The Guardian view on the future of the Union: Britain faces breakup | Editorial

3 years ago 984

The Covid year has intensified potentially terminal strains within the UK’s four-nation union. When Boris Johnson began to grapple with the seriousness of the outbreak, the impact on the union was probably low on his list of concerns. But, as 2021 beckons, Mr Johnson’s approach to Covid has become a catalyst of the possible breakup of the United Kingdom. Covid’s most lasting political legacy in these islands may be that, in its aftermath, the UK will no longer exist.

When the pandemic began, Mr Johnson seemed to assume that he was acting for the whole of the UK. He gradually discovered that, as far as Covid was concerned, this was untrue. In practice, he was the prime minister only of England. Health policy had been devolved since 1919 in Scotland, and has been under the control of devolved administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland since Tony Blair’s era. And since all three devolved nations and most English cities were led by non-Conservative politicians with their own views of how to deal with Covid in their areas, and with no love for Mr Johnson’s politics in most cases, coronavirus decision-making has struggled to reach a consensus, to the general detriment.

Mr Johnson bears heavy responsibility for this. But a second reason was that Scotland’s nationalist government, which wants to break up the UK, brilliantly seized an opportunity to emphasise its control of Covid policy. The Scottish National party first minister, Nicola Sturgeon, began regular Covid briefings on 20 March. She has since done more than 150 of them. Her briefings have mostly been models of factual accuracy, sensible advice and caution. The contrast with Mr Johnson’s intermittent and sometimes hyperbolic and error-strewn briefings has been in every way to Ms Sturgeon’s political advantage. Last month, an Ipsos Mori poll found that Ms Sturgeon had a net approval rating of plus 61 among Scots for her handling of the pandemic, while Mr Johnson had a net rating of minus 43. There has been majority support in Scotland for breaking away from the UK in 17 successive opinion polls.

Distinctive paths

The combination of Ms Sturgeon’s high profile and the realities of health policy devolution has had consequences in Wales and Northern Ireland, and even at English local level too. Mark Drakeford has not attempted to emulate his Scottish counterpart’s daily control of the media message. But the Welsh first minister has also followed his own distinctive path, taking some radically different and more cautious decisions, and acquiring in the course of the pandemic a higher public profile, in and outside Wales, than his predecessors. Northern Ireland’s power-sharing means its first minister, Arlene Foster of the Democratic Unionist party, has to share a platform with her opponent, Sinn Féin’s Michelle O’Neill, and is therefore unable to achieve a similar ascendancy. Nevertheless, Northern Ireland, like Wales and Scotland, has at times very publicly diverged from English measures. Mr Johnson’s lazy libertarianism and shameful lateness to act have few echoes outside England.

Covid could now be the straw that breaks the union’s back, especially in Scotland. But Covid policy is not the main reason why the future of the union is now so uncertain. Many other factors lie behind this crisis. The most important is simply the sustained ascendancy of the SNP in Scotland. If the party wins a fourth successive Holyrood victory in May and claims a mandate for a new independence referendum, it would send the union’s stress level into the critical zone. If Scotland eventually broke away, there would be major consequences in Northern Ireland, and for the relationship between Wales and England.

Brexit has played a pivotal role in creating this volatile mix. The vote in 2016 to leave the European Union was an English and Welsh vote. Neither Scotland nor Northern Ireland voted to leave. Scotland, in particular, voted decisively to remain. Yet after 2016, neither Theresa May nor Mr Johnson paid enough attention to easing the pain for Scotland. UK brinkmanship in this year’s trade talks with the EU has made an already large gap between the UK and Scotland even wider. The EU27’s unity during the talks contrasted with the UK4’s internal disunity. Brexit’s impact in Northern Ireland has also been profound, resulting in a deepened close economic relationship with the Irish Republic, and thus the EU single market, while Ms Foster and Ms O’Neill pull in opposing directions over the link with Britain.

Centralist unionism

When Mr Johnson became prime minister in 2019, he gave himself the title of “minister for the union”. There has been zero evidence in his handling of Brexit that he takes this to mean the adoption of a more emollient approach. Instead, Mr Johnson’s unionism has proved more centralist and less pragmatic than the unionism of his two Tory predecessors, David Cameron and Mrs May. To Mr Johnson, the Brexit slogan of “take back control” translates into a project that aims to rebuild a Westminster-centred UK sovereignty, not, as Keir Starmer advocated last week, a policy of pushing more powers out and down from Westminster to the UK nations or to English regions and cities.

Mr Johnson’s approach is creating a crash waiting to happen. He made his real views startlingly clear when he told a private meeting of the “blue wall” Conservative MPs in November that devolution had been “a disaster north of the border” and that the 1997 devolution settlement was Tony Blair’s “biggest mistake”. Coming six months before such important Holyrood elections, this was an incendiary thing to say, as well as a self-inflicted wound for the Tories and a Christmas gift to the SNP. Mr Johnson’s comments about a devolution disaster cannot be laughed away as an idiosyncratic Johnsonian accident. The comments expressed what he really thinks.

The early months of 2021 will continue to be dominated by Covid. But the imminent existential crisis for the union should not be overlooked. Mr Johnson appears confident that he can successfully refuse to authorise a second referendum in the face of a demand for one from Ms Sturgeon. But there may not be as much appetite for undemocratic obduracy as he supposes.

If Mr Johnson was a different kind of politician, he would listen to what Mr Starmer said last week about renewing the union, or what Gordon Brown has been saying about rebuilding consent through citizens’ assemblies with a wide remit to reimagine Britain’s constitutional arrangements. A lot of politicians from all parties, including the Conservatives, are open to this. The big question is whether the voters of Scotland are open to it too. But there is little time left. The chance of reform may have sailed with Brexit. The task of offering Scots an alternative union that they can believe in next May is already down to the wire.

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