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One of the many unpleasant features of the latest breakdown in the ‘four-nation’ approach to combating Covid-19 is that the nation’s various governments have all taken the opportunity to flex their authoritarian streaks.
Setting aside the top-level debate about the efficacy of Tier Three, or a national ‘circuit-breaker’, politicians in London, Edinburgh, and Cardiff have all invoked the crisis to justify some bizarre restrictions.
In England, the Government imposed a 10pm curfew (without modelling the impact) in order to ‘send a message’, with the result that thousands of people all ended up piling out of the pubs – and into the supermarkets and onto public transport – at the same time. North of the border, meanwhile, the Scottish Government’s own lockdown includes a ban on the indoor sale of alcohol.
Yet none of this reaches the absurd heights we are now witnessing in Wales, where Mark Drakeford has decided not only to force all ‘non-essential’ businesses to close, but to prohibit the sale of ‘non-essential’ items in essential shops.
Cue bizarre pictures of supermarket staff wrapping shelves to ensure the public can’t get their hands on such trivialities as new bedding (as winter draws in), as retailers try their best to navigate the new rules.
This bizarre move isn’t even nominally about controlling the virus. The First Minister has apparently claimed that it is necessary in order to create ‘a level playing field’ between big supermarkets and smaller shops. It is an ideologically-motivated thumb on the economic scales – not a public health measure. That Welsh shoppers will simply switch to online shopping (some permanently) seems not to have occurred to him.
As such, it will only sharpen the debate around who is going to pick up the tab for one of the strictest lockdowns in Europe. Typically of the devolution ‘settlement’, the Welsh Government has the authority to shut down its economy but can’t pay for it, and the Treasury is rightly resistant to getting bounced into spending commitments over which it has no control.
The perception that Scottish and Welsh devocrats are enthusiasts for lockdown because they can tap into ‘English’ money is a potentially dangerous one both for the Government and the Union as it is. If that grows into a broader perception of subsidy not just for more generous welfare spending but actively terrible economic policy, it could grow more toxic still.
Some devocrats want the power to borrow, although unless you think Westminster would ever not bail out devolved administration that’s simply more of the same by a different way. Others have suggested that Scotland and Wales should be forced to pay for additional lockdown measures from their own taxation. A third option would be to make Treasury economic support conditional, and revive the UK Government’s legitimate role in the governance of the whole country. No British cash without British strings.