The Irish Times view on the future of the union: the UK’s political fabric is fraying

Differing responses to Brexit and Covid in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are compounded by the turbulent everyday politics of Boris Johnson’s chaotic premiership

Boris Johnson’s efforts to blame devolution for empowering the Scottish National Party, led by Nicola Sturgeon, rather than ceding governing power are unconvincing.  Photograph: Jane Barlow/PA Wire

Boris Johnson’s efforts to blame devolution for empowering the Scottish National Party, led by Nicola Sturgeon, rather than ceding governing power are unconvincing. Photograph: Jane Barlow/PA Wire

 

The United Kingdom faces a profound set of problems as it grapples with how Brexit and the Covid-19 pandemic undermine its structures of government and the emotional solidarities and trust its union depends on. These two great challenges to the state’s authority are made more difficult by its unwritten constitution and its history of concentrating domestic and imperial power in London. As a result the differing responses to Brexit and Covid in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are compounded by the turbulent everyday politics of Boris Johnson’s chaotic premiership.

Brexit has recentralised power away from Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast as competences like agriculture and the environment previously held in Brussels return to London. As the UK refashions its own internal market, where the competences should lie becomes contentious between Whitehall, Westminster and the devolved governments. Compromises about devolved powers and those reserved in London are undone. Scottish and Welsh leaders complain bitterly about a lack of consultation and a collapse of trust.

The Covid crisis reinforces the visibility of such territorial differentiation between England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. It dramatises a similar conflict of authority and values between London and metropolitan mayors in northern England. No sooner had Boris Johnson fired his influential centralising adviser Dominic Cummings than he remarked to a conference of Conservative MPs that devolution had been a “disaster”. His efforts to blame devolution for empowering the Scottish National Party (SNP) are unconvincing. Rather does he want to reinvent a more assertive unionism which can sway Scottish opinion back towards staying in the UK.

Scottish polling now shows a sustained and growing majority supporting independence. The SNP is expected to win next May’s Scottish Parliament elections and then claim a mandate for another referendum. That challenges the Conservative government to make an alternative case for holding on to a reformed version of the union. However there is little will to make the changes required to convince Scottish voters it is serious about meeting their concerns, The union’s emotional bonds and trust are seeping away.

The potential consequences for Wales and Northern Ireland of this erosion in the UK’s political fabric are profound. Northern Ireland remains distinct as a deeply contested polity with a complex peace process and whose powersharing government fits awkwardly into UK structures. But there can be no denying it too is deeply affected by the wider difficulties facing unionism in the UK as a whole. The longer they are unresolved the more attractive a united Ireland within the EU could be for Northern Ireland’s growing numbers of floating voters.

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