Schadenfreude at the state of the United Kingdom is a familiar default sentiment among republicans who comment in Slugger. They believe that mishandling of Brexit and now Covid is evidence of terminal decline. The notion is not limited to those predisposed against the UK . It crosses the community. What encourages the republican- minded depresses unionist Cassandras like Alex Kane. The most eloquent is the Guardian columnist Martin Kettle.
To the surprise of many of those watching, and perhaps even to Johnson himself, it turned out that the coronavirus outbreak has changed the prime minister of the United Kingdom into the prime minister of England.
..when, as this week, it became effectively illegal for English people to cross the Scottish or Welsh borders to do what they are now permitted – wrongly, in my view – to do in England a significant political line has been crossed.
The result is a curious and still only tentative UK form of what Lenin once called “dual power”. But it is growing and it is significant… t does not yet add up to a unilateral declaration of independence from Britain. It may indeed have reached its zenith this week, because the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish authorities will eventually lift their lockdowns in ways that bring them closer to England’s more permissive approach. Note also that Nicola Sturgeon faces increasing challenges to her authority from other nationalist opponents and that her record in handling the pandemic is far from spotless either.
Nevertheless, Covid-19 is proving to be a wake-up call about serious defects in the UK’s constitutional order and its sense of itself that it would be reckless to ignore. Things could get more confrontational, not less. The case for a more truly federalised UK, with equal degrees of local self-government and double sovereignties, becomes ever stronger
So warning notes have been sounded . They do not yet amount to a call for action. Regional differences over the spread of Covid should properly be reflected in NHS treatment plans and in contact testing and tracing without collapsing the Union. After all, differences of policy to suit different conditions was what devolution was designed for. And there are many regional authorities in England like the high profile mayors who are envious of the devolved administration’s discretion – provided of course they would enjoy the same access to expert advice and have the whole thing funded by HM Treasury.
Nevertheless the witch’s brew of the unresolved Covid and Brexit crises has boosted cross party demand for a rethink of how the UK is governed . Spanning left and right, the main underlying motivation is to save the Union but in a newly acceptable form. The paradox is that it has taken of a certain degree of English nationalism to do so. Covid has forced the centre right London establishment to notice differences of approach for the first time. They ignored them over Brexit but can hardly ignore them now and they don’t like it one little bit. Now the Empire is striking back. One of its more interesting forms is what looks like a concerted attack on Nicola Sturgeon for exploiting the coronavirus crisis to further the cause of Scottish secession.
Following the publication of the comparative data of the four nations the broadcaster Iain Dale has tweeted
Cybernats furious with me. 1. Testing in Scot is 25% of Eng allowing for pop. 2. Virus-related deaths in Scot care homes x2 ratio of Eng 3. Scotland has higher number of coronavirus cases p/ capita than Eng 4. Scot drug deaths 3x more than rest of UK
Clare Foges in The Times has mounted a full-blown assault
Whether criticising the UK government’s latest slogan or letting the public in on decisions reached at Cobra meetings before Westminster has cleared its throat, Sturgeon is suspected of playing the political football of coronavirus with a deftness that recalls Sir Kenny Dalglish in his heyday….
… The way nationalists sneer at Conservative incompetence in Westminster you would imagine theirs is a glowing record, and that Scotland is a pin-up nation for “progressives” everywhere. Alas for the people of Scotland, it ain’t so.
The Scottish education system was once renowned as a social mobility machine; no longer. The attainment gap between the least and most deprived children has barely moved during Sturgeon’s time in office. Standards in reading, science and maths have slipped dramatically since the nationalists came to power. Performance in science has fallen by 25 points against other OECD countries, the second highest drop in the world. This is from the Pisa rankings, the only international educational survey that Scotland still takes part in, since the SNP pulled out of two others. It didn’t enjoy the scrutiny for some reason.
In healthcare, the SNP’s treatment targets fail spectacularly month after month. Before this crisis, record numbers were spending more than 12 hours waiting for treatment in Scottish A&Es. Hundreds of children have been waiting for more than a year for mental health care. In the last three months of 2019 (the latest figures) the target for 95 per cent of those with an urgent cancer referral to be treated within 62 days was missed again. It has not been met for eight years. Scotland’s drug crisis persists; drug deaths are three times higher north of the border than in the UK as a whole: a devilish problem for any government, sure, but cutting £15 million from the treatment budget seems short-sighted.
The SNP’s political games are a great distraction from these failures, as well as from the questions that hang over the prospect of an independent Scotland: the currency question, the possibility of rejoining the EU question, the question about how sound the foundations of the Scottish economy can be when the price of oil is plummeting. (You may remember that before the 2014 referendum the SNP based its plans on an average price of over $100 a barrel; at the time of writing Brent Crude is around the low $30s.)
The SNP will continue to blame Westminster for everything and take responsibility for nothing. It will continue to play politics and push the prospect of Indyref2 at every conceivable opportunity. But those of us who wish to avoid the break-up of the United Kingdom have got to be smarter. “He said, she said” bickering about Nicola’s latest jibe at Boris only plays their game. Instead of railing against SNP single-mindedness, unionists should seek to emulate it by relentlessly scrutinising its actions, slamming its record as a hopeless administrator and putting this clear warning to the waverers among the Scottish people. If the SNP has failed, disappointed and underwhelmed with the powers it already has, what hope is there for an independent Scotland?
Others are adopting a more positive approach than attacking Queen Nicola. Nick Timothy, once chief adviser to Theresa May (she of the “precious” Union) writes that the Covid crisis has further exposed the flaws in the British unitary state and calls for the radical reform of ” a dangerous mess.”
Quite apart from the rights and wrongs of different pandemic policies, we are witnessing, in high-definition picture with cinematic soundbar, the chaotic nature of the modern British state. At almost every level, accountability and responsibility – particularly budgetary responsibility – are misaligned. As a result we have public services led by officials accountable to nobody, local government that cannot govern, mayors with so few powers that their time is spent lobbying ministers, and devolved governments that blame policy failures on England.
He gnaws at the old bone of the West Lothian Question
.. who governs England? MPs from Scottish and Welsh constituencies can vote on matters affecting England – like the health system – while English MPs have no say on the same matters in Scotland and Wales….. And the Barnett Formula, the means by which we determine public spending across the UK, is skewed against England.In Scotland, spending per person on services is twenty per cent higher.
The contrast between Germany’s experience of the pandemic and ours is striking. We must move to a fully federal model, with an English government and parliament, and more powers for the four nations. Within England we need to decentralise more, giving more responsibilities to the metro-mayors and local councils. We need a greater share of taxes raised at a local level. And we need public services to be run in line with local needs and by leaders closer to the frontline. These changes would be nothing short of a revolution.
The concern is now definitely cross party, shared by no less than Keir Starmer, as analysed here by Newton Emerson.
Starmer’s overarching plan is for each part of a federal UK to have equal authority, with greatly increased powers guaranteed by a written constitution. Westminster would no longer hold ultimate sovereignty over everything. As an example of how this would work, Scotland and Northern Ireland would have vetoed Brexit. There is little doubt Brexit is a factor in Starmer’s thinking. The survival of the union is his stated priority and it is significant he took his message straight to Scotland, along with a promise of more devolved powers. The relationship between Scotland and England is the most equal within the UK – more a case of a zebra and an elephant. Scottish politics hinges on the debate over whether more devolution will save the union or end it. Northern Ireland and Wales have been bystanders in this conversation, although their fate depends on it.
Former prime minister Gordon Brown had been preaching regionalism and federalism for years “to prevent the breakup of the United Kingdom.”
To anoraks this has been familiar territory for a long time. Now, after several false starts, it may be surfacing again and across the main UK parties. An agonising dilemma lies at the heart of it. Would one size fits all federalism or something like it strengthen the Union or wreck it altogether? Other than as a theoretical solution does anybody anywhere actually want it? It has barely registered with the Northern Ireland parties, as one option too many just at the moment. But as a symptom of concern it may mean that that the threats to the Union are being taken seriously at last.
Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London