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Sat 15 August 2020
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The contrast between Boris Johnson and Nicola Sturgeon is driving Scotland towards independence, argue James Melville and Kat Cary

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The Coronavirus pandemic has revealed some home truths about populism.

It is exposing the inherent weakness of ‘strong man’ leaders and the UK Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, is no exception.

This was particularly evident yesterday when the Prime Minister visited Scotland to tell locals why they should be appreciative of all that he and his Government has done to protect them from the Coronavirus. Yet, by making the journey north of the border, Johnson merely accentuated the contrast between himself and the Scottish First Minister and Leader of the Scottish National Party (SNP) Nicola Sturgeon – a leader with a much better record of wrestling with COVID-19.

It is increasingly evident that there is a particular type of leadership that has proven especially effective at managing this health crisis.

Markedly different from the lazy arrogance of Johnson, Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro and US President Donald Trump, these leaders have often been women known for their expertise.

Sturgeon can be counted in this category, alongside German Chancellor Angela Merkel and New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern. These three leaders have taken proactive, evidence-based decisions on lockdowns, testing and tracing – framing their actions with sensible, consistent messaging.

This has been in contrast to the mixed and seemingly deliberately vague messaging being pumped out by Johnson and his Cabinet. The UK Government’s daily Coronavirus press briefings became an exercise in doublespeak politicking, rather than sage health advice, whereas the Scottish Government’s briefings have been an oasis of sense in the fact-free desert that is British politics.

The daily statistics and road map out of lockdown is explained plainly in Scotland, with a level of precision and transparency the UK Government does not seem capable of. Sturgeon – always accompanied by one or two relevant experts – has led every Coronavirus update throughout the pandemic. Love or hate her politics, few are likely to argue that Scotland does not have a competent leader at the helm.

Holyrood’s governing of this crisis has been impressive and has been used to explain a steady uptick in support for Scottish independence – polling that provoked Johnson’s desperate PR exercise yesterday.

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Reject Populism, Save Lives

The Scottish Government, by necessity, has held itself to a high level of professional integrity throughout the pandemic.

During an emergency, maintaining public trust in government saves lives. But this hasn’t been fully appreciated by Johnson – a man who revels in avoiding scrutiny.

“As someone who has been shielding since March, I appreciate the very clear messaging of the Scottish Government,” Catherina Becker, Professor in Neural Development at the University of Edinburgh, told Byline Times. “Complicated, mixed and frequently changing messages, such as those of the UK Government, lead to a drop in compliance, which would put me at significant risk of infection through the few contacts I have.

“As a scientist myself, I can see that Scottish Government recommendations are mostly driven by the available science. While that is a difficult position to hold for the First Minister, due to the adverse impact on the economy, I am confident that the strategy to eliminate Coronavirus from Scotland will pay off in the long-term.” 

The best leaders surround themselves with the best advisors.

Scottish health advisor, Professor Devi Sridhar, recently announced that she had turned down a job offer with Facebook and will instead continue to advise the Scottish Government in light of COVID-19. The World Economic Forum recently highlighted her expert advice on the links between COVID-19 and structural racism – something that Johnson’s Government has been slow to grapple with.  

Ultimately, Sturgeon’s leadership during this crisis has arguably done more for promoting Scottish independence than all her rallies, marches and protests. Her words and deeds in a time of global peril have shown the Scottish people that she can be trusted and that it might be time to break from a Conservative-dominated Westminster.

Sturgeon’s close ally Angus Robertson – who went on to lead the SNP in Westminster and served as her deputy leader and now runs the polling organisation Progress Scotland, focusing on reaching voters who are undecided on the question of Scottish independence – told Byline Times: “Nicola Sturgeon has been making a major positive impression on public opinion in Scotland, which is why her approval ratings are sky-high compared to Boris Johnson. She is seen as competent, down to earth, and empathetic, which are not the attributes of the UK Prime Minister.   

“While she has been leading with public health priorities, Johnson has been playing childish politics, denying the existence of a Scottish border and the right to hold another independence referendum. No wonder support for the SNP is at record levels, and independence has majority support in the polls.” 

The more cautious pace of lockdown easing in Scotland (alongside Wales and Northern Ireland) has been met with approval because it has worked. Compare the number of Coronavirus cases in each nation of the UK, as of 21 July – England: 163,000, Wales: 17,000, Scotland: 18,474, Northern Ireland: 5,876.

Last month, a Panelbase survey found that, across the UK, voters thought Scotland had handled the pandemic better than England.

The Coronavirus crisis has become a tale of contrasting leadership styles in the UK. In Westminster, the leadership of Boris Johnson has been bumbling, indecisive and riddled with mistakes. In Holyrood, the leadership of Nicola Sturgeon has been professional, evidence-led and proactive. Sturgeon has taught Johnson a valuable lesson on the art of ethical leadership in a crisis.  


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