Drakeford and Sturgeon look to turn Covid-19 into hard borders

Conservative MPs and MSs have hit out at Mark Drakeford, the First Minister of Wales, after he proposed to bar entry to Wales for people from Covid-19 ‘hot spots’ in other parts of the United Kingdom.

According to the Daily Mail, the Labour politician has been accused of obsessing over ‘banning the English’. Earlier in the pandemic, his administration was criticised after inspiring this Anglophobic headline on the Western Mail.

His threats, a cue which has naturally been immediately taken up by Nicola Sturgeon, risk introducing ‘hard borders’ between not just the mainland and Northern Ireland (as a result of the Government’s capitulation on the Protocol) but on the mainland too.

It is not clear that such a move is within the Welsh Government’s competence. Policing, for example, is not devolved, so Drakeford could not instruct officers to set up border checkpoints or anything like that. But suggestions that they could instead rely on people reporting ‘non-locals’ gives an indicator of just how nasty such a rule could be to enforce.

Of course, some internal movement restrictions are not per se an illegitimate response to a pandemic. But it would be very naive for unionists not to place these proposals in their broader context, namely that they are each being proposed by nationalist politicians (one small-n, one big-N) with no interest in the cohesion of the United Kingdom and every motive to shore up their own popularity at the expense of ‘Westminster’.

As Matt Kilcoyne points out, the Government has not proposed any reciprocal travel bans for Welsh or Scots citizens who wish to visit England, nor do some politicians appear to have thought through the impact that hardening Britain’s internal borders will have on people used to living across them.

Indeed, regulating cross-border movement is something which even in a federal system – which the UK rightly is not – feels like it ought to be reserved to the national government. Ministers have already demonstrated, via the Internal Market Bill, that they are not afraid to tread on devolved toes when the integrity of the Union is at stake. They should defend the British free-movement territory (a phrase it feels absurd to need) with equal vigour.

Salmond quagmire deepens for Sturgeon as independence holds up

A couple of weeks ago, this column covered the remarkable – and for unionists, deeply frustrating – spectacle of the Scottish Government’s ongoing defiance of political gravity.

Despite being in office for 13 years – as long as New Labour – the SNP are currently set to win a second overall majority in an electoral system which was designed to prevent such an outcome. The First Minister continues to enjoy strong public esteem, and independence – which for years languished behind its main party in popular support – is now posting record poll results.

Yet as I set out, time really is starting to catch up with the Nationalists. The party’s legendary, phalanx-like discipline is breaking down as different factions start taking lumps out of each other. The Scottish Government is neither governing well nor brimming over with new ideas. And Sturgeon is embroiled in a bitter battle with Alex Salmond which could, even according to sympathetic commentators such as Kenny Farquharson, lead to her resignation.

It’s as if we can suddenly see the SNP’s version of the picture of Dorian Grey, but cannot get them to meet its gaze and so break the spell granting the Scottish Government its unnatural political life.

This week, the Herald reports that MSPs investigating the Salmond fiasco raised the question of whether or not the First Minister misled the Scottish Parliament about a key meeting where she was first informed about the allegations against him, and the Nationalists ended up in a war of words with the Scouts after they defied the charity’s instructions not to use a uniformed scout leader in a party political broadcast.

It may be that the only thing that will hold the SNP together over the medium term is the discipline imposed by a second independence referendum – which is all the better reason for Boris Johnson to be true to his word and not grant one. But if he does intend to stay the course (and privately some MPs are sceptical about this) he and Michael Gove need to develop their argument beyond the rote repetition of ‘once in a generation’. They should start here.