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A shrinking country

A shrinking country

With No.10 representing just England, the Union really is at risk of breaking up

In the weeks before the Scottish independence referendum in 2014, I remember a British journalist in Beijing telling me that a Chinese friend of hers had said: “I don’t understand; do you want to make your country smaller?”

I suppose I always thought that she meant: even smaller.

Throughout my adult life I’ve been aware of the arguments about the union of the United Kingdom, but I always thought that they’d stay just that – arguments. I never thought the country would come apart. 2020 has changed that. Now I can’t see how it will hold together.

I’m James Harding, the editor and co-founder of Tortoise, and in this week’s Editor’s Voicemail I want to talk about coronavirus, nationalism and the increasing likelihood, as I see it, of the break-up of the United Kingdom.

In the referendum six years ago, 55 per cent of Scots voted No to independence; 45 per cent Yes. But since then. since 2014, things have changed. Sir John Curtice, Britain’s pre-eminent psephologist, joined us at a Tortoise ThinkIn last week, and he not only noted that the polls now put Scots in favour of independence, at somewhere between 53 and 58 per cent, but he also explained who and why.

Who? Well, in 2014, women skewed No. Since then, support among women for independence is up. About two fifths of Labour voters are polling pro-independence – that’s an increase on 2014, too .

But more important, perhaps, is why. Simply put, it’s Brexit and Boris. Many Scots who voted No in 2014 and voted, as the majority of Scottish voters did, to remain in the EU in the 2016 referendum lost their faith in the union then. That’s when, in effect, the voters of England forced Scotland to join them on the Brexit trip.

The pandemic has only cemented the view that the government of Scotland is better in Scottish hands: Nicola Sturgeon has offered more caution and more communication than her counterparts on London. And, while she has plenty of questions to answer on infection rates in universities and deaths in care homes, Scotland’s performance in the health crisis has been markedly better than England’s and trust in her is far higher than in Boris Johnson.

Public moods change, of course. The fact that the polls have moved so fast can tell you that. (And, in fact, private polls commissioned by some business people and former Scottish politicians suggest that support for independence might be even higher than the trend in the public polls suggests.)

But the polls and the public mood is not the point. Political memory is. Most of us forget almost everything that happens in politics and the news – and that’s if we were paying attention in the first place. But some things get seared in the public mind. Brexit and the coronavirus are such things; it’s hard to see people forgetting them – or how they’ve changed their worldview.

Wales has set itself apart from Westminster, too. The political noise in the UK this week has been dominated by the argument between Manchester and London; Andy Burnham, the Greater Manchester mayor, and Boris Johnson, the British prime minister. Meanwhile, Mark Drakeford, the first minister in Cardiff, has used the powers at his disposal to put Wales into a circuit-breaker national lockdown, a policy that in its timing, judgment and clarity is plainly different to the three-tier system imposed by Westminster.

I can’t remember a time when it’s been so clear that the person in No. 10 Downing Street is the English prime minister, not the British one. As Matt d’Ancona wrote this week, the Burnham-Boris battle is actually about England growing up – it’s about the future devolution of effective powers to metropolitan and regional governments. But the Drakeford-Johnson difference has got much less attention. It, though, suggests a deeper division than before between England and Wales.

And then there is Northern Ireland – a place that, as my colleague Chris Cook rightly and painfully reminds me so often, is less understood and less talked about in the corridors of Westminster and Fleet Street than swing states like Pennsylvania and Ohio. The perennial subtext of Brexit, though, is that London has consistently underestimated the impact of leaving the EU on the politics of Northern Ireland. And this is not going to end at the end of the year when the transition period comes to an end; in fact, it’s just going to start to get real.

But the reason that all of this has been on my mind is not, in fact, what we’re seeing here; it’s what’s happening over there – in the US. Earlier in the week, I was talking to a former White House official, a Democrat political adviser who’s worked with Obama and Biden and, in fact, with more than a dozen prime ministers and presidents around the world. He said three things that stayed with me.

First, he said he’s confident that there’s going to be a “blue wave” – i.e. Biden will win and there’ll be a surge in the Democrat vote.

Second, he said, be patient – more than 40 million Americans have voted by mail-in ballots so far (it was about 6 million at this stage in 2016) and the US electoral machinery for counting them is slow; it’s going to be slow, and it’s going to take time, and we’re not necessarily going to get a result on the evening of 3 November. For example, Pennsylvania, a state of 12 million people, says it can count just 250,000 votes on the first day.

And third, he said, we shouldn’t read a Biden victory as a return to normality. In fact, it’ll be just another change election, another example of angry America turfing out the incumbent.

Even if Trump loses, Trumpism is going to be with us; nationalism and populism, anxiety and anger, are not weakening. This, of course, is the revelation of 2020: the trouble that democracy is in, the relative slide of the West, the inadequacy of global governance. None of those things are going to be fixed with a vaccine. None of those things are going to go when the health crisis is over. Speaking to a former European prime minister, he put it pithily: “The problem facing liberal democracies is that we cannot deliver enough for our people.”

Well, the people of Britain have delivered their reflexive response: it was Brexit. They chose to “take back control”. This is the thought experiment of our times: the idea that small states rather than regional blocs, government closer to home rather than pooled power and interests, deliver better lives for the people.

Boris Johnson and Dominic Cummings know better than anyone the power of “take back control” as a political slogan. They won’t be surprised at its pull in Scotland, in Wales, in Northern Ireland, too. Less clear is how they win the argument when, this time, they are on the other side; when, this time, they are making the case for the union.

Because if they can’t, then governments led by the Conservative and Unionist party since 2010 will, indeed, have made their country smaller.