May 14. A month ago, on April 14, I wrote a piece on ‘Borders’, describing the ‘insane’ prospect of different lockdown regulations on either side of national borders within the UK.
Now it has come to pass. The picture above is the view from the bottom of my garden. Below the field is the Severn, hidden by the trees on the bank. Almost unnoticed in the current crisis, we have been enjoying a warm, dry Spring and the river is unusually low for this time of the year. Beyond it, across a few more fields, is Wales, with the Breiddens in the distance. Were I to go for a walk on the hills, as we often did in peacetime, I could now be stopped by the police. It is legal to drive to take exercise in England, not in Wales. It is permissible for people to go to any kind of work in England, not in Wales. There is a golf course in the border village of Llanymynech, a few miles away, where 15 holes are in Wales, 3 in England. According to the new rules, only the English holes can be played.
Some of this is just a trivial irritation. But there is a more serious event taking place. The leaders of Scotland, Wales and even Northern Ireland, have publicly condemned Johnson’s broadcast on Sunday, where he announced a partial, if very confused, relaxation of the rules ‘in the UK’. The nation leaders were quick to point out that they had not been consulted about the new regime and did not agree with it. They were free to go their own way and intended to do so. This is partly a matter of local calculation about the state of the pandemic and the risk of relaxing the lockdown. It is also a consequence of the growing perception that the Westminster government is fundamentally incompetent. The electorates of the other nations are looking to their own representatives for a road map out of the crisis, and practices are likely to diverge still further in the coming months.
The coronavirus pandemic did not invent the break-up of the UK, but amongst the consequences will be a significant acceleration of that process. And Brexit is yet to come.