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Sensemaker: When, not if, for Scotland

Monday 10 May 2021

What just happened

Long stories short

  • Dozens of schoolgirls died in coordinated bomb blasts near a school on the outskirts of Kabul (more below).
  • The WSJ said Melinda Gates started planning her divorce at least two years ago, when news emerged of meetings between her husband and Jeffrey Epstein.
  • China said it would stop climbers from the Chinese side of Everest mixing with climbers from Nepal, because of Covid. 

When, not if, for Scotland

Starting late on Saturday, Boris Johnson had about 11 hours to enjoy the Sunday papers’ rave reviews of his latest election results before the Scottish question reared up like a new Covid variant to spoil his brunch.

A second independence referendum is now a matter of when, not if, said First Minister Nicola Sturgeon. She and the SNP fell one seat short of an outright majority in the Scottish parliament but secured a pro-independence majority with the Greens. The Tories in Westminster prefer “not now, not never”. They know a flat “no” would only fuel the fire, hoping to douse it instead with endless postponements and the balm of post-Covid recovery – a bit like their response to demands for a public inquiry into their handling of the pandemic. 

Unlike Covid, dreams of Scottish independence don’t seem to be susceptible to vaccination. Support sagged slightly during Sturgeon’s long fight with Alex Salmond over how she handled abuse allegations against him, but is higher than at the time of the 2014 referendum and could settle above 50 per cent if Johnson misplays his hand now. 

A number of factors that make this hand hard to play, including:

  • Brexit, which took Scotland out of the EU against the will of about two thirds of its voters;
  • Brexit, which was won by a narrow margin in a referendum secured by a parliamentary majority not unlike the one Sturgeon now commands;
  • Brexit, which moved Scotland’s constitutional goalposts without its consent (see above) and may thereby have weakened Johnson’s first legal line of defence against indyref2, namely that constitutional matters are reserved to Westminster;
  • the courts, which could be dragged into the argument to rule on whether Sturgeon has the right to hold an “advisory” referendum without Westminster’s consent under current devolution laws.

The trouble with turning to the courts for Johnson is that his best outcome would be to deny Scotland a legal route to independence, which as Oxford’s Professor Ciaran Martin tells the FT would switch the UK from being a union “based on consent to one based on the force of law”. It would also enrage plenty of voters currently on the fence.

The Scottish Conservatives say they have stopped indyref2. Not true. Gordon Brown, for Labour, says there is an alternative to both independence and the status quo in a reformed status quo. That recalls the losing Remain proposition for staying in the EU but reforming it. Sturgeon says a second referendum before the end of 2023 is now “a matter of fundamental democratic principle”.

This will be a hard argument for Brexiteers, especially, to defeat.

New things technology, science, engineering

Pipeline piracy
First the hackers came for America’s democracy; now its pipelines. CNN and others are reporting that a ransomware attack on the Colonial Pipeline network that sends petrol and jet fuel from Texas to the US East Coast originated from a Russian criminal group called Dark Side. The attack shut down the network on Friday, forcing trucks to transport much of the fuel that the pipelines normally keep off the freeways. The US has 2.5 million miles of pipelines in all, and hundreds of thousands of sensors controlling them that are potential cyber-attack targets. Presumably Putin will disown Dark Side. Whether Russian law enforcement will help pursue its hackers is more doubtful.

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

Heart app
With the help of an app called Heartrunner, Denmark has quadrupled its survival rate for out-of-hospital heart attacks over the past 20 years. The app is downloaded by volunteers who are alerted when emergency services are called. The nearest available volunteer is directed to the nearest defibrillator and can then perform CPR while waiting for an ambulance to arrive. No prior medical training is required to be a volunteer. You’re just expected to be able to hit “yes”, in principle, when the app asks “can you run?”. Health officials are trying to increase uptake of a similar app in the US, the WaPo reports. The only negative piece of context from Denmark: the current out-of-hospital survival rate, at 16 per cent, still seems awfully low.

Our planet environment, natural resources, geopolitics

Greens v Lib Dems
Could Greens eclipse the Lib Dems as the UK’s third national party? They hope so. They more than doubled their number of councillors in their Bristol stronghold and co-leader Sian Berry increased her vote share in London’s mayoral election even though she still came third. Germany’s Greens have shown there is a route from environmentalism to mainstream politics, as have Scotland’s, now holding the balance of power in Holyrood. But the Scottish Greens are a separate party, and south of the border the Lib Dems did surprisingly well last Thursday too. They even won four more seats for a total of 12 in Leave-loving Sunderland. The strange death of liberal England is taking its sweet time.

Wealth investment, fairness, prosperity

End of First? 
This will be tough for a lot of people to hear, but first class in the air may be on its last legs. Business class is so comfy that the extra money for first seems just a shade de trop, and residual Covid-related anxieties about being in a commercial jet at all are luring more of the 0.01 per cent into their own planes where they can have all the caviar they want. In truth, total first class seats were already 45 per cent down in the decade to 2019, the FT reports, lie-flat business seats having deprived most first class cabins of a USP. The Covid coup de grace seems to consist of removing the really big planes from the sky altogether. These are the ones that could put you in a double bed with shower for, say, £30k return. That’s still not close to the price of an entry-level NetJets card, but at this altitude who’s really counting?

Belonging identity, society, beliefs, countries

Afghanistan’s Hazaras
The triple bomb blasts that may have killed more than 80 people at a school in Kabul on Saturday appear to have aimed at the Hazara minority, which as the NYT reports has long been targeted for persecution by both the Taliban and the Islamic State. Most of the victims were girls attending the Sayed Ul-Shudada High School on the western outskirts of the capital. Dozens of them were buried yesterday on nearby Martyrs’ Hill. No one has claimed responsibility for the attack and the Taliban has denied being involved, but it opposes girls’ education and renegade members subsequently linked to Isis could have been behind it. Survivors noted there was little sign of security forces in the area an hour after the attack. As the last 2,500 US troops prepare to leave Afghanistan, the country’s best hope is to avoid all-out civil war.

The week ahead

10/05 – announcement expected on 17 May lockdown easing in England; former Hartlepool MP Mike Hills appears before employment tribunal, accused of sexual harassment, 11/05 – Queen’s Speech marks new session of parliament; Greensill founder Lex Greensill appears at select committee session on the failure of his company; business secretary Kwasi Kwarteng speaks at B7 summit; former veterans minister Johnny Mercer gives evidence to Defence Committee, 12/05 – UK first quarter GDP, 13/05 – former prime minister David Cameron appears at select committee session on Greensill Capital; Snap and TikTok representatives appear at Lords committee session on online freedom of expression, 14/05 – Democratic Unionist Party leadership election; ONS publishes data on self-isolation after positive Covid test; 140 years since death of British-Jamaican nurse Mary Seacole, 15/05 – deadline for UK response to EU legal action over Northern Ireland protocol, 16/05 – London Design Week begins

10/05 – Belarusian opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya speaks at Copenhagen Democracy Summit; Advertising Week Europe takes place online, 11/05 – China consumer price index, 12/05 – Amnesty International due to restore Russian opposition figure Alexei Navalny’s ‘prisoner of conscience’ status; International Olympic Committee holds board meeting, 13/05 – South African president Cyril Ramaphosa gives evidence to South Africa State Capture Inquiry; Brazil’s former foreign minister appears at Senate hearing on handling of Covid-19; Disney quarterly results; Alibaba quarterly and full-year results, 14/05 – Greece reopens borders to tourists, 15/05 – International Astronomy Day, 16/05 – activist Angela Davis delivers Spelman College commencement address

Thanks for reading, and please share this around. 

Giles Whittell

Photographs by Getty Images and courtesy Emirates Airlines

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