‘Four Nations’ approach to Covid-19 breaks down
At the end of April, this column suggested that it might prove extremely tricky to maintain a coordinated approach to lockdown across the United Kingdom as the exigencies of the crisis eased.
Following the Prime Minister’s announcement of a shift in strategy on Sunday, this has happened. Edinburgh, Cardiff, and Belfast have all disavowed the new ‘Stay Alert’ formulation. All claim the Boris Johnson failed to consult them on the change, although in his weekend statement he claimed he had.
Whatever the truth of it, the result has been a dramatic, eye-opening reminder of how far devolution has advanced. The de-alignment of lockdown rules is seeing ‘hard borders’ crop up not just in the Irish Sea (see below) but on the mainland too.
In Wales this has taken an ugly turn, with the Western Mail running an angry and explicitly anti-English message on its front page. The Scottish Nationalists have not been far behind, with one of their MPs calling for the border to be policed – despite senior officers explicitly disavowing the idea – and the Times reports that the party has not let the crisis slow its plotting for independence.
For devolution’s champions, such as Kenny Farquharson, this is the project’s coming-of-age moment: the day when politicians and voters realised the true extent to which the constitution has been transformed by two decades of ‘more powers’. (Of course, devolution’s opponents hope this is true.)
But it isn’t quite that simple: Mark Drakeford can talk piously about proceeding with ‘maximum caution’, but it’s the Treasury which controls the economic policies which make lockdown viable. The Treasury has so far guaranteed the future of furlough to Scottish ministers, but there is obvious potential for tension if devolution ends up meaning that devolved ministers can spend Treasury cash without any accountability for it.
Kawczynski clashes with colleagues over call for debate on abolishing the Welsh Parliament
Speaking of tension, Daniel Kawczynski set the cat amongst the pigeons this week when he suggested on Twitter that the fallout of the pandemic should spur a debate about the future of devolution in Wales. At the end of a statement on the Government’s plan to ease lockdown, the Shrewsbury MP said:
“However, one area which does need more attention is the adverse impact of the growing split between London and the devolved assemblies on border communities such as mine. This pandemic has really exposed how far devolution has gone towards picking apart our United Kingdom – it’s time for a rethink.”
This sparked a backlash from some Welsh colleagues, with Craig Williams writing a letter suggesting that this is not the time for such a debate, and describing the Assembly as “the fundamentals of Welsh democracy”.
But Kawczynski has apparently received quiet support from other Tory MPs, and has no intention of backing down. According to Bubble Wales, he’s been invited to address a Tory association in South Wales when lockdown is over.
Government confirms Johnson’s capitulation on an Irish Sea border
Johnson stood for the Conservative leadership on the position that no Prime Minister could possibly sign up to a deal which placed an EU border inside the United Kingdom.
Once he one he abandoned this position, but insisted that business could throw any extra paperwork “in the bin” and that there would be no disruption.
Now that has been abandoned too. After coming under increasing pressure from Brussels over its plans to honour the Irish Protocol, the Government has confirmed that there will now be border checks at three Northern Irish ports. In the event that UK ends up leaving the transition period without a high-alignment agreement, there is the serious prospect of this new border creating tangible barriers to trade within the United Kingdom.
With Covid-19 dominating the headlines this isn’t getting the attention it otherwise would, but it’s a reminder that the Prime Minister’s unionist problems aren’t confined to the mainland.
Starmer under pressure to expel pro-IRA activists
The Labour leader has come under pressure to take action after a group of activists posted a tribute to Bobby Sands, the Provisional IRA terrorist who died whilst on hunger strike in 1981.
Victims of the troubles have written to Sir Keir to demand an investigation into London Young Labour, which described Sands as a “prisoner of war” and added that: “We continue to fight for an end to imperialism for a free and united Ireland.”