The Speaker
Saturday, 25 May 2024 – 22:08

Covid-19’s latest crisis? The Union

The fallout of the Coronavirus pandemic is immeasurable, costing hundreds of thousands of lives, trillions of pounds in economic turmoil and an unprecedented strain on healthcare professionals. But it may also count the Union amongst its casualties, with the British government’s Coronavirus response straining the union and threatening to break it apart.

National crises are typically a moment of national unity. Think of the grand coalition government of the Great Depression through until the Second World War, or Margaret Thatcher’s historically high approval rating following the Falklands War.

Former Prime Minister Gordon Brown touted the pandemic as an opportunity for nations to come together in fighting this disease, creating a new era of foreign relations; this has not only failed to develop, but national governments themselves are weakening.

In Italy, a growing movement within regions such as Lombardi and Venezia is calling for greater autonomy, with regional governments forging their own paths in combatting the virus. These regions are already calling for more fiscal and healthcare policy autonomy in the wake of the crisis, enabling them to be more effective in dealing with future crises.

The same has been seen in the United States, with President Donald Trump passing the responsibility for Coronavirus response onto the states; the result being a crosshatched response that has contributed to the United States having the world’s highest death toll. A clear decentralisation of power has been seen with the growing prominence of Governors Andrew Cuomo and Gretchen Whitmer as national leaders in the face of a vacant White House.

Back in the United Kingdom, the response of Downing Street to Coronavirus has been challenged by the devolved governments in recent days, with First Ministers Nicola Sturgeon of Scotland and Wales’ Mark Drakeford openly pursuing divergent policies from Boris Johnson.

The result has been a drain on Number 10’s power, flowing instead into Bute House and Tŷ Hywel, as the First Ministers openly opted against pursuing the government’s new “Stay Alert, Control The Virus, Save Lives” message, instead encouraging their citizens to remain at home.

Political crises typically see a centralisation of power into government, as the public look for strong and decisive leadership in the face of a threat. 9/11 and the 2008 financial crisis saw an unprecedented centralisation of power, with policy being led increasingly by Number 10, yet in 2020 this is different.

The devolved governments have increasingly diverged from Downing Street, with both Nicola Sturgeon and Mark Drakeford holding regular press conferences to forge their own path in response to the Coronavirus pandemic and distance themselves from at least the communication from Westminster, although the Northern Irish government have remained relatively aligned with Westminster.

This is equally true of the regional Mayors, with London’s Sadiq Khan refusing to expand the capacity of London’s public transport following the Prime Minister’s call for people to go back to work, “if they possibly can”. Recent reporting has suggested that Khan is calling for a £2 billion government investment in order to gain his support over public transport, showing how far power has left Number 10 and that they need to ‘buy’ it back.

The 2020 Coronavirus Act placed further powers into the hands of the devolved governments, and although not yet a constitutional crisis, presents the potential start of one, with the credibility of Westminster seemingly able to be challenged to a greater extent than ever before.

This has created a confusing response, as ConservativeHome writer Henry Hill has suggested, that the confused response from the different governments of the UK has caused a weaker overall response to the virus and hindered the UK’s efforts at effectively controlling it.

It is also apparent that the government relief is disproportionately favouring some parts of the UK, with Wales excluded from many of the government-driven programmes, such as priority supermarket deliveries for those most at risk of Covid-19.

Given that from an epidemiological standpoint the trajectory of the virus in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland has been relatively alike that in England, it would seem that the difference in decisions over the response to the virus is somewhat political. The difference shows the potential extent to which political will differs across the union and shows the ability of the devolved administrations to undermine Westminster politically and prevent it from governing effectively in these regions.

Inevitably the differing responses of Wales and Scotland will result in calls from some for further devolution, much like has been seen in Italy. If these administrations can more efficiently handle the virus in their nation’s these calls will be increasingly difficult to ignore and the Union will be far more ‘at risk’ following the Coronavirus.

Whether the response of Scotland, Wales or Westminster is more effective remains to be seen, but it is evident that there is a growing crisis within the union, as power drains from Westminster into the increasingly powerful devolved administrations of the United Kingdom.

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