He called on millions of people to return to work and gave an overview of when schools and stores will reopen in the coming months. He also moved his government’s main message from the simple “Stay home, protect the NHS, save lives” to the more ambiguous “Stay alert, control the virus, save lives”.
But even before Johnson’s message got out, Scottish Prime Minister Nicola Sturgeon delivered her own speech. In doing so, it revealed the uncomfortable reality that Johnson has little practical power over people living in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
From 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 just adopt it for Scotland”, and qu ‘she had asked Downing Street’ not to deploy their ‘Stay Alert’ advertising campaign in Scotland. The message was always clear to “stay home”.
Since the late 1990s, Westminster has ceded a great deal of power to the legislative bodies of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, allowing devolved governments to shape domestic policy in areas such as health and education.
So it’s no surprise that Sturgeon was confused when Johnson started talking about opening schools, among other things, on Sunday evening. “When discussing schools, for example, he used year group terms that don’t even make sense in Scotland. It was not at all clear in the statement what direction applied to the whole of the UK and what applied specifically to England, “said Nicola McEwen. , professor of territorial policy at the University of Edinburgh.
Sources in Downing Street told CNN that Johnson himself thought the message was confused. “Filming was a nightmare. He stopped and started, asking to change songs, 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 provide little comfort to those in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, who too often feel like an afterthought, it has raised important questions about the length of the arrangement. current and to his wish. The three devolved administrations have deviated from Westminster in their management of this crisis, despite the perception that Johnson and Downing Street are responsible for the response to coronaviruses for the whole of the United Kingdom.
The most vivid example came on Wednesday morning, when images flooded the social networks of commuters huddled in London’s transport network, as much of England returned to work. In contrast, the other three countries, which advise people to stay at home, keep their economies in tighter lockdown. In England, you can now meet another person outside your home in public – it’s not something you can do elsewhere in the UK.
Denham believes the pandemic has been a wake-up call for the difference between the four nations. “In relative terms, England has a much weaker state than the other three and has a much more centralized center of power. The coronavirus has revealed that on some key issues, other nations cannot and will not work with England and the way it is governed. “
McEwen agrees that the pandemic has exposed asymmetric political power in the UK, which had taken a heavy blow in the past four years of the country’s Brexit debate.
“The strained relations between the British government and devolved governments in recent years have been exacerbated by the fact that the four nations are now led by different political parties with different ideologies and ideas about the future of the United Kingdom . “
All of this creates a political headache for Johnson, who, in addition to being Prime Minister, is also the leader of what is officially the Conservative and Unionist party. Shortly after entering Downing Street last year, Johnson was appointed Minister of the Union as a sign of his commitment to strengthening ties between the four nations after the damage caused by Brexit.
Leading conservative unionists told CNN that their perception was that Johnson had done this to keep his own party happy, rather than out of a sincere desire to protect the union. Their concern is not that he actively wants to see the end of the union, but that the union he wants to preserve is one with England at the center, led from London.
The problem is that this vision of union is not particularly popular in any corner of the UK outside the capital. “English voters, in particular, leave voters, tend to prioritize their English identity and want English interests to come before the Union,” said Denham. “It is not that they are anti-union, it is that their idea of Britishness is like an extension of English and English interests. If the two conflict, they give priority to English interests. “
This union-centered vision of the union is understandable elsewhere in the UK. “There is a feeling in Wales that Westminster does not particularly understand or respect devolution,” said Roger Awan-Scully, professor of politics at Cardiff University and president of the Political Studies Association. “In the end, they see devolved governments as a necessary irritation. The coronavirus has definitely purchased some of this product with increased attention. “
Northern Ireland again a “place between”
The union issue is arguably the most complicated in Northern Ireland. The Stormont National Assembly is built on a power-sharing agreement between unionists and Republicans. The recent history of the Isle of Ireland means that hardly any problem can strike Stormont without becoming politicized.
The coronavirus has given Republicans the opportunity to argue that a whole-of-Ireland approach would be preferable to that of Northern Ireland in conjunction with Britain. “When you think about it from a nationalist point of view, Ireland is an island. We can close the external borders and manage this as one island. It makes perfect sense to them, “said Katy Hayward of Queen’s University of Belfast.
However, trade unionists stress the importance of financial support from the British government during the crisis. Hayward’s notes. “The five-party executive had to look in two directions at once to manage the fact that Northern Ireland is truly a” place in between. ” “
While no one thinks the Covid-19 pandemic will kill the union, Johnson’s handling of the crisis exacerbated the divisions between his four nations at a time when the UK was already in the midst of a existential crisis around Brexit.
“The idea of an English-centered union was promoted within the framework of imperial Britain,” said 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 asserted their identity (or in Northern Ireland, the identities). If the government really wants the union to survive, it must be a partnership among all nations. “
The question is this: do the English, who make up over 80% of the UK, really care enough to save the union to do it?