Scotland diverging on lockdown shows ‘devolution working’ says Henry McLeish

Nicola Sturgeon’s divergent approach from England to dealing with the coronavirus pandemic has been backed by former first minister Henry McLeish, who says it shows “devolution working”.

But he has slammed the approach of the UK government over its relations with Holyrood, Wales and Northern Ireland during the outbreak, as well as Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s failure to tell people that Westminster’s jurisdiction on the lockdown largely does not extend to Scotland.

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In an interview with Scotland on Sunday, the former Scottish Labour leader said Sturgeon is “in step” with the views of Scots in her handling of the crisis and called on the UK government to show more respect for devolution.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson delivers a Downing Street press conferencePrime Minister Boris Johnson delivers a Downing Street press conference
Prime Minister Boris Johnson delivers a Downing Street press conference
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“The First Minister is doing a very good job in extremely difficult times,” said McLeish.

“I am less confident about what is happening at Westminster in the guise of the Conservative Government. These are unprecedented times, there’s no manual, there’s no script for what we do and of course this is the most intense post-war crisis anyone has ever faced.”

Johnson has encouraged a return to the workplace in England if staff can’t work from home, reopened garden centres and libraries and allowed activities like golf and picnics in the park to resume. The Stay at Home message has also been ditched in favour of Stay Alert.

In Scotland, lockdown remains unchanged apart from exercising, which is no longer limited to once a day.

Henry McLeish is critical of Boris Johnson's failure to explain that his writ doesn't run to Scotland. Picture: Phil WilkinsonHenry McLeish is critical of Boris Johnson's failure to explain that his writ doesn't run to Scotland. Picture: Phil Wilkinson
Henry McLeish is critical of Boris Johnson's failure to explain that his writ doesn't run to Scotland. Picture: Phil Wilkinson

Senior Tories, including MSP Michelle Ballantyne, have been critical of the different approach in Scotland even suggesting Sturgeon had “reasons of her own” for seeking to drive that difference north and south of the border.

But McLeish said: “This is devolution working. Devolution was created for a purpose. It was to reflect different circumstances in different areas of the United Kingdom. This is essentially what is happening.”

And it is not just Scotland. Mayor of Manchester, Andy Burnham, and civic leaders in Yorkshire have been talking about how their circumstances differ from the south-east and London, McLeish added.

“Difference is a reality, you can’t make it go away and a consequence is there’s no reason why there shouldn’t be different responses for each part of the United Kingdom,” he went on.

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“There’s nothing surprising that Scotland should be doing things differently. What is important to register is when we talk about difference, you could argue that it is the United Kingdom that is currently out of step with Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.”

McLeish, who succeeded Donald Dewar as first minister between 2000 and 2001, says the new Stay Alert message being employed by Westminster has “no meaning” and fears it may undermine the clear Stay at Home slogan which has helped drive down cases of the virus UK-wide.

The first signs of tensions between Westminster and the administrations in Edinburgh, Cardiff and Stormont emerged last weekend when media briefings divulged details of the Prime Minister’s lockdown exit strategy, including plans to ditch the key Stay at Home message, before the devolved leaders were informed, much to their consternation.

“The UK government’s handling of the pandemic has been inconsistent and has been misleading at times and certainly has had mixed messages,” McLeish said.

“Johnson doesn’t make clear in his various statements, especially Sunday night contributions, that a lot of these measures only apply to England, and my worry there is he doesn’t accept really the four-nation idea.

“He doesn’t accept the reality of devolution and he’s been very opposed [to it] as most Conservatives have been over a long period, pre-devolution, and even since then.

“Johnson has to make it clear where his authority runs, especially on the health side – economic measures are different. He’s got to make sure that he makes it clear to his listening public that his authority only runs in England.”

The Scottish Government’s determination to take its own approach has met with some resistance in industry, which is keen to get the economy up and running, as well as the elements of the wider public yearning for an end to restrictions which have now brought daily life to a standstill for the past two months.

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Some in the SNP have suggested Scotland’s distinct approach may boost the case for independence, but McLeish says it could be the making of devolution.

He added: “People will say Scotland is out of line, but I think at that point we have to say ‘Hang on Westminster.’ Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland are still saying Stay at Home. Andy Burnham in Manchester, Yorkshire, the north-east of England are all still saying Stay at Home.

“So I think this is maybe devolution coming of age, that maybe Westminster should be learning lessons from the devolved administrations because they have matured. They have in 21 years done incredible stuff measured against 300-odd years we’ve had at Westminster.

“Whilst I believe that everybody should be working together, that’s the best bet for the common good and to tackle the pandemic, maybe Westminster has got to realise, especially Boris Johnson and the Conservative government, that all the wisdom in the world doesn’t flow from London or from Westminster.”

And the former first minister warned that any Downing Street effort to politicise Scotland’s approach to the pandemic will backfire.

Nicola Sturgeon is in step, I think, with the Scottish people,” he added.

“She’s in step with safety, she’s in step with security and woe betide Boris Johnson if he decides to try to suggest that Scotland is in a way lagging behind the United Kingdom.

“I wouldn’t be as arrogant as to suggest that everything we do in Scotland is without fault, but I do think on this occasion she’s been to the point, she’s been straight with people. Leadership is about trust and it’s about confidence. I’m not sure I have a lot of trust in the United Kingdom government just now.”

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