Matt Smith wrote the following article titled 'As Boris opens the economy up, Scottish and Welsh leaders seem determined to keep theirs shut' for the Daily Telegraph:
The Labour and SNP administrations have scuppered hopes of a 'One Nation' lockdown exit and set themselves up for slower economic recoveries
Boris Johnson announced the UK Government’s roadmap out of lockdown to a nation keening to escape the toughest restrictions in its peacetime history. Britain’s long national hibernation is ending. The great pause is lifting. We will start taking big steps toward life in an open society.
The 2-metre physical distancing rule will give way to 1-metre plus. From July 4 two households of any size will be able to meet. Places of worship will re-open. Covid-secure pubs, restaurants and hotels will start taking customers. Museums, galleries, cinemas and bingo halls will open their doors. Hairdressers will start cutting hair. Schools are already welcoming pupils.
Throughout Johnson has exuded awareness that the lockdown is a hiatus in our national life to be endured while we defeat the virus. The maxim behind relaxation is ‘trust the people’. Opening-up relies on “common sense in full knowledge of the risks”. With fiscal policy largely reserved, the UK Treasury is also painfully aware of our nose-diving economies.
His announcement was made as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. Yet devolution means his government’s decisions only take effect in England. For the devolved governments in Edinburgh and Cardiff have opted for divergent and decidedly slower lockdown exits that will lead to disparities in the recovery.
Nicola Sturgeon’s SNP Government announced the beginning of Scotland’s lockdown lifting to the mantra of “care and caution”. The 2-metre rule remains despite key sectors of the Scottish economy facing “wholesale collapse” and academics from Oxford and Dundee universities casting doubt on it. Scotland’s hospitality and tourism industries will wait another two weeks before they can reopen.
After a screeching U-turn, her government abandoned the idea of ‘blended learning’ in favour of a patchwork return to school in August. Scottish parents will face a harder time returning to work than their English counterparts.
The need for political differentiation is on factor driving divergence. The raison d'être of the governing Scottish National Party is independence. Sturgeon has burnished her First Ministerial role distinctively. She has not shied from publicly attaching UK Government lockdown policy and pre-empting COBRA committee announcements to the frustration of officials.
She is also a markedly more statist politician than her predecessor Alex Salmond who was an RBS economist before entering politics. The respected Fraser of Allander Institute says that the SNP Government has tended to proliferate “different strategies, advisory groups and bodies” that have “cluttered the policy and delivery landscape”. Scottish business is getting increasingly ‘frustrated’.
Sturgeon’s leadership style is top-down. Edinburgh University’s distinguished Professor of Public Policy James Mitchell has also criticised a centralization of power and the First Minister’s preference for “acolytes” and her refusal to “tolerate dissent” that “speaks of an insecurity”. There is an air of unreality about Bute House.
Over-cautiousness carries its own risks. As the Scottish Government rejects calls for a faster re-opening, the head of the SNP’s Growth Commission has already warned of a “tidal wave of job losses”. Scottish GDP is down 30 per cent and will not recover until 2023.
In Westminster Keir Starmer has highlighted the dangers of inaction and keeping economies closed. Yet the Welsh Labour Government in Cardiff is delivering a slower lockdown exit than anywhere else. The gentleman in Cathays Park really does know best. Even the Senedd Cymru is closed while the UK, Scottish and Northern Ireland Assembly are open.
Wales’ Prif Weinidog Mark Drakeford has turned the Anglo-Welsh border into what often feels like a slate curtain. Inhibitive 2-metres social distancing will remain in place in Wales. The cruel five-mile travel restrictions will continue for another fortnight.
Leading doctors implored the Welsh Government to “rescue childhood” from a lockdown posing greater risk to their health than Covid. Yet Wales’ Chief Medical Officer Dr Frank Atherton who preferred reopening schools in August discovered this was “not attractive to the unions”. Consequently schools re-open on the “second best option”. As in Scotland parents will find it harder to resume work.
Welsh Labour’s desire for a slower lockdown is a reflection of its governing philosophy. Drakeford was one of the first politicians to back Jeremy Corbyn for the Labour leadership. Drakeford won the Welsh Labour leadership with the backing of the Momentum faction. No wonder he leads the only administration in the UK that has forgotten that the lockdown is to control the spread of Covid not peoples’ lives.
Drakeford’s government lacks business experience. Absent-mindedness toward enterprise explains why non-essential retailers began opening a week after England and the Welsh Government’s failure in Wales to support businesses in Wales with a rateable value of more than £500,000.
The cost of playing ‘catch up Cymru’ is mounting. The Bevan Foundation has warned MPs Wales’s economy is likely to fare far worse than the UK as a whole. The economic inactivity rate increases more sharply in Wales than elsewhere. And the Centre for Towns says ten of the twenty most economically vulnerable towns are in Wales.
Sturgeon and Drakeford have put paid to a One Nation lockdown exit. Yet the health of the nations’ social and economic fabrics means that our focus must not only be on saving lives but also on saving livelihoods.
Matt Smith is a Conservative who stood for Parliament and the National Assembly for Wales. He was a policy analyst at Vote Leave. He has written about Welsh politics for The Telegraph, Conhome, BrexitCentral, CAPX, GlobalVisionUK, Institute of Welsh Affairs and Gwydir. Read more about Welsh politics at www.mattsmith.org.uk/news.