As Boris Johnson finished his televised address on Sunday evening, many viewers were confused by what he had just said. One thing about his message, though, had been strikingly clear. To the surprise of many of those watching, and perhaps even to Johnson himself, it turned out that the coronavirus outbreak has changed the prime minister of the United Kingdom into the prime minister of England.
Over the past two months we have all become familiar with the fact that Covid-19 wreaks its most powerful effects on those individuals who are said to suffer from “serious underlying conditions”. What is only just becoming clear is that the virus can have a similarly destructive effect on nation states and societies which suffer from their own serious underlying conditions too.
In the June issue of the Atlantic, the writer George Packer delivers a searing polemic in these terms against the United States’ response to the pandemic. “Chronic ills – a corrupt political class, a sclerotic bureaucracy, a heartless economy, a divided and distracted public – had gone untreated for years. We had learned to live, uncomfortably, with the symptoms,” he writes. Britain shares some of America’s untreated symptoms too, though fortunately not all of them. But it also has plenty of untreated symptoms all of its own, in particular those associated with the weakening of the British state, the tolerance of widening inequality, the delusions of Brexit, and the refusal to see Donald Trump’s America for the threat that it is.
One of these underlying conditions is the broken governance of the United Kingdom. A few of us have been banging on about this for a long time now. Our concerns are routinely waved away by those who claim to be more worldly wise as not being mainstream issues, or ones that do not come up on the doorstep. Even when Scotland has been run for 13 years by a party whose entire purpose is to break up the UK, we are still often met with a shrug of the shoulders. This is as true on the right, where there is too often an indifference to anything that is not English, and on the left, which is too often soft in the head about any nationalism except the English variety, which it detests.
When health policy was devolved in 1999, few anticipated an effect like the one that became clear this week, as Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland all decided to maintain the lockdown strategy that Johnson started to loosen in England. As long as differences in health policy were confined – as they have been for the past 20 or so years – to approaches to issues such as spending, prescription charges and social care, the differences between the nations, although significant, remained politically manageable at the UK level.
But when, as this week, it became effectively illegal for English people to cross the Scottish or Welsh borders to do what they are now permitted – wrongly, in my view – to do in England a significant political line has been crossed. It would be interesting to see if historians can identify the last time that English people were barred from Scotland or Wales. But we must be talking centuries. In such circumstances, it is harder than ever to know what “one nation” Conservatism now means. Which nation? And what United Kingdom?
The loosening of the UK’s bonds is a process. The context is constantly evolving. The dynamics of the relationship between England on the one hand, and Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland on the other – one might even include the Irish Republic at this point – are different in each case. There are push factors, like the general overcentralisation of an often deeply inefficient British state, and pull factors, the most effective of which is the SNP’s determination to break up Britain.
Covid-19 inserted itself into this argument in unforeseen ways. Early on, the pandemic worked as a centripetal factor. When the UK government, with its deep pockets, placed itself firmly behind the self-interest of businesses and workers across the UK, it provided a potent reminder of the protective reach of the British state. But as the lifting of the lockdown loomed, the pandemic’s effect has become increasingly centrifugal. Johnson’s wish, partly under pressure from the Tory party’s right wing, to encourage renewed economic activity in spite of the continuing pandemic, has encouraged the devolved nations to move more cautiously and to differentiate themselves more sharply from Johnson and from England. But it is not all Johnson’s fault.
The result is a curious and still only tentative UK form of what Lenin once called “dual power”. But it is growing and it is significant. It became much more obvious with this week’s divergences on lifting the lockdown. It has nevertheless been there all along, germinating throughout the last two months, as first Scotland and then Wales sought small ways of asserting their power to act differently in response to the common Covid-19 threat, with Northern Ireland’s power-sharing authority following eventually in their wake.
It does not yet add up to a unilateral declaration of independence from Britain. It may indeed have reached its zenith this week, because the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish authorities will eventually lift their lockdowns in ways that bring them closer to England’s more permissive approach. Note also that Nicola Sturgeon faces increasing challenges to her authority from other nationalist opponents and that her record in handling the pandemic is far from spotless either.
Nevertheless, Covid-19 is proving to be a wake-up call about serious defects in the UK’s constitutional order and its sense of itself that it would be reckless to ignore. Things could get more confrontational, not less. The case for a more truly federalised UK, with equal degrees of local self-government and double sovereignties, becomes ever stronger. We do not live in the failed state that Packer sees in America. But we live in a failing one, and we would be fools to ignore it.
• Martin Kettle is a Guardian columnist