© 2019 SCER
When asked about the impact of the French revolution, the late Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai is often misattributed with the reply: “Too early to say.” In a similar tone, Scots historian Tom Devine often declares that “the future is not my period” when tempted to speculate on the consequences of contemporary events. The Covid-19 pandemic, which sweeps economic and political conventional wisdom aside daily, is one such unpredictable example.
Some commentators diagnose Covid as a self-fulfilling virus, one which proves their long-held biases. Of course, it won’t be as simple. We can, however, see the arguments opened up by the crisis.
The first is the ongoing crisis of public health. Many scientific papers have cited an 18-month period until vaccination may be possible. The consequences of potentially changing public behaviour with mitigation measures or partial lockdowns for that length of time have yet to set in. This would ignite difficult discussions on proportionality and competing human rights. Is it ethical and proportionate, for instance, to deny the elderly contact with their grandchildren (tightly restricting Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights) for a continuous period? What if a vulnerable person is fully informed on the personal risks and wants to proceed? What responsibility do we as citizens have to protect human rights in an emergency period?
The second argument concerns the economic consequences. The Financial Times says “radical reforms” of state-planning, redistribution, and wealth taxes will be needed to salvage market-capitalism. Others contend that the faster economies return to ‘normal’ the less pain will flow from the crash.
In the short-term these issues dwarf the constitutional questions of Scottish independence and Brexit. The prospect of a referendum on independence is now off the agenda any time before the May 2021 Holyrood elections, and I suspect for some time beyond. The ‘future relationship’ Brexit timetable of a deal by December 2020 is now untenable.
It is too early to predict in what form those issues will re-emerge. However, one relevant point can be drawn from the Covid crisis. The nation state remains the most powerful actor in the international system. Some claim that constitutional issues are distractions from material politics or the challenges of globalisation. The crucial and varying role played by nation-state governments to Covid-19 has shown the limitations of that view.