Train Round The Bend

A little North-South difference, by way of the rails.

There’s been a bit of a kerfuffle about trains this week. Now while I realise that might not set everyone’s hearts a-flutter – although it should, because trains are awesome – it’s been fairly revealing. And the thing it’s been revealing about is the differences in approach between how Scotland and England are coping with coming out of lockdown and the relative merits of those approaches. Because while England has had its “Freedom Day” on the 19th July – and in the teeth of scientific advice – Scotland isn’t having further unlocking until at least the 9th August, it may end up being later than that, and our social distancing is being reduced to one meter rather than entirely scrapped, as per things down south.

It’s that last point that’s triggered the train kerfuffle. Seats on the trains are being left open to anyone instead of closing some of them off to ensure social distancing. And it’s a problem because 1m social distancing in Scotland isn’t a “please don’t get too near each other” request from the First Minister, it’s a legal requirement issued by the Scottish government. And it’s one that LNER – who run the train services between London and Edinburgh – are not complying with because they are following England’s position, not Scotland’s.

To a point, that’s understandable. The train is originating in England, LNER are an English company and the majority of the journey will be taking place in – you guessed it – England. But this also speaks to a broader point, and it is one not often articulated south of the border, which is this. LNER aren’t cheerily disregarding Scotland’s laws through arrogance or naked commercialism. Neither is this some nefarious plot designed to big up the Anglo-Saxon contingent at the expense of the Celts. No, it’s much simpler than that.

It just doesn’t seem to have occurred to anyone at LNER that maybe they should bother checking what’s going on in Scotland in case, you know, things are different because we have a different government. That would involve someone remembering that we have a different government, and that Edinburgh and London can diverge on a whole host of things. That’s how the reserved model works, when it comes to devolution in Scotland – anything not explicitly reserved to Westminster falls under the auspices of Holyrood in Edinburgh, and Scotland has, throughout the pandemic, made different choices. And continues to do so, hence the row over seating on the King’s Cross to Waverley journey.

This convenient forgetfulness happens a lot when it comes to Covid. Newspapers and – in a telling failure – the BBC often refer to the UK’s track-and-trace system, or the UK unlocking, or whatever. But there is no “the UK” when it comes to things like this. Scotland’s NHS is completely separate from England’s. Scotland has a separate track and trace system from Matt Hancock’s £37 billion hand-job to his bestie mates. Wales unlocks at a different rate to Scotland and England because Wales, too, has a devolved government that makes choices for that country, as well they should. But it’s always “the UK” that gets referred to.

This is, in fact, a form of cultural erasure for those of us on the Celtic fringe, and it is non-trivial. By projecting England-as-the-UK it plays to the worst base instincts of those on the right and far-right because it essentially means that no consideration, understanding or respect needs to be accorded to those people. They are invisible. Unimportant. Northern Ireland is a bit different – partly because of historical events like the Troubles and partly because of its extreme visibility in the baleful glare of Brexit – but roughly the same mechanism still applies. It’s all just the UK, except it’s very obviously not. Certainly LNER didn’t understand that Scotland is not, in point of fact, England.

And, putting on my very, very most neutral of hats – it’s beige – it’s hard not to side with the Scottish government in all of this. Most scientists seem pretty damn certain that Boris Johnson’s decision to basically abandon any and all restrictions – apart from the ones he’s forced into doing a U-turn on, like having to self-isolate on the idiotically-named Freedom Day (for maximum comedy value) because his Chancellor tested positive – is a bad one. Keeping a little bit of social distancing until case numbers come down seems eminently sensible. And case numbers in Scotland are currently falling. In England, they are not. So… maybe not sitting right next to a total stranger on a train might be considered sensible? This isn’t about being pro-SNP or anti-Tory it’s just about looking around, seeing what the state of play is, and then reacting to that rather than shrieking headlines in the Daily Telegraph.

In amongst all this, and at roughly the same time, Dominic Cummings has just finished an interview with the BBC where he’s explicitly said that Johnson should go as soon as possible, that Johnson was content to let the over-80’s die if it meant not having a lockdown, and a whole host of other allegations that sounds unbelievably damaging but which currently remain largely unsubstantiated. Yet for all the terrible things Cummings has said about Johnson, for all the awful things he claims the Prime Minister has said and done, for all the appalling damage that’s been wrought, the interview doesn’t seem to have done all that much harm. A couple of points struggled on to one or two front pages but overall the collective “meh” issuing from the denizens of Fleet Street has been a lot louder than the condemnation of a heartless Prime Minister apparently quite fine with letting pensioners die out if it means Nando’s gets to stay open. The obvious question is “why”? and the obvious answer is “the messenger” (well there’s another answer as well, which is the press are exceeding bad at holding the current Westminster government to account in any way, but that’s a matter for a separate article).

It may be a little late in the day for the revelation to matter, but it might just be coming to Cummings’s attention that not only does what he says matter but what also matters is the credibility of who is saying it, and Cummings has pissed his credibility up against the wall. The wall of Barnard’s Castle, presumably. Even if every single syllable out of his mouth is true – and it almost certainly isn’t – the message is being delivered by someone who had pretty much zero credibility in the eyes of the public before all these revelations and now he just looks like a spiteful ex-employee out to get revenge. Which, yes, he is, and he’s not exactly hiding that fact, but that matters when it comes to taking what he says seriously. His comments about “well a public enquiry would back up what I’m saying” may be true – or may not – but that’s not really helpful either. The enquiry, if it ever happens, could be months or years away. In the meantime you’ve tipped your hand, given Johnson and co the chance to get out ahead and find ways of defending, hiding, covering up or deflecting from what actually happened, and nothing moves any further forward. It’s no use saying you never thought Johnson was a suitable candidate for PM now – if that’s the case why did you work for him so fucking long? Talk about being your own worst enemy.

And in the end it also becomes too easy to fall for media stereotypes. Cummings isn’t the devil incarnate or some all-powerful kingmaker as he might like you to think he is. He’s just a PR man that was very good at making the right choices right up until the moment he wasn’t, and crashed spectacularly back down to Earth. All this senseless thrashing about just makes him look like he’s stuck in the middle of a fish orgy stranded on a beach, gasping for the oxygen of publicity which is coming in shorter and shorter gasps. Jacob Rees-Mogg is the same – he’s not some upper-crust 18th century toff somehow transported to the present from a couple of centuries ago, he’s a greedy, self-serving, borderline fascist cosplaying at nobility by wearing a top hat.

Similarly, Johnson… and there’s a point. He should never be “Boris” – referring to him by his first name is chummy and forgiving whereas calling him Johnson forces us to take what he says seriously. The way we refer to people and the language we use matters. It’s useful for Johnson to be talked about as Boris because it’s informal, it’s arms-round-a-mate, stuck-up-a-zipwire and that feeds into the image he likes to project of himself, all blokey and likeable. Johnson, on the other hand, sounds like someone who’s happy to let old people die.

Anyway, he isn’t a buffoon and nor is he bumbling, he’s a poisonously cynical and self-interested man who has no regard for anyone else whatsoever but has found a way to very successfully appeal to the lowest common denominator and people’s worst instincts. And if Lisa Simpson has taught us anything it is that you will never go broke appealing to the lowest common denominator. And she’s right – it’s working for him. If being content to let people’s grannies die in the name of the economy isn’t hasn’t swung the needle against Johnson it’s hard to imagine what will. Maybe scandal after scandal will be enough to eventually burst the dam, but scandal is pretty much just default operating procedure for this government and there’s not much sign of things shifting.

Anyway, let us pop back onto the Circle Line – or the Glasgow Underground – to return to where we began. The trains thing will get resolved, because eventually someone at LNER will realise that it’s not worth the bad publicity and they’ll sort out something with the Scottish government. They’re already talking. But it’s worth pondering, however briefly, on what would have happened if it had been Nicola Sturgeon who had been accused of making comments about how she was happy to let Covid rip and let bodies pile up in their thousands, as Johnson is alleged to. If it had been her that said, “eh fuck it, old people don’t matter that much to the economy anyway, let ’em die” (I’m paraphrasing slightly). She would have been excoriated, and rightly so, because anyone who says things like that should not be in a position of power and it would be right that they got called out on it. But she hasn’t said that. She’s said some social distancing will remain, mask mandates will remain for the time being, and when the evidence points to it, then maybe we can consider relaxing a bit more. Which, yes. That seems sensible. Turns out the differences between Scotland and England on this aren’t just about train seats after all.

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