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How the four corners of the United Kingdom are social distancing over coronavirus

Representing the four corners of the United Kingdom: Arlene Foster, Nicola Sturgeon, Mark Drakeford and Boris Johnson. Photograph: PA/TNE. - Credit: Archant

The pandemic has shown the different nations of the United Kingdom moving in different directions. John Kampfner wonders if this will signal the start of a permanent dismantling.

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When the brave new world of devolution was introduced in the late 1990s, the assumption by those in government in London was that the smaller nations could be bought off by having control of certain domestic affairs.

Schools, transport, health, why not? They matter but they are not of strategic importance, it was argued. The big stuff – general taxation, defence, security, foreign policy – would stay in the hands of Westminster and Whitehall.

To use the jargon, they were reserved powers.

More carrots have been thrown in the direction of Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast in the years since then, and some have been given more than others, but the basic division of responsibilities has remained the same.

Covid-19 has shattered this settlement in a multitude of ways. A possible pandemic was listed in the 2015 Strategic Defence and Security Review as one of the highest priority dangers to the country. Not only was that not prepared for, as has been abundantly shown in recent weeks, but the consequences for the integrity of the UK were also blithely ignored.

For the first time, travellers from England were told over the past week that it could be illegal of them to drive, walk or hit a golf ball across the border.

Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish citizens (of the UK) were instructed to stay at home, while their English countrymen and women are advised merely to stay alert, and to go to work if they cannot work from home.

Who bears ultimate legal responsibility for this dangerous divergence? Is it Boris Johnson? Or is it Nicola Sturgeon, Mark Drakeford and Arlene Foster?

The terrible events of the past two months will have had an effect on the prospects for independence. With or without that, the constitutional upheavals are already upon us and will not be easily reversed.

Unlike most equivalent countries, with clearly delineated lines of authority between the central state, regions and localities, Britain is a mess.

Local councils are a hybrid of two-tier, single-tier, counties, conurbations and city-regions, some with elected mayors and enhanced powers, others not.

They depend on Whitehall for their increasingly sparse funding and are then left to make do or flounder.

Long before devolution, Scotland had its own specificities, most visibly in its legal system.

Its politicians were big beasts. Under Alex Salmond and then Nicola Sturgeon, SNP administrations became adversaries to the central state.

In Wales, by contrast, the political leadership (always Labour) has been largely invisible both to the Westminster village and ordinary voters in Wales. Only Rhodri Morgan, who ran the country for nine years from 2000, achieved anything approaching national prominence.

As for Northern Ireland, it has veered from self-rule to direct rule as the DUP and Sinn Fein struggled to deal with each other.

All of that has changed in the past few months and in curious and sometimes contradictory ways.

Mark Drakeford, the Welsh first minister, has emerged from obscurity and suddenly become a combative opponent to Johnson’s Conservatives. The Welsh government’s record in dealing with coronavirus has been anything but convincing – it has messed up on care-home testing and on provision of personal protective equipment (PPE).

Even though it has an older population, it has always been short of critical care beds. But none of these shortcomings have stopped it from mounting its first concerted political assault on a British government.

It closed schools and banned travel to tourist spots earlier than the government in England. And it made sure, through an advertising campaign, that everyone knew how much more rigorous it was being. This push-back is starting from a weak position, but it is an important start.

As ever, the main focus is Scotland. Has Covid revived or seen off Sturgeon’s independence dreams? The answer, frustrating for those who prefer binary choices, is… both.

With Hollyrood elections looming next year, party politics is back with a vengeance. Indeed, it never went away. The SNP is likely to have more of a fight on its hands, with Johnson’s bravura appealing to some (everyone to their tastes) and Keir Starmer’s dogged opposition restoring Labour’s credibility.

Internal disputes have dogged the SNP for some time and Sturgeon’s popularity is not what it was. The animus between her and her predecessor and erstwhile friend and mentor, Salmond, has long been the talk of Scottish political circles. His group has alleged that government officials encouraged former employees of Salmond to press charges of sexual assault against him, something she fastidiously denies. Salmond was acquitted of 12 charges at the High Court in Edinburgh on March 23.

The SNP was so fearful of the reputational damage of a possible conviction against him that, according to some sources, this was one of the reasons why Sturgeon dropped her resistance to Johnson’s attempts to call a general election last December.

If one plays the game of counterfactual history (never very useful, but nonetheless often intriguing), if it hadn’t been for this saga, the Conservatives would have been forced to limp on with their minority government and Brexit would not have happened, at least not in the way it did, and Johnson would not have received his huge majority.

In terms of self-interest, Sturgeon would not see it that way, as the SNP romped home north of the border. One should also factor in the many mistakes the Liberal Democrats made. As their report on the election fiasco stated earlier this month, Jo Swinson was so carried along by hubristic forecasts of her party’s chances, she was happy to go to the polls.

In so doing, the two parties which campaigned most passionately against Brexit ended up as its midwives.

Sturgeon, who had vowed to hold a second referendum in 2020 in the face opposition from London, has for the moment gone quiet on the idea.

She does not want to be seen to be indulging in constitutional chicanery at a time when tens of thousands of lives are being lost.

The longer-term outcome is more mixed. If she does well in the 2021 elections, she might be tempted to force the issue. By then the virus might have waned, but the economy north and south of the border will be in dire straits.

Furthermore, it might be that the essential differences between Scotland and England will have narrowed.

The NHS has always been a rare symbol of unity in a fractured Britain. But it also denoted a social solidarity that was repudiated by the Thatcher years and has long been much more evident in a more communitarian Scotland than neo-liberal southern England. What happens to Scotland’s unique selling point if England, paradoxically under a Conservative government, jettisons austerity and free-market orthodoxy, taxing more highly, talking constructively with trade unions and even contemplating concepts such as a Universal Basic Income?

That could end up as little more than window dressing by a uniquely cynical administration under Johnson, but that could undermine the case for independence for a Scotland already in deep recession.

Independence warriors are not giving up. Joanna Cherry, the SNP’s justice and home affairs spokeswoman at Westminster and seen as the keenest rival to Sturgeon, has argued that because of Johnson’s incompetence over Covid, ‘many more people’ would question ‘the UK as a stable and competent entity’ than was the case when Scotland rejected independence in the first referendum in 2014.

The columnist Kevin McKenna, meanwhile, declared that Scotland needed a Dominic Cummings-type figure to force through separation.

‘The party needs an official nasty bastard like him who’ll cut through to the chase and get to what’s real,’ he wrote in the National newspaper. ‘And don’t give me any of that sanctimonious mince about us all needing to pull together to defeat the virus.’

If a Cummings doppelgänger ended up as being England’s most important export northwards, then a newly-independent Scotland wouldn’t end up looking very different after all.

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