2007 - 2021

From Pooling and Sharing to Pulling Apart


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.

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.

Comments (13)

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  1. Andy Anderson says:

    Interesting article Mike.

    When people like Martin Kettle recognize that the break-up of the Union is now being progressed by the UK Prime Minister then we need to look at the policies they are pursuing.
    The huge gamble of the attempt to lift the lock-down in England while attempting to avoid responsibility for his actions is one thing, but linked in time with Brexit and the refusal to contemplate delay on this; is building a real train-crash on a massive scale for himself. Nicola and the SNP Government do not need to plan an independence strategy for Scotland, all they need to do is continue to Govern competently. Boris it seems will do the rest. He will create such a mess that the Scottish people will be entirely convinced we have nothing to gain by continued membership of the Union.

    1. Colin James says:

      My mind got thinking whilst reading this article when it mentioned about the blitz spirit and all that nonsense. That’s exactly where we should attack and sow the seeds of doubt.
      Brexit, corona, tax evasion and a thousand other reasons really why Britain (UK) no longer works for Scotland.
      No amount of British jingoism is going to deliver a country worth living in in ten years time. Make people question whether they think English rule of Scotland will deliver for our future.

  2. Richard Easson says:

    If any of Johnson’s new utterings on Sunday are now law as you say then surely they should have been passed under the auspices of EVEL since they only apply to England.
    He is not the First Minister of a devolved England, they do not have an assembly or parliament to deal with devolved matters.
    He is not the prime minister of England.
    A large can of worms has been opened for all to see and perhaps for some to learn.

  3. Jo says:

    Personally, I thought Kettle’s comment was mischief-making…not uncommon in the Guardian when it comes to Scotland.

    The issues under discussion were not ones where Johnson had the authority to dictate how it would be throughout the UK. They were devolved matters on which his decision (well, ok, Cummings’ decision) could only apply in England. Everyone knew that. Did Kettle not?

    So, in reality, no big deal but Guardian journalists love to do hyperbole… especially Kettle.

    The coolest head around was Sturgeon and, I have to say, I don’t know how she doesn’t lose it with the shower of vermin in the press group who attend her daily briefings…and that includes Sev Carrell and Libby Brooks of, yes, the Guardian. They are forever being corrected btl for misrepresenting her at every turn. They are against her and the SNP even while Number 10 is inhabited by lunatics.

    1. Legerwood says:

      It is interesting how rarely any opinion piece in the Guardian relating to Scotland is open for Comments by readers. They, the journalists, editors and opinion writers on the Guardian know full well that these pieces are full of holes, bias and distortion and would be shown to be so in the btl Comments. Thus they are rarely open for comments.

      1. Jo says:


        Couldn’t agree more. They’ve reduced comments right across the board. The Opinion section usually only has a few comments enabled pieces these days. “Comment Is Free…. just not allowed!” It’s ridiculous.

        The Live Blog is comment enabled. I’ve lost count of the number of times misinformation has been put on there via Libby Brooks or Carrell from the Scottish daily briefing but mostly they get called out below the line. Today, for example, the live blog claimed that Thewliss, the SNP MP, had said Scotland was entitled to furlough money for as long as necessary. She did not say that. She spoke about Scotland, Wales and NI.

        The poison in the Guardian isn’t new and it’s not just about Scotland. They played a huge role in backing the Blairites in the Labour Party. Again, the opinion pieces churned out by many of their columnists were a gift to the Tories.

        It’s as rotten, editorially, as the Herald.

  4. David Allan says:

    Perhaps by way of protest and recognition of the scale of WM Tory incompetence . Today 13 May wil mark the day that England’s population ignored the advice and continued to stay at home.

    I live in hope.

  5. Wul says:

    So, Tory ministers think that : “Once they enter the workplace, the British are among the worst idlers in the world.”

    Generations of British workers have known, with absolute certainty, that their job is to make their master obscenely wealthy at the expense of their own health, family life and financial security. Any attempt to level the playing field, with trades unions and collective bargaining are smashed and dismantled. Not a great motivator.

  6. Stroller says:

    Here is a link which shows a map of the “deescalation” phase of lockdown measures in Spain:


    You can see that the areas in red are in phase 0 – preparation for easing of restrictions – while the areas of the country in a kind of vague beige colour are now at phase 1, which allows for the lifting of some restrictions. The territorial units which the map divides up are “provincias”, a little smaller than regions in Scotland. The result is that the map of Spain looks like a checkerboard today, with some regions in phase 0 and some in phase 1 .

    There are a total of four phases before “normality” is resumed – in July hopefully according to the government. Each of the phases lists a specific set of restrictions which can be lifted when the R number allows for this. So, at phase 1 some small shops can re-open and the outdoor terraces of bars, limited to 30% of capacity, too.

    So, the Spanish government have set out very clear stages of the long and slow return to normality, which will be dependent on the R number in each region, not just of Spain, but parts of Spain. So, in Catalonia, Taragona is at phase 1 but Bacelona remains at phase 0, which would be like lockdown lifted in Dundee say but not Glasgow.

    Contrast with Britain where Martin Kettle, apparently indifferent to saving lives / businesses, makes a political headline out of a health practicality…

    Another contrast is that in Johnson’s speech the other day, his 5 phases were about the prevalence of C19 in each part of the UK on some new app. The R number has been published on a region by region basis every day in the Spanish papers. What we need from govt are very detailed instructions about what restrictions exactly can be lifted and when, a criteria that can be applied at the local level.

    In Spain, there is now clarity and detail. In Britain we have no clarity and no detail at all.

    It’s also worth mentioning that Spain begins to return to normality with 400 new daily cases and around 150 deaths yesterday. In the UK, we still have 4000 odd new cases a day – ten times the number in Spain – and over 600 deaths…

    Obviously, anybody who can avoid going back to work should do so. The UK’s numbers are nowhere near as encouraging as Spain’s, and exactly what can and cannot be done under the easing of restrictions has not been made clear by a government in London which is only “advising people”…

    For those who said Johnson’s brush with death would change him, sorry, you were wrong…

  7. Tom Parkhill says:

    This is not controversial (or it shouldn’t be). The UK Government’s own pandemic advice plan (developed for influenza, in 2011) says:

    “Whilst any pandemic can be expected to exert effects across the UK, at any one point in time the outbreak will almost certainly be associated with regional and temporal variability. Therefore, it may be appropriate to deploy certain mitigation strategies in one region, but not others, at any one particular time during the pandemic”.

    See https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/215666/dh_125333.pdf (page 7)

    1. Stroller says:

      Obviously no-one senior in government has bothered reading the plan…

      We have a big nationalist problem in the UK, it’s this same English exceptionalism every time. The appeal on Johnson’s last outing is to “British common sense”. Instead of a very concrete and detailed plan we get this appeal to a bogus national character trait exclusive to the British as a remedy to the situation….It’s truly unbelievable that senior politicians are still making policy (or not making it on this case) based on a 19th idea like “national character”, an idea which was discredited as far back as the Scottish Enlightenment in these very isles…

      And we get guys like Martin Kettle, and so many other journalists like him, who are basically from the same kind of private school background as Johnson, and who just sing from the same hymn sheet.

      It is really desperately bad this current British government. It is going to claim the lives of tens of thousands of UK citizens…especially the poor, the vulnerable and those form BAEM communities… Johnson makes all the other PMs in my lifetime seem like great statesmen in comparison…

  8. Wul says:

    Was Boris putting a marker down, after which any claim for Covid compensation can be disputed or becomes discretionary by H.M. Gov. & HMRC?

    Perhaps he deliberately didn’t mention the devolved “Family of Nations”, so that demands for restitution from Scotland, Wales & Ireland can be plausibly denied later? “You were still off work beyond mid-May 2020? Not our fault mate! Go speak to your FM, we told you to get back to work on 11th May and we ARE the UK”

    Maybe I’m over thinking it and we didn’t get a mention because we don’t matter. Even the North of England doesn’t matter.

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