From Pooling and Sharing to Pulling Apart
At 7pm on Sunday May 10, Boris Johnson effectively ceased to be the prime minister of the UK and became prime minister of England.
— Martin Kettle (@martinkettle) May 10, 2020
The extent to which the whole functioning of the UK (not just Scotland and England) is diverging has been revealed in the past few days. Johnson’s shambolic communication and desperate urge to “release the lockdown” has left the devolved governments holding their own positions as the idea of a united coherent thing called ‘Britain’ just falls apart before our tired eyes.
Nor was this a process initiated by resurgent forces of Celtic Nationalism. Nicola Sturgeon has been, if anything, bending over backwards to be reasonable and hold together the (largely mythical) four nation approach. Even Arlene Foster refused to align with the English approach. Although politically she would have liked to align with England, practically she knew Northern Ireland was better off remaining in step with Ireland as the Northern Irish coronavirus figures are more similar to the republics than England. So her message remained: stay at home. First Minister Mark Drakeford was forced to assert: “In Wales, it is Welsh law that applies” and say you cannot travel to Wales from England to exercise.
But this is more than the devolved nations being forced to flex their constitutional muscle. Even Andy Burnham and his Liverpool counterpart, Steve Rotheram, are warning the Prime Minister that the highest number of new cases last week were in the North West, arguing ‘we are not yet on the clear downward trajectory seen in other parts of the country’.
In a letter to the Prime Minister they also point to the latest report from the ‘Independent Sage’ group of scientists, set up as a ‘constructive alternative’ to the government’s official advice, which says changes to national guidance is ‘dangerous’ and will lead to further localised outbreaks.
Both mayors are now calling on the government to urgently publish regional – and sub-regional – figures for the ‘R’, the rate of coronavirus transmission within the general population.
Burnham insisted that the ‘Stay at Home’ message was therefore still right for Manchester, in line with the approach taken by Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.
This is not just as sign of the rolling constitutional crisis taking a new form, no its what happens in a pandemic when the leader of a country loses the trust of a significant part of the population.
Nicola Sturgeon says if you’re coming from England to Scotland for reasons not deemed essential purposes you may be breaking the law.
— Ciaran Jenkins (@C4Ciaran) May 11, 2020
Travelling into Wales ‘becomes an offence’ https://t.co/3qjjPCe1np
— BBC Wales News (@BBCWalesNews) May 11, 2020
Nor are these new measures just guidance, they’re law.
But behind these palpable and sudden changes and fractures are deeper issues of political culture. As the virus rages we teeter on the brink of the catastrophe of Brexit, the fiasco that’s only been eclipsed by mass death but will re-emerge at Britain’s funeral.
In an excoriating article John Harris (‘We can’t hide behind the bunting – let’s face up to what’s happened to Britain’) writes:
“In England in particular, there is a strand of the national culture expressed by the mixture of hectoring optimism and insularity of the rightwing press, and reducible to the idea that the supposed British way of doing anything is necessarily the best. Even now, 21st-century politics is still less about hardened matters of success and failure than these expressions of culture and history, and the sides they force people to take. Britain was led into the disaster of Brexit by people successfully sowing the ludicrous idea that subjecting ourselves to self-harm would somehow awaken the Blitz spirit and revive past glories. Amid Friday’s juxtaposition of the 75th anniversary of VE day and a deepening sense of national crisis, as well as solemn remembrance, there was inevitably some of the same stuff. These things play into deep elements of the English psyche, shot through with the lingering traces of deference and always ready to be manipulated by Tory politicians.”
Put in this context, the question becomes, whether a survival instinct will kick in and through off the ‘lingering traces of deference’ amid the chaos of Johnson’s misrule?
But an important aspect of this to notice is that it is not Wales and Scotland that are asserting their difference, it is England. The idea, put to us in 2014 that cleaving to the Union was a matter of survival for Scotland has been turned on its head.
Harris points to Matt Hancock’s striking use of the verb “wean” as an expression of how people might be removed from furlough. He cites the Tory backbencher Graham Brady who had claimed that “in some instances it may be that the public have been a little bit too willing to stay at home”.
There is a new narrative of “covid” shirker as the economic crisis deepens.
“Here was a familiar Tory voice of impatience and condescension, once again breaking through the patina of solidarity with the public. There were echoes of an infamous passage of the free-market manifesto Britannia Unchained, written by five Tory MPs, four of whom are now ministers: “Once they enter the workplace, the British are among the worst idlers in the world.” Whatever its recent feints towards communitarianism and economic activism, the Conservative party seems unable to shake off its attachment to a vision of go-getting utopia, and its resultant contempt for a public that looks to the state for help and fails to match up to its ideal.”
The relationship between the citizen and the state is being redefined. But, as we tire of repeating, you can either be a Scottish citizen or a British subject.
The slogans that the Conservatives are clinging to reveal their priorities and their contempt. The idea of framing the notion of collective action for public health against our “freedoms” is deeply cynical and manipulative.