Last Monday, I had a haircut. Normally, the trimming of my thinning locks are not the substance of editorial commentary, but this is an exception. It was my first professional barbering in almost six months. Yes, there had been some amateur butchering of my braids over these past months, but Monday’s cut put the head to right.
England is starting to emerge from months of lockdown. Indeed, parts of northern England have been under restrictions of one form or another since July, and were only briefly out of lockdown for just six weeks over the past 12 months. Who can forget those tiers that were so convoluted they brought local councils to the point of rebellion?
Mayors and councils in neighbouring communities were pitted against each other in the undignified scrap for extra funding to assist the poorest elements of the workforce who could least afford to be furloughed.
In anyone’s language, the who process was unseemly, with the imposition of tiers almost becoming a social stigma that reflected geographical and political biases.
This week at least, the mood in England has lifted now that barber shops are reopen, so too retail shops, beauty salons and a range of outdoor facilities such as zoos and theme parts — and pubs that have tables outside can resume operations too.
In Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, there are similar easings of restrictions finally taking place though at a slightly different pace. Because public health is a power devolved to the parliaments in Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast, the administrations of the four separate nations that together make up the United Kingdom set their own lockdown rules.
The easing of lockdowns now across the UK is only possible because of the success of the government’s vaccination programme that has resulted in more than half of the adults having at least one of three approved vaccines approved for use, while the number of the most vulnerable fully vaccinated closes quickly in on the 8 million mark. For all of its previous missteps, the UK government has gotten the vaccine strategy right — allowing things to open up as much of the rest of Europe faces a third wave of the virus and their vaccination programs stall.
Come May 6, some voters in England will be heading to the polls to elect new councils, some mayors and police and crime commissioners. There is no secret that the Conservative government of Prime Minister Boris Johnson hopes to see that so-called “vaccine bounce” translate into support for Tory candidates at the polls. Turnout is traditionally low — with around one-in-three adults over the age of 18 in England actually bothering to cast their votes in the local elections.
But the real fights will be in Scotland and Wales. Voters there — the voting age is 16 in both nations — will be choosing new regional parliaments in Edinburgh and Cardiff. And the outcome of Scotland in particular will be watched most closely by Johnson and Westminster.
Heading into the May 6 polls, the Scottish Nationalist Party is firmly ahead and likely to win an overall majority. The Green Party, which also favours an independent Scotland, is also polling well — particularly among first-time voters who believe climate change and the environment is the central issue going forward, and one that can only be properly handled by an independent Scottish parliament. Alba, the new independence party set up by former First Minister Alex Salmond, is hovering at the 3 per cent ark in opinion polls — not enough to take seats on the list system used to elect part of the Holyrood parliament, and not enough to detract from support for the mainstream SNP and First Minister Nicola Sturgeon.
Scottish Conservatives and Labour are fighting for also-ran status as Scottish voters seem intent on electing a SNP majority government, sending a clear message south to London that the case for independence and a second referendum is stronger than ever.
Throughout the pandemic, the leadership of Sturgeon has been forceful, clear and uncompromising. Yes, the personal spat with Salmond has been a minor distraction — but nothing more, opinions polls would suggest. Come May 7, if all goes to plan, Johnson will have to face up to the political reality of a majority of Scots wanting to go their own way once more, and wanting to be part of the European Union to boot.
In Wales, the Labour government led by Mark Drakeford seems on course to be returned to power, but all eyes are on just how much support can Plaid Cymru, the Welsh nationalist party attain. It has promised that it will push for an independence on Welsh independence within the next five years. Should Labour slip up, there is every chance Plaid Cymru could hold the balance of power — certainly an unwanted further problem for Johnson.
Over the past weeks, tensions have been high in Northern Ireland, with repeated rioting and street violence at levels not seen for years. Those old tensions have been exposed by an increasing sense of isolation by Northern Ireland loyalists who want the province to remain an intrinsic part of the UK — and the decision by Johnson to allow for a customs union down the Irish Sea, treating it differently that England, Scotland and Wales, has merely fed the violence. Sadly, Johnson and his ministers were long warned of the dangers of a return to violence should they proceed full steam ahead with Brexit.
The next three weeks and the outcome of the May 6 elections in Scotland and Wales — along with summering violence on the streets of Belfast — will merely serve to underscore that Brexit was a policy that served English nationalists more than the rest of the UK.
It will take far more than the feel-good factor from barbers, beer gardens and shopping to stop the UK from moving a step closer to breaking up.