In a recent newsletter, Jonn Elledge wrote about the ‘peak-end’ rule – “a sort of mental shortcut which means we tend to judge experiences largely on how we felt at their most intense point and how we felt at the end”.
He was lamenting how this mental tendency will likely mean that Boris Johnson will ‘get away with’ the Government poor handling of the Covid-19 pandemic because the event that’s going to most shape the popular memory of it will be the outstanding vaccine rollout.
This week unionists might have cause to worry that the same phenomenon might now benefit Nicola Sturgeon. After a torrid few weeks in which it looked as if her immediate political future might be in danger, the First Minister is now heading into the Scottish elections with some wind in her sails. Much to the surprise of most commentators – and especially her opponents – she was cleared of breaching the Ministerial Code by James Hamilton SC, the Scottish Government’s independent advisor on it.
Now he actually said it was up to MSPs to decide whether or not Sturgeon had misled them. And the Scottish Parliament’s own inquiry (which has a separatist majority if not an SNP one) was scathing – a “devastating catalogue of errors”, in the words of one journalist. But despite originally pledging to respect the outcomes of both, the First Minister has set about dismissing the latter as a partisan hatchet job whilst solemnly declaring she would have resigned if Hamilton had found against her.
If you believe that, of course, she has some ferries to sell you. And critics have rightly pointed out that Hamilton’s actual report has been redacted to such an extent that the man himself has insisted it go out with an explanatory (even exculpatory) note.
But such details aren’t likely to offset the brute fact that the flavour of the press coverage is ‘Sturgeon exonerated’, a problem compounded for the Conservatives because it meant their aggressive push for a no-confidence vote ended up leaving them “looking like mugs”, as the Daily Record put it.
However, despair is a unionist vice so it is important to remind ourselves that whilst it hasn’t immediately ended in a spectacular scalp, this snowballing series of scandals is still welcome evidence that the Scottish National Party is still subject to the laws of political mortality. As I noted for the Spectator this week:
“Johnson could easily justify ruling out a referendum until at least after the next general election, especially if his team start putting more effort into their arguments. Even assuming the government felt compelled to set one in train after that, it probably wouldn’t actually be held until 2025 or later. In that scenario, it is hard to see Sturgeon still being in post to lead her Party into that campaign.
“And without the great prize of being the woman who finally delivered Scottish independence, what incentive does she really have to slog through years of factional strife, SNP sex scandals, botched ferry contracts, and declining education outcomes?”
The game is still on, in other words, and defenders of the United Kingdom can’t afford to waste time slipping into a funk or on another round of desperate bargaining of the ‘more powers’ sort. The SNP’s domestic record is still woeful and shadowed by allegations of misconduct, and there are fresh signs that its internal divisions have not yet reached their nadir.
Fortunately for Boris Johnson, polling shows that Scottish voters are not keen on having a referendum in the next few years. The need to put right the damage of the Covid-19 pandemic joins the long list of others that the Prime Minister can employ to justify pushing back any second vote until at least after the next general election.
Not only will that force Sturgeon into an ugly confrontation with her base and make it harder for the Scottish Government to distract voters from its record, but it will also give the Government time to flex its new UKIM powers and develop other strategies such as the Union Connectivity Review and the extremely-belated Dunlop Report.