of Labour’s best moral arguments against independence, that it involves a backward step into xenophobic separatism, is suddenly much weaker. It is clear that the main reason people trust Ms Sturgeon, when they don’t trust Boris Johnson, is that she is a national, Scottish leader, elected by them.
The pandemic could indeed be seen as a kind of dry run for independence. It has shown how the Scottish government would manage affairs in a practical sense. More importantly, it has demonstrated that Scots invest more faith in a Scottish government than in a Westminster one. Boris Johnson’s utterances seem increasingly like those of the leader of a different country – which of course they are. England and Scotland remained nations in their own right even after the Treaty of Union in 1707.
The same is true of Sir Keir. To many Scottish voters he comes over as a remote figure, a wealthy London lawyer, who seems to owe his prominence to winning an obscure civil war in the London Labour Party over anti-Semitism. His call for a new constitutional convention sounds like a step back into the 1990s, when devolution was the only game in town. Federalism is not a concept that fires the imagination of Scots, and even some in his own party groaned inwardly when Gordon Brown was brought out of retirement to front it. We’ve been here before. Scots have already moved, in their minds at least, onto the next level.

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