The government’s woefully inadequate handling of the pandemic is expanding the wedge between the nations of the union, argues Dr Stuart Cartland
Talk of devolution may seem like a bit of blast from the past in terms of British politics however what we may be seeing is how the government’s mishandling of the Covid-19 pandemic has hastened the break-up of the UK. The Conservative government response to the pandemic has been largely lambasted for making the UK the fourth most badly affected nation per capita on Earth (whilst being the 5th wealthiest). Nevertheless, a side catastrophe has also been how Covid-19 has created a paradox of governance, legitimacy and reaction that ultimately will spell the end of the union, or at least a radically altered situation in the immediate aftermath of the pandemic.
On the one hand, simmering political division in relation to the ever-present topic of Brexit, the huge Tory landslide in the 2019 election and the growing calls, particularly from Scotland, to break free of a very much English-dominated Tory government, have been put on hold due to the overwhelming focus on combating the Coronavirus pandemic.
However, this has also deepened and widened political divisions within the UK. The further the pandemic continues it seems that the more discord and difference there is between the constituent nations to deal with. This has been entirely turbocharged by a Boris Johnson-led Tory government who has been criticised time and again for not adequately consulting or even listening to affected regions or nations within the UK.
The Tory government have either completely ignored national or regional concerns which have then led to nations and at times regions taking a different stance and policy towards the pandemic which has then further strained the governing relevance and legitimacy of a centralised and oft-seemingly incompetent UK government.
On the other hand, the UK government has tried to impose centralised policy to regions and nations that see either little need, relevance or coherent policy. The heady days of May 2020 when (on the surface) there seemed to be a sense of unified national response to the pandemic seems long gone now we have entered a second wave. Any trust and patience in the government has totally evaporated, even with many fellow Tories. Government direction is incoherent and a sense of ‘all in it together’ seems like a bad joke at best.
The response and handling of the pandemic, particularly by Boris Johnson, has clearly infuriated the devolved governments particularly in recent times who have actively sought to create and implement a response they feel is appropriate and one which is largely supported by their constituent populations.
Clearly the intent was not for the government to hasten the break-up of the UK but inadvertently that is exactly what has happened. Recent polling suggests 58% support in Scotland for independence, well up from 2019. There is overwhelming support in Wales for the Welsh government’s demand to Boris Johnson to limit entry to Wales from Covid hotspots. Since the Tories declined, the Welsh government has taken its own action to implement. Coronavirus has even spurred the long-dormant Northern Irish assembly into action and to take a course separate and distinct from the rest of the UK.
Then there is the seemingly perennial topic of Brexit. Again, the coronavirus pandemic has pushed this to the political background but as we approach the deadline for the formal UK exit from the EU in December, handling of the topic based along strategies of arrogance, denial and wishful thinking have only enflamed the existing discontent from the constituent nations of the UK. The coronavirus pandemic has sharpened the focus for a need of political and economic stability and international cooperation – the exact opposite direction that the UK government is heading in
A global pandemic need not hasten the break-up of a fragile nation-state; there is little evidence that has been the case in either Spain, or Belgium for instance. however when led by an arrogant, incompetent leader who has little-to no public trust and operates in a manner that further isolates a centralised government that is widely viewed as operating in a confusing and incoherent manner the divisions that were already there and simmering away have quickly come to the fore and at some time must be recognised.
Dr Stuart Cartland is a teaching fellow at the University of Sussex and completed his doctoral thesis on discourse of Englishness in the contemporary era.
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