NICOLA STURGEON recoils from the suggestion that coronavirus could be politically advantageous. It has, after all, been linked to more than 4,200 Scottish deaths. Even so, the pandemic has left Scotland’s first minister in rude political health. Some 74% of Scots think her handling of the pandemic has been good or very good, according to Panelbase, a pollster. In contrast, Boris Johnson, who spent three nights in intensive care and scores just 21%, has been stricken by the virus personally and professionally.
In the 2014 referendum, the Nationalists struggled to get Scots to imagine what an independent government might look like. The pandemic was just what the doctor ordered. Health is devolved under Britain’s constitution, so Ms Sturgeon’s administration has the trappings of a state-in-waiting. Unlike the rumpled, details-light Mr Johnson, she has given poised daily televised press conferences packed with useful information.
Westminster has helped Scotland through the crisis. The Treasury has funded the furlough scheme which pays the wages of Scottish workers. The central government also runs a network of mobile-testing centres in Scotland and Scottish scientists sit on British expert committees.
The government has thus fulfilled the unionists’ promise in the 2014 referendum that Britain would be Scotland’s protector in hard times. Yet the appetite for separation has rarely been so high. The threat of a hard border between England and Scotland after divorce has been the unionists’ trump card. But 37% of Scots polled in early July said border controls to stop covid “should already be happening”, while a further 36% said they may be necessary in the future. Fewer than one in five opposed them.
Scottish Conservatives are worried. It was bad enough when nationalists had to build their case on solid foundations. Now they seem to be able to win the argument on soggy territory, too. Says one despairing Tory: “How are we losing ground when the Union is working as it never has before?”
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