The coronavirus crisis has been all-encompassing, so it’s not surprising that only within the past month has anyone paid much attention to what happens next. As we tentatively move into what feels like a recovery period, the questions are moving from asking what will be the effects of the pandemic to what are the effects of the pandemic, and one of the most notable areas in which anything concrete can be seen is the change in how people are thinking about the union. The “four nations” approach has cast a harsh light on the nature of devolved power in the UK, and the way in which each nation has handled coronavirus has reshaped their political battlefields.
The most immediately noticeable sign of this is that, all of a sudden, multiple polls show a clear majority in favour of Scottish Independence, and an uptick in support for Welsh Independence – Plaid Cymru’s leader Adam Price even stated that the last few months have been a “gamechanger”. Key in the sudden secessionist mood is the way that the devolved administrations have demonstrated that they can act like a national government that isn’t just complementing but overshadowing Westminster.
In Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland, the devolved administrations have been front and centre in dealing with the crisis and have had far more bearing on people’s lives in lockdown than the UK government. They’ve also all been more cautious than the central government, with a clearer public message, less speculation over the easing of lockdown, and more prudent health advice, such as bringing in guidance to wear face coverings earlier. In light of these actions and statistics routinely showing lower excess deaths than England, people are reconsidering whether being part of the UK really benefits them.
In Wales and Northern Ireland, support for independence or reunification has not reached significant levels – the political consequences of the crisis have mainly been limited to maintaining the government’s popularity. The effect has been most acute in Scotland, the only nation in the UK whose government supports independence.
Scotland being better off than England in this situation has been a gift to the SNP, who have now translated an effective response to coronavirus to majority support for independence despite less discussion within the SNP about independence than at any point since the 2014 referendum. Despite Scotland still being more severely affected by coronavirus than European countries of a similar size, their government has surged in popularity from their poor position in January. Nicola Sturgeon has reaped the rewards of appearing a calm and careful leader in contrast to Boris Johnson, who might be the best thing to ever happen to the independence movement, despite not deviating from many of his policies that have worsened the crisis, such as the delayed implementation of lockdown in the first place. The difference in leadership was accentuated by the response to breaches of lockdown from within their own government; Sturgeon’s firing of Catherine Calderwood, Scotland’s then Chief Medical Officer, for travelling to her second home appeared responsible at the time and was vindicated when Johnson held onto Dominic Cummings against overwhelming public opinion.
The last issue that is holding Scotland in for now is money. The UK Government, and Johnson in particular, have been vocal in stating that an independent Scotland could not have implemented the job retention scheme, which has kept the UK from falling to the same depths as the very worst hit countries. However, if the SNP hold on to their popularity then next year’s elections could be their best yet and would deliver a mandate for another independence referendum that may be hard for the UK government to ignore. In that event, unionists trying to win the referendum by making the argument that Scotland would be economically damaged by leaving the UK and by deploying unpopular politicians from outside Scotland such as Johnson would be fighting a losing battle – look at what happened when the Remain campaign used the same strategy four years ago.
The way in which the power to fight coronavirus has been devolved has made it obvious that “the UK” increasingly means “England”, an unpleasant association for many in the other three nations. If proponents of the Union cannot convince people otherwise, then we may be closer to the breakup of the UK than ever before.
Illustration by Cerys Edwards. All images available via Flickr