In these difficult and strange times, we must find comfort in the little things that stay exactly the same as they've always been, and one of those is unionist journalists forever trying to convince both themselves and us that the case for independence has just been unexpectedly destroyed. Seemingly undeterred by the biggest international crisis since the Second World War, Chris Deerin has indulged himself yet again by penning his latest variant on "The Article", and this time his angle is that "the British family coming together" over the last few weeks will "force the SNP to entirely remake the case for Scottish independence". Here are a few reasons why he's barking up the wrong tree...
1) Part of the process of "the British family coming together" involved the three devolved administrations - ironically including nationalist parties in both Scotland and Northern Ireland - remaining in lockstep with London during the catastrophic 'herd immunity' episode. That meant, for example, that we totally disregarded WHO guidance by abandoning contact tracing at exactly the same time as England. We did, to our credit, stop large gatherings and announce the closure of schools slightly earlier than England, but nowhere near early enough, and of course we had the grotesque spectacle of Jason Leitch openly encouraging people to go to large concerts on the weekend of the 14/15th March, and saying that he would have gone himself. That was at a time when the UK epidemic was taking off in a really significant way. People have almost certainly died in recent weeks as an indirect (and perhaps even direct) consequence of infections that occurred at mass gatherings that weekend.
When the crisis is finally over, there'll inevitably be a number of inquiries into the unmitigated disaster of Britain ending up with probably the worst death toll in Europe, and Scotland being part of that. One conclusion that will be absolutely inescapable is that Scotland would have suffered fewer deaths - and probably far fewer - if it had departed much earlier and more dramatically from the common UK position. The SNP's eventual justification for failing to protect lives during those crucial days in mid-March may be that it was never realistic for the Scottish strategy to differ significantly from the UK's, due to the structural limitations of devolution. If so, that in itself will make a compelling new case for Scotland becoming an independent country.
2) There has already been a full-scale Scottish opinion poll during the crisis, and it shows the Yes vote holding up remarkably well at just a smidgeon below 50%. OK, that was in late March when normal life was still a relatively recent memory, but nevertheless it's what we have to go on at the moment, and unionists would be foolish to lightly dismiss it.
3) Regardless of whether the effect of the crisis on support for independence is neutral or negative, there's pretty strong evidence that the 'rally round the flag' effect is in Scotland primarily benefiting the SNP and Nicola Sturgeon. We've seen very strong numbers for the SNP in both the full-scale Panelbase poll, and in Scottish subsamples of GB-wide polls. There was nothing inevitable about that, because in Wales the devolved Labour government is not the beneficiary - instead voters are flocking to the Tories. The bottom line is that to make independence go away, the unionists will have to get the SNP out of power or at least bring an end to the pro-indy majority at Holyrood - and at the moment it appears that the crisis has weakened their chances of doing that.
4) It may not be an exaggeration to say that the crisis has kept Nicola Sturgeon in office as First Minister and leader of the SNP. Some people genuinely think she'd have been forced to resign at the end of the Alex Salmond trial if coronavirus hadn't been preoccupying the nation. Now, I know there's a point of view that the chances of independence would actually have increased if Ms Sturgeon had departed, because she's failed to produce a credible roadmap for circumventing the Westminster veto of a Section 30. But the counterargument is that anyone who replaced her as leader would not be as charismatic or as effective a communicator as she is. In general the public will be more receptive to the message of independence if the messenger is convincing, and it does appear that the crisis has further increased the public's trust in Ms Sturgeon.
5) One of the weaknesses of the Yes movement over the last few years has been that the public simply haven't had a break from the constitutional debate since 2011. That's what has given the Tory line of "give it a rest Nicola" some traction. But a side-effect of the crisis is that the public won't be subjected to any talk about independence for a prolonged period (notwithstanding the odd spasm from the likes of Deerin), and that means they'll eventually be hearing the case with fresh ears.
6) The crisis has resolved - at least temporarily - a strategic divide within the SNP between those of us who wanted the mandate for a pre-2021 indyref to be honoured, and those like Pete Wishart and Andrew Wilson who wanted a lengthy delay. The completely random factor of the worst pandemic for a century means that we're all now united in accepting that a referendum cannot realistically be held until 2022 at the earliest (unless a vaccine becomes available sooner than expected). Whatever the frustrations of a delay, the end of the arguments over timing may help the Yes movement to go forward with renewed purpose.
Just by chance, I've discussed some of these issues in my column for next month's edition of iScot - a terrific magazine that is well worth buying either digitally or by print subsciption.