Things are not going well between England and the other three parts of the UK. “We have to worry about the unity of the country,” warned former Prime Minister Gordon Brown recently. If you believe him and leading politicians in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, however, it is not Brexit and Corona that are the greatest threats to the unity of the Union – but rather his successor, Prime Minister Boris Johnson. Its “England first” policy, more than anything else, gives impetus to those who are striving to break away from London, so the assessment.
Most recently, Johnson’s tone was very wrong when he spoke about “devolution” – the British system of decentralization that regulates the interaction between the four parts of the country. At the end of the 1990s, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland founded their own parliaments for this purpose, the process was initiated by the then Labor Prime Minister Tony Blair. The transfer of power was “Blair’s biggest mistake,” Johnson said on video in front of around 60 Tory MPs. He called the four-country consensus a “disaster north of the border”.
Johnson’s statement was – unsurprisingly – not well received north of the aforementioned border.
Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon of the Scottish National Party (SNP) immediately tweeted that the Tories had gambled away their credibility in terms of power-sharing. The only way to protect Parliament in Edinburgh is independence.
In Wales, the Labor government there commented that Johnson’s statement showed once again that London was “not remotely interested” in respecting the distribution of power within the kingdom. “The Prime Minister’s comments are shocking, but sadly not surprising,” said the Welsh Advocate General.
But even without Johnson’s disaster statements, the cohesion of the kingdom is not in good shape. The Brexi has for years been a boost to those forces who are demanding separation from the Kingdom in order not to have to leave the EU. A majority of Scots and Northern Irish voted against the exit in 2016, and support in Wales was also lower than in England.
Scotland’s highest minister, Sturgeon, is calling for a Scottish independence referendum, among other things – which London has so far denied her out of well-founded fear. In Northern Ireland, which is most directly affected by Brexit due to its land border with the EU Republic of Ireland, the republican Sinn Féin calls for the separation from Great Britain and the orientation towards Ireland and thus towards the Europeans.
“An affront to the people of Wales, Scotland and Ireland”
With his highly controversial Binnenmarktgesetz Johnson wants to smooth the waves on the Northern Ireland question – and, among other things, enable higher subsidies for companies there. In the other parts of the kingdom, however, he achieved exactly the opposite of pacification. The Welsh government condemned the post-Brexit UK internal market plan as “an attack on democracy and an affront to the people of Wales, Scotland and Ireland”.
The law stipulates that while the parts of the country can regulate their own markets, they must also accept goods and services from the rest of the UK. Because of its size and market power alone, England would de facto determine the rules for the common market. Rules and money that once came from Brussels would thus be given from London. Scotland’s Minister Sturgeon announced that she would literally fight against it “with teeth and fingernails”.
Besides all of this, British cohesion suffers from the Johnson’s Corona-Management. Blatant miscommunication has emerged in recent months where the various governments should actually act in a coordinated and cooperative manner. The top ministers of Wales and Scotland attacked Johnson, among other things, for not having agreed with them about a new nationwide lockdown. Scotland’s Minister Sturgeon had previously criticized Johnson’s course against the virus as inadequate and at times enforced stricter rules in Scotland.
So what’s next for Kingdom unity?
In Scotland elections will be held next year. Nicola Sturgeon’s SNP, which is calling for a separation from the kingdom, now has an approval rate of 58 percent – which will give weight to the call for a new independence referendum. Johnson doesn’t make it easy for his own Tories to win votes in Edinburgh.
In Wales Should the question of the Union become more important to the electorate to expect a political migration: from the ruling Labor Party to the Tories on the one hand, who in principle advocate close integration into the kingdom, and on the other hand to the Welsh national Plaid Cymru. Their boss Adam Price recently announced that Wales’ “biggest mistake” was that it had not already left the kingdom. The Labor Party, which has traditionally ruled Cardiff and promoted the transfer of power with “devolution” 20 years ago, will probably increasingly come away empty-handed.
Northern Ireland will celebrate 100 years of secession from the Republic of Ireland next year. While the Republicans of Sinn Féin see no cause for celebration in this anyway, the ruling Unionists have little reason to celebrate either. Because the still unresolved sandwich position between the Kingdom and the EU as a result of Brexit could increasingly alienate the part of the country from the Kingdom: first economically and then politically.
In the meantime, politicians from London to Edinburgh and Cardiff to Belfast see it like the worried ex-Prime Minister Gordon Brown: Neither Brexit nor Corona and certainly not decentralization are the real threat to the unity of the Kingdom – it is the Prime Minister.