ABoris Johnson finished his speech on television on Sunday evening, many viewers were confused by what he just said. However, one thing about the message, it is very clear. What surprised many of those who watched, and perhaps even Johnson himself, turned out to be a coronavirus outbreak that had turned the British prime minister into British prime minister.
Over the past two months we have all become familiar with the fact that Covid-19 has the strongest effect on individuals who are said to suffer from “serious underlying conditions”. What has just become clear is that viruses can have the same destructive effects on countries and societies that suffer from their own serious underlying conditions too.
In the June issue of the Atlantic, writer George Packer give a burning polemic in this case to the United States response to the pandemic. “Chronic illnesses – corrupt political classes, sclerotic bureaucracies, heartless economies, fragmented and distracted societies – have been left untreated for years. We have learned to live, not be comfortable, with symptoms, “he wrote. Britain also shares some symptoms of an untreated American, though fortunately not all of them. But it also has many symptoms that are not self-treated, especially those related to the weakening of the British state, tolerance of widening inequality, Brexit delusions, and refusal to see Donald Trump’s America for the threat that it is.
One of these fundamental conditions is a corrupt British government. Some of us have been banging on this for a long time. Our concerns are routinely eliminated by those who claim to be more worldly wise because it is not a major problem, or that does not appear on the doorstep. Even when Scotland has been run for 13 years by a party whose whole purpose is to divide Britain, we still often meet with a shrug. This is just as true on the right, where too often there is indifference to anything that is not English, and to the left, too often soft in the head about any nationalism except the diversity of English, which it hates.
When health policy was devolved in 1999, few anticipated the impact as it became clear this week, because Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland all decided to maintain a lockout strategy Johnson began to relax in England. As long as differences in health policy are limited – as has been the case for the past 20 years – for approaches to issues such as expenditure, prescription costs and social care, differences between countries, although significant, can still be managed politically at the UK level
But when, like this week, it became illegal for the British to do it across the Scottish or Welsh border to do what is now permitted – wrong, in my opinion – to be done in the UK a significant political line has been crossed. It will be interesting to see whether historians can identify the last time that Englishmen were banned from Scotland or Wales. But we must speak for centuries. In such circumstances, it is more difficult than ever to know what “one nation” conservatism means now. Which country? And what is England?
Loosening of British bonds is a process. The context continues to grow. The dynamics of relations between England on the one hand, and Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland on the other hand – one that might even include the Republic of Ireland at the moment – is different in each case. There are driving factors, such as general overcentralization from the UK which are often very inefficient, and the pull factor, the most effective of which is the SNP’s determination to divide the UK.
Covid-19 included himself in this argument in an unexpected way. Initially, the pandemic worked as a centripetal factor. When the British government, with its deep pockets, placed itself firmly behind the interests of business and workers throughout Britain, the government gave a strong reminder of the reach of the protection of the British state. But when the lockdown is lifted, the pandemic effect becomes more centrifugal. Johnson’s hopes, partly under pressure from the right wing of the Tory party, to encourage new economic activity in spite of a sustainable pandemic, have encouraged delegated countries to move more carefully and to distinguish themselves sharper than Johnson and from Britain. But that’s not all Johnson’s fault.
The result is a curious and still only tentative form of what Lenin once called “double strength“But it’s growing and it’s important. It became much clearer with this week’s difference in lifting locks. Nonetheless it has been there, germinating over the past two months, when Scotland first and then Wales sought small ways to assert their power to act differently in responding to the common Covid-19 threat, with Northern Ireland’s power sharing authority finally following behind them.
That hasn’t added to the declaration of unilateral independence from Britain. It may indeed have peaked this week, because Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish authorities will eventually lift their locking in a way that brings them closer to a more permissive approach to Britain. Also pay attention to that Nicola Sturgeon face increasing challenges to his authority from other nationalist opponents and that his record in dealing with a pandemic is also far from clear.
However, Covid-19 proved to be a warning about a serious flaw in Britain’s constitutional order and its own feeling that it would be rash to ignore it. Everything can be more confrontational, not less. The case for a more truly federalized UK, with an equal level of self-government and multiple sovereignty, is becoming stronger. We don’t live in the failed country Packer sees in America. But we live in a life that fails, and we are stupid to ignore it.
• Martin Kettle is a Guardian columnist