NO-ONE would be surprised to learn that Boris Johnson was not the only “f****** clown” at Westminster, but positive proof that he wasn’t even the biggest came as a bit of a shock when it arrived this week.

Step forward Michael Gove, who – if we are to believe his testimony to the UK Covid-19 Inquiry – expects the British people to believe at least three contradictory messages simultaneously.

The so-called Minister for “Levelling Up” insisted that undermining the threat of Scotland becoming independent was the single biggest priority of the Westminster government – outside dealing with Covid itself – as the pandemic raged throughout the UK.

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In fact the prospect was considered to be so dangerous that Gove had drawn up an action plan to counter it that he urged Johnson to enact it as soon as possible.

Yet he managed to keep a straight face when he flatly denied that the Tories were playing politics with the pandemic just minutes after he admitted detailing the steps necessary to do exactly that. Not only that, he said the Scottish Government were the ones seeking political advantage in the days of lockdown.

The sheer hypocrisy may beggar belief but there is a great deal to unpack in Gove’s evidence. Let’s start by examining why he was so worried when he put together a Cabinet paper entitled State of the Union back in July 2020.

For a start, the number of Scots content with the way the Scottish Government was dealing with Covid far outweighed those happy with Westminster’s efforts – the margin was actually 70% to 25%, according to an Ipsos poll in November 2020. And we weren’t alone. The Welsh and those living in Northern Ireland thought so too.

The British government got the message loud and clear. In his Cabinet paper, Gove said the future of the Union was the “greatest challenge” facing the Tory government other than the pandemic and that “protecting and strengthening the Union must be the cornerstone of all that we do”.

Which is no doubt why, when the prime minister visited Orkney in July 2020 he referred to the “sheer might and merit” of the Union.

But, Gove insisted this week that he wasn’t playing politics.

Oh no … far from it. In fact, when he was asked a direct question about whether the UK and Scottish governments were indulging in that he said categorically: “I do not believe that’s true of the UK Government”.

Yet in the next breath he said his responsibility as a minister was to “uphold the United Kingdom”, and warned that to be “passive” on the issue of independence would be “to quit the field when there is a direct danger to the wellbeing of every citizen of the United Kingdom”.

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And there in a nutshell is the central plank in the British establishment’s attitude to the constitutional discussion. Support for the Union is regarded as the natural, default position which must be supported at all costs.

Support for independence is seen as an aberration which must be undermined at every opportunity. That’s why comments such as Johnson’s and Gove’s are portrayed as simply stating the obvious while support for independence is dismissed out of hand as inherently dangerous.

Of course, independence is dangerous to the establishment.

It threatens an economic system that creates powerful elites and condemns the rest of us to financial struggles, or worse. It challenges the UK’s right to station nuclear weapons in Scotland, which recent news stories suggest could increase in importance with Russia’s involvement in Ukraine. It offers an alternative to deals such as that which saw a firm linked to Tory peer Michelle Mone awarded £220 million in government contracts during the pandemic. Reports claim that Mone recommended the firm to ministers, including Gove.

It should be no surprise, then, that those in power would do anything to diminish the popularity of independence, which remains high despite the recent travails of the SNP.

Tory politicians talk up the Union at every available opportunity while at the same time accuse the SNP of continually trying to score political points, even in the midst of the pandemic. Unfortunately for them the facts don’t back them up. In fact, when the pandemic began, the Scottish Government specifically shelved its independence campaign to concentrate on Covid.

That was one of the first actions taken by the Government, according to evidence given this week by Liz Lloyd, Nicola Sturgeon’s former chief of staff.

Even when ministers agreed in June 2020 to consider resuming work on independence no specific actions were agreed. “It wasn’t agreed that we would do something other than think,” Lloyd said.

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There has been a political price to pay for that downgrading of the independence issue. Some of its own supporters claim the SNP have not pursued their main political aim vigorously enough.

Whatever you think of that argument, it would be hard to come to the conclusion that the Scottish Government was prioritising independence over the nation’s health.

The Covid inquiry is quite properly examining how the Scottish Government handled the pandemic and asking important questions that the public – particularly those who lost loved ones during those dark days – deserve to have answered.

Even Gove was forced to admit at the inquiry that Sturgeon’s “energy and hard work” during the pandemic was impressive.

The former first minister gave her evidence on Wednesday during what the mainstream media dubbed her “day of reckoning” and it will be up to the inquiry to judge whether her actions and those of her government were appropriate.

It is certain that mistakes were made. How could it have been otherwise? Those mistakes will have had consequences of greater or lesser severity. This is as true in Scotland as in those areas under the control of other governments. There ARE differences in the circumstances surrounding some decisions – and yes, I do mean partygate.

It is perhaps unwise to reference them in a discussion about playing politics during the pandemic but it’s impossible not to.

But devolution was introduced because of an acknowledgement that different parts of the UK required different arrangements or decisions and that was just as true during the pandemic as it was before or after. It was hardly surprising then, that there were on occasion different arrangements and restrictions in place in different parts of the UK.

The questioning of Sturgeon placed great emphasis on her commitment to a “four-nation” approach to dealing with the pandemic. There was an underlying assumption in the questioning that any deviation from that approach was inspired by the desire to score a political point. To believe that was true would mean accepting that the actions of the Westminster government were the “orthodox” position, from which any different actions by the devolved authorities somehow deviated.

This mirrors the attitude of the British establishment to independence. Support for the Union is regarded as the norm. It is the default position requiring no thought. Support for independence is seen as some weird deviant.

During the questioning at the Covid inquiry, Sturgeon was asked if she thought it possible to take any decision without seeing it through the prism of independence and her burning desire to achieve it.

However two days earlier, Gove had been asked no such question about his support for the Union, despite his admission that he regarded it as his duty as a minister to uphold the Union and that to be ‘’passive’’ about independence would place the wellbeing of British citizens in jeopardy.

In the context of the pandemic, as Sturgeon pointed out on Wednesday, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland were often united in their desire for different arrangements to those enacted by Westminster. Yet it is the British parliament which is generally regarded within the UK as the ultimate, natural authority.

The Covid inquiry has an important job to do. It is charged with casting judgment on the actions of the Scottish Government during the pandemic, with the vital role of holding power to account.

Yet it displays an inherent assumption that a belief in independence makes it harder – or even perhaps impossible – for politicians to act in the best interests of all the people they represent.

That holds an interesting lesson for those of us who share that belief in independence: Those who are in power in the UK will forever seek to ostracise, demean and demonise those who seek real and meaningful constitutional change in this country.

The current devolution settlement is being used to curtail rather than enable further change.

If we allow this to continue unchallenged, if we remain passive in the face of rampant British nationalism … it’s us who are the f****** clowns.