While all attention is focused on the pandemic, another danger looms: a Union that has endured for centuries could be disintegrating.
By Chris Deerin
Power is a succubus that, even as it delivers its lavish, irresistible rewards, drains and withers its holder. Look at entry and exit photos of, say, Tony Blair or Barack Obama, or any long-term inhabitant of the really big jobs: the physical decline is usually marked and accelerated.
Both Blair and Obama took office as vigorous, handsome young men and emerged greyed, lined with care, and knackered. It makes one worry for Boris Johnson, who arrived in Number 10 in July 2019 as a Tiggerish blond bombshell armed with a suitcase full of optimism and a booster’s way with patter.
Since then, all hell has broken loose. The Brexit negotiations have not produced the “oven-ready” deal that was promised, and an abrupt departure with no deal at all looks entirely possible. The complex, Hydra-headed Covid pandemic couldn’t be less suited to Johnson’s skill-set, and his popularity ratings have slumped amid his obvious floundering. Tory MPs have begun questioning his fitness to lead and, despite the government’s 80-strong majority, have shown a disconcerting willingness to rebel and even, on occasion, to resign.
There’s Johnson’s personal, attritional battle with Covid, which led to a period in intensive care, “litres and litres” of oxygen, and a recovery period played out in the harsh public eye. And there’s the latest baby – a moment of joy, of course, but as any parent knows also a guarantee of sleepless nights.
There is a still-graver crisis facing the Prime Minister: It is that on his watch the United Kingdom itself appears to be disintegrating
Even amid all this – which is surely quite enough – there is a still-graver crisis facing the Prime Minister. It is that on his watch the United Kingdom itself appears to be disintegrating. The structural integrity of the country is cracking like a spidery old vase. A Union that has endured for centuries, through world wars and the decline of empire and social transformation, is, suddenly, unpredictably, impossibly contingent.
Scotland is the most obvious troublemaker. Since 2007, the devolved parliament in Edinburgh has been in the hands of the separatist SNP. Defeat in the 2014 referendum barely slowed the independence movement, and despite 13 years in office the nationalists look likely to win an overall majority when Scots go to the polls again in May.
Support for independence is at its highest-ever level. A shock poll in mid-October found 58% in favour, with two-thirds agreeing that a fresh majority for Nicola Sturgeon next year entitles her to call a second referendum. The First Minister wants to see backing for independence consistently around 60% before holding a vote – a run of polls since June have put the figure north of 50%. Momentum appears to be with her, and if anything gathering pace.
One cause of this is the starkly differing styles with which the two leaders have approached pandemic management. Sturgeon has been ever-present, holding daily press conferences and coming across as both empathetic and dedicated. Trust levels in Sturgeon and her government are high, matched only by a vertiginous lack of confidence in Johnson and his Westminster administration. And there’s Brexit, of course; 62% of Scots voted against it.
If it were only Scotland – because it’s always Scotland – the breach might be understandable. But the whole idea of a United Kingdom is coming apart at the seams.
Johnson’s double-dealing on Brexit is likely to create a border either between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic or between the North and the rest of the UK, despite the PM’s promises and outraged denials. This has alarmed and infuriated unionists and encouraged nationalists that reunification of the island of Ireland could be achievable in relatively short order. Next year, just as Northern Ireland marks the centenary of its creation, Catholics are expected to outnumber Protestants in the province for the first time. At this sensitive moment, ostensible Tory indifference is souring relations while the prospect of continued access to EU markets, which would be guaranteed by reunification – Ulster voted Remain, remember – is tantalising.
Even Wales, traditionally the quietest cousin in the room, is at it. Management of the Covid crisis has given electorates in the devolved nations a taste of autonomy, as their leaders have taken life-or-death decisions on healthcare, education and the economy. In October, Mark Drakeford, the increasingly activist Labour First Minister, announced an effective ban on English residents entering Wales due to the upsurge in Covid cases. He blamed the “vacancy at the heart of the UK government” for this dramatic step.
Polling suggests that while backing for Welsh independence remains some way short of a majority, its popularity is growing. A survey in June found 25% support for a Yes vote, which was a YouGov record. By August that had been smashed and 32% were pro-independence.
Fiery Celts are one thing. But, like some sort of Tudor re-enactment, the English fiefdoms are revolting too. As the government has regionalised the Covid response, so the new directly-elected mayors of the city regions have begun to flex their muscles. Andy Burnham in Greater Manchester, Dan Jarvis in Sheffield, Steve Rotheram in Liverpool and Sadiq Khan in London are all critical of Whitehall attempts to impose restrictions on their communities without consultation. Even Andy Street, the Tory mayor of Birmingham, has spoken out.
The most supple and focused Prime Minister would struggle to fight on all these fronts at once, and Boris Johnson is about as supple, streetwise and focused as an arthritic Private Benjamin. He must wonder what has hit him and what will ultimately become of him. The historian in him must surely rue the insatiable ambition that brought him to this dark point. Power is a succubus, and will have its due.
Chris Deerin is Director of the think tank Reform Scotland.