By Jamie Dettmer
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson won last December’s general election partly on the back of promises to unite post-Brexit Britain and to level the country up by reviving parts neglected by previous governments.
Partly as a result of his pledge, the Conservative party captured seats in the de-industrialized north of England, breaching a so-called red wall of constituencies that for decades had reflexively voted for Labor, the country’s main, center-left opposition party. Johnson took aim, too, at the Scottish nationalists, vowing to block a second Scottish independence referendum.
But thanks to the havoc wrought by the coronavirus pandemic, Britain’s persistent north-south divide has widened — and support for Scottish independence has never been stronger. Welsh nationalism has been stirred by the pandemic into “greater wakefulness,” according to Polly Mackenzie of Britain’s cross-party think tank Demos, with nearly half of all under-25s in Wales now saying they want secession.
Northern regional leaders have wrangled with London, complaining it is not doing enough to help them weather lockdowns or to cope with the grievous economic fallout of the coronavirus. Some have opposed a new three-tiered system of restrictions and lambasted Johnson’s handling of the crisis, accusing the government of playing politics with the pandemic.
The north’s mayors complain the new tighter measures are being imposed on them with too little consultation by government officials in London. “They can only see numbers and blobs on the map, whereas we see names, communities, the full picture of what happens on the ground,” Andy Burnham, the mayor of Greater Manchester, fumed to reporters last week.
On Monday, 54 Conservative lawmakers representing northern seats warned Johnson that his election pledge to “level up” the nation was being undermined by the disproportionate impact of restrictions in northern England. They said in a collective letter that the coronavirus is threatening to “send the North into reverse.”
“The virus has exposed in sharp relief the deep structural and systemic disadvantage faced by our communities and it threatens to continue to increase the disparity between the North and South still further,” the lawmakers said. Their constituencies risk being left behind unless there is a clear strategy for exiting lockdown restrictions.
Johnson isn’t alone among Europe’s national leaders struggling with restive regions to forge a political consensus around a pandemic strategy. Central and regional governments in many European countries are increasingly at loggerheads. Some of the disputes revolve around what approaches to adopt to contain the coronavirus pandemic; others over how to share shrinking economic pies.
Many of Europe’s poor regions are being hit harder by the pandemic; wealthy regions, such as Catalonia, Lombardy and Flanders, bristle at the idea that they will have to help bail out their less prosperous neighbors. Lack of consultation or the sidestepping of parliaments and imposing restrictions with no prior agreement are also prompting disquiet, exacerbating pre-pandemic divisions.
Some analysts hazard that one of the legacies of the coronavirus crisis could well be to strengthen separatist sentiment in some countries already struggling with secessionists and to boost demands by regions for greater devolved powers. “The coronavirus pandemic is serving to catalyze pre-existing territorial disputes and empower regional nationalist movements,” says Jonathan Parker of Britain’s University of Sussex.
“The pandemic is intensifying debates about the constitutional futures of several European regions. Many on the pro-independence side have been empowered by the crisis, which is highlighting the failings of central governments and underscoring the power of the regions,” Parker wrote in a commentary for Britain’s’ Financial Times.
Belgium, Spain, Italy and Germany have all seen disputes flaring between national and regional leaders. In Belgium, Flemish nationalists have attacked the central government for its handling of the pandemic.
Disputes have raged between Flanders and officials in Brussels. The latest came this week when Flanders declined to impose additional coronavirus restrictions, despite moves by Brussels and French-speaking Wallonia to tighten up. In the past week around 12,000 Belgians a day on average have tested positive for the coronavirus — hospitalization admissions and the death county keep on rising.
Speaking to VTM news, Flemish Minister-President Jan Jambon accused the central government and Wallonia of adopting “exaggerated measures.” He warned the additional measures won’t necessarily succeed in tamping down transmissions of the potentially deadly virus, adding that cooler heads need to prevail. Flemish nationalists are bristling at the idea that wealthier Flanders should help subsidize poorer Wallonia.
In Spain, seven of the country’s regions have criticized the decision taken this week by the government of Pedro Sánchez to declare a state of national emergency and to impose a curfew. Other regions take an opposite view and have been clamorous for weeks for the central government to order lockdowns.
Catalan separatists have argued an independent Catalonia would have tackled the pandemic better than it has as part of Spain, and that there would have been fewer deaths had the wealthy northeastern region been on its own, they say. Earlier this year, when the pandemic started to unfold in Spain, they called on the central government to impose a tough lockdown much earlier than it did.
In Britain, already fractured by Brexit, the pandemic has witnessed a steady divergence in the handling of the pandemic between Johnson’s government in London and the devolved authorities of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. The latter were more cautious than the central government in July and August when Johnson eased restrictions. They decided not to do so.
Though Scottish nationalists do not like to admit it, the coronavirus has boosted their fortunes, say analysts. Their leader and Scotland’s First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, has benefited from increased visibility and has grabbed at chances to differentiate Scotland from England. Support in opinion polls for the Scottish Nationalist Party is now running at about 50%.
And backing for Scottish independence also has climbed. Support for separation rose to nearly 60% this month, panicking Conservative ministers in London.
“In the 2014 referendum, the Nationalists struggled to get Scots to imagine what an independent government might look like. The pandemic was just what the doctor ordered. Health is devolved under Britain’s constitution, so Ms. Sturgeon’s administration has the trappings of a state-in-waiting,” noted The Economist magazine recently.
Sturgeon has received plaudits for her handling of the pandemic — her message has been consistent and so have her policies. “The coronavirus crisis has given Nicola Sturgeon’s government renewed purpose, increased visibility, new chances to differentiate from England and the opportunity to boast about its supposed superiority,” according to Polly Mackenzie of the Demos think tank.