The UK’s coronavirus crisis has reignited one of the country’s most bitter political debates: Can the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland survive as a union of four nations?
On Sunday night, Prime Minister Boris Johnson addressed the country from 10 Downing Street in a recorded message, announcing his plan for the UK to emerge from lockdown.
He called on millions of people to return to work, and gave a rough outline of when schools and shops might reopen over the comings months. He also shifted his government’s core message from the simple “Stay Home, Protect the NHS, Save Lives” to the more ambiguous “Stay Alert, Control the Virus, Save Lives.”
But before Johnson’s message was even broadcast, Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon delivered her own address. In doing so, she revealed the uncomfortable reality that Johnson has little practical power over the people living in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
Of Johnson’s roadmap, Sturgeon said the Scottish government had “not yet seen the full detail of the plan, so it’s not possible for us to simply adopt it for Scotland,” and that she had asked Downing Street “not to deploy their ‘Stay Alert’ advertising campaign in Scotland.” The message there was still clearly to “stay home.”
It was, of course, her right to do so. “For around 20 years, the government of the UK has only really been the government of England in huge areas of policy,” says John Denham, a former Labour lawmaker and professorial fellow on English identity at the University of Southampton.
Since the late 1990s, Westminster has ceded much power to legislative bodies in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, allowing devolved governments to set domestic policy in areas such as health and education.
So it is little surprise that Sturgeon was confused when Johnson began talking about the opening of schools, among other things, on Sunday night. “Discussing schools, for example, he used year group terms that don’t even make sense in Scotland. It wasn’t at all clear in the statement what guidance applied to the whole UK and what applied to England specifically,” says Nicola McEwen, professor of territorial politics at the University of Edinburgh.
Sources inside Downing Street have told CNN that Johnson himself thought the message was confusing. “Filming was a total nightmare. He was stopping and starting, asking to change bits, complaining about the length, saying it was all too complex,” said one government source who was not permitted to speak on the record.
While this might give little comfort to those in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, who too often feel like an afterthought, it has raised important questions about how much longer the current arrangement can continue — and also how desirable it is. All three devolved administrations have deviated from Westminster in their handling of this crisis, despite the perception that Johnson and Downing Street has been driving the coronavirus response for the entire UK.
The most striking example of this came on Wednesday morning, as images flooded social media of commuters packed into London’s transport network, as large parts of England returned to work. In stark contrast, the other three nations, which are advising people to stay home, are keeping their economies in stricter lockdown. In England, you can now meet one other person outside your household in public — that’s not something you can do anywhere else in the UK.
Denham thinks that the pandemic has been a wake up call for how different the four nations have become. “In relative terms, England has a much weaker state than the other three and has a far more centralized center of power. Coronavirus has revealed that on some key issues the other nations cannot and do not want to work with England and the way in which it is governed.”
McEwen agrees that the pandemic has shone a light on the asymmetrical political power in the UK, which had taken a battering over the past four years of the country’s Brexit debate.
“The strained relationships between the UK government and the devolved governments over the past few years have been exacerbated by the fact that the four nations are now run by different political parties who have different ideologies and different ideas about the UK’s future.”
All this creates a political headache for Johnson, who as well as being Prime Minister, is also leader of what is officially still the Conservative and Unionist party. Shortly after entering Downing Street last year, Johnson appointed himself Minister for the Union, in a sign of his commitment to strengthening the ties between the four nations, after the damage Brexit had done.
Senior Conservative unionists told CNN that their perception is that Johnson did this to keep his own party happy, rather than out of a sincere desire to protect the union. Their concern isn’t that he actively wants to see an end of the union, but that the union he wants to preserve is one with England at the center of it, run from London.
The problem is, this view of the union isn’t particularly popular in any corner of the UK outside of the capital. “English voters, especially, leave voters, tend to prioritize their English identity and want English interests put ahead of the Union,” says Denham. “It’s not that they are anti-union, it’s that their idea of Britishness is as an extension of Englishness and English interests. If the two come into conflict then they prioritize English interests.”
This English-centric view of the union understandably grates elsewhere in the UK. “There is a sense in Wales that Westminster doesn’t understand or particularly respect devolution,” says Roger Awan-Scully, Professor of Politics at Cardiff University and chair of the Political Studies Association. “When it comes down to it, they see devolved governments as a necessary irritation. Coronavirus has definitely bought some of this into sharper focus.”
Northern Ireland again a ‘place between’
The union question is arguably most complicated in Northern Ireland. The national assembly at Stormont relies on a power-sharing agreement between unionists and republicans. The island of Ireland’s recent history means that virtually no issue can hit Stormont without becoming politicized.
Coronavirus has presented republicans with an opportunity to argue that an all-Ireland approach would be preferable to Northern Ireland keeping in lockstep with Britain. “When you think of it from the nationalist point of view, Ireland is one island. We can shut down the external borders and handle this as one island. It makes total sense to them,” says Katy Hayward from Queen’s University Belfast.
However, unionists would point to the importance of UK government financial support during the crisis. Hayward notes. “The five-party executive has had to look in two directions at once, to manage the fact that Northern Ireland is very much a ‘place between.’”
While no one believes that the Covid-19 pandemic will bring about the death of the union, Johnson’s handling of the crisis has exacerbated divisions between its four nations at a time when the UK was already in the middle of an existential crisis over Brexit.
“The English-centric idea of union was fostered as part of the imperial Britain,” says Denham. “The truth is that old idea of the union lost its sense of purpose decades ago. And in that time, the other parts of the union asserted their identity (or in Northern Ireland, identities). If government really wants the union to survive, it has to be a partnership between all the nations.”
The question is, are the English, who make up over 80% of the United Kingdom, really bothered enough about saving the union to do so?