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Sensemaker: Scottish play

Thursday 28 January 2021

What just happened

Long stories short

  • A near-total ban on abortion came into force in Poland last night (more below).
  • The EU demanded that AstraZeneca ship Covid vaccine from its UK plants to Europe even though their contract only says the firm should make “best efforts”, while Boris Johnson insisted the first 100 million UK-produced doses should stay in the UK.
  • Amanda Gorman, the poet, signed with the IMG modelling agency and accepted an invitation to perform at next month’s Super Bowl.

Scottish play

Boris Johnson will head to Scotland today to talk up the benefits of the British union, which his government fears is coming apart. Nicola Sturgeon says she wishes he wouldn’t. 

Johnson’s trip is prompted by polls and looming elections. Excluding don’t knows, 52 per cent of Scots now back independence versus 48 who don’t. Sturgeon’s SNP is expected to win handily in May’s elections to the Scottish parliament. She will take that as a mandate to demand a second independence referendum, which Johnson says he will refuse.

His argument today is that Covid strengthens rather than weakens the case for the union. It’s based on:

  • money – £8.5 billion in support from Westminster during the pandemic;
  • jobs – Rishi Sunak’s furlough scheme;
  • vaccines – developed in Oxford, purchased in London, rolled out across the UK with the help of the British army. 

The counter-argument isn’t complicated:

  • Johnson’s dire Covid record, vaccines apart, is one of two big reasons support for Scottish independence has grown since the 2014 referendum – the other being Brexit, which 62 per cent of Scots opposed. 
  • Expecting gratitude for cash handouts could backfire: as Johnson’s own Scotland secretary said on Monday at a Burns Night event, Scots need to “feel valued as partners… rather than just a recipient of UK largesse”.
  • The furlough argument can backfire too: Sunak has been accused of extending the scheme only when England goes into lockdown, not when Scotland and Wales ask him to.

So this is a high-risk trip. When Sturgeon says she wishes Johnson wouldn’t make it because it violates his lockdown rules, what she means is: come on up. 61 per cent of Scottish voters think she’s doing a good job handling the pandemic compared with 22 per cent who think he is and visits based on photo-ops are unlikely to move that dial.

Johnson’s broader strategy for seeing off the nationalists is high-risk too. It’s been described as “muscular” unionism, and could include taking powers from Holyrood to give them to local authorities. Probably wisely, he’s outsourced the hard thinking on how to rescue the union to Michael Gove, the adopted son of an Aberdeen fishmonger. On the media round this morning Gove was asked if today’s trip was akin to influencers posing in bikinis on lockdown-defying jollies in Dubai. He said it wasn’t.

Wealth investment, fairness, prosperity

The squeeze is on
My sharp-eyed colleague Chris Cook clocked the GameStop phenomenon on Tuesday. Since then it’s gone nuts. Amateur investors have been on a rampage, putting the squeeze on short sellers on both sides of the Atlantic and giving journalists who know little to nothing about shorting a whole new lexicon to fool around with.

Here’s what I think I know: big companies in trouble as well as tiny ones with almost nothing to sell have seen their share prices soar as punters with laptops pile in with the express purpose of confounding professional investors who were betting these stocks were going down. Those professionals then have to unwind their bets by buying shares they’d previously only borrowed, driving prices up even further.

And here’s what I want to know: could this phenomenon actually rescue the cinema business? Two stocks targeted by the squeezers are Cineworld (up 22 per cent since Monday) and AMC, the US multiplex chain (up 300 per cent yesterday). It’s probably too much to hope, but what if this bump kept them going until vaccines coaxed people back to the big screen?

New things technology, science, engineering

Smile for the bank
Facial recognition software looks like the future of payments. The BBC has an item on a Mexican food outlet in LA where you only have to look at a screen over your facemask to pay for your takeaways, and give a peace sign for a 15 per cent tip. No contact, no fishing around for a card, just let the robot see you. Full disclosure: the BBC ran this story three days ago and linked to one about the rollout of the same technology in Nigeria ten months ago. So this isn’t news, but it’s still remarkable, and it could enable a whole category of people who don’t have cards or phones to pay for things. (It’s thumbs up for a 10 per cent tip, by the way, and the shaka / hang loose / call-me-on-the-phone sign for 20 per cent.)

Our planet environment, natural resources, geopolitics

Amazon down
Amazon Conservation, which monitors destruction of the Amazon rainforest, has published new deforestation figures for 2020, and they’re not good. About 21,000 square kilometers of forest was cleared, which is roughly the size of Israel and represents a 21 per cent increase on 2019. The hydrological cycle that keeps the forest moist and healthy is a delicate balance, and the fact that 18 per cent of the Amazon has been deforested brings it desperately close to the 20-25 per cent tipping point at which experts predict the cycle will collapse – with terminal consequences for the whole forest.

The 100-year life health, education, living, public poliCY

Abortion in Poland
It’s official: Poland has the strictest abortion laws of any large country in Europe after a ruling came into force last night outlawing the procedure except in cases of rape or incest or when the pregnancy threatens the life of the mother. The ruling by the country’s constitutional court renders abortion illegal even in cases of severe and irreversible foetal abnormalities, which were cited in 98 per cent of the 1,000 abortions performed in Poland last year. There were mass protests when the court’s decision was announced three months ago, and more in Warsaw last night. Last year an estimated 200,000 Polish women went abroad for abortions or had them illegally. A dissenting opinion to the ruling was written by five of the court’s 15 judges, but only two of the judges are women and all but one have been appointed by Poland’s ruling conservative Law and Justice Party within the past six years.

Belonging identity, society, beliefs, countries

Help to go
EU citizens have been quietly added to the UK’s voluntary returns scheme, which offers money to individuals and families to encourage them to return to their country of origin. The usual offer is £2,000 resettlement money and a free flight. The scheme was created for people who are in the UK illegally or have overstayed their permission to say; people who want to withdraw applications to stay in the UK; or those who have claimed asylum but want to withdraw their claim. EU citizens are currently not in any of those groups, but their deadline to apply for settled status is in June. The Home Office has been criticised for mixed messaging on the concept of settled status, which was promised as of right to EU citizens resident in the UK up to the end of the transition period. Are they now being encouraged to exercise that right, or to leave? Advocacy groups say there may be another Windrush scandal on the horizon.

Thanks for reading, and do share this around

Giles Whittell

Nimo Omer

Luke Gbedemah

Photographs by Getty Images