Tuesday 16 June 2020

Forced divergence

It looks increasingly as though the English government is going to reduce the physical distancing rule from 2 metres to 1, and the various reviews and discussions taking place are more about trying to either keep the current scientific advisors on board or else find some different advisors who will agree with the proposal. ‘Following the science’ has increasingly become more about fitting the science to the policy than adjusting the policy in the light of the science. The science in this case isn’t entirely clear to begin with. Two metres isn’t risk free anyway; setting a distance is about calculating the level of risk. About the only thing we know for certain is that the risk of transmission is higher at 1 metre than it is at 2 metres – the precise extent of that increase in risk is subject to debate. In principle, it is entirely reasonable to be weighing up that difference in risk against the economic costs – there are many businesses which could be viable at 1 metre but not at 2. The problem about reducing it to mathematics and economics, however, is that it isn’t just money that we’re playing with – it’s people’s lives. And, of course, it’s always worth remembering that the people deciding that the risk is worth taking aren’t the ones who will be taking that risk.
The probability at this stage is that Wales and Scotland will, for the time being at least, stick to the current rule. Whether that reflects a difference in the weighting given to the two main factors, public health and economics, as some would like to believe, or whether it’s just taking a more holistic and long-term view about the economics (an extended lockdown might be better than a stop-start approach) isn’t entirely clear as yet. That applying different rules across such porous borders will cause difficulties is not in doubt, as we’ve already seen with the reckless rush to end the lockdown in England. Some of the implications could be interesting to watch – if a train can carry twice as many people with a 1 metre rule as it can with a 2 metre rule, will half the passengers on a London-Swansea train have to get out at Bristol Parkway before the train enters the Severn Tunnel, for instance? Having such differences isn’t unmanageable – they manage perfectly well on the European mainland – but it runs counter to the ‘British’ (and especially Tory) mindset, which still lives in the pre-devolution era of a single state with a single government and a single set of rules.
Increasing divergence between England on the one hand and the other governments in the UK on the other in relation to the pandemic wasn’t inevitable. Scotland maybe was always most likely to diverge, but the instinctive position of ‘Welsh’ Labour has throughout been to seek a ‘four nations’ approach, working through consensus. It is the English government which has made that difficult, by a lack of discussion or consultation and a conviction that it is uniquely ‘right’ about everything. Whether Johnson simply expected the devolved governments to fall into line or whether he simply didn’t (and still doesn’t) understand the reality of devolution is another open question. Neither paying attention to constitutional detail nor listening to other opinions are obvious character traits of the current PM. And taking decisions in direct contradiction of the expert advice provides further evidence of his determination to follow a particular path regardless of the consequences. The result is that he has pushed the First Minister of Wales, an apparently mild-mannered man who clearly would eminently prefer that EnglandandWales followed a common set of rules, into a position where he sees little choice but to ally himself with the SNP leader in Scotland and follow an increasingly divergent line. The alternative is tearing up a strategy which was prepared on the basis of the best expert advice available to him and following instead the capricious whims of Johnson. He seems to have rather more integrity than that.
When the United Kingdom ends –Scotland’s departure is now surely inevitable, and Welsh independence is rising up the agenda too – it will owe as much to the incompetence of the unionists in their approach to maintaining it as it will to the persuasiveness of the independentistas.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

History repeating its self. If the Unionist had not been politically arrogant after the Easter Rising there would have been a good chance that Ireland would not have been divided with the south becoming independent. Imperial arrogance!