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Covid-19 may yet tear Britain apart

Sitting on Cardiff Bay, Senedd Cymru only occasionally makes itself heard in UK national consciousness. Since its inception two decades ago, Wales’ devolved parliament has struggled for authority as a lesser sister to the administrations of Scotland and Northern Ireland. It did not receive powers akin to the other legislatures until 2006 and full lawmaking abilities until 2011. Now, though, the Senedd has gained fresh prominence across all four nations — thanks to the coronavirus crisis.

As with much else in the UK’s unwritten constitution, the Senedd’s powers are often misunderstood. Along with transport and education, one of its roles is health policy. In Wales, this can make the British state feel irrelevant: how the state treats you in hospital is decided in Cardiff not London. For Boris Johnson, such devolved powers have also complicated his response to Covid-19.

The British prime minister often struggles to articulate whether his government speaks for all the UK, England, or England and Wales. Exiting the nationwide lockdown has only highlighted the challenge.

More than 27m Britons, almost half the total, tuned into Mr Johnson’s televised address last Sunday to hear his grand plans about easing out of lockdown, along with its perplexing new slogan “stay alert”. Yet for the 10m Britons who live outside of England, his words were irrelevant.

Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland’s first minister, angrily made it clear on Twitterthat her nation would continue to “STAY AT HOME”. A similarly disgruntled Mark Drakeford, Wales’ first minister, agreed, as did Arlene Foster in Northern Ireland.

This response angered Westminster, particularly Conservatives who never came to terms with devolution. In 1999, when then prime minister Tony Blair forged the new parliaments, the Tory party was dominated by sceptics.

Some still remain unreconciled: MP Daniel Kawczynski vented his fury at the Welsh government’s different approach to Covid-19. “Their undermining of the PM at a time of crisis will I hope start a debate in Wales over the longer term as to whether or not to continue with this expensive and unnecessary body.”

Mr Kawczynski was essentially expressing a frustration of England, which lacks its own parliament. Like many English MPs, he is reluctant to accept that he is elected nationally, but cannot govern in the same vein. As one former government adviser says, “Whitehall has long avoided accepting that they’re not governing for the whole of the UK . . . as to do so would create a more obvious two-tier system of ministers and MPs.”

Wales’ tougher approach to the lockdown also poses a cornucopia of practical problems. More than 130m road journeys take place across its border with England every year. The fourth hole at the Llanymynech golf course starts in Wales and ends with a putt in England. Some housing estates straddle the two nations. Having a different approach to a neighbour as to whether you can visit a park is ludicrous. It is also the messy reality of the UK’s current constitution. 

The solution has been apparent for years. A federal UK is approaching and an English parliament may be unavoidable. It has been coming ever since Tam Dalyell raised the so-called West Lothian question in 1977 of how long England would put up with MPs from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland having a say on England-only matters. It edged forward when Mr Blair created the devolved parliaments and increased their powers with little thought for England. It came closer when Scotland almost voted for independence in 2014 and again in 2016 when two of the four nations voted against Brexit.

One keen observer of Welsh politics notes: “No one in Westminster wants to touch the issue [of imbalance] in case it triggers more successful independence movements.” But the Covid-19 crisis has again exposed how misunderstood and unbalanced the UK has become. If Mr Johnson fails to grapple with its uneven constitution soon, the UK risks falling apart amid more bile, bitterness and bafflement.

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This article was first published at https://www.ft.com/content/c5da0e96-95d4-11ea-af4b-499244625ac4

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The Markets Today