COVID-19 and Borders: Has Scotland Taken Back Control?
Borders have been the political issue this week as the United Kingdom emerges from its COVID-19 ‘lockdown’. This blog has two key points. The first is how further evidence has emerged of the UK pulling apart through the British Government’s handling of the coronavirus crisis. The second point is that political discourse about Scotland’s borders has begun, a key issue for a sub-state nation with aspirations of independence.
The UK COVID-19 Response
The lack of unity between the British and devolved governments in tackling coronavirus highlights deep tensions in the constitution. As pointed out previously, the approach of Boris Johnson towards the UK’s form of federalism is problematic. In short, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have devolved governments with extensive powers, including over public health. The UK Government acts as the English government on domestic affairs, and as the British Government on issues which are shared such as foreign affairs. Cooperation between the devolved and UK governments is done through convention as opposed to law – but unfortunately, with regards to COVID-19, the British government has failed to pursue such cooperation. The UK Government therefore left the devolved governments open to adopt different coronavirus strategies and they all have. Thus, in Scotland, restrictions are stricter: Scottish residents cannot go to the pub, for example, unlike their compatriots in England.
Borders and Further Disunity
The question of borders has arisen in two ways. First, in response to the increasingly different rates of infection and lockdown restriction between Scotland and England, the idea of Scotland quarantining travellers from England was floated in the face of concerns about cross-border infection. First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said that she had no such plans, but could not rule the option out. In response, Boris Johnson said that there is no border between Scotland and England. As well as being untrue, this statement is insensitive to Scotland as a nation with its own government, and also completely fails to engage with the issue of differences between the handling of COVID-19 across the four nations of the UK.
The second issue around borders emerged on 3rd July, when the UK Government announced an ‘air bridge’ scheme, which removed the mandatory 14 -day quarantine period for travellers to and from certain countries – covered in the press as the start of holidays abroad for Britons. This has proven controversial and Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have not implemented the scheme. In response to the announcement of air bridges, Nicola Sturgeon and Welsh First Minister Mark Drakeford held press conferences in which they stated that they had not been properly consulted. Mark Drakeford was forthright, describing dealing with the UK government as an ‘utterly shambolic experience’. Nicola Sturgeon outlined how the Scottish Government had been given little notice of the announcement. In her own words: ‘When so much is at stake as it is right now, we can’t allow ourselves to be dragged along in the wake of another government’s, to be quite frank about it, shambolic decision-making process.’
The UK Government has not engaged with the concerns of the devolved governments. Instead, Boris Johnson said that his government was taking a four nation approach and consulting the devolved governments. It does not seem that this level of consultation was sufficient, and reflects an expectation for the other nations of the UK to simply fall into line with England. Such an approach ignores the multinational reality of the UK, along with the devolution settlement which provides a constitutional framework for this multinationalism. The UK Government’s reading of the British constitution also fails to account for the fact that the devolved governments have gained more powers through the coronavirus crisis. While the devolved governments do not have legal control of their borders because the power has not been devolved, they do have control over quarantine through public health being devolved matter. Therefore, by implementing quarantine for those entering Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland, a legal lever is created to deter people from entering, giving a soft form of border control to the devolved governments.
To an outside observer, such questions around the border may not seem remarkable. The exacerbating factor is how politically charged the context is, taking place against a background of constitutional instability, Brexit and the looming question of Scottish independence. In Scotland in particular these developments pose risks to the unity of the UK. Gradualism is the long-standing tactic of the Scottish National Party, the ruling party in Scotland, and is a strategy whereby Scotland slowly accrues powers until independence is inevitable. This may be a key point in Scotland’s drift away from the UK.
In addition, Boris Johnson has turned COVID-19 into a question of nationalism. By using rhetoric such as his no border between Scotland and England statement and by his assumption that the devolved nations would follow England’s lead, he has displayed a particular form of unitary British nationalism hostile to devolution and multinationalism. Using this approach has led Boris Johnson to neglect the policy issues around emerging from lockdown and borders. As a result, Scotland is talking about its own external borders, and the SNP have control of the narrative.
The British Government opened up the space for Scotland to pursue an independent COVID-19 response. Naturally, different strategies within the same state created questions of extent and application. By ignoring the multinationalism of the UK and failing to engage in the question of borders, the British Government has given the SNP control of the discussion in the continued debate about Scotland’s constitutional future. In the infamous Brexit campaign slogan, Boris Johnson promised to ‘take back control’ of the UK’s borders in the face of EU migration. Instead, Boris Johnson stands to lose control of a substantial part of the UK borders in the form of Scotland.