Language of priorities divides Scotland over COVID-19

Scotland is in the midst of a public health emergency, battling with a deadly virus. It's a time when the public might expect their politicians to put aside party politics and place the interests of the country first.

For several months they did. But today marked the end of what was left of the coronavirus consensus in Holyrood with bitter, partisan, exchanges between Nicola Sturgeon and the leader of the largest opposition party, Jackson Carlaw.

There have, of course, always been differences between the Scottish National party and the Scottish Tories, parties of the centre-left, and centre-right and divided on the issue of independence for Scotland.

However, at the start of the crisis Mr Carlaw, as Conservative leader, tried to be broadly supportive of Ms Sturgeon and the SNP government. It lasted for a while, but it's gone completely now.

Today, in some of the most ferocious jousts the pair have engaged in, the Tory leader accused the First Minister and her government of "simply not listening" to calls for lockdown restrictions to be lifted more swiftly.

Returning to her old ways as a political street-fighter, Ms Sturgeon told Mr Carlaw he "blows with the wind or blows with whatever direction his colleagues in Westminster tell him too".

She challenged Mr Carlaw to welcome the measures she was announcing. He said he had welcomed lockdown easing - two weeks ago, by which he meant the plans unveiled by Tory Prime Minister Boris Johnson, which he thinks should have been replicated north of the Border.

The First Minister said if she had done the same as Westminster two weeks ago it would have been "utterly reckless", and put lives at risk.


It was strong stuff. Not for the politically faint-hearted. What the public will make of such pandemic partisanship one can only imagine. The next set of polling in Scotland may give us a clue.

However, there is a plausible explanation for why things have become so bitter between the two largest parties at Holyrood, which goes beyond pure party politics, though that never goes away completely.

There are now two different views of what should be the priority as we come out of what is hopefully the worst of the coronavirus crisis.

One, held by the First Minister is that health, and stopping the re-emergence of COVID-19 is paramount. As she said, in her view it would be 'reckless' to move too fast.

Ms Sturgeon's position is that, having seen the virus reappear in other countries, she will err on the side of caution, and in the long term that is best for Scotland.

The other, held by Mr Carlaw and his party, is that the effect on the economy of coronavirus is so severe that the imperative must now be to get business back up and running.

Credit: PA

For him and his party a more severe economic downturn will be more damaging for Scotland, and Scots - they would point to the fact that it's generally agreed recession and poverty can lead to higher death rates.

Now, it's worth saying that Ms Sturgeon, of course, also says the economy is important and Mr Carlaw, of course, says suppressing the virus is also important.

But they differ on what the emphasis should be, what should be prioritised.The great post-war Labour politician Aneurin Bevan said "The language of priorities is the religion of socialism." It's one of the most frequently cited quotations in politics.

We're not talking about socialism here, but It has become clear that the language of priorities has become the dividing line in the coronavirus politics in Scotland.

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