LONDON – Less than six months after the UK left the European Union, Prime Minister Boris Johnson is increasingly busy trying to stop the outbreak of troubled parts of the UK.
On Friday, Mr Johnson sent his popular CFO, Rishi Sunak, to Scotland to quell the nationalist sentiment that has risen sharply there in recent months. Another Prime Minister, Michael Gove, traveled to Northern Ireland with nearly $ 500 million to help frustrated companies tackle new controls on shipping goods.
Experts have long predicted that Brexit would strengthen the centrifugal forces pulling the union apart. In Scotland in particular, the coronavirus pandemic has accelerated these forces and forced Mr. Johnson to launch an elaborate ̵
In Northern Ireland, where reunification with the Republic of Ireland seems a long way off, the situation is less acute. However, business people there, including those loyal to London, fear that they will be hurt by an expensive, bureaucratic trading system between Northern Ireland and the rest of the union.
Mr Sunak, who as Chancellor of the Exchequer coordinates the UK government’s economic rescue effort in response to the coronavirus, noted that 65,000 Scottish companies were given £ 2 billion ($ 2.6 billion) in loans to survive the lockdown. The pandemic reaffirmed the union’s enduring value.
“When I look back at the past few months, it’s a good example for me that the union is working really well,” said Sunak after touring a factory in Glasgow that makes generators. He set aside questions about independence and said, “I don’t think now is the time to talk about these constitutional issues.”
The problem is, a majority of the Scottish public seems to disagree. In an average of the most recent polls, 52.5 percent of people said they would vote for Scotland’s independence. This is a dramatic turnaround from the 2014 independence referendum when Scots voted to stay in the union by 55.3 percent to 44.7 percent.
It’s also the first time polls consistently show a majority in favor of canceling, said John Curtice, professor of politics at the University of Strathclyde and the UK’s foremost expert on polls.
The numbers have clearly alarmed the government. Mr Sunak is the fourth Cabinet Minister to visit Scotland last month – a list that includes Mr Gove and the Prime Minister himself.
“The UK government is sufficiently concerned that it is sending people north on a regular basis,” said Professor Curtice. “London may have only woken up in the last few weeks, but it’s a long story.”
The nationalist sentiment had already increased last year, said Professor Curtice, as the UK drafted a withdrawal agreement with the European Union. The Scots voted overwhelmingly to remain in the European Union during the 2016 Brexit referendum.
In Scotland, feelings of independence have heightened during the pandemic, as many people there believe Scotland has weathered the crisis better than the Johnson government in neighboring England. England has a higher per capita death rate than Scotland and the number of cases continues to rise.
Under conditions of limited self-government in the UK, the Scottish authorities are responsible for matters such as public health, while the UK government is responsible for immigration, foreign affairs and most importantly Mr Sunak’s rescue packages to protect those who are in their jobs Britain have lost curfew.
The overall performance of Scotland during the pandemic can be discussed. It is much smaller and sparsely populated than England. Some epidemiologists say that it is in the middle of European countries in dealing with the virus.
The first Scottish minister, Nicola Sturgeon, is far more popular in polls than Mr. Johnson, and her Scottish National Party is expected to win a major mandate in the general election next May. That would make it more difficult for Mr Johnson to reject a Scottish request for another referendum.
Political analysts said the Scottish National Party’s strategy has long been clear: to target people who voted to stay in the UK in 2014, but also to stay in the European Union two years later.
“It was strikingly naive to wait for the polls in Scotland to shift,” said Anand Menon, professor of European politics at Kings College London, referring to Johnson’s efforts to woo the Scots. “The question is whether this hectic activity is too little and too late.”
Mr Gove, who holds the title of Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, faced a different dilemma in Northern Ireland. According to analysts, the UK’s withdrawal agreement from the European Union has actually helped ease nationalist tensions as it has preserved an open border between north and south on the island of Ireland.
But the deal came with a compromise. Instead of cutting Ireland in half, the border will effectively go up and down the Irish Sea. Although Northern Ireland is part of the UK Customs Territory, it will abide by a maze of European Union rules and regulations, which means that goods shipped from England, Scotland and Wales will require customs controls.
Mr Gove said the UK government would pay £ 200 million ($ 260 million) to cover the cost of this business paperwork and £ 155 million ($ 202 million) for a new “light touch” technology system to help Streamline process.
“I don’t accept the argument that there is a border along the Irish Sea because businesses in Northern Ireland and Northern Ireland will still have unrestricted access to the rest of the UK,” said Gove during a visit to a carpet factory in Portadown on Friday.
According to analysts, his words were primarily intended to reassure trade unionists who fear Brexit will distance Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK and hasten its eventual reunification with the Irish Republic. However, in reassuring the unionists, they said he would antagonize nationalists whose focus is on strengthening Northern Ireland’s connection with the south.
“Michael Gove is a smooth speaker, but nationalists wouldn’t believe a word that came out of his mouth,” said Monica McWilliams, a Belfast academic and former politician. “Those who voted against Brexit will not be convinced of him, even if he hands out sweets.”
In a week in the shadow of the death of John Hume, Nobel Peace Prize Laureate and architect of the Northern Irish peace process, the reunification of Ireland is not an immediate concern of Mr Johnson’s Conservative government. In both countries, however, the prime minister is under pressure.
For some analysts, this is a contradiction at the heart of Johnson’s relentless drive to leave the European Union.
“They had a Brexit that did not take into account the wishes of the people in Scotland or Northern Ireland,” said Bobby McDonagh, a former Irish ambassador to the UK. “But that coexists with a conservative party celebrating the UK.”