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Speaking for the Union: Unionist Discourses and Covid19

Published: 8 June 2020

Coree Brown Swan and Daniel Cetrà, Fellows at the Centre on Constitutional Change, reflect on how Unionist voices have made the case for state unity during the Covid19 pandemic. 

At first glance, a global pandemic appears to have few implications for state unity. However, Covid-19 has exacerbated tensions within the four nations and regions of the United Kingdom, with the leaders of Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland critical of the UK government’s handling of the crisis. It has also led to increasing policy divergence over coronavirus and the further deterioration of relations between the governments, with Scottish and Welsh leaders complaining that they hear about the UK’s position from the newspapers rather than directly from the Prime Minister. And it has revealed that after 20 years, the devolution settlement remains little understood – with the PM neglecting to distinguish between policies which apply to the United Kingdom as a whole and those which apply only to England, for instance, school openings.

In early 2020, we published an article entitled Why Stay Together: State Nationalism and Justifications for State Unity in Spain and the UK in an issue of Nationalism & Ethnic Politics. In this article, we sought to understand how British unionists and Spanish nationalists made the case for state unity at a time of constitutional upheaval. We saw their claims through the lens of demos, the ways in which the ‘people’ were constructed, responses to demands for self-determination, and the arguments in favour of staying together.  

Brexit, we argued, presents a serious challenge to the Union, having reignited a debate over Scottish independence and called into question the open border between Northern Ireland and the Republic. However, we could not have foreseen what was to come. Brexit negotiations continue apace but the headlines are dominated by Covid-19.

While all sides in the debate pledged to set aside party politics in favour of responding to the crisis at hand, both unionist and nationalist narratives of the crisis have emerged. Unionist narratives have centred on the demos and the pragmatic argument for staying together, echoing our earlier findings.

A four-nations approach?

Boris Johnson adopted a ‘four-nations approach’ from the outset, pledging to ‘pull  together as a United Kingdom’. However, this discourse was confused, as Boris  Johnson unveiled plans to ease the lockdown in a national address, speaking as ‘prime minister of the United Kingdom – Scotland, England, Wales, Northern Ireland’ where ‘there is a strong resolve to defeat this together’, but debuting proposals which applied only to England, leading to hasty clarifications by UK and devolved ministers, notably the Welsh Government’s assertion that any change in lockdown would be announced in Cardiff, not Number 10.

Pandemic as war

The experience of the Second World War is commonly evoked by Unionists seeking to make the case for the United Kingdom. The 1940s saw people from throughout the UK fighting together to defeat fascism and the Blitz as a moment of collective solidarity and patriotism. Boris Johnson, who has a general propensity towards Churchillian language, in particular has invoked the wartime spirit in his communications about the virus. He described the virus as the ‘enemy’ and pledged to ‘win the fight’, speaking of the need for bravery and sacrifice in the mist of this ‘conflict’. The celebrations of the 75th anniversary of VE Day helped foster the narrative that ‘we are all in this together’, stressing the unified character of the United Kingdom. A VE Day press release by Alister Jack drew parallels between the Second World War and the current experience, ‘We are living through difficult times just now, of course we are. But we will get through them. We will get though them together. Now, more than ever, we can all learn from the bravery, the resilience and the optimism of our wartime generation’. The anniversary was used by some, notably Scottish Conservative Murdo Fraser to call into question the affinities of the SNP.

The NHS as a British institution

The NHS, despite its devolved status, has always been at the centre of justifications for state unity and its foundation, a historical moment, like the Second World War, at which British character shone brightly. Politicians of all stripes joined in the clapping for the NHS, and Boris Johnson in particular, spoke of his hospital experience. However, the approaches taken by the individual NHS systems have been highlighted.

The broad shoulders of the British economy

Writing in his column for The Scotsman, Conservative MSP Murdo Fraser spoke of the ‘broad shoulders of the United Kingdom’, propping Scotland up during the economic crisis caused by the pandemic. ‘It sends shivers down the spine to think what a catastrophic situation Scotland would be in without the broader UK support that we now benefit from. Perhaps even SNP ministers can reflect, in quieter moments, just what a lucky escape we had when we said No to separation in that once-in-a-lifetime vote’. Scottish Secretary Alister Jack echoed these sentiments, speaking of the strength of the UK Treasury in supporting Scottish workers and businesses.

Early on in the crisis, Nicola Sturgeon announced that a referendum on independence would be placed on the backburner, while the Scottish Government focused its full attention on the pandemic. However, independence remains an active political issue.

How effective might this unionist discourse be in making the case for the Union? Covid19 has exposed the ambiguities and complexities of the devolution settlements. And governments at all levels are likely to be judged by their handling of the crisis. Public opinion shows that Scots are more supportive of Nicola Sturgeon’s efforts than those of Boris Johnson. This, combined with the economic effects of the shutdown, both in Scotland and the UK as a whole, are likely to inform the independence debate going forward.

Coree Brown Swan is a Research Fellow at the Centre on Constitutional Change where she works on the politics of independence, party politics, and intergovernmental relations.

Daniel Cetrà is a Research Fellow at the Centre on Constitutional Change where he works on unionism, state nationalism, and comparative territorial politics.

All images from Twitter. 
Photo by stux--12364 from Pixabay

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