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James Millar: If we can’t take history lessons, at least let’s learn something about basic geography

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Back in the days when teenagers actually still sat exams, youngsters first went through the process of picking their subjects.

I believe they still do it the same way I did, with columns. Pupils don’t get to just pick their favourites, that’d be too sensible for school. Instead subjects are arranged into between five and eight columns and the kids learn an important life lesson: you can’t always get what you want. It’s as if the school system is set up to ensure everyone sits at least one lesson they hate. Character building I guess.

James Millar.

I was making my picks the last time the Tories enjoyed a lengthy run in government. I well recall having to choose between chemistry and art. Or as I saw it ‘complicated stuff’ versus ‘a massive doss’. And, as I remember it, history and geography shared a column meaning no-one could do both. Ever since I’ve viewed the two disciplines as diametrically opposed.

Recent political events have led me to wonder how many of our politicians made the same choice and came away with the same, misguided, conclusion.

Talking to a senior SNP MP recently (remotely of course) they ranted at how the government approach to tackling coronavirus was shot through with Brexit ideology. It’s certainly fairly easy to overlay a Brexit lens on Downing Street’s key decisions. The same sense of British exceptionalism pervades. Did advisers ignore what was happening in Italy because they viewed it as a far away place, populated by the sort of overexcitable and disorganised people that peopled jingoistic comic strips back when we were taking down Mussolini?

It’s easy to believe the same people who are dead set against a Brexit extension because they reckon the UK can cope alone in the globe also thought hoover magnate James Dyson could magic up flatpack ventilators.

Theirs is a worldview rooted in history, that takes as its lodestones Magna Carta, Agincourt and Dunkirk. Because I picked history over geography I know those three represent one draw, one win and one loss – mid-table form at best, hardly results to base a foreign policy on.

But despite turning my back on studying geography I can understand a map.

I didn’t sit biology either but I know that the coronavirus doesn’t respect nationality, history, rank or borders.

It’s geography that demonstrates that while the UK may be out of the EU it is still in Europe. Lessons could have been and still can be learned from those nations closest to us because they are most like us. Teaming up with other European nations to procure vital lifesaving kit makes sense because they’re our neighbours. There’s a reason you’d never put together a consortium of Morocco, Costa Rica, Iran and New Zealand to bulk buy ventilators. It’s the unarguable logic of geography rather than just trying to keep apart the bogeymen from Scotland’s World Cup history.

But there’s an irony in an SNP politician lambasting the Westminster administration for their approach.

For geography exists within British borders.

An independent Scotland might be in the EU and taking part in joint procurement. But it’d still be attached to England with people coming and going over the border. The idea that Scotland could tackle a pandemic without at least close cooperation with its only neighbour is nonsense. Most likely Edinburgh would just have to fall into lockdown lockstep with London.

And it’s not just the arguments for independence that’ll have to be refined when this crisis is over.

Even devolution doesn’t look so clever.

We’ve had the unseemly sight of the Welsh, Scottish and English NHS squabbling over scarce resources. There’s been claims that the English swiped testing kits off the Welsh and that vital protective equipment was being hoarded south of the border.

There’s a tendency among certain politicians, one time Labour leadership contender Lisa Nandy chief among them, to argue that voters are turning to populist candidates and ideas because they feel disempowered. To them, devolution is the solution. It’s not. Imagine the reaction in Nandy’s hometown of Wigan if Whitehall called up the council and told them they’re now in charge of tackling coronavirus in the town.

The likes of Nandy regard devolution as a magic word interchangeable with Abracadabra or – my grandad’s preferred option – Sacapona. The man who defeated her to become Labour leader, Keir Starmer, started his tenure with a column on the topic. He’s promised a devolution revolution which very much fits in with the magic word theme – it sounds good but it’s meaningless.

There are noble and sensible arguments for Brexit, independence and devolution. Just not all the time and in every circumstance. The horror of coronavirus has illustrated the shortcomings of all three concepts. Hopefully one welcome outcome from this unpleasantness will be a more considered approach to such ideas, an understanding that they are not in and of themselves catch all answers to every question.

What’s needed is the appropriate powers at the appropriate level. Sometimes that’s town councils, often it’s the state, and occasionally – as when facing a pandemic – a global approach is required.

Perhaps we could use a system of columns to determine which power belongs where.

James Millar is a political commentator and author and a former Westminster correspondent for The Sunday Post

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