How the Covid-19 crisis may accelerate the break-up of the UK

Rising support for Scottish and Welsh independence has been matched by a new awareness of “the English government”.

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When I was a young reporter in Scotland it always annoyed me that I was expected to refer to the devolved health and education systems as the “Scottish NHS” and “Scottish schools”. What else would I be writing about, in a Scottish paper for a Scottish audience? Meanwhile, Fleet Street would simply describe their English equivalents as “the NHS” and “schools”. 

I suppose it was to avoid confusion, particularly in the early years of devolution. But it felt like a sort of submissiveness, a self-enforced stratification, perhaps even an unconscious example of that notorious “Scottish cringe”. We were not the definite article. A glance at the Herald and Scotsman on any given day confirms the practice is still commonly observed.

One thing has changed recently, though. During the Covid-19 crisis London-based media and politicians have begun to deploy the “E” word when referring to UK government ministers and institutions and their activities. The reason for this is obvious – their hand has been forced by the divergence of the devolved administrations in their handling of the pandemic, which has robustly made clear that Westminster’s remit now often stops at the English border.

I’m not alone in having spotted this small but significant shift. In an interview with the New EuropeanAdam Price, the leader of Plaid Cymru says: “Never in the last 21 years, post-devolution, have we ever seen such a high level of awareness of the fact that we have, you know, four different health ministers in the UK. We’re even starting to hear the phrase ‘the English government’ or ‘the English health secretary’. So that really is a huge change.”

Setting aside the incendiary matter of Scottish independence (if that’s possible), it looks like a further indicator that the United Kingdom is heading for a constitutional reckoning between its centre and its component nation states.

In Downing Street, Boris Johnson and Dominic Cummings are assembling an imperial court, accumulating and centralising authority, and ensuring alternative cabinet power-centres are staffed by lesser talents. They are determined where possible that the UK government acts for the whole of the UK, as we’ve seen with emergency Covid-19 spending. This was also apparent in their blithe dismissal earlier this year of votes in the Welsh Assembly, the Scottish Parliament and the Northern Ireland Assembly to reject the Brexit bill.

There is anger in Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast that Johnson intends to keep control – for a while, at least – of many of the policy areas that are about to be repatriated from the EU, even where they fall within agreed devolved competences. And the Prime Minister continues to insist he will refuse to allow a second independence referendum, regardless of any mandate won by the SNP in next year’s Holyrood election.

The devolved administrations are meanwhile flexing their muscles. Voters have watched Wales and Scotland's First Ministers, Mark Drakeford and Nicola Sturgeon, take major decisions about life and liberty in the past few months and have largely liked what they’ve seen. A recent poll by Welsh Barometer found 62 per cent of those questioned think the Welsh government has handled the pandemic well, with only 34 per cent saying the same of the UK government. Scottish surveys show a similar breakdown (and support for independence has risen to 54 per cent, its highest level since June 2016). 

Scotland is a known antagonist, but what we’re seeing in Wales is new. Devolution had only lukewarm support there when it started in 1999, but growing rows over policy and who controls what seem to be putting some iron in the soul (support for independence has risen to 21 per cent, or 34 per cent, if undecided voters and non-voters are excluded). 

The Brexit deal is likely to give Northern Ireland access to the EU in ways that will be denied to the other devolved nations, which will not go unremarked, and there is even pressure for a referendum on Irish reunification.

Attempts at joint working through the pandemic have resulted in successes as well as failures. For example, Johnson can rightly be proud that the Treasury has dug deep to help the UK economy ride out the storm, and he has been relatively relaxed about the multi-speed lifting of lockdown. But there have been clashes over plans being leaked early to the media, over messaging, over the refusal to sack Cummings for breaking the lockdown rules, and more. 

Brexit will introduce a host of new confrontation points, such as the limits of trade deals – the Scottish government says it is prepared to go to court over any deals that impact on Scotland’s food, environment and animal welfare standards. Both Edinburgh and Cardiff want the softest possible Brexit.

None of this even takes into account balancing the wishes and weight of the English nation. The Commons Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee has already noted the “growing consensus that the current UK inter‐governmental relations mechanisms are not fit for purpose”. Without a solution that allows for respect and difference on all sides, things are about to get much, much worse.

Chris Deerin is the New Statesman's contributing editor (Scotland). 

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