Spring has sprung! (Well, kinda…)

Sunday National, 21st March 2021.

Spring has sprung. This week, the sun finally broke through the long winter of anxiety, fear, and utter tedium of the last few months. Daffodils are blooming. Green shoots are rising. Some taps, I can confirm, were aff – and not just to receive a swift shot of AstraZeneca.

This week, it was announced that more than 2 million Scots – some 44% of the adult population – have received their first inoculation against Covid-19, including sky-high percentages of the most at-risk communities in the country. Both of my parents took their trips down to the NHS Louisa Jordan last weekend. The magic power of a blue envelope. Watching these pop up on friends and strangers’ social media has been a real pleasure.

That cheery wave of blue each week feels like tangible evidence of collective progress, humanising the numbers, giving the charts a smiling face. You can almost feel the sense of relief pooling out across the country with every ping of news that someone’s parents and grandparents, their colleagues and friends, have received their first doses safely.

More than 12 months into this, we all need these talismans, especially while the social impact of the vaccination programme has remained difficult to perceive, as we all remain closeted in our houses, our social lives still so contracted, so unspontaneous.

This week brought some better tidings. After months of little movement – that grey blend of days, weeks and months we’ve trudged through since January – on Wednesday, indicative dates were announced for the world cracking open again. The timeline is a ginger one – too ginger, perhaps, for some – but it is the first real sense of forward momentum I’ve felt in months. I’m sure many of you feel the same. I appreciate the need to remind folk that we’re not out of the woods yet – but we’re finally picking out splotches of clear sky through the canopy.

From the 5th of April, you can finally get your luxurious pandemic locks tamed and your roots seen to. For hard-pressed parents – home-schooling while juggling their jobs and their wits – the week of the 12th of April will loom large, as it is expected all kids will return to schools full time. The 26th has been pencilled in for gyms to throw open their doors, museums and galleries to reopen, and weddings to rebegin. On current projections, the month of May promises to see the greatest liberalisations, with hospitality and cinemas likely to reopen, and the embargo on visiting friends and family indoor substantially eased as we progress into the early summer.

Rough experience has taught us that it is wise to take these indicative timelines with a pinch of salt, particularly in the populous central belt where the rates of infection have been stubbornest. Hospitality in Glasgow closed for just two weeks back in mid-October. That circuit breaker lockdown broke: they’ve all been shuttered for the long months since. I’m fully braced to be scunnered by a local outbreak, closing off and delaying these much anticipated freedoms. My uplifting motto these days is “plan nothing, and you can never be disappointed.”

But let’s not rain on this socially-distanced parade: this week’s announcements felt like palpable progress towards that life more ordinary which has eluded us for months. I say all this, because given the gloomy atmosphere of Scottish politics are the moment – it is easy to forget the reasons to be cheerful which are popping up around us like snowdrops and crocuses. I’m sure many of you have felt this too. But I’m afraid we can’t ignore the gloom.

Holyrood has just days to serve before dissolution and the strangest election campaign in devolution’s history begins. Much of the last week has been spent finishing up worthy pieces of legislation. On Tuesday, MSPs voted to incorporate the international rights of the child into Scots law. On Wednesday, the Domestic Abuse (Protection) Bill passed, which aims to address the fact that domestic abuse is the leading cause of women’s homelessness in Scotland. Holyrood’s last week in session seems guaranteed to be dominated by the continuing fallout from the Committee on the Scottish Government Handling of Harassment Complaints and the findings of James Hamilton on whether the First Minister broke the ministerial code. The first part of the election campaign, at least, seems certain to fall under the same shadow.

But whatever happens next week, it will at least bring to a conclusion a process which has been fraught, sometimes compelling, sometimes embarrassing, sometimes surreal, and often extremely difficult to watch. It has felt, I think, like a real loss of innocence for the independence movement. The emotional atmosphere and energy of the first referendum campaign has evaporated. People who were gripped by that feeling will mourn the loss of that feeling. But here we are, the arguments for independence remaining as sharp and urgent as ever they were. If the first referendum campaign was a song of innocence, the second needs to be a song of experience.

A new parliament is also a moment of renewal, crystallising where we are as a country, and deciding where we want to go. It remains to be seen whether the 2021 campaign can capture that kind of spirit – or whether, as seems likely, it descends into an ugly and personalised battle in the hopes of pulling down the ceiling of the SNP’s support and with it, the prospect of a majority in the parliament for independence. A core plank of the modern SNP’s electoral strategy has been to make self-government credible by showing self-government works. Foster confidence in the institutions of devolution – and the skeleton of the new state comes into view. If Scots can be persuaded to have confidence in Scottish institutions and the capacity of our leaders to lead, then the idea of independence becomes not only thinkable – but doable in the public imagination, a natural progression from the status quo rather than a leap in the dark.

Experience has taught us that confidence in our capacity for effective self-government is a necessary – but insufficient – condition for persuading the people that independence is in their best interests. The political challenge for the SNP has always been to make devolution work, while simultaneously underscoring the limits of that settlement. As a result, political setbacks always have a potential double resonance for the SNP. Failures have the ordinary capacity to dent the party’s standing with the public, but if the dent to the party’s credibility is deep enough, they always have the capacity to be presented as having more existential implications for the case for Scottish independence.

Unionists increasingly have a nose for the same phenomenon. Expect the case against the SNP to be increasingly depicted in these terms. Damage devolution, damage Nicola Sturgeon, damage independence – and save the status quo for another long stretch. This seems certain to be Douglas Ross’ principal strategy as we go into the 2021 poll. In this project, he will find enthusiastic support from not only his colleagues in Westminster, but noisy parts of the UK media too, who’re only too keen to amplify claims we live in some kind of “banana republic”, unfit and incapable of governing itself, at risk of being put in special measures by the governor general’s office.

This may not strike you as an inspiring approach to politics. It isn’t. It is cynical as all hell – but it might well work, or work well enough. The political challenge for the SNP – with the sun shining and good news in the air after a long and difficult year – is to rise above the gloom and take a majority with them.

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