Whereas Brexit didn’t give the Scottish Nationalists the lift-off they were expecting, the Covid-19 pandemic really does appear to be putting the post-1998 constitutional order under even greater strain.
This became apparent over the summer with the breakdown of the Government’s efforts to maintain a ‘four-nation’ response to tackling coronavirus, resulting in a confusing spread of different rules across the United Kingdom and the spectre of internal movement restrictions between the Home Nations.
As a result, the true extent of devolution has become more apparent than ever and this seems to be hardening opinion on both sides. In Scotland, the Scottish Government continues to have a ‘good crisis’ – at least in PR terms – whilst in Wales devoscepticism has arrived as a noteworthy political force.
This week, however, Nicola Sturgeon seems to have changed tack again. The Scotsman reports that she has written to Boris Johnson to request “urgent four-nation talks” about how toughen lockdown. According to the paper:
“The topics highlighted by the First Minister include what further actions might be necessary, what support is required for affected sectors and what arrangements can be put in place to ensure that devolved administrations are not constrained in making what they judge to be essential public health decisions.”
Kenny Farquharson, writing in the Times, describes this approach as “alignment plus”. His explanation for the new approach is that the First Minister recognises that many Scots risk getting quite different information depending on whether, for example, they prefer Scottish or national radio and television stations. With public patience likely to start fraying as we head into another six months of restrictions, the less room for confusion there is the better.
Of course, it would be a little naïve not to look for possible mischief in any SNP overture to the Government, and one can see how this could make things tricky for Johnson. By urging the Prime Minister to adopt tougher restrictions, Sturgeon can once again appear ahead of the game to a solidly pro-lockdown public – which is doing her standing no harm in Scotland – whilst also sharpening the possible split between the Government and Conservative backbenchers, who are growing increasingly restive about how ministers are handling the imposition of economic and social restrictions.
If the Prime Minister does end up leaning into a more restrictive, four-nations approach, residents in England may end up facing some of the more draconian measures which are currently in force elsewhere. For example, Scotland has banned household visits (and Wales restricted them to ‘extended households’), whereas the Government currently still permits these subject to the ‘Rule of Six’ and appropriate social distancing restrictions.
Wales has also used the pandemic to start smuggling in somewhat bizarre public health nannying, such as a new ban on off-licences and supermarkets selling alcohol after 10pm. It will be very interesting to see whether or not that restriction is repealed once the Covid-19 crisis has passed.
Sturgeon also used her letter to call (inevitably) for more powers. The Scotsman says she “also highlighted that devolved administrations’ ability to take action is curtailed by a lack of financial levers to deliver economic support.” This demand is obviously in tension with the Government’s desire, embodied in the UK Internal Market Bill, to defend the coherence of the British common market and the broader constitutional settlement.