Timing is everything in politics. And timing was perfect for Prime Minister Boris Johnson in recent weeks, just as voters in in the United Kingdom were heading to the polls to elect regional parliaments in Edinburgh and Cardiff, and a string of councils up and down England.
But the outcomes in all three nations were totally different, underlining the fact yet once more that the UK is a kingdom more fractured with each passing month.
Take England. There is nothing the Brits love more than a bit of gunboat diplomacy, a chance to show that the Royal Navy is still relevant, that Britannia can still rule the waves and waive the rules when it so chooses.
There is nothing that stirs an Englishman quite like the sight of a frigate or two full steaming ahead into some crisis, one that shows that the spirit of Nelson, Trafalgar, Jutland and the Falklands is jolly well alive.
For days last week, the fishermen of Normandy and Brittany bitterly complained that they had been shut out of lucrative fishing rights around the Channel Islands off the northwest coast of France.
British Overseas Territory
Someone even threatened to turn the power off to the British Overseas Territory so annoyed were the French over the new arrangements that replaced fishing treaties that predated Napolean’s defeat by Nelson’s fleet more than two centuries ago.
They hastily organised a temporary blockade of Jersey’s main port – nothing serious, more a symbol of anger than actual intent – the perfect opportunity for Johnson’s government to dispatch two warships from Portsmouth across the Channel to Jersey. And if the Brits did that, then the French navy had to respond in kind. A naval confrontation in the Channel!
It was all a bit of overkill and terribly overdone if the truth be told, but if the truth be told English voters were casting the ballot the next day. Good television. Strong leadership. Brexit, dear chap, and all of that.
When the results from England were totted up, it was a good day’s work for Johnson, pretty much confirming that England remains under the one-party rule of the Conservatives in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. The new opposition Labour Leader, Sir Kier Starmer, has largely failed to engage with English voters.
There may be a lot of political white noise in Westminster about expenses and curtains, holidays and lobbying – most English just want to get on with paying their bills and recovering from Covid-19. Besides, Boris has managed to get jabs into more than two-thirds of every Briton now, and one-third have had both jabs.
In Wales, First Minister Mark Drakeford led Labour to victory with his slow, steady and cautious approach to opening up Wales. Voters were largely happy with the former academic’s handling of coronavirus this past year, one that saw Wales locked up with longer limits imposed on travelling and the border with England closed for long periods. Many Welsh, it seemed, liked the idea of keeping the English out.
And in Scotland, the Scottish National Party just missed out on claiming an overall majority of seats in the parliament at Holyrood in Edinburgh. They fell one seat short of an overall majority, increased their overall vote, came out unscathed from the vicious infighting between former SNP leader Alex Salmond and current First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, and not govern Scotland for the fourth successive term.
With Scotland’s Green Party also actively supporting independence and winning eight seats, there is now an overall majority in the Scottish parliament in favour of going it alone and cutting the umbilical cord with the rest of the UK.
No sooner had the ballots been counted that Sturgeon was prosletising that the result was a mandate for that second Scottish referendum, and she and her ministers would be preparing legislation to that end in the coming months.
And no sooner had the votes been cast than a series of UK ministers were saying that now was not the time for a referendum, the issue of Scottish independence has been settled in that referendum seven years ago, and the only thing that mattered now was building back better after the ravages of coronavirus.
Result in Scotland
But make no mistake, there will be growing concern around the Cabinet table in London at the result in Scotland. Long gone are the times when the government in London could dispatch redcoats over into Scotland to subdue the restless clans.
If anything, with strategic nuclear submarine bases located in Scotland, the Royal Navy will indeed be worried at the prospect of one day in the next decade not being able to reprovision their vessels there.
This next battle will take place in the law courts, fought by regiments of constitutional lawyers over what exactly is the nature of the Act of Union that unites the UK. The last time that was unpicked was a century ago, when the Government of Ireland Act allowed for the partition of Ireland.
I am not a constitutional scholar, but the Brexit debate springs to mind. There were shouts then from the Brexiteers that the people had spoken and that parliament had to respect their wishes, and MPs could nor should not prevent that from happening. Ah yes, but those were the voices of Englishmen true, not revolting Scots who rejected Boris and Brexit.
There is no written constitution in the UK, it is governed by convention and tradition – the same traditions of Empire and Commonwealth, gunboats and redcoats. The French are revolting, so too the Scots.
My, how so little changes down the decades.