This does seem to be a moment and crisis when everything you once thought was solid has been upturned. With the Conservative Westminster Government seemingly embracing radical Corbynism – guaranteeing wages and jobs, talking of nationalising railways and more, along with massive changes to public life and behaviour – welcome to our very strange Lilliputian world.
This induces in me a strange brew of different feelings. One is apprehension. Others are empathy, sympathy and solidarity with those suffering the most and for those people who have already lost loved ones.
Then there is the law of inevitable surprise. Not only do pandemics regularly occur in the history of humankind, more than that, very prescient analysts foretold this. For example, in a set of predictions for 2020 in the New Statesman,
Jeremy Cliffe highlighted the likelihood of a 'Black Swan' event such as 'a crisis or calamity specifically caused by a failure of international governance and democracy; that is, by insufficient coordination, information sharing or collective action at the supra-regional or global level'.
The last substantial national emergency was in 1972-74 when two miners' strikes and widespread industrial conflict produced power cuts, the introduction of a three-day week, and the consideration of nationwide rationing of essentials. I can recall the collective camaraderie this induced in the working-class community I grew up in Dundee. This was of a very political nature – cheering on the miners and other workers, opposing Ted Heath and the Tories, and celebrating working-class self-organisation, whether buying and organising food supplies, medical goods or temporary heating and lighting.
We lived on the 13th floor of a multi-storey, with magnificent views over Dundee and Invergowrie Bay, and could see storm clouds gathering and weather patterns changing for miles. We saw the blackouts move sequentially across the city – from Menzieshill to Lochee and Charleston and then to us in Ardler. My parents and friends used to watch this together and cheer as it came to our turn. There was defiance and pride as well as solidarity, like a left-wing version of 'the Dunkirk spirit' (much invoked at the time) as my parents and others drew from their childhood memory of the war.
Although there were differing views about events of that time, there are definitely some strange attitudes being expressed now. This Monday, I went to Waterstones on Sauchiehall Street, Glasgow, on its last day before it closed due to the virus. Friendly staff informed me that if I picked up a book and didn't buy it, it had to be handed back to them for disinfecting; and that there were no places to sit as all seating had been removed for hygiene reasons.
In the downstairs basement, a man in his 60s asked myself and a member of staff whether we thought that Boris Johnson was fabricating information about the virus. Shocked at what I heard, I tried to answer calmly and authoritatively saying that, 'it isn't just Johnson. It is the world'. Undeterred, he continued that, 'it could be a conspiracy,' to which I responded that 'people have died'. Warming to this theme, he claimed that this 'could be a diversion to put us off Brexit negotiations,' to which I replied that 'there is no bandwidth in the UK or EU for Brexit negotiations at the moment,' and with that, off he went.
Boris Johnson has been gathering praise from the usual sycophantic suspects and criticism from those who oppose him – possibly including the would-be pundit in Waterstones. But until Monday, the PM has not been having a good crisis and has been without a clear message, continually resisting the need to instruct people that they have to change their behaviour. On Monday evening, he finally stated unambiguously that the UK had to engage in a massive lockdown – as the UK death toll hit 335.
Still questions remain for the UK Government. For example, they were happy to waste £100m towards the end of 2019 on a Brexit campaign – 'Get ready for Brexit' – when there was little chance of it happening then, yet where now is the similar UK Government multi-media public information campaign about the virus? Especially when we know by the behaviour of many members of the public – until now perhaps – that there continues to be a lack of understanding about cause and effect in relation to it.
Nicola Sturgeon until Monday has been having a decent crisis. She very much likes micro-managing, appearing technocratic, positioning herself above party divisions, and being an administrator. In short, all the qualities that many people think form part of her shortcomings as a national leader have become inarguably strengths in this crisis.
Then, on Monday afternoon, came the Alex Salmond trial verdict and his acquittal on all counts. This was sensational and would have shook the entire Scottish and UK political universe were it not for coronavirus. Its reverberations will be felt for ages, causing deep tremors; it's just that much of this for now will have less public attention.
The instant responses some people made appear insensitive and lacking in any kind of compassion. This was particularly true of a certain circle of pro-independence supporters, mostly but not exclusively men. Both Craig Murray and Stuart Campbell (aka 'Wings over Scotland') produced blogs defending Salmond within minutes of the verdict. SNP MPs Joanna Cherry and Kenny MacAskill, both publicly Salmond supporters, also made intemperate comments, none of which did them any credit.
There are several dimensions to this. There is the political fallout. The once impressive discipline of the SNP is a thing of the past. It has been unravelling for the past couple of years: the wear and tear of all those years in office, the ongoing controversy and infighting over the trans issue, and the Salmond-Sturgeon parting of the ways. That latter divide and division into competing camps cannot have any good outcome for the party in the short term, but in the medium term they need to change personnel, politics and leadership. Easier said than done.
Even more telling is that the Salmond defenders rarely spare one single public thought for the women who have gone through hell and back bringing their allegations to the authorities. Whereas before Alex Salmond had admitted in August 2018 (when the allegations were leaked to the Daily Record
) that he was 'no saint', and last week Gordon Jackson's defence was based on the acceptance that Salmond could 'have been a better man on occasions' and was 'a Marmite man', now all of a sudden, in the eyes of his most fervent supporters, he is a great man again.
Ross Deuchar of the University of the West of Scotland asked: 'What does this say about the behaviour of some males in positions of power? What does it say about the difference between unlawful and inappropriate behaviour?' The response of some public figures such as writer Billy Kay was to say how happy he was that 'the dark cloud over Alex Salmond has been lifted, as we knew it would be,' continuing that, 'Knowing him, I found the allegations incomprehensible and the reporting reprehensible'. That isn't a good look or one with any insight and humanity.
Back to other things. We are only at the start of the coronavirus pandemic. We are also only at the foothills of this century – 20 years in and so much has happened. There was 2001 and the 9/11 attacks; 2003 and the botched, dishonest invasion of Iraq; and the banking crash of 2008. In the second decade, there followed the Syrian civil war from 2011, the 2014 indyref, the Greek debt crisis which peaked in 2014-15, the 2015 migration crisis, the 2016 Brexit vote and Trump triumph, and now the 2020 coronavirus.
These 10 seismic and disruptive events have shaped our lives, world and the 21st century so far. What seems certain – if we reflect on the state of the planet, with climate change, globalisation, unfettered capitalism, huge inequalities of excessive wealth, insecurity and abject poverty, often sitting in parts of the world side-by-side and cheek-to-jowl in cities such as Rio, Johannesburg and Seoul – is that these will not be the last such disruptions.
Our world is in a perilous state and while we have knowledge, wisdom and insight in copious amounts in areas like science, in public affairs we are not exactly filled with a similar abundance – as some of the comments and sentiments above demonstrate.
There will be, and can be, no return to business as usual, and what passes for normalcy. But if that is the case, we have to learn new ground rules and ways to act quickly. These have to include challenging the politics of stupidity, ignorance, denialism and deliberate diversion that we see everywhere – including here in Scotland.
There are also the limits of chumocracy as a guide to modern life: seen in the Salmond affair, and previously in David Steel and Cyril Smith, as well as the fallout that happens when close allies and friends fall out. Disruption will increasingly be the new normal, but maybe, just maybe, there is a small chance within that of finding a moral compass to guide us.