Covid-19 has exposed deep vulnerabilities in the governance of the multinational British state. In part, this should be no surprise since the political struggle over Brexit shredded constitutional restraint, drove political incivility into daily life, and heaped pressure on a Union still recovering from the 2014 referendum on Scottish independence.
The first weeks of the pandemic began more optimistically. There was much readier consent to the lockdown across the UK than might have been anticipated. The national governments appeared to coordinate effectively enough to give the impression of a consensual response to the emergency. For a moment, it even seemed possible that the Union might be strengthened by a collectively experienced crisis. But since Boris Johnson’s government’s errors have become clearer, and now harder questions about when and how to retreat from lockdown have to be answered, the crisis has taken a darker political turn.
The government looks unable to implement its plan for schools fully to return before the long summer holiday because enough people either do not trust it to judge the risks competently, or wish to use the crisis to express their anger that it is in power at all. Any democratic politics under any political conditions will struggle where there are deep disagreements over whether to prioritise people’s lives or their livelihoods, when both are threatened and responding to one risk amplifies the other. But British politics is particularly troubled.
The government is led by a prime minister who is a bigger risk taker than anyone who could plausibly have led the country in a long time. It still has to construct a post-Brexit set of external economic and security commitments at a time when the military alliance to which the UK belongs, Nato, is buckling under severe transatlantic disagreement. And it has to do so after more than a decade of political upheaval over the European issue, where losers’ consent has been extraordinarily weak. This problem began with the Conservatives’ unwillingness to accept that the constitutional change contained in the Lisbon Treaty of 2009 was sufficiently legitimated, and culminated in unreconciled Remainers’ attempts to reject the 2016 referendum result.
The problems of the British Union are just as chronic. On the surface, this is nothing new. For its entire existence, the Union has been much less stable than the mid-20th century complacency around it supposed. But the malfunctions now let loose may well extend beyond anything we have seen since the SNP won a majority in the 2011 Holyrood elections.
Over the past month, the Scottish government hasn’t just sought to demonstrate some autonomy by making earlier announcements from Cobra – the UK’s emergency committee structure – in its briefings. Rather, it has made substantively different decisions, which, since health and education are devolved matters, it can. But asserting its autonomy has turned the UK government into a de facto government of England too, without any constitutional change having taken place to authorise there being such a government.
This is neither the Westminster nor Edinburgh government’s fault, but a function of the constitutional mess Tony Blair unleashed through asymmetrical devolution. David Cameron thought he could solve the so-called West Lothian problem with a fix that required an English majority in the House of Commons for bills applying only to England. But when executives have to govern on a devolved matter with emergency powers, as they do now, who can vote on what bills is beside the point.
Having to act as the English government is hazardous for Boris Johnson, not least because many reject any idea that there should be an English government. It also poses problems arising from the need in democratic politics for an opposition.
Ritualised opposition has been a constitutional safeguard against British politics’ proclivity towards encouraging conflict and leaving that conflict unresolved. A party that acts as the opposition has to accept the government’s legitimacy and authority to decide some issues relatively freely, and it has to eschew excessive obstructionism. But it also has a duty to find specific things wrong with a great deal of what a government does, as well as to offer itself as an alternative government within the existing constitutional structures.
Of late, the Conservatives have gifted Labour attack opportunities, and the pressure the crisis has placed on an ill-working administrative state has multiplied them. Keir Starmer appears to understand what opposition requires, including its necessary limits. He has not fuelled the losers’ consent problem by seeking to keep Brexit an open issue. Indeed, his unwillingness to attack the government over its decision not to extend the transition arrangements beyond the end of the year, in particular, suggests considerable restraint. But, however promising his start as leader, Starmer cannot offer Labour as an alternative government for England alone when the party was 166 seats behind the Conservatives in English seats in December.
Imagine the uproar if Labour had won the last general election and was now supported in office by the SNP while the Conservatives held the majority of English seats, and this Labour-led coalition was England’s government. For the foreseeable future, there is quite probably no alternative UK government that, with any democratic legitimacy, could also serve as the English government. Without one, England’s governance under the present constitutional arrangements risks becoming a serious political crisis.
Helen Thompson is professor of political economy at Cambridge University
This article appears in the 03 Jun 2020 issue of the New Statesman, We can't breathe