Scottish Conservatives put spotlight on Covid-19’s constitutional implications

Over the past month, this column has covered the ongoing story of how the coronavirus crisis is exposing once again the shortcomings in Britain’s balkanised constitutional architecture.

So far this story has focused more on Wales – although the problems with priority supermarket delivery have been replicated in Scotland – but this week saw the Scottish Conservatives also starting to focus on it.

Andrew Bowie has led the charge with a blog post, picked up by the Scotsman, setting out why the Government’s response to Covid-19 has demonstrated the utility of the Union. He also attacked the devocrats’ insistence on putting their own importance ahead of effective action:

“At times I fear, there was too much focus on put on demonstrating its independence when, in actual fact, adopting a whole UK position, delegating temporary authority to Westminster on certain issues, may have been the wiser course.”

Unfortunately the West Aberdeenshire and Kinkardine MP, a known devosceptic, does pull his punches to the extent that he pins the blame fully on Scottish Government decision-makers rather than acknowledging the roots of the problem in the very structure of devolution – but this is still progress. He has also written on this in the Times.

Meanwhile MSPs Murdo Fraser and Adam Tomkins have both taken to Twitter to attack the SNP’s muddled stance on UK support – it has called it to be offered on a needs basis, despite this contradicting the Barnett Formula.

The Scottish Government has come under sustained criticism for failing to offer businesses the level of support available in England. Fraser has penned a piece for the Scotsman on the subject, and the Tories are taking at least some of the credit for recent u-turns.

In an effort to deflect from this unflattering picture, the SNP tried to spin a story about firms being ordered to divert vital PPE equipment away from Scotland and towards England. This was categorically denied by the Government, and the Nationalist health minister has since conceded that it wasn’t happening – although that hasn’t stopped grassroots nationalists in both Scotland and Wales spreading it.

Welsh Labour doubles down on call for ‘distinct response’

Speaking of Wales, the past few weeks have clearly got the local nationalists rattled. Welsh Labour members have attacked the Cardiff Bay administration for its policy being “largely in lock-step with the UK Government”.

This is despite the fact that, as detailed in recent columns, some of the main stories to have come out of rails in recent weeks have been woeful delays in implementing priority shopping delivery and community volunteering schemes as a direct result of devocrats’ insistence on doing things separately.

A letter from the grassroots group noted that going along with British policy would “risk raising questions about the value of devolution”, although in truth the shortcomings of the Welsh Government’s response are doing that already.

Just this week it emerged that it has only reached a shocking 14 per cent of the target it set itself of conducting 5,000 tests a day by mid-April. Once again, devolutionary nationalism’s insistence on north-south solutions appears to be part of the problem: the BBC notes that Vaughan Gething, the health minister, has “appeared to blame councils for not referring workers for tests at Cardiff’s new drive-through facility.”

But Cardiff is several hours’ drive from some parts of north Wales. Betty Williams, a former Labour MP whose husband has died of Covid-19, has launched a powerful attack on this thinking in Wales Online, which reports her saying that “she could also not understand why coronavirus swabs were driven by taxi nearly 200 miles from north Wales to a laboratory in Cardiff for testing when Liverpool was much closer.”

Contrary to the dogma of Welsh Labour Grassroots, it appears to be the bull-headed insistence on a Welsh approach which will “risk the well-being and lives of potentially tens of thousands of people.”

Unfortunately, Mark Drakeford chose instead to indulge them rather than concede this. Little wonder the latest polls show Tory support ‘skyrocketing’.

Row in Northern Ireland over military support

If there’s nationalist opposition to be mounted to an effective pan-British response to coronavirus, it was always unlikely Northern Ireland would avoid it, and there it has manifested as a row over whether or not the Army should be deployed to support public health operations in the Province.

Robin Swann, the Ulster Unionist health minister, has sought its support – only to be attacked by Sinn Fein for not getting their sign-off. This despite the fact that Michelle O’Neill, republicans’ Northern Irish leader, was actually the last Stormont minister to request Armed Forces support during heavy snows in 2013.

However, in this instance Sinn Fein are isolated objectors, with the News Letter reporting that representatives of the DUP, SDLP, and Alliance Party have all welcomed the move.

In related news which will be more to their liking, Fine Gael and Fianna Fail are apparently calling for the creation of an ‘island unit’ to combat Covid-19.