A few weeks ago, the Scottish First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, was asked if she would rule out closing the border with England if public health circumstances required it. She refused to dismiss such a move, and said that border closures shouldn’t be seen as a “big political or constitutional issue”. This weekend one of her Advisors, Professor Devi Shridhar, has claimed that Scots are contracting COVID- 19 from the English and the Welsh. Both have been slammed in the London based media and accused of stoking divisions.
It would seem however, in a YouGov poll published a few days ago, that a large number of Scots are broadly in agreement with them. Four in ten Scottish people (40%) opposed English people travelling to Scotland if they don’t have to quarantine on arrival. They are, however, marginally outnumbered by the 47% of Scots who are content with English tourists still being allowed in. The figure amongst SNP voters is much higher, with 54% of those Scots wanting to ban the English from crossing the border without quarantine.
YouGov say that the results in Wales are very similar to those in Scotland: 37% of Welsh people want English tourists to stay away, compared to 50% who would welcome them. Again, politics plays a role, with 2019 Plaid voters the most likely to oppose English travellers, at 54%.
Although it’s true that England has suffered a higher percentage of excess deaths owing to COVID-19 compared to the other nations of the United Kingdom, the difference between the constituent parts of the UK is not really that staggering. It’s also fundamentally untrue to say that people from one part of the UK are “catching” COVID-19 disproportionately from another part of the Union. Could it be that the true motives for Scottish and Welsh Nationalists wishing to restrict travel by English people lie beyond public health concerns?
The Coronavirus pandemic has undoubtedly given the First Ministers of the devolved legislatures a chance to broaden their public profile. Nicola Sturgeon’s status was probably already assured, but in Wales Mark Drakeford has had to battle to make his presence felt, given that Wales has historically had fewer devolved powers than Scotland. Its legislature only became a Parliament in March this year, but Scotland’s, on the other hand, has had that status from the outset.
Both First Ministers, though, have held regular press briefings and been pedantic about pointing out differences in the regulations that apply between their Governments and Westminster. There has been much talk about who’s been the better performer. I would however venture to suggest that from the outset there has been an undercurrent of Nationalist sentiment that has gone far beyond patriotism, and which has capitalised on the pandemic.
In Wales, at a very early stage of the crisis, we saw calls for visitors from England to be banned from parts of North Wales such as Ynys Môn and the Llŷn Peninsula. This wasn’t without some justification. One of the valid arguments used was that the local health board, with smaller hospital capacity, wouldn’t be able to cope with demand if there was a significant outbreak.
The only remaining national Welsh paper, the Western Mail, came in for harsh criticism when it printed a front page containing the headline; Stay out of Wales, English warned.” On the same page, in a different story, there was a picture of Gareth Bale, snapped screaming aggressively during a football match. The direction of his ire in this context was towards the anti-English headline which had been printed opposite. This wasn’t an editorial mistake. Many saw it as outright xenophobia.
Later, police would tweet pictures of the cars of visitors who they had turned back because they had broken the Welsh Government’s “five mile travel” rule. Although the border had not been closed, it was virtually the same thing.
And now, a majority of Nationalists in both Scotland and Wales want to see border controls imposed. On a practical level, the Anglo Scottish border is 96 miles long, sparsely populated and with few people commuting over it. The border between England and Wales is very different. At 160 miles, it is fairly densely populated in some places, particularly the North East, with frequent cross border travel. In reality, policing either would be a nightmare.
Perhaps some of these Nationalists should be careful what they wish for. A separate YouGov poll shows that if there were to be a Referendum in England on English independence from the Union – in other words forcibly removing Wales and Scotland from the UK – 56% of English people would support English independence. Accused, whether justifiably or not, of stoking up anti English sentiment, the Nationalists in Scotland and in Wales run the risk of biting off more than they can chew.