He called millions of people back to work and outlined when schools and shops could reopen in the coming months. He also changed the government’s core message from the simple “Stay home, protect the NHS, save lives” to the more ambiguous “Stay alert, control the virus, save lives.”
But before Johnson’s message was delivered, Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon gave her address. In this way, he revealed the uncomfortable reality that Johnson had little practical power over the people of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
Speaking of Johnson’s roadmap, Sturgeon said the Scottish Government had “not yet seen the full plan, so we couldn’t just adopt it in Scotland”, and that she had asked Downing Street “not to implement the advertising campaign” Alert of residence “in Scotland”. The message was still clearly “stay home.”
Of course, she had the right to do so. “For about 20 years, the UK government has really just been the government of England in large areas of policy,” says John Denham, a former Labor lawmaker and professor of English identity at the University of Southampton.
Since the late 1990s, Westminster has devolved many powers to legislative bodies in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, allowing devolved governments to set internal policies in areas such as health and education.
No wonder Sturgeon was confused when Johnson started talking about opening schools, including on Sunday night. “For example, when he talked about schools, he used year group terms which don’t even make sense in Scotland. The statement did not make clear what guidelines apply to the whole of Britain, and more specifically to England,” says Nicola McEwen, professor of territorial politics at the University of Edinburgh.
Downing Street sources told CNN that Johnson himself thought the news was misleading. «The filming was a total nightmare. He stopped and started asking for a bit change, complaining about the length, saying it was too complicated,” said a government source who was not allowed to speak about it.
While this may provide no further comfort to the people of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, who are too often feeling reflective, important questions have been raised about how long the current arrangement can last and how desirable it is. All three devolved administrations have left Westminster to deal with this crisis, despite the belief that Johnson and Downing Street are driving coronavirus responses across the UK.
The most striking example of this was on Wednesday morning, when photos flooded social media commuters on a London transport network as much of England returned to work. By contrast, the other three nations advising people to stay home are keeping their economies under tighter conditions. In England, you can now meet someone from outside your household in public; This cannot be done anywhere else in the UK.
Denham believes the pandemic was a wake-up call about how different the four nations became. “In relative terms, England is much weaker 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 cooperate with England and the way it is managed.”
McEwen agrees that the pandemic has shed light on the asymmetrical political power in Britain that has plagued the past four years of the Brexit debate.
“The tense relationship between the UK government and the devolved governments in recent years has been exacerbated by the fact that the four nations are now governed by different political parties who have different ideologies and different ideas about the future of Britain.” .
All of this causes a political headache for Johnson, who in addition to being prime minister is also the leader of what is officially still a conservative and unionist party. Shortly after entering Downing Street last year, Johnson appointed himself a Union Minister, a sign of his commitment to strengthening ties between the four nations after the demise of Brexit.
Older Conservative union members told CNN they thought Johnson did it to keep his party happy and not out of a sincere desire to protect the union. His fear is not that he actively wants the relationship to end, but that the relationship he wants to maintain is one with England at the center, fleeing London.
The problem is that this view of the relationship is not particularly popular in any corner of the UK outside the capital. “English voters, especially leaving voters, tend to prioritize their English identity and want English interests to trump the Union,” says Denham. “It’s not that they are anti-union, but that their idea of Britishness is an extension of British and British interests.” If the two come into conflict, they will prioritize English interests.”
This English-oriented view of the relationship understandably makes sense in other parts of the UK. “In Wales, there is a feeling that Westminster does not understand or respect devolution,” says Roger Awan-Scully, professor of politics at Cardiff University and president of the Political Studies Association. «In this sense, they see decentralized government as a necessary irritation. The coronavirus definitely put a bit of focus on it.”
Northern Ireland is again “an in-between place”
The union issue is probably the most complicated in Northern Ireland. The National Assembly at Stormont is based on an agreement on the division of power between unionists and republicans. Ireland’s recent history means that virtually no issue can affect Stormont without politicization.
The coronavirus gave republicans the opportunity to argue that an all-Ireland approach would be preferable to keeping Northern Ireland in touch with Britain. «When you think about it from a nationalist point of view, Ireland is an island. We can close the external borders and treat it like an island. It makes a lot of sense to them,” says Katy Hayward from Queen’s University Belfast.
However, unionists point to the importance of financial support from the UK government during the crisis. Hayward’s Notes. “The five-party chief executive had to look in two directions at the same time to deal with the fact that Northern Ireland is a “middle place.”
Although no one believes the Covid-19 pandemic will lead to the death of the relationship, Johnson’s handling of the crisis exacerbated divisions between the four nations at a time when Britain was already in the midst of an existential crisis related to Brexit.
“The Anglocentric idea of the union developed within imperial Britain,” says Denham. «The truth is that the old idea of a relationship lost its meaning decades ago. During this time, his identity (or identity in Northern Ireland) was confirmed by other parts of the union. If the government really wants the union to survive, it must be a partnership between all nations.”
The question is: did the English, who represent more than 80% of the United Kingdom, really care enough about saving the union to do so?