'To his credit, Douglas Ross has conceded one crucial thing in the past four weeks'

THE issue occupying our thoughts and those of our country’s leaders just a week after the clocks went back is the same as that which demanded our attention when they went forward in the spring. The grip of the pandemic gets no easier. Grief, worry, uncertainty and anxiety remain the emotional order of the day, and are taking their toll.

Nicola Sturgeon has been at pains to stress time and again that she does not wish to use coronavirus as a political weapon.

But as hard as anyone might try to float serenely above the usual cut and thrust, this pandemic and our response to it is political. Nothing in my lifetime has thrown into sharper relief just how structurally inept the United Kingdom is to deal with the challenges we all face.

The latest low in intergovernmental relations is over furlough support. The blindingly obvious point for months has been that the UK Government would have to continue paying 80 per cent of people’s wages beyond November to save our economy.

READ MORE: SNP demand Boris Johnson's 'vague, evasive' furlough answers are clarified

They eventually said they would do so this past weekend at the eleventh hour, and only because England is being locked down again with the virus running amok.

It seems self-evident, in a pandemic where lives and livelihoods are at stake, for such a mechanism to be available to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland in turn if and when our own circumstances demand it. The Treasury holds the purse strings after all.

If Scotland and the devolved nations really mattered to Westminster, this would have been built in from the start rather than fixed late so late in the day as an afterthought or a political stunt. It’s fairly shameful either way.

As of this morning there was no such certainty, and those circumstances provided a tricky backdrop to Douglas Ross’s keynote speech today titled “why is our Union so special?”

Fewer and fewer people believe there’s anything special about the Union at all and the polls plainly demonstrate that trend.

Exactly a month ago, Ross sought to lay down a challenge to colleagues at the Tory conference: don’t lose heart in face of rising support for independence and don’t give up on the Union. The latest furlough debacle suggests they weren’t listening to him.

Today Ross’s focus was on taking the argument a step further: “Having identified a problem last month, I now want to offer a solution”.

But after listening to his speech, I’m no clearer in understanding what that solution is.

He proffered a starting point by saying that he doesn’t want to abolish the Scottish Parliament, not necessarily because there’s value in decisions being made in Scotland for Scotland, but just because it would spell electoral suicide for the Tories.

On the other hand, he said devolution as a process is done and no further powers should come to Holyrood. The flaw, of course, is that within those bounds nothing changes, and nothing comes from nothing.

READ MORE: WATCH: Douglas Ross's keynote speech ruined by deafening fire alarm

To his credit, Ross has conceded one crucial thing in the past four weeks. On October 3 he claimed that the Union had “once again renewed its importance during these difficult times”. Today he recognised that “even the most committed defender of the current system would admit that [the structures of the Union as they stand] have been found wanting”.

He also accepted that Brexit exemplifies the divergence in the values held dear either side of the Border.

You don’t bring those values into closer alignment by wrestling powers to spend and legislate from Holyrood to Westminster. Nor do you fool anyone with empty promises of a seat at the table for the Scottish Government in trade negotiations or yet another hollow gesture towards Lords reform.

In a gift to headline writers, Ross’s pontifications from the podium were interrupted by a fire alarm. But in the wake of a speech which promised solutions to a rising nationalist tide and delivered none, there will be precious little cause for alarm among independence supporters.