But even before Johnson’s message was sent, Scottish Prime Minister Nicola Sturgeon spoke his address. In doing so, it revealed the uncomfortable reality that Johnson has little practical power over people living in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
On Johnson’s roadmap, Sturgeon said that the Scottish government “has not yet seen all the details of the plan, so it is not possible for us to simply adopt it for Scotland”, and that he had asked Downing Street “not to distribute the their “Notice of Stay” advertising campaign in Scotland “. The message was still clearly that of “staying home”.
Of course, it was his right to do so. “For nearly 20 years, the UK government has truly been the government of England only in large areas of politics,” says John Denham, a former Labor lawmaker and associate professor of English identity at the University of Southampton.
Since the late 1990s, Westminster has given much power to legislative bodies in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, allowing devolved governments to establish internal policies in areas such as health and education.
So it is not surprising that Sturgeon was confused when Johnson started talking about the opening of schools, by the way, on Sunday evening. “When discussing schools, for example, he used group terms for a year that didn’t even make sense in Scotland. It was not clear in the statement what orientation applied to the whole of the UK and what specifically applied to England,” he says Nicola McEwen, professor of territorial policy at the University of Edinburgh.
Sources inside Downing Street told CNN that Johnson himself thought the message was confusing. “Filming was a real nightmare. He stopped and started, asking to change bits, complaining about the length, saying it was too complex,” said a government source who was not allowed to speak on the disc.
While this may give some comfort to those in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, who all too often feel like second thoughts, it has raised important questions about how long the current deal can continue – and also how desirable it is. All three decentralized administrations have moved away from Westminster in handling this crisis, despite the perception that Johnson and Downing Street are driving the coronavirus response for the whole of the UK.
The most striking example of this came Wednesday morning, when the images invaded the social media of commuters crammed into London’s transportation network, while much of England returned to work. In stark contrast, the other three nations, which are suggesting people to stay home, are keeping their economies in a stricter bloc. In England, you can now meet another person outside your family in public – it’s not something you can do anywhere else in the UK.
Denham thinks the pandemic has been a wake-up call to how different the four nations have become. “In relative terms, England has a much weaker state than the other three and has a much more centralized power center. Coronavirus has revealed that on some key issues other nations cannot and do not want to work with England. and the way it is governed. “
McEwen agrees that the pandemic has shed light on asymmetric political power in the UK, which has had a big hit in the Brexit debate in the country over the past four years.
“The tense relations between the UK government and the devolved governments in recent years have been exacerbated by the fact that the four nations are now run by different political parties that have different ideologies and different ideas about the future of the UK.”
All this creates a political headache for Johnson, who in addition to being Prime Minister, is also the leader of what is still officially the conservative and unionist party. Shortly after joining Downing Street last year, Johnson was appointed Minister for the Union in sign of his commitment to strengthening ties between the four nations following the damage suffered by Brexit.
Senior conservative trade unionists told CNN that their perception is that Johnson did this to make his party happy, rather than out of a sincere desire to protect the union. Their concern is not that he wants to actively see the end of the union, but that the union he wants to preserve is one with England at the center of it, run by London.
The problem is that this union view is not particularly popular in any corner of the UK outside the capital. “British voters in particular leave voters, tend to prioritize their English identity and want British interests to be placed before the Union,” says Denham. “It’s not that they’re anti-union, it’s that their idea of Britishness is like an extension of English and British interests. If the two come into conflict, then they prioritize British interests.”
This union-centered vision of English is understandably recognizable in other parts of the UK. “There is a feeling in Wales that Westminster does not understand or particularly respect devolution,” says Roger Awan-Scully, a professor of politics at the University of Cardiff and president of the Political Studies Association. “When it comes to it, they see devolved governments as necessary irritation. Coronavirus has certainly acquired some of this in a more targeted way.”
Northern Ireland again a “place between”
The union issue is probably the most complicated in Northern Ireland. Stormont’s national assembly relies on a power-sharing agreement between trade unionists and republicans. The recent history of the island of Ireland means that virtually no problems can strike Stormont without being politicized.
Coronavirus offered Republicans the opportunity to argue that an all-Ireland approach would be preferable to Northern Ireland keeping up with Britain. “When you think from a nationalist point of view, Ireland is an island. We can close external borders and manage it as an island. It makes total sense to them,” says Katy Hayward of Queen’s University Belfast.
However, trade unionists stress the importance of financial support from the British government during the crisis. Hayward notes. “The five-party executive had to look in two directions simultaneously, to manage the fact that Northern Ireland is very much a” place in between. “
While no one believes that the Covid-19 pandemic will cause the union to die, Johnson’s crisis management has exacerbated the divisions between his four nations at a time when the UK was already in the midst of an existential crisis on the Brexit.
“The idea of English-centered union was promoted as part of imperial Britain,” says Denham. “The truth is that the old idea of the union lost its sense of purpose decades ago. And at that time, the other parts of the union affirmed their identity (or in Northern Ireland, identity). If the government really wants the union to survive, it must be a partnership between all nations. “
The question is, are the British, who represent over 80% of the UK, really concerned enough to save the union to do it?