Coronavirus lockdown: Phasers set to Two

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Frequently, when a major political speech is delivered, there will be one line, one phrase even, which stands out. Or is intended to stand out.

It is said that, when Harold Wilson delivered a speech, he would use an agreed gesture to signal to the film cameras that the big moment was about to arrive. Well, film was expensive in those days.

There was, for me, a core moment in Nicola Sturgeon’s statement today. Not, however, in the prepared remarks, but in the subsequent discourse.

To be clear, there was an enormous amount of substance in the statement itself – about social gatherings, about shops, about leisure, about trade, about the health service.

The theme was also clearly expatiated – that these were “proportionate and cautious” measures. The ground work for much more to come.

That theme – that pragmatic, constrained theme – helps explain why so many of the first minister’s announcements were hedged in with caveats. You can do this but…..

I understand, I get the concept. Nicola Sturgeon is again striking a balance between a search for normality and the continuing attempt to suppress this hideous plague.

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However, it was not that which jumped out for me. It has been a familiar theme of the FM’s remarks throughout this crisis.

Rather, I was struck by the reply which she gave to Labour’s Jackie Baillie. Ms Baillie, now restored to her party’s front bench, frequently contrives to find a pertinent question.

On this occasion, she asked a question that was both pertinent and, quite deliberately, impertinent. She asked Ms Sturgeon to comment upon views espoused by Andrew Wilson, the former SNP MSP, to the effect that the Scottish economy was in a notably dire state.

The FM, who is comparably deft and more than ready for such badinage, gave a lengthy answer which sensibly sidestepped the request for a precise comment on Mr Wilson – whom she described as an old friend.

En passant, she noted that Labour seemed eager to quote Mr Wilson, the author of the SNP’s growth strategy, when he could be represented as adopting the pose critical.

They were, she noted, less keen to cite him when he was advocating independence as the route to Scotland’s future prosperity.

So far, so familiar. A sharp discourse between two skilled politicians. But Ms Sturgeon continued. She said that the economy of Scotland had, in effect, entered “hibernation”.

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Just think of the implications of that analysis. A wintry pall, prompted by a vicious virus, has descended upon our trade, our commerce, our production, our exchange.

This analysis is, of course, borne out by emerging figures on GDP and the labour market which are persistently gloomy. It is also borne out by the Bank of England’s decision to expand quantitative easing.

But just consider the import of that word. Not a slippage. Not a slump, a recession or even a depression. Hibernation. The absence of sufficient sentient economic life.

Such is evidently the internal anxiety of the first minister. That Scotland’s economic being will require evident stimulus – and soon – if that financial winter is not to persist.

Now, of course, there is more, much more, to life than the economy. There is such a thing as society, contrary to past views. There is family. There is love. There is football, for those of us who support a team in the Scottish Premiership.

Equally, for those who cleave to such matters, there is faith. Which has been afforded a minor relaxation in that private prayer will now be possible in places of worship. Private, not yet collective. Always a but.

However, the economy remains critical. We are no longer hunter-gatherers. We rely on a composite economy for the creation and distribution of the necessities of life.

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It is about wealth creation. About wealth distribution. About the generation of funds to support public services. And, according to the FM, it is in hibernation.

Why, then, does she not do more to stir that slumbering beast? One can well understand the disquiet in sectors of Scotland at the relatively limited nature of the announcements.

The pub trade, for example, had been led to expect a possible relaxation to allow them to serve customers in beer gardens.

To be absolutely fair, Ms Sturgeon had always made clear that her route map was open to amendment. She has indeed done so, arguing that pubs, restaurants, gyms and the like can be hotspots for rapid transmission of the virus.

So no concessions now – although there may be more to come, pending further scientific scrutiny. That but again.

Equally, she showed flexibility in the other direction by allowing street shops of all sizes to reopen from Monday 29 June. That went further than the anticipated Phase Two programme.

But it all remains limited. To be quite clear, once more, the first minister is very well aware of the limitations. They are deliberate. They are calculated. She says she will not take risks with health.

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That was the tone of her tetchy exchange with Jackson Carlaw, who leads the Scottish Conservatives. He accused her of failing to comprehend the depth of the economic crisis. She accused him, in return, of hypocrisy and party political gestures.

The discourse with Labour’s Richard Leonard was more constrained, as it has been throughout, although substantive. Ditto with Alison Johnstone of the Greens.

There then arose Willie Rennie of the Liberal Democrats. While declaring his intention to pursue a consensual course, he nevertheless asked a pointed question.

How could it be, first minister, that you are asking people to go back to work, requiring them to wear face coverings on public transport in transit to that employment – yet failing to provide reliable child care, either in school or in other settings?

Ms Sturgeon offered a range of possible solutions. There was the wider effort to return schools to normal asap. There was a drive to encourage home working; to ask employers to be flexible on child care; to increase access to critical child care; and, perhaps, in due course to expand the concept of an “extended household” to include child minding, where possible.

But then also came the blunt answer. There was, she said with passion, “no single, straightforward answer” to any of the questions being posed right now. We were “dealing with an unprecedented challenge”.

That is why every offer today is caveated with a “but”. That is why it can be viewed as a holding statement. That is why it is ground work for further endeavour.

We need more work, more thought, from government, from experts, from all of us. Mostly, though, we need the virus to subside. To be suppressed.

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