Euan McColm: Opponents will prove Nicola Sturgeon’s best friends in this crisis

It was a moment to silence cynics and bring a tear to the eye.

Scotland's First Minister holds a briefing on the Covid-19 outbreak in Edinburgh. Picture: Andy Buchanan/PA Wire
Scotland's First Minister holds a briefing on the Covid-19 outbreak in Edinburgh. Picture: Andy Buchanan/PA Wire

A co-ordinated symphony of applause at 8pm on Thursday evening saw the nation come together to thank NHS staff working under incredible pressure during the coronavirus crisis.

Gratitude for the efforts of medics may have been the motivation for the nationwide event but it achieved, I think, something more. Wasn’t there something, during these days of self-isolation and social-distancing, profoundly moving about the feeling of connection with others? I will not quickly forget hearing applause echoing across Edinburgh. It was the sound of defiance, the sound of hope, the sound of community.

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There will be many more rounds of applause before this crisis comes to an end. NHS staff face ever greater pressure in the days and weeks to come as the number of confirmed cases multiplies. Nobody can now be in any doubt that things are going to get very much worse before they get better.

Our political leaders – until a few weeks ago, obsessed with constitutional wrangling – have found themselves 
in the heat of a crisis for which no amount of planning could have prepared them.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his Chancellor, Rishi Sunak, have reacted swiftly with a series of measures to protect jobs and the income of the self-employed that their Labour opponents have been unable to criticise. In fact, the opposition line – parroted by Jeremy Corbyn and his acolytes over recent days – is that what we are seeing is a Labour-style response to the situation. These are the politics Corbyn argued for last year, they say.

While Corbynistas indulge themselves in their fantasies of relevance, the United Kingdom government has acted in a way that has given real reassurance to many millions of workers.

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, too, appears to be rising to meet the challenges of the times. Her regular televised briefings on the situation have been clear and well-pitched. Sturgeon does tone very well indeed.

Sturgeon and Johnson – wisely – have called a halt to normal political hostilities at this time. The Prime and First Ministers are on the same side now.

Who would dare predict when there will be space for normal politics to begin again?

While things remain in this abnormal state, I would encourage both Johnson and Sturgeon to hold their opponents closer, still. This is a time when leaders should reach out to all the talents.

Scotland was facing economic challenges before the coronavirus pandemic. An ageing population with too few younger people to take the roles in the workplace of retirees was – and remains – a recipe for intolerable pressure on public services.

The road ahead of Scotland was rocky enough before coronavirus hit. Now the challenges the country faces are multiplied and magnified.

With this in mind, Sturgeon should consider convening an emergency committee which includes members of opposition parties.

This committee would not only act in an advisory capacity during the crisis, it would discuss how best the country might recover from the difficult times ahead.

Naturally, the First Minister’s priority will be responding day-to-day to the developing situation. Wouldn’t it be reassuring to know that Sturgeon had a trusted team working on the longer term picture?

There is no shortage of substantial political figures in Scotland to whom Sturgeon might turn at this time. Former Labour PM Gordon Brown and his chancellor Alistair Darling, one time deputy first minister now Liberal Democrat peer, Jim Wallace, former Tory leader Annabel Goldie are just a few of those whose experience and intellect would be of use to the First Minister and the country, right now.

The idea of co-operation in politics has grown increasingly unfashionable in recent years. We like our politics tribal, these days, and we generally refuse to accept those with whom we might disagree are acting in good faith.

Coronavirus has knocked that pettiness out of most of our politicians. Of course, idiots may still be found, Take the SNP MP Angus MacNeil who tweeted a “correction” to an STV report about applause for NHS staff noting that the organisation in question was known as “NHS Scotland”. But the likes of MacNeil are, thankfully, in the minority.

Some nationalists might recoil at the idea of collaboration with unionist politicians. Before coronavirus got in the way, a great many SNP members had expected to be preparing for a second independence referendum by now. They had been told to expect a vote sooner rather than later.

But the pandemic has put an end to the constitutional debate for the foreseeable future. Sure, the question will come back, of course it will, but for now weapons are down in that particular battle.

Sturgeon and the Tory leader of the opposition at Holyrood, Jackson Carlaw, have impressed in their interactions so far. He has made clear that while the opposition will continue to question the government, his objective will be to support measures to tackle the pandemic rather than to score political points.

SNP sources say the First Minister is grateful for the way Carlaw and other opposition leaders have responded. “They all know the boss has a massive job on her hands and the sense is that they genuinely want her to succeed,” said one nationalist MSP, while a Scottish Government source said it was reassuring that opposition leaders were prepared to work constructively with Sturgeon.

Of course, now is not the time for politically-motivated decision making. But, well, if the First Minister was to consider the grubby matter of politics, she might see another good reason for gathering her opponents around the table.

The decisions the First Minister makes in the week ahead will have huge implications for the country and for her political future. If she succeeds, then her political legacy will be assured. If she fails, then ignominy awaits.

If Nicola Sturgeon convenes a committee of experts from across the political spectrum, she will be sharing responsibility for the way forward. That might be useful when things get tough and the instinct to point the finger of blame re-emerges.

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