COVID POLITICS DIVIDE THE UK – UNITY AND THE UNION UNDER PRESSURE

by Sherbhert Editor
will covid break up the UK?

WHO GOVERNS?

Concern over the stability of the Union which makes up the UK has occupied many commentators in recent weeks, in the light of Covid-19 (CV) politics. As part of a series on the impact of CV, the Financial Times recently published “Will Coronavirus break the UK”. It says, “The virus has driven a greater wedge between the four nations of the UK, testing the boundaries of power”. While the UK Government (UKGOV) through Parliament at Westminster governs the UK as a whole, each of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland (Smaller Nations) have their own devolved Parliaments with power over their own laws on certain matters. But England has no separate legislature with powers of its own in respect of England only. Each parliament is controlled by a different political party, hardly a recipe for unified law and behaviour. Also, culturally, nationalism and nationalist parties of Scotland and Wales are respected throughout the UK, and yet the idea of English nationalism , and even patriotism, is often derided – bringing with it connotations of  little Englanders, extreme right wingers, and even something close to Nazism. Different forces are perhaps at work in England. Passionate voices for independence in all the Smaller Nations add a special factor and source of conflict for UKGOV decision-making.

And devolution does not end with the Smaller Nations. Within England, City mayors in 9 great cities have been delegated certain powers, and other influences. Local authorities too have certain Governmental duties and responsibilities. But the devolution of powers to Scotland, Wales and English mayors are, in the scheme of things, very recent systems, and so there now exists a level of decentralisation which is quite complex, and powers have been dished out ad hoc it seems: few people could perhaps explain who does what. But when it comes to money, Smaller Nations have some money-raising powers via taxes, not all the same. These are reasonably extensive in Scotland. However, UK Treasury at Westminster holds key purse strings, especially when it comes to borrowing. The behaviour of UK Treasury in its generosity of dishing out cash within England and broader across the UK can be the source of praise, or more likely division and conflict, as regards views on fairness and equality and need. Arguably Treasury has been perceived to favour investing in the South before the North. CV is bringing debates about fairness into sharp relief. 

WHO GOVERNS ON HEALTH?

For the layman this is not an easy one. UKGOV is in charge of health in the UK in a sense. But each of the Smaller Nations has power over and responsibility for its public health. Before CV this fact has never been a particular public focus. However, in the pandemic this division of power has created different reactions, restrictions and attitudes towards CV nation by nation. UKGOV early on appeared to speak for the UK about CV. But as time went on differences of opinion between the nations arose and it emerged that in fact Westminster only speaks for England on health, where Public Health England and the NHS are responsible for protecting England. But the NHS functions in all the Smaller Nations. So, is it that the NHS has to follow different processes and rules by nation? 

Each Smaller Nation has its own health advisers. They have been cooperating it seems generally well with UKGOV’s health advisers. But evidently, they do not all agree. And as the pandemic wears on the measures each nation takes to protect its inhabitants have diverged. With CV, on every subject, there is plenty of room it seems for disagreement. And of course, England is so much larger than all the Smaller Nations: so, the considerations that apply to it and its demographics, and the weight given to and feasibility of alternative actions, may be quite different than for a Smaller Nation. However, as each nation has decided its own approach, often with small differences, a complexity across the UK has arisen which would not be the case were health not devolved. One might be forgiven for thinking that each nation is competing especially with Westminster to portray itself as more caring for its people and wiser than UKGOV.

It is notable that UKGOV adopted for England a 3 tier (1-3) system for CV seriousness and responses by region. Scotland cogitated for 2 weeks after that. Its legislators came up with a 5-tier system (0-4) where tiers 1,2 and 3 seem a lot like England’s, but 0 is a lighter touch than England’s 1, and 5 is more like Wales’ total lockdown. There would be considerable merit in all nations adopting a similar system. That seems to have carried little weight. One can only wonder why there had to be a difference. 

SCOTLAND

Scotland is a special threat to destroying the Union. The only Smaller Nation with a nationalist party, SNP, majority. Its raison d’etre is evident from the name: independence. Perhaps few would disagree that, before CV, decision-making by the SNP, led by Nicola Sturgeon, is all directed to the pursuit of an independent Scotland. The SNP, and particularly, Nicola Sturgeon, exhibit a special dislike of the English rulers in Westminster, laying all ills at their door, Boris Johnson being especially disliked. The drive for another referendum was given, in SNP’s eyes, extra momentum by the Brexit vote, where a majority of Scots voted Remain. And a further boost by Brexit implementation in 2020. Westminster is represented as forcing Scotland out of the EU against its will and interests. Since election, Boris Johnson is adamant UKGOV will not consent to a second referendum on independence. Then along comes CV. As recorded in the FT article, Nicola Sturgeon and her cabinet assert that the issue of independence has played no part in their approach to the pandemic and their decisions on how to deal with it, and that protecting public health is the only consideration. Unity with Westminster has not been a notable feature, but then which side should bear the blame for that? Perhaps both?

Nicola Sturgeon’s communication on CV has been better received than UKGOV’s generally. The SNP press briefings tend to precede UKGOV’s. Their strategy on CV normally resembles UKGOV’s but often with elements of divergence. The personal ratings of Nicola Sturgeon have been favourable for her handling of the pandemic, but her recent breaking of her promise to keep her circuit breaker lockdown to 16 days may see her halo slip. With a strong focus on UKGOV’s perceived failings regarding CV, recent polls suggest that another referendum on independence now would see a majority in favour in Scotland. Of course, in the event of a vote, lots more arguments come into play, but if the emotional movement has been made, rational argument may carry less weight. The UK may argue for example that Scottish businesses survived CV because of UKGOV subsidies, but accounting arguments will not likely sway emotion. CV is probably creating greater pressure for a referendum and rendering a break-up of the UK more likely. If the relationship between the UK and the EU after 2020 is not successful, i.e. Brexit is seen to cost too much, that will add greater pressure.

INTRA UK NATIONAL RELATIONSHIPS UNDER PRESSURE

Has the UK Government ever really appreciated the full implications of Smaller Nations having the powers they do? Perhaps not as their autonomy has barely impinged on UKGOV decision-making regarding normal business. But concerning CV the Smaller Nations have had to take responsibility for the health of their populace on a daily basis in the public eye. Their performance in the past on health, even if not great as it is not in Wales and Scotland, has been a statistic but not the subject of daily assessment and publicity. The Smaller Nations have expressed dissatisfaction with the level of consultation by Westminster, with the level and consistency of communication and response times to their concerns, and with the availability of Boris Johnson. In CV times, the relationship between the nations has to be a daily effort, but perhaps central UKGOV is unable to manage the attention required to satisfy need. Unsurprising maybe given the multiple demands of every sector of the UK aimed at the Westminster centre. How could it cope? It points to a structural issue on the central arms around approach to delivering solutions, rather than devolving responsibility.

When the Welsh Government wants tight lockdowns and travel bans across borders, but Boris Johnson is applying guidelines and trusting citizens to voluntarily comply, it is easy for the Smaller Nation to suggest a lack of concern in Westminster. What works in Wales may not work across England. Mark Drakeford, Welsh first minister, suggests that UKGOV is not sufficiently caring. But the reality is that measures now to combat CV only work if citizens adopt them: it is simply not reality that the police across the UK can enforce compliance. In Wales, the police may well have been able to control compliance through persuasion and firmness. But that is a very different proposition from the 50 million people across England. The idiosyncratic lockdown in Wales, a short sharp shock for only 17 days it is promised, takes restriction minutiae to a new level: while people can go to a supermarket for food, they cannot buy non-essentials such as a coat or a pair of socks, in the same place – where is the health science behind that? Nicola Sturgeon implemented her circuit-beaker lockdown in Scotland, promised for only 16 days, but, as it did not succeed sufficiently in slowing the virus, two weeks later she extended it; in addition she changed the system to the 5 tier one mentioned earlier: those parts of Scotland, such as Edinburgh and Glasgow, who were promised release, may find themselves in prolonged tough measures. This could affect her popularity, with doubt cast after all on her handling of the pandemic.

Northern Ireland too has imposed its own lockdown for the entire nation, again to some extent following UKGOV, but with some major differences, such as school closures. And when Smaller Nations adopt more stringent and more costly regional measures, a burden lands across the UK as the money is centrally managed.

Whenever there is divergence, there is debate around why other parts of the UK do not follow suit. Understandable but the debates themselves are politicised of course. That is not helping national unity.

THE MAYORS AND OTHER REGIONAL PRESSURES

The success of UKGOV restrictions and remedies to tackle CV has always depended on having the buy-in of the populace, their willingness to comply. That willingness is the greater when the reasons for measures are understood, and there is evidence for their efficacy, and they seem to be fair. The most recent policy of local lockdowns to counter virus surges, and the 3 tier system means that different areas are receiving different treatments, and the adverse effect and the effectiveness of them varies : an  area big on hospitality may be financially hit worse than an area which is not: a University town has a different dynamic to a non-university town. Is meeting in a bar after 10pm proven to spread CV? Many think not. City mayors, where relevant, local MPs and councillors naturally question the appropriateness of damaging restrictions and, if good evidence of efficacy is not forthcoming, see no justification for them. They are flexing their muscles against UKGOV proposals in some cases. Where support packages are reasonable there will be less official resistance but that does not guarantee local people will comply. 

And no UKGOV support package is ever enough: it is easy for any third party who wishes to discredit UKGOV to find examples where a person is not bailed out sufficiently, or at least who can be portrayed as such. With power at the local level widely dispersed, the amount of effort to get official buy-in to local measures against CV is multiplied. It appears too that local lockdowns are not in some cases seriously reducing the virus infections – for example Leicester has been under measures for months but the virus today is producing a high rate of cases still. Hard to explain, but maybe the simple reason is people there are not as compliant as they once were, and that could be because they are mentally worn down by the strain and feel it is better to risk infection, which hardly affects anyone who is not ancient and does not have comorbid conditions.

Test and trace, an important tool some say to control CV, has been beset by implementation problems. The reasons for the problems are seemingly administrative incompetence by those running it, and UKGOV is frustrated by it. Quicker, more simple tests with immediate results should help. But its ineffectiveness will inevitably continue if, as is reported, it is true that only 20% or so of those told to self-isolate actually do so. The UKGOV response to up the penalties for breach is rather unimaginative, as a bigger stick rarely wins approval from those being subjugated by the rulers. Maybe decentralising decisions and devolving to local people more responsibility for decision-making on measures and implementation, factoring in local pressures and demographics and concerns, will produce more local compliance. 

IS DIVISION DEFEATING COPERATION AND UNITY?

The pandemic and different approaches to restrictions and remedies have shone a spotlight first on the dispersal of powers among the Smaller Nations and the potential that further devolution has for further dividing the UK and strengthening the feeling of them (Westminster) and us (regional locals); and second, in England, on the inability of centralised governance to meet varied local needs. Perhaps a good look is needed at the structures and institutions whereby services are delivered, with more responsibility and accountability being pushed outwards. UKGOV has promised major change and improvements at the civil service level, which looks much needed. Whether it is capable of persuading turkeys to vote for Christmas is another matter. What is obvious is that with apparently about 430,000 civil servants, and many tens of thousands of other outsourced people, central management needs to change to get the best value out of these resources.

The fact that this Conservative Government was so strongly supported by the Northern vote and Labour’s desire and need to win them back, creates an undesirable politicised backdrop to the fight to do the right things to defeat CV in Northern areas where the virus has been recently so prevalent. Local opponents of UKGOV see the chance to discredit it, deriding the commitment to “level up” as fake and insincere. There are open allegations of favouring the South and London in particular – why UKGOV would favour London for political gain is hard to fathom, as the big majority of voters there are Labour. UKGOV , rather than engaging in endless debate on such allegations, will perhaps take the view that it is better to ride out the hate being fomented against it for now, until CV is under control and the positive sunny uplands, which a vaccine will give  focus to, are real. UKGOV will in any event maintain its Northern following if in fact it delivers on levelling up, for which it will much depend on the civil service it seeks to revamp.

It is so sad that across the nations of the UK and within the regions of England, politics has become such a divisive game. That perhaps is the legacy of the venom and polarisation generated by intolerant extremists during the Brexit years, 2016-2020. Once Brexit became reality early this year, and the arguments ceased to rage as the people had decided, it should have been the case that all political parties and influencers focused on restoration of unity, to cooperate in the best interests of the UK to prosper in the new world. That ideal has been blown apart by behaviour and opportunism during the pandemic, which rather should have created even greater unity of purpose against a common enemy.

Sadly too, the politics of hate still underpin the approach of some politicians, as witnessed this last week when the abuse of “Tory scum” was levelled in the House of Commons against a Conservative MP in a perhaps overheated debate. The abuser was Keir Starmer’s deputy leader, Angela Rayner. Despite her subsequent apology, the fact she thinks of people who hold certain views as scum is an underlying cancer. It will be very worrying if a number of politicians or influencers, and people in the media, feel the same about people who disagree with them. Wokeness indicates that may be the case. If and for so long as such disdain and spite towards fellow Britons prevails among so called leaders of any of the UK nations, one fears whether the best interests of the country can ever be agreed upon, let alone measures to serve them getting implemented.

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