No sacred cows

Why are the devolved nations so ungrateful?

24 October 2020

9:00 AM

24 October 2020

9:00 AM

One of the things I hadn’t anticipated about the pandemic is that it would turn me into an English nationalist. At the time of writing, the governments of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have decided to place their countries under various forms of lockdown, while No. 10 has stopped short of imposing one on England with some Tier 3 hotspots. The explanation for this divergence is simple. The Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish executives don’t need to worry about the economic harm the lockdowns will cause because they know that Westminster will come to their rescue. Boris, by contrast, cannot afford to be so reckless because England has no equivalent sugar daddy. The devolved nations are acting like irresponsible students, running up massive debts on their credit cards because they can count on the bank of mum and dad to bail them out.

Actually, it’s even worse than that in Scotland’s case, because one of Nicola Sturgeon’s reasons for placing so much of the country under virtual house arrest is to whip up nationalist sentiment. She wants to position herself as a responsible grown-up, doing what’s necessary to keep her people safe, in contrast to the bumbling buffoon in Westminster. Not only will that help the SNP in the forthcoming elections to the Scottish parliament, it will also make a nationalist victory more likely in the inevitable second referendum. The irony, of course, is that if the SNP had won the first referendum, Sturgeon would not be able to indulge in this ruinously expensive virtue-signalling. With independence would have come a modicum of fiscal responsibility — one of the better arguments for granting the free-spending nationalists their wish.

The actions of Welsh First Minister Mark Drakeford are scarcely any more explicable. His decision had nothing to do with rising case numbers, hospital admissions or deaths. Daily cases by specimen date plateaued in Wales last week, as have the number of Covid-19 patients in critical care. Daily deaths from Covid peaked at 11 on 7 October and haven’t climbed above single digits since. The cumulative death toll in Wales is 1,722, which is about 4 per cent of the total in England.

No, the reason the Welsh Labour leader has imposed these draconian restrictions is to ratchet up the pressure on Boris and make it more difficult for him to avoid imposing a two-week ‘circuit breaker’, thereby enhancing the standing of Keir Starmer, who called for one last week. Drakeford can afford to play politics with his own people’s livelihoods because he knows that Boris — the man he’s doing his best to embarrass — will have to pick up the pieces.

All of which has left me feeling like an angry, red-faced gammon. Up until now, I haven’t minded subsidising our lower-income neighbours, even though they’ve never exhibited the slightest flicker of gratitude. I know from my involvement with various good causes that the beneficiaries of charitable giving often resent their dependence on you. You do it because it’s the right thing to do, not because you want them to doff their caps in appreciation. But for the devolved nations to take our money and then use it to finance a campaign to make England look selfish and irresponsible has pushed me over the edge.

It’s one thing to be resented by the people you’re supporting financially. But for them to be self-righteously looking down their noses at you as they sweep your money into their pockets is a bit much. It’s like being the parent of three teenagers who are permanently stuck in the sanctimonious, holier-than-thou phase.

I haven’t quite given up on unionism. I still think we’re better off together and I worry what will become of Scotland and Wales if we were to part. So I think we should give them a choice. We hold referendums in all three devolved nations and say: ‘Look, devolution’s not working. The English can’t continue bankrolling you if you’re just going to set fire to the money in a misguided effort to make yourselves look better than us. Either you abandon this sophomoric pretence of independence and throw in your lot with us or you become separate sovereign states, entirely responsible for your own affairs.’

I hope they choose to remain in the UK, I really do. But if they embrace full independence, that would be better than this unworkable halfway house.

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