Has Brexit left our disunited kingdom beyond repair?

Upcoming legislation on post-Brexit powers will see the union come under further strain.

Pandemics are no respecter of borders or discrete political positions.

In the UK, responsibility for combating coronavirus has fallen on a Conservative prime minister, an SNP first minister, a Labour FM in Wales and in Northern Ireland by representatives of a polarised historical enmity, that frequent hate fest where Ulster unionism clashes with Irish republicanism.

If this had all taken place less than 25 years ago, a centralised Westminster strategy would have been fronted by the prime minister with the secretaries of state for Scotland and Wales acting as quasi-plenipotentiaries with the bare minimum of scrutiny afforded by monthly questions in the Commons.

In Northern Ireland, despite a ceasefire in paramilitarism, the politics was still defined by mutual recrimination, all of which meant that direct rule essentially meant a made-in-Westminster solution for the people of Northern Ireland. Scrutiny, let alone a tailor-made response, would have been an afterthought.

The constitutional changes made by the Blair government and the decision on power-sharing in Ulster were genuinely radical at the time. Radical that is for a state that was centralised and seemingly impervious to ‘let go’.

Much of the bespoke strategies on lifting lockdown have never been analysed from the perspective of the 21-year-old newish normal in governance.

Devolution has allowed for that tailored response. The extent to which different parts of the UK moving at different speeds has raised the odd voice in angst only goes to show that some people simply haven’t adjusted to the realities of devolved government.

And yet the very institutions that facilitate that refined response are headed for the mother of all clashes with the mother of parliaments.

The issue is the post-Brexit split in powers between Westminster and the devolved nations when what was exercised by Brussels now has to be decided in the UK.

The new battleground will heighten tensions and do little to project a sense of harmony in this disunited kingdom.

Since the Scottish Parliament assumed legislative competence on July 1, 1999 much has changed. The Calman Commission, recognising Donald Dewar’s view that change was “a process not an event”, redefined Holyrood’s powers.

The Smith Commission led to more powers, too, even if it was not an organic response to constitutional naval-gazing.

Rather it enacted the panic strategy of the Better Together parties during the 2014 referendum when ‘more powers’ were offered to shore up a campaign that came relatively close to losing.

Since then Brexit has proved there is no bridge to straddle the realities of the UK as a whole voting to leave the EU with the fact that Scotland and Northern Ireland voted to remain.

Brexit may well have been in part a roar of English nationalism. But its consequence has been to embolden the Scottish variety and force people in Northern Ireland into considering the wider dimension of shared economic interests on the island of Ireland.

The UK is no longer the tight-knit unitary state which periodically has to deal with a little local difficulty in the form of containable demands for changes in how folk are governed.

In a real sense it is now a series of nations defined by different demands for further change.

The SNP will demand another independence poll.

A border poll on Irish re-unification is no longer the stuff of belly laughs. The uber unionists of the DUP are now left to explain how the ‘principle of consent’ is fine for defining Britishness but can be ignored when embracing Europeanism.

The forthcoming stushie over who gets what in the post-Brexit power spoils is not the stuff of pub chat or the kind of easy to understand concept that can be encapsulated in a slogan poking at a raw nerve.

It will, however, play to a narrative that all is not well in Britannia. What it does not do is make anything inevitable.

Politics post the 2014 referendum in Scotland has cemented the SNP’s stranglehold on power and it has seen fluidity in some voters in terms of moving from no to yes. But in the absence of another poll it is all rather academic.

The pandemic parked that awkward question for Nicola Sturgeon about her plan B on indyref2 when Boris Johnson says no, as indeed he will continue to say no. It hasn’t gone away.

The ‘power grab’ debate will bring it into sharper focus but it won’t resolve anything, at least not immediately.

Two decades of devolution have changed the UK beyond all recognition in terms of how decisions are made. Who knows what the next two years hold, never mind the next two decades?