THE SNP’s perennial bad boy, Angus Brendan MacNeil MP, has stoked up a Twitter storm with his suggestion that the First Minister restart the campaign to get a second independence referendum – even during the coronavirus emergency. Angus makes the point that avowed opponents of Scottish independence have shown no qualms about weaponizing the medical crisis. For instance, on 12 April, Scottish Tory leader Jackson Carlaw happily broke the de facto political truce on independence (declared by Nicola Sturgeon on 17 March), warning the FM not to raise the constitutional issue at next year’s Holyrood elections.

Some might urge Angus not to rise to Carlaw’s bait. After all, Mr Carlaw – like his predecessor Ruth Davidson – is a gramophone record when it comes to mentioning independence at every conceivable opportunity. He thereby proves the utter lack of thinking by Scottish Tories on any other subject except their own political advancement. Besides, no one took a blind bit of notice of Carlaw’s pathetic attempt to get publicity.

Yet Angus has a serious point. Our Unionist opponents are determined not to let the crisis go to political waste. They are using every possible opportunity to trumpet the Union as a giant economic safety net that alone can provide the financial firepower to protect businesses and incomes during the lockdown. For instance, as early as 7 March, former Chancellor Philip Hammond was hailing the announcement of £350m of Barnett consequentials for Scotland, as proof of the “benefits of the Union in action”.

Then as the Covid-19 crisis deepened, and the lockdown threatened to cut GDP by a third, new Chancellor Rishi Sunak was forced to print extra billions to cover the economic costs in England. His unguarded comments (reported in the Financial Times on 2 April) suggested Sunak thought the resulting Barnett consequentials for Scotland were a waste of cash. The Daily Express printed insider rumours that the Chancellor was no fan of the Union. This wobble provoked Sunak into a hasty Twitter defence: “My parents moved to the United Kingdom, not England, because the Union represented an idea of opportunity. I am a strong believer in our union of four nations”. So much for keeping constitutional politics in abeyance.

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Meanwhile, north of the Border, the FM’s steady handling of the crisis and her empathetic public performances at the daily press briefings soon sent the SNP up in the polls. This provoked a spate of pro-Union rants in the Tory-owned media. My old sparring partner Alan Cochrane, writing in the Telegraph, kept up a steady anti-FM fire, proclaiming: “Tackling Covid-19 shows how vital the Union is. Why would Scotland want to go it alone?” Answer: Because the FM would be better at dealing with the emergency, Alan.

Next on the anti-independence offensive was the Scottish edition of The Times. On 20 April, veteran commentator Magnus Linklater published a piece claiming: “the case for Scottish independence has never been weaker and the coronavirus outbreak means that it has to be challenged head on”. As proof, he cited a new book by John Lloyd, whom Linklater described as a “passionate Scot”. In a tired rehash of arguments we have heard before, Lloyd quotes the usual anti-independence crew – Kevin Hague, Brian Ashcroft, John McLaren – to prove an indy Scotland is too small, too vulnerable and (implicitly) too stupid to survive.

I don’t caricature Lloyd’s position. He genuinely believes that Scotland is shielded by UK subsidies from the harsh reality of the world market. He imagines the SNP has deliberately misled Yes supporters into thinking independence will lead to an instant El Dorado, instead of years of austerity, to transform Scotland into a pro-market, capitalist dynamo. Which is why Lloyd speaks favourably of Andrew Wilson’s Growth Commission report. Yet if the Covid-19 crisis has done anything, it is to blow up the neoliberal economic paradigm that Lloyd promotes. We are entering a new age of crisis and trade wars, compounded by the threat of climate change. As a result, I fear Scots will indeed have to make sacrifices for the common good. Which means it has never been more urgent for Scotland to control its own economic destiny – rather than rely on the grudging beneficence of Rishi Sunak’s Treasury.

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If anything, the Unionists have intensified their ideological fire against the independence movement during the Covid-19 emergency. At the same time, ultra-Brexiteers have been exploiting the crisis as a smokescreen for their agenda of securing a hard exit from the EU. Legally, Britain has until the end of 2020 to agree a trade deal with the EU. Given the complexities involved, finalising an agreement in the given timespan was always problematic – which the Johnson administration is well aware of. However, given the urgency of the Covid-19 crisis, trade talks with the EU are all but scuppered. Yet, the Johnson government has resolutely refused ask for an extension to the negotiations. If that is not playing politics with Covid-19, I don’t know what is. So why is the SNP so reticent to fight back? The imminent likelihood of Scotland exiting the single market under disastrous WTO rules should – if anything – be a clarion call to reboot the independence referendum campaign.

Finally, there is the vital issue of how the Tories have bumbled and bamboozled their way through the coronavirus disaster, dragging Scotland with them. One of the basic arguments in favour of smaller states is that they deal with crises more nimbly and with more social solidarity than bigger nations. Arguably, an independent Scotland would have imposed a lockdown earlier, avoiding the daft debate over “herd immunity”. Arguably, an independent Scotland would more likely have implemented a testing regime of the kind the UK is only getting round to now. Meanwhile, right-wing ideologue Dominic Cummings attends meetings of the ultra-secret committee directing the scientific response to virus. So much for Tory or Unionist “political neutrality” during the present crisis.

Angus Brendan MacNeil is right to call out the Unionists for their duplicity and hypocrisy. Does that mean the FM should drop everything and call a referendum in 2020? Clearly not, given the lockdown. In fact, even before the medical emergency, the SNP leadership’s claim to want a referendum this year was a mite disingenuous, having more to do with keeping the Yes movement in check. However, we must not cede the ideological battlefield to the Unionists. As of now, we should be making a renewed case for independence. One based on the need for economic security in an uncertain, post-coronavirus world. A case based on being able to act in our own interests as we require.

Who should make this case? Given the Scottish Government’s priority to deal with the medical emergency, the autonomous Yes movement needs to step into the breach. We can’t march, but we can use social media to reboot the independence campaign. We must use every failing and every duplicitous move of the incompetent Johnson Government to reinforce the case for self-determination. Angus Brendan went direct to the heart of the matter: “There’s no point going around, as we always do, asking the Tories to be sensible, let’s just do the sensible thing directly and have the power ourselves.”