As summer withers away and politicians and journalists prepare for the return of party conferences, a tantalising fantasy is in play, mostly in Conservative circles.
The worst of the pandemic, we are told, is now over. In England employers are starting to reduce working from home, and schools are reopening with hugely reduced Covid protocols. A large part of the public in England seems to believe that life has at last been uncoupled from Covid and its effects, and is somehow being returned to normal, although Brexit-related shortages are twisting reality in yet another unsettling way. At the top of the Tory party, meanwhile, the political optimism ignited by vaccines is still alive, and there remains a hope that ministers might somehow slip free of the Covid crisis and begin to leave the whole mess behind.
Whether this prospect sounds realistic may well depend on which part of the UK you live in. In England, the Johnson governmentâs binning of restrictions and the impatience of rightwing voices in the media has encouraged the idea that normality can be willed back into existence. But elsewhere, the mood tends to be much more hesitant, as the devolved administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland continue to follow their own paths, and policy differences are reflected in public attitudes.
In early August, I went to Wales for a family holiday in the Brecon Beacons, where business owners were vigilant about their customers wearing face-coverings, cafes and restaurants were still enforcing often stringent rules, and the mood felt nervous and tentative. Not long before, I had spent four days in Swansea, putting together the second instalment of a four-part Radio 4 series titled Citizens of Somewhere, aimed at exploring the UKâs immediate future through the everyday experiences of people and places. My conversations there highlighted a political conviction that seemed to run far and wide. Many people said that Boris Johnson and his ministers had made an unending mess of Englandâs Covid crisis, whereas the Welsh government, led by Mark Drakeford, had been more careful, consistent and effective. Herein, particularly as younger people saw it, lay a plain case for greater independence from Englandâs trials and disasters, with some in favour of secession from the UK.If he wasnât Johnsonâs fall guy, Raab would be up the creek without a paddleboard | Marina Hyde Read more
Last week, as we started work on the seriesâ final episode, I spent the best part of a day travelling from the south English coast to Perth, the small Scottish city that nudges the Highlands. When I set out, on a branch-line train that rattled through such Sussex towns as Bexhill, Eastbourne and Lewes, mask-wearers were in a small minority, and social distancing seemed to be a distant memory. But when eventually I arrived at my destination, I had a sense of something akin to culture shock.
In Scotland, masks remain mandatory in most shared spaces and are being worn by schoolchildren for at least the opening part of term, plans for vaccine passports are at an advanced stage, and Nicola Sturgeon â like Drakeford â is warning that ruling out the return of other restrictions would be âgrossly irresponsibleâ. Such words are intended to address increasing anxiety about Scotlandâs rising R number and increasing hospital admissions, but they inevitably have a profoundly political dimension, not least when it comes to very familiar questions about Scotlandâs future inside or outside the UK.
With the SNP claiming that its agreement with the pro-independence Scottish Green party makes its mandate for another public vote undeniable, the constant post-2014 chatter about independence seems to be reaching yet another peak. What will actually happen is unclear: as evidenced by an on-the-hoof insistence from the Scotland secretary, Alister Jack, that a new referendum needs the âsustainedâ support of 60% of Scots before it can happen, Westminster and Holyrood seem to be gearing up for a pantomimic game of cat and mouse that could carry on for years. Meanwhile, the kind of independence campaigners who operate outside the SNP, and who brought a wealth of passion and oomph to 2014âs pro-independence campaign, say their forces are not what they were back then, and the SNPâs centralising instincts would risk another defeat. All told, things feel even more opaque and uncertain than they did seven years ago.
In Perth (part of a wider local government area that voted 60:40 against independence, but also a city represented by the SNP at both Holyrood and Westminster), I sampled the usual range of views on Scotlandâs future, from staunch unionism to support for independence. Whatever the headlines in the Scottish press, the prospect of a vote felt distant and often almost abstract. But, as in Wales, conversations about the countryâs future and where peopleâs affinities now lay included an issue that felt new: basic competence.
One woman I chatted to on Perthâs main shopping street had voted to stay in the UK in 2014 but was now âon the fenceâ. And what had changed? âJust the mess that the Conservative government made of everything: Brexit and Covid and a whole lot of things,â she said. On a housing estate on the cityâs periphery, another woman had much the same take. âIâve never been SNP,â she said, and then paused. âI think Nicola Sturgeon did a great job during Covid, I must admit. Him down south â weâll forget about him. To me, he didnât know if he was coming or going.â So if there was another referendum? âI think I would go independent,â she said.Wales's Covid competence is inspiring many of us to thoughts of independence | Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett Read more
We are not talking here about some urgent, to-the-barricades kind of position. Given that a second referendum may not even happen, it might be more useful to think of such views not as a pointer to some imminent rupture, but further proof of a UK whose constituent countries are now irrevocably estranged. In much of England, peopleâs collective experience of the past 18 months has yet to take the form of any coherent political story, partly because the Labour leadership in Westminster has failed to tell one. But in Scotland and Wales there is a clear script, which encompasses the burgeoning chaos apparently let loose by Brexit. It will become even more established if the Covid crisis worsens this winter, and seems readymade for any other crises.
As a case study in what some people call âcut-throughâ, it takes some beating. England, the narrative goes, is dominated by reckless Conservative politicians who habitually lead their country into mishap and disaster, while the UKâs smaller nations emphasise caution, responsibility and, to use a phrase once beloved of Tony Blair and his followers, âwhat worksâ. This is potent stuff whose effects may well be felt for a long time to come, with no end of unpredictable consequences. If they have bought the dreamy idea of the pandemic somehow receding into the distance, Tory politicians should take note: way beyond Westminster, the idea of a decisive break with Covid and its effects seems downright absurd, and the story of what the past 18 months has meant for our politics may have only just begun.
John Harris is a Guardian columnist