Euan McColm: Grown-up conversation about the Union must wait for now

First Minister is wise enough to realise that much of what happens now isn’t open for debate – except among the experts, writes Euan McColm

The constitution is on the back burner for now as Nicola Sturgeon wrestles to contain the pandemic. Picture: Andrew Cowan/Scottish Parliament via Getty

It will be, said Nicola Sturgeon, a “grown-up conversation”.

As she unveiled a new Scottish Government document on how Scotland might move forward under the threat of coronavirus, the First Minister painted a picture of a national debate in which every voice might be heard.

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Her reason for doing this is perfectly understandable: it is always easier to get people to do what you want when you create the illusion of choice. The idea, however, that any such conversation will take place is preposterous.

Nor should it. I would regard Sturgeon’s failure to deliver this promised discussion as a mark of her wisdom.

We are made anxious, frustrated and scared by the circumstances in which we find ourselves. The idea that we have agency, that we are not simply reacting to circumstances beyond our control, right now, is hugely appealing.

So, let’s tell ourselves we’re having a “grown-up conversation” with the First Minister but let’s also hope that the only thing that continues to drive policy is the advice of experts.

The document published by the Scottish Government on Thursday, “Covid-19 – A Framework for Decision Making”, is worthy of your attention. In clear and frank terms, it outlines the circumstances in which we find ourselves and makes clear that the idea life will soon return to normal is fanciful.

Anyone reading the 25-page document will see that, when Sturgeon says she wants to have a “grown-up conversion”, she means that we are all going to have to face the reality of restrictions on our lifestyles for some time to come.

If I sound critical of Sturgeon, I don’t mean to be. The First Minister finds herself in a most unenviable position. The challenge of bringing the country with her during this time is a huge one and, to her credit, she has tried to do so without playing political games.

When she became First Minister in 2014, Sturgeon promised to be a leader for all Scots, regardless of their position on the constitution. She has not always lived up to those words; in recent years, it’s often seemed that Sturgeon’s sole concern is keeping happy those members of the nationalist movement who want a second independence referendum.

But I think only the First Minister’s harshest critics might attempt to mount the case that she has not stripped party politics out of her current mission. When she said last week that party political considerations are not appropriate right now, she certainly sounded sincere.

There are others on both sides of the constitutional argument who simply will not set that argument aside. Social media – increasingly central to many of our lives – is awash with partisans. Many argue that Sturgeon has performed so much more impressively than UK government ministers that the case for independence is strengthened. Others, naturally, conclude that so appalling has the First Minister’s stewardship of the government been during the crisis that she’s a busted flush.

Both of these popular positions are nonsense. The notion that – tonal differences among messengers aside – the Scottish and UK government approaches have differed is fanciful. Where there have been successes – ensuring the widespread adherence to rules on lockdown and social distancing, for example – they have been shared. Where there have been failures – shortages in personal protection equipment for frontline workers, for example – the mistakes made recognise no border.

There will be a time for a grown-up conversation on Scotland’s future. Once this crisis has passed, the debate over how we create the fairest society will be more vital than ever.

Sturgeon must know – and friends of the First Minister assure me she does – that the case she was making for independence before the coronavirus pandemic is going to look woefully out of date by the time life has returned to anything resembling normality.

It will not be possible for Sturgeon and her team to begin the process of rebuilding the case for independence until we have a clear idea of the consequences of this crisis. Vital intervention by the Treasury may be maintaining life as normally as possible for now but there will come a time when bills will have to be settled.

It is clear that without government help, countless businesses would have already gone under. We cannot, sadly, be sure that all of those currently being kept afloat thanks to the actions of the Treasury will still be viable once state support is removed.

I’m inclined to agree with the analysis of one SNP politician who suggests that the uncertainty created by the coronavirus crisis is hardly going to encourage those risk averse voters of middle Scotland that the Yes campaign needs to win over that now is the time for yet more upheaval.

The circumstances in which we find ourselves present a challenge to the I’m-not-a-nationalist Yes voters, those curious people who are able to square in their minds the idea that one can at once both support a nationalist project while rejecting nationalism. If those voters were motivated in 2014, as so many say they were, by the prospect of rebuilding society, they may find that a post-coronavirus UK offers a broader canvas on to which they might project their ideas. If the world changes, will their plans change?

As if Sturgeon didn’t already have enough to be dealing with, there remains another problem on the horizon. Her predecessor as First Minister, Alex Salmond, has made it clear that he regards his recent trial as part of unfinished business between himself and his former protégé.

Having been cleared in court, Salmond promised to reveal further details of what his supporters insist was a conspiracy to destroy him.

Salmond stands on the edge of Sturgeon’s vision, waiting for the moment when he might make life as difficult as possible for his political heir.

Sturgeon promised us a “grown-up conversation” last week but now is not the time. Once this crisis is over, then it’s time to talk.

And everyone involved – unionist and nationalist alike – had better have some better ideas than the ones they’ve been making do with until now.

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