Nick Cook is a Conservative councillor in Edinburgh, where he holds responsibility for group policy and political strategy.
The first phases of lockdown saw me progressively tune out of the news. I’ve no doubt that juggling nursery-free parenting and arrival of a puppy both contributed.
However, the poll earlier this month putting support for Scottish separation at 54 per cent gave me the nudge I needed to again fire up my go-to news apps proper.
Yes, polls are but a snap shot in time. Yes, political pollsters worldwide have increasingly struggled to correctly predict results.
But despite damning failings on care home deaths, school reopening, comparably tight-fisted business support and a dog whistle border row that would make Donald Trump proud, Nicola Sturgeon’s SNP have been judged to have had a ‘good pandemic’.
By extension, support for a separate Scottish state seems to have risen too. I suspect temporarily, but in truth nobody is yet sure of the medium to longer term impact of Covid-19 – on politics or anything else.
Notably, the Indy uptick comes despite the fact it is the UK Conservative government – not the SNP – that has been directly paying the wages of Scotland’s 628,000 furloughed workers and 146,000 self-employed.
I firmly believe that seeing Sturgeon conduct a high budget daily press conference has boosted the SNP’s polling. The opposition simply haven’t been afforded similar exposure by broadcasters, as they would be required to at election time. As John Curtice has pointed out, it appears polling reflects two decades of relatively low public understanding of the devolved settlement has given way to a public better engaged with Holyrood’s responsibilities.
To follow this through logically, an increasing number of Scots will also be becoming better equated with what is – and crucially, is not – the UK Government’s responsibility in Scotland.
Perhaps this unprecedented pandemic will finally do what opposition parties at Holyrood have largely failed to do, which is to unambiguously pin blame for the Scottish Government’s failures at the SNP’s feet in the mind of the casual voter. Increased awareness presents risks and opportunity for unionists and nationalists alike.
However, if the recent summer statement from the Chancellor is anything to go by, the UK Government is – contrary to detractors – prepared and ready to take the fight to Scottish nationalism, based not on historical identity, but by delivering financially for Scots in the here and now. Austerity be gone.
The statement itself had Rishi Sunak’s fingerprints all over it: his predecessor, Sajid Javid, would have given it a Thatcherite rinse.
But the strategic decision to largely bypass Holyrood and spend the bulk of the £800 million directly in Scotland makes good on months-long UK Government murmurings and best the imprint of Michael Gove and his unassumingly monikered cabinet subcommittee for Union policy.
It also belatedly gives teeth to Cameron-era messaging that Scotland does indeed have two governments.
Fellow Conservatives can often be critical of Theresa May’s premiership. But she remains broadly well-regarded in Scotland by Remainers and Leavers alike, because she was rock solid on the Union and Scotland’s place within it. Lacking the Bullingdon baggage of her predecessor, May had no hesitation in tackling Nicola Sturgeon head-on. And she was modest enough to defer to Scotland’s Conservative leadership.
Some might suggest that May’s decision to put in motion the Dunlop review on devolution, when she had one foot out the door of Number Ten, was intended to put a marker down for her successor. She would know that any new government would be unlikely to be bound by its conclusions.
While Boris Johnson would declare himself ‘Minister for the Union’, his decision to heed Lord Dunlop’s call to task a senior minister with inter-UK relations betrays a good degree of self-awareness that critics – and allies – would question.
Either that or Dominic Cummings, Eddie Lister and company know full well that Johnson’s undeniable charisma and quintessential English charm quickly meet a brick all in Scotland, amongst Unionists across the political spectrum.
Gove’s influence penetrates right across government, but his pivotal role as Union tsar is probably as shrewd a decision as the current government has made. While many English MPs point to their Scottish heritage as a sort of tokenism, it is clear Gove’s Aberdonian upbringing is central to his politics. He has remained dialled in to Scottish politics across his career. Bluntly, he gets the nuances of Holyrood. Many others do not.
He is already known as a zealous reformer, but if the UK government is to succeed in more loudly stamping its mark across Scotland through direct investment, they will need to be bold and channel the sort of zeal usually reserved for an underdog. Even Kevin Pringle, Alex Salmond’s former spin doctor, recently suggested such an attitude could play well for Unionists.
Back at Holyrood, current the Scottish Tory leader, Jackson Carlaw is an enthusiastic leader, albeit with a tough act to follow. He is also a one who – through no fault of his own – has had the early momentum of his leadership wiped out by a global pandemic. With the Holyrood elections just ten months away, fight like an underdog it must be.