Brian Monteith: Will Nicola Sturgeon’s power-grab come back to bite her?

It has been a long time coming, but finally a credible and influential figure on the British left has decided to take head-on the divisive politics of Nicola Sturgeon – and then some.

Nicola Sturgeon announced the travel ban last Friday
Nicola Sturgeon announced the travel ban last Friday

Yesterday the Mayor of Greater Manchester, Andy Burnam, publicly rebuked the First Minister’s announcement on Friday that Scots could not make non-essential travel to Manchester or Salford under her Covid regulations.

The ban is also meant to apply to people from Manchester and Salford coming to Scotland and follows similar bans during the Covid pandemic when Sturgeon ruled that Scots should not visit Bolton, Blackburn and Bedford and that English tourists should not go to Scottish pubs or restaurants. On Friday Scottish eyes and ears were more generally distracted away from the Manchester ban due to the feverish anticipation surrounding the England V Scotland football match taking place at Wembley Stadium in London that night.

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Even so, it was blatant example of Sturgeon overreach – the First Minister has no jurisdiction over where British citizens, be they from Scotland or elsewhere, travel in the rest of the UK and it must surely be outside the legislative competence for Holyrood to so decide, meaning that under Section 29 of the Scotland Act any such legislation passed by Holyrood could not become law. Consequently, Sturgeon has no powers to administer such regulations and there can be no authority under which Police Scotland can operate extra-territorially to monitor breaches and make an arrest.

The announcement was especially odd for it made no sense on the basis of comparative figures for rising Covid infections in Scotland and England. The number of new infections over the seven-day period in the week ending 12th June was 322.7 per 100,000 people in Manchester but was higher at 326.15 per 100,000 in Dundee – yet no restrictions on travel to or from Dundee were announced. Why not?

The announcement also sat alongside another example of Sturgeon hypocrisy with an estimated 20,000 Scottish football supporters travelling down to London and flaunting every possible rule on social distancing, mask wearing, rule of six, drinking standing up, dancing and singing. The scenes of devastation the next morning with central London Streets littered with debris and flower beds wrecked brought anger from many in England who asked, not unfairly, how can they not attend weddings in large numbers or dance at nightclubs while football supporters are allowed to cavort around without any care for the rules that apply to everyone else. It is the double standards more than the behaviour itself which causes tempers to rise.

Much of the celebrations were good natured but there were some incidents that required condemnation. When similar excessive behaviour occurred in Glasgow to celebrate Rangers’ title win the First Minister was quick to issue lengthy Tweets condemning the fans and remonstrating with the club. This time round pre-match appeals for good behaviour were not followed by any comparable condemnation.

Over recent years Nicola Sturgeon has benefited from the English metropolitan elite and especially media commentators of the left elevating her reputation on issues such as Brexit and the Covid pandemic without any real evidence to justify it. All governments have made grave and costly errors in their Covid management and Sturgeon is no exception, indeed in some instances it has been worse than that of the UK government, such as persisting on the movement of elderly people out of hospital and into care homes without testing when the practice had already stopped in England.

Now the First Minister’s double standards over Scotland’s Covid regulations are being seen for the hypocrisy they are.

Interviewed on the Marr show by BBC’s Nick Robinson, Burnham said he is going to write to Sturgeon calling for compensation for those people he represents that have booked holidays in Scotland that might now be cancelled and for any local Manchester businesses that lose trade as a result of her ruling. Sturgeon at last has a credible English opponent from the left, which changes the dynamics somewhat. I rather doubt any compensation claims will reach the Scottish courts but it would certainly make for an interesting legal case.

Burnham is no pushover, he is an experienced and rounded politician with a popular touch. Having been Health Secretary and Chief Secretary to the Treasury I have little doubt he has as good a grasp of the issues facing the NHS as Sturgeon but a better understanding of economics and public finances which are self-evidently the First Minister’s weak spot. He has an advantageous Northern backstory of being a Scouser elected and re-elected Manchester’s Mayor and combines confident communication skills with Troy Tempest looks. This is all important when it is remembered he has stood for Labour leader twice, coming fourth out of five when Ed Miliband won and second behind Jeremy Corbyn.

Emulating the path of Boris Johnson by coming back to Westminster to take his party’s leadership is undoubtedly an option many in the Labour Party now favour – offering as it could a more credible defence against the Conservative success in breaking down the Northern red wall. His appeal as a northerner could also work well in helping to rebuild the Labour Party in Scotland – and being seen as a pugilist against the SNP will now serve to strengthen his attraction to many.

Whatever the reason Nicola Sturgeon decided to pick on Manchester and Salford – and the case for it having anything to do with Covid management is weak – she appears to have overextended her reach. Charles Edward Stewart at least got to Derby.

Brian Monteith is editor of ThinkScotland.org and served in the Scottish and European Parliaments for the Conservative and Brexit Parties respectively.

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