Why it’s time to create a First Minister of England
As I See It: Terry Murden
If he was not already known for it, Boris Johnson is fast gaining a reputation as a master of muddle.
His televised address to the “nation”, which was meant to provide a road map to the much-vaunted “new normal”, just added more confusion, blurring the social distancing message and urging people to return to work, but not to use public transport on which so many depend.
He spoke of the UK coming together, but then delivered a set of new guidelines that applied only to England. Viewers in Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales may as well have been watching another repeat episode of Dad’s Army. In fact, Corporal Jones’ regular cries of “Don’t panic!” would be just as useful a slogan in current times as Mr Johnson’s bewildering new advice to “Stay Alert”.
The Prime Minister is performing, not as a UK Prime Minister delivering a clear message that applies to every citizen, but as a quasi First Minister of England. To a degree, devolution has forced this upon him, but he should rise above it and it should not detract from the reason why the handling of the coronavirus message should have been centralised from the off to avoid the mixed messages coming out of the devolved nations.
While we remain a United Kingdom we also share the same television stations, employers, institutions and behaviours. But our fragmented system of government no longer neatly fits that template. France and Italy suffered the same varying rates of contagion, but the governments there were able to deliver a one nation message that is now denied us.
There was no reason for the health emergency to be devolved behind borders that the virus does not recognise, but we have a four nation approach that means individuals and families in Melrose are treated differently to those in Morpeth and Merthyr simply because we have deemed the borders to be a significant reason to create multiple options on our journey back to normality. These are geographic barriers that have merely added confusion and delay to the political response.
As such, the criticism is not only aimed at Downing Street. In Scotland there is growing frustration among businesses with Holyrood which has yet to produce a clear “road map” of its own and which has been forced in some instances to play catch-up with Westminster.
Businesses face needless differences in the packages of support offered and the simple process of leaving our homes now rests on a set of shifting rules that are losing credibility.
If the lockdown and our response to it has taught us one thing, politically, it is that the Prime Minister needs to establish an Assembly for England with its own First Minister. It is simply no longer tenable for him and the Commons to play this double role.