The real competition in British politics is between Boris Johnson and Nicola Sturgeon: it will run and run

Melanie McDonagh
·3-min read
 (Daniel Hambury)
(Daniel Hambury)

While we’re obsessing about the roadmap out of lockdown down here, up in Scotland, there’s a long drumroll preparatory to Nicola Sturgeon unveiling her own route later today. The First Minister has declared — surprise! — that her plan will be driven “by data and not dates”, a line she nicked from the Prime Minister. But the gist of her approach was evident from her reaction to Boris’s plan: she observed that if Scotland were to follow the PM’s lead and open schools in one go, “we would send transmission through the roof again very quickly”. The crucial and indeed only point here is that Scotland’s policies should be manifestly different from those in England. And it’s all part of her bid to demonstrate that she is not Boris Johnson, that her approach is better than his, on Covid-19 as everything else. It’s a personal thing.

Any innocent political observer might be forgiven for thinking that the great fissure in British politics is between the Prime Minister and Labour’s Sir Keir Starmer. That’s a delusion. The real divide, the one with real animus behind it, is between Nicola Sturgeon and Boris Johnson. To say as much is to suggest that it’s mutual; in fact, the PM never seems to nurse any particular personal dislike of the First Minister. But for Nicola, who in this represents SNP opinion pretty accurately, the dislike for Boris is pretty well what gets her out of bed in the morning.

You might think that the SNP would have some kind words for the success of the Government’s vaccination policy. It was a UK government approach to bet the house on buying as many vaccines as possible. A report from Public Health Scotland on the real impact of the vaccine roll-out suggests that it is having a “spectacular” impact on Scottish hospital admissions. Is the First Minister grateful? Nope.

Why the animus? Isn’t it obvious? In England, people take an indulgent approach to Boris, the mildly shambolic, hyperbolic, wilfully tousled Old Etonian. In Scotland, every time he opens his mouth, he irritates people and none more than Nicola, who is, as even her friends would admit, a bit chippy. It’s a class thing and it’s an English thing. There is really nothing Boris can do about it. He is the most potent argument for independence: Nicola’s prize asset.

He can take comfort from one thing. Did I say the real animus is between Nicola and Boris? That’s only true if you exclude the really toxic feud in British politics, the standoff between the First Minister and her predecessor, Alex Salmond. Much of it to do with her alleged involvement with sexual harassment claims against him (of which he was cleared). There we have the equivalent of whisky bottles smashed against the counter before parties close in for the fight. Boris can just stand back and enjoy the fun.

There is a case for historical perspective on events. My favourite book right now is The Long Weekend, published in 1940, which is Robert Graves’ and Alan Hodge’s account of the period between the wars. It’s an account of what mattered at the time: the changing fashion for beards, the difficulty getting women to vote when to do so was to admit to being 30, the takeover of prostitution by “the enthusiastic amateur”, especially in Nottingham, an Archdeacon’s adultery, popular revulsion at the execution of two Chicago-Italian anarchists. All utterly riveting, all now forgotten. It makes you realise that history is in the small things as much as the large.

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