I believe Nicola Sturgeon when she insists she doesn’t have an “anti-English bone” in her body. I am convinced too, by her assertion that there is not “an anti-English fibre” in her being.
After all, as she keeps reminding us whenever she is accused of xenophobia, one of her grannies was English. “I come from partly English stock,” she boasted the other day, “and I lead a party that is full of English people.”
So far, such broad-minded tolerance. But as Kevin Hague, chair of campaign group ‘These Islands’, pointed out on Twitter recently, there is one word that never passes Sturgeon’s pursed lips. British.
“I’m pretty sure Sturgeon has had the word “British” surgically removed from her vocabulary,” he suggested, and he is right. The SNP leader, whose primary political objective, above all else, is for Scotland to leave the UK, cannot, will not, utter the B-word.
British conjures up warm and fuzzy images for most people. The Queen, Strictly Come Dancing, the world’s best pop music, Team GB winning gold, David Attenborough and Coronation Street.
It’s hard to hate the British when that is your own identity. We are Scottish, British, and (used to be) European.
And it is impossible to imagine leaving the UK when it would mean severing economic, political and cultural ties with, well, ourselves, because we are as British as any English or Welsh person.
Far more effective for the nationalists to frame their political narrative as a division between two distinct cultures. A fight between the plucky wee Scots and the arrogant, blustering English. Nicola versus Boris. Whose side are you on?
Earlier this week I struggled up a steep hill in a picturesque Yorkshire village to be greeted by our smiling friend, “Ah, our visitors from virus-free Scotland,” he laughed, “you are most welcome.”
“Tell us how you have managed to get rid of Covid?” he asked over a delicious lunch of quiche and salad from the Co-op (another great British institution). “Sturgeon certainly knows what she is doing,” he added.
She certainly does, because despite Scotland having one of the highest Covid death rates in the world and 30 times more than Norway, with a similar population, Sturgeon has managed to convince everyone that she has led a successful fight against the virus, while our unfortunate English neighbours are still at the mercy of the plague.
She regularly drops hints of a hard border between Scotland and England, threatening people arriving from England with quarantine, as if they were lepers. “But that’s not something I want to do if we can avoid it,” she told Robert Peston, sweetly, on Wednesday night.
Of course she wants to avoid imposing a quarantine. Scotland’s tourism industry, for one, would all but be destroyed by such a move.
But Sturgeon knows better than anyone that the threat of a quarantine is enough to amplify an important nationalist talking point – Scotland and England are separate. Worse, since the pandemic, England is to be feared because it’s unclean.
The story that Sturgeon and her advisers successfully spin is that the virus is out of control down south because the hard-hearted Tory government prefers herd immunity to eradication. Blustering Boris will happily sacrifice thousands of old people, while Mother Nicola will move heaven and earth to save even one life.
But even a cursory glance behind the political rhetoric tells a different story. Population density, poverty, age and ethnicity are key drivers behind Covid-19 deaths, north and south of the border.
Just as the recent outbreak in Leicester was traced back to packed garment factories and high-density neighbourhoods, so the latest analysis from the National Records of Scotland shows that city residents are four times more likely to die from the virus than folk living in rural areas.
And the highest number of deaths involving working people were among process, plant and machine operatives. Factory workers, just as in Leicester.
England’s population is more than ten times that of Scotland. It has many, many more towns and cities, where people live and work in often very cramped conditions. Here in West Yorkshire, hamlets merge into villages, towns into cities. The population of this small area of land is 2.3 million. The West Midlands has slightly more people than Scotland. London has three million more.
There will be more local outbreaks in England than in Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland, not because the English have lost control of the virus, but because there are more people. It’s statistics. Facts, as Sturgeon keeps reminding us.
As anyone who has ventured south of Gretna in recent weeks will attest, the English are as vigilant against the virus as Scotland.
Social distancing signs are plastered everywhere, shops and restaurants have been re-configured to reduce risk, people are wearing masks, and local councils, police authorities and central government are working together to mitigate the worst of the social and economic impact of the pandemic. Just like in Scotland.
But those facts don’t suit the nationalist aspiration, so a different story has to be told. Just as the Brexiteers used Germany as the big, bad bogeyman in their campaign to leave Europe, so Sturgeon needs to paint England as the auld – and new – enemy.
We are not stopping being British is her subliminal message, we just don’t want to be under the thumb of an Englishman. And the fact that Boris Johnson is a blustering buffoon only helps her spurious argument.
The truth is we, the people across the United Kingdom, are in this together, as we always have been.
It is British taxpayers who have supported one in three Scots jobs, protecting the livelihoods of nearly one million people.
The five UK Government Covid test sites in Scotland are testing almost as many people as NHS Scotland, some days more.
And Edinburgh and Glasgow universities are taking part in the human safety trials for the Oxford University vaccine that may get us all out of this terrible place.
Over the coming months, there will be local outbreaks across the UK which may require community lockdowns, as happened in Leicester recently, and to a lesser extent in Dumfries and Galloway.
But talk of closing the border between Scotland and England is not a public health message. It is politics, plain and simple. And that is a fact.
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