Scotland - the brave?
There is a plausible case to be made for the proposition that Scotland is the most conservative part of the United Kingdom. Saying so may cut against the idea, much cherished in certain quarters, that Scotland is an inherently more radical society than other parts of the United Kingdom. In this view, ‘radical’ is imbued with a certain nobility. Scotland, by virtue of its democratic, egalitarian instincts is a reforming, progressive, country whose moral purpose - and seriousness of purpose - may usefully be contrasted with at least one of its neighbours. As John Smith once remarked, “we are a more moral people”.
I am afraid that much of this is self-regarding, self-flattering guff; a form of Scottish exceptionalism rooted in nothing more substantial than wishful thinking and a modern variant on the ancient boast "wha’s like us?" that fails to ask if anyone would wish to be.
In recent years the Scottish people have twice been asked their verdict on major constitutional upheavals and on both occasions they have preferred the known pleasures of the status quo over the unknown delights of significant change. I make no comment here on the merits of independence or Brexit, save to express the thought that each proved a radical step too far for Scotland.
This is not necessarily ignoble. There is much to be said for scepticism. Grand schemes, especially those which claim to lift all boats, should be interrogated and subjected to greater scrutiny than even an imperfect, if sustainable, status quo. Reality is a complicated business and revolutions, of whatever form, are invariably subject to the laws of unintended consequence.
Still, Scotland is a land of No and Remain. In at least one of these regards this may change and may, indeed, be in the process of changing. Even then, however, it is a cautious, incremental change more than it is a cavalry charge towards a place in history.
For in truth, far from being impatient or restless or clamouring for change, this often seems an endlessly patient country. At the very least, we sometimes exhibit a trusting faith in authority. That, amongst other things, helps explain Nicola Sturgeon’s still buoyant approval ratings. True, her success is chiefly measured in relation to whomever happens to be in residence in Downing Street and, at present, this constitutes a lower-than-ideal bar to success.
Even so, and for all her demonstrable strengths, the first minister is graded on a forgiving curve. “Trust us”, she asks, and the people are, on the whole, prepared to do so. Outcomes are less significant than perceptions and, while Covid-19 outcomes have been better, as a matter of public health, in Scotland than in England, the perception of those outcomes has lapped the reality of their difference.
Once again, though, Scotland is moving more slowly than England. This may yet be an approach vindicated by the final verdict on the handling of this emergency. But for all the Scottish Government’s fine words on restarting the economy or bringing children back into full-time education, it remains the case that its approach is so deeply cautious it’s much more conservative than that evident south of the border.
Again, this may be prudent. The risk of a second wave of infections arriving before mechanisms have been put in place to deal with it is a real one. But it is also the case that governments take on something of the character of those leading them. Boris Johnson likes to think of himself as a gung-ho kinda guy, impatient with pettifogging regulation; Nicola Sturgeon, by contrast, is detail-oriented and instinctively risk-averse. In both instances, all this shows in their response to this crisis.
And Sturgeon’s caution may suit the country she leads. Risk is disconcerting even if it may also, on other occasions, be an opportunity. Put aside the constitutional question - the great exception to the first minister’s modus vivendi - and there is a touch of the old-fashioned Scottish banker about Sturgeon. Prudence is her watchword. No Fred Goodwin, she.
For which, you may say, many thanks. And yet in Scottish public life more generally, this cultural caution - or conservatism - can have adverse consequences too. You can have too much of a good thing. Balancing risk, even in a time of pandemic, easily slides into total risk-aversion. Hence the suggestion neither the economy nor schools can sensibly restart until such time as the risks of doing so have been eliminated entirely.
Once more, this is not wholly ignoble. There are powerful arguments in favour of super-caution. But these must be balanced against the costs of that conservatism and, as we move through the phases of suppressing the virus, the risks of not opening become ever greater than the risks of doing so. Public health and the economy are linked as cable cars are; as one goes up so the other must come down. At present, the risk to public health is coming down while the danger to the economy - and all the wellbeing that stems from it - is going up.
In such circumstances you might expect business to be clamouring for more and faster action. Yet once again we might note the near silence of Scotland’s corporate sector. Boats are not for rocking; heads are best kept down.
That, I suggest, reflects the manner in which Scotland’s public culture is both inherently conservative and deferential. There are, again, strengths to that but these come laced with different kinds of risk. These are urgent times yet I think it reasonable to suggest the rhetoric of public life in Scotland is not yet matched with the pressing nature of the challenges ahead. In economic terms, the rest of this year and all of the next is a salvage operation and the longer that is delayed, the harder it will be to recover much, if anything, from the wreckage.
Written by Alex Massie
About Beyond the Street and Alex Massie
We are all guilty of being too inwardly focused sometimes, especially as we navigate these changed times. It is all too easy to be caught up in the problems close to home, and for overarching trends to pass us by.
To remedy that short-sightedness, Charlotte Street Partners has enlisted the ingenuity and talent of the writer and commentator Alex Massie. As our new correspondent at large, Alex will look at the bigger picture for us each Wednesday. We have challenged him to come up with something a bit different: broad, lateral thinking, thematic insights and a more global perspective.
Alex is a freelance journalist and commentator based in Edinburgh. Not only is he Scotland editor of The Spectator, but he also writes a political column for The Times and The Sunday Times. He features regularly on the BBC as a political commentator and has written in the past for The Telegraph, Politico, The Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, the New Statesman, The Observer, and TIME magazine, among others. He was also the Washington correspondent for The Scotsman and assistant editor of Scotland on Sunday.
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18 June 2020