Over the past few weeks, this column has covered some of the ways in which divisions between the various governments of the United Kingdom have hindered the response to Covid-19.
In areas were the devolved administrations have insisted on going setting up parallel arrangements to those already established by Westminster, such as volunteering and priority food deliveries, there has been weeks of confusion, disappointment, and delay.
There has also been anger in some quarters at what is perceived as Nicola Sturgeon’s exploitation of access to meetings to steal the march on Government announcements. Yet for all that, the so-called ‘four nations’ approach on the core anti-coronavirus strategy has held up – so far.
Indeed, the First Minister has actually talked about why “it has been important as well as for the simplicity of messages to have as much consistency across the UK as possible”. This puts press speculation about her desire to ‘close the border’ between England and Wales, which seems to have been conjured up by one question from Andrew Marr, into perspective.
But as the conversation shifts towards the pathway out of lockdown, a new set of challenges presents itself. Whilst it might have been relatively straightforward to impose relatively uniform restrictions across the country, it may prove trickier to keep territorial game-playing out of lifting them.
For example, all of the devolved governments have started publishing their own distinct plans for easing lockdown, accompanied by predictable lines about their willingness to break from a UK-wide policy. Some of this is probably just standard devocrat boilerplate, but the Government can’t rule out the possibility that the usual devolutionary dynamic will start to re-assert itself once the immediate exigencies of the crisis have eased and we’re in the relatively sunnier territory of relaxing the restrictions.
Moreover, ministers’ authority for resisting a fragmented approach may be undermined by pressure for a regionally-variegated policy within England. Matt Hancock appeared to rule this out only a couple of days ago, following a very negative response from some of the metro mayors, but James Forsyth writes in the Spectator that a more locally-targeted lockdown system may accompany the Government’s “trace, track, and test” strategy for easing nationwide restrictions.
Regional variation is probably the most sensible strategy from a technical standpoint. But it creates problems. Maintaining support for lockdown is easier when everybody is affected. Given how obedience is already fraying at the edges – despite continuing strong polling support – it may prove difficult to keep cities or regions locked down whilst other parts of the country are visibly returning to something more closely resembling normal life.
In fact, it may be that properly local variations can be accommodated within an overall ‘one nation’/’four nations’ framework. As the Daily Telegraph reports of the Scottish Government’s plan:
“It says not only that Scotland may go it alone if needs must, but that Scotland itself may be subdivided when it comes to unrolling lockdown. Social distancing options will be tailored to “specific geographies and sectors, or parts of the rural economy”.”
This model, of genuinely local variation coupled with UK-wide coordination, has previously proven unpopular with devocrats in Edinburgh and Cardiff, who have tended to run centralising administrations which insist that policy solutions be ‘Scottish’ or ‘Welsh’, even if that doesn’t best fit the geographic reality of the problem (this is especially evident in Wales). Boris Johnson will have to be careful not to spook them into reverting to that instinct, especially those whose long-term political ambitions are not served by the United Kingdom being seen to work.
In Northern Ireland, meanwhile, he will also need to tread a careful line between appropriate coordination with the Republic and preventing the Covid-19 crisis being hijacked by Sinn Fein, especially when the awkward subject of the Northern Irish protocol is back in the news.
The Republicans previously tried to block the deployment of the Armed Forces to aid relief efforts (despite the move having SDLP and Alliance support). Strong cross-community support for the NHS may have made the republicans jumpy about another British institution getting any credit.