Has Covid-19 Highlighted Cracks in the Union?

In a week which has seen Scotland introduce its own, extended Covid-19 tier system; Wales resorting to a 17-day ‘firebreak’ lockdown; and vocal opposition from Andy Burnham, the Metro Mayor of Greater Manchester, to the Government’s tier 3 restrictions, I ask: are we really that united?

When Tony Blair enshrined the promise of Welsh and Scottish devolution into his 1997 landslide winning election manifesto I doubt he could have envisaged the diverging paths each nation would go on to take in their response to the Covid-19 pandemic. Likewise, when David Cameron endorsed the Mayoral city system, stating that it could “galvanise action”, I’m not sure he thought that Andy Burnham would go on to challenge the government directly for its perceived failings.

Nicola Sturgeon, the First Minister of Scotland, has largely been ahead of the curve in her response to the virus and has often led the way on a number of important issues. Masks in shops, the overturning of harsh exam results and then masks in schools were all first implemented in Scotland and then closely followed by England in a number of embarrassing U-turns for the government.

In Wales, too, an equally divergent path has been taken by Mark Drakeford who has opted for a national approach to Covid-19 restrictions throughout the pandemic, rejecting the government’s hyper-localised version. Coinciding with their ‘firebreak’ lockdown the Welsh government have also implemented travel ban from Covid hotpots to restrict an influx of people coming to spread the virus in more remote areas, a move branded “illegal” and something to expect from a “hard-left labour government”.

In Manchester the newly titled ‘King of the North’ has accused the government of lifting lockdown too soon and not providing ample financial support for tier 2 and tier 3 regions. In a public toing and froing, Andy Burnham and Boris Johnson butted heads over the available financial support for a region which has been under some form of heightened restriction since July.

There is little unity in London either. As a Labour Mayor it is perhaps expected that Sadiq Khan would face his fair share of flack from a Tory government and the pressure hasn’t relented despite the ongoing pandemic. With the London Mayoral election coming up in 2021 Boris Johnson is taking every opportunity to accuse Khan of bankrupting the TfL now that it requires a bail out to deal with the impacts of the pandemic.

Back in 2017, marking the 20 year anniversary of devolution, Tony Blair stated:  “I still feel basically that devolution has allowed us, as a UK, to keep together”. However, the mood is beginning to change. YesCymru – the campaign for an independent Wales – has seen a huge increase in support, with a YouGov poll showing that 32% of people asked would now vote for an independent Wales. Similarly, Scotland has seen support for independence rise to 58%. It is hard not to see this increase in support as a direct consequence of the government’s poor handling of Covid-19.

To make matters worse, and further amplify how out of touch this government really is, this week the Tories heavily defeated a Labour motion to extend free school meals to Easter 2021. As a result, Marcus Rashford, who effectively forced a U-turn on this issue in the summer, has managed to unite coffee shops, take-aways, restaurants and Tory councils in stepping up to the plate where the government has failed – a stinging indictment of this government’s so called levelling up agenda

For all its talk of uniting Britain under the common goal of defeating the coronavirus, this Government has done a pretty excellent job at alienating large parts of the union. Its likely that the damage has now been done. United by their lack of faith and trust in this government it’s hard to see how many areas of the UK – including Tory voters in former red wall seats – will be able to see past this shambles in the future.

The the actions of this government in the past couples of weeks has not only highlighted cracks in the union, but actively amplified their widening.

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