COLUMNS I have written in this space during the coronavirus crisis have sometimes evoked puzzlement among readers. They say that if I am prepared to accept a government must be allowed to define everything in the regulation of health, then how can I possibly object to regulation of the nation’s economy by the only public institution capable of the task?

In fact, I think Nicola Sturgeon would put to me exactly the same question, were we ever again to come face to face (she evaded my last invitation). It is a question that must arise when the limits of government are being tested, as they are now. Can government choose its limits for itself, and make them infinite if it so decides? Or are some limits on it inescapable?

I know what the answer of the Scottish Government is, so let’s start there. We are living through a period when it has been wielding more power than anybody ever envisaged, certainly in the period before 1999 when its eventual nature was the object of long and searching debate.

In 2020, its assumption of power over the detail of our lives is not only accepted but welcomed by most people. Well, none of us wants to fall victim to coronavirus, and simply obeying the Government appears to offer the best chance of avoiding that.

What is more, the First Minister has presented us with persuasive images of how a woman on top of her brief can make us not just follow her instructions, but fervently wish to follow them.

Citizens who defy such authority might on occasion be worthy of admiration, because no authority should go completely unquestioned. But not this time. We all tend to think Nicola is dead right with her firm guidelines, clearly and confidently put across to us every single day. Compare what she has to say about coronavirus with what she has to say about indyref2. While many of us dispute her line on the latter (whatever it is), few of us dispute her line on the former. On the one side we have truth, on the other shilly-shally.

Compare her performances also with the mumbling and bumbling of the woeful Boris Johnson and we can instantly understand what national leadership means. Coronavirus has robbed Boris of his great cause, the drive for Brexit, while it has given Nicola her great cause, the platform from which to create and affirm her national leadership. I believe history may judge she was at her peak in rewarding the people’s faith in the National Health Service, rather in the cause of national independence.

And yet, when all is said and done, the Scottish Government’s action in combating coronavirus has not in fact been so very successful. There is a lot of argument about this flying round at the moment, and it will probably take us a long time to reach definitive conclusions.

But what for the time being appears to be true is that the pandemic had relatively less impact in Scotland than in the rest of Great Britain, perhaps as a consequence of the shorter elapsed time between first death and lockdown, perhaps because of a health system with better resources and management. Now the pandemic may be over here (cross fingers), but not in England.

At the same time, Scotland has clearly suffered more than most foreign countries. We sought to do everything right on the best advice, yet more Scots became ill and died than citizens of other nations. Why? Perhaps one of these days somebody will be able to tell us.

So I have already qualified the statement I made at the start of this column, that, for want of anything better, we must for now just accept it is an essential role of government to take the lead in regulating public health. Having done so, I can hardly let the analogy with economic management pass me by either.

Probably most Scots already assume the state’s role here is and must be central. That has been the case ever since the collapse of the old Scotland of heavy industry in the second half of the last century.

IT was to be replaced via any one of a large number of development plans, as well as foreign investment. Much public-spirited work and swelling sums of public expenditure went into them – though the permanent results have been relatively meagre.

Direct official intervention has seldom been the basis of the success stories, though it is also true that few of them went forward without official intervention of some kind.

The principle of it, anyway, forms the centrepiece of Nicola Sturgeon’s plans for the future. Completely unrelated to the coronavirus crisis, which merely makes all difficulties that much worse, her Government has been preparing plans to take the economy forward into the 21st century. Already clear is that this will be a rather different economy from that of the 20th century. We used to have governments that in essence impeded progress. Now we will have governments that promote progress, if on their own terms.

A central institution will be the Scottish National Investment Bank, on which I wrote a critical piece in a recent column. I did not like that it was mainly composed of academics rather than businessmen. I did not like that so many of its financial operations are meant to be patient, that is to say, not expecting any very immediate return on the initial investment, making it more obscure than usual whether the investment really is worthwhile.

I also suspect that any beneficiary of the money available will be obliged to sign up to the Scottish Government’s business pledge (a list of non-economic but socially laudable objectives), which on its own has so far been a flop.

I have no doubt the Scottish Government sees itself in all this as a global trailblazer. Capitalism has being going through one of its periodic crises, with structural chaos, industrial failures and stagnant living standards. Capitalism has also survived previous crises of the same kind, though confidence in that happening again is relatively low. Among the pessimists are a number of leaders – in Iceland, New Zealand and Scotland – who all happen to be women and who are convinced they can bring human values to a universal rescue that have been absent in the past.

Now their moment has come. If we can co-ordinate government operations in the right way, then we may this time avoid the social calamities of which history has left us many examples.

We’ll see. Regular readers will not be surprised I remain a sceptic because I cannot see political action as free from political corruption. Politicians are not philosopher kings who can sit back and take a perfectly objective view of all the factors at stake. On the contrary, they are quite likely to give in, for electoral advantage, to disreputable political temptation. If you disagree, please write in to tell me how such risks are to be avoided.

Even with better influences at work we may get, instead of profitable investment, politically correct investment. And then we will still get poorer for the sake of those privileged by political correctness, who do not always deserve to enrich themselves at others’ expense.