English pubs and clubs are feverishly preparing for one of their busiest nights of the year, but for the rest of the UK 2021 is set to end with more moans than bangs. Decentralization has established itself as the party animal par excellence. In Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, decentralized governments have ordered pubs to resume table service and impose the rule of six. The SNP canceled all aspects of the Hogmanay celebrations in Edinburgh; the street party and torchlight processions, even the midnight fireworks display.
English havens predict an influx of party-loving invaders, bravely crossing Hadrian’s Wall and Offa’s Dyke to reach nearby waterholes. For just one night, Shrewsbury, Hereford and Berwick-Upon-Tweed could become the Ibiza or Ayia Napas of the borders.
The Covid storm has exposed both the fragility and the pettiness of devolved rule across Britain, but nowhere has it been done more ruthlessly than in Wales. Before the pandemic, few would have recorded the existence of Mark Drakeford. For all but the most passionate political junkies, this muttering sociology professor turned Welsh Labor leader would have been, at best, the answer to a publicity quiz question. But the prospect of the emergency inspired Drakeford and others like him – those whose idea of leadership is to watch whatever England plans and then do the opposite. They have assessed the situation and see it only as a welcome opportunity to fulfill their Puritan fantasies.
In a crowded field, Drakeford must take the palm for demagoguery over “science” while coming out with the most cosmically absurd decisions. Earlier this year, Wales allowed pubs and restaurants to reopen, but banned the serving of alcohol, in line with the centuries-old Welsh tradition of locking the playground swings on Friday’s Day. Sabbath. In a similar fashion, supermarkets have been ordered to buckle up “non-essential” items from shoppers – of course it’s the science that says a cauliflower is safe, but a pair of children’s shoes is not.
In England, at least, we seem to have moved away from our highest point of absurdity – measuring the diameter of a scotch egg and so on. Yet Wales continues to exist in a state of Pythonian surrealism. Thanks to new spectator restrictions imposed in Wales and Scotland on Boxing Day, 50 rugby fans from the community came to the stands at Caerphilly RFC for the annual Under vs Over 30s match. Meanwhile, 140 more have gathered in the clubhouse, legally, to watch the same game streamed.
While the Welsh government has banned travel to work “without a reasonable excuse” (like, say, wanting to earn money) on pain of immediate fines, you can still go to the pub if you follow the rule of thumb. six. From New Years Day, Parkrun, the perfect social distancing chase, will be called off across Wales.
These diktats remain a bundle of petty contradictions. But their stupidity is almost less striking than the arrogance of the politicians who imposed them. To presume to dictate to companies in this way demonstrates the kind of distant and unrealistic thinking that could only have come from those of the Drakeford mold – public servants who have rarely, if ever, interacted with the private sector in their careers. The additional layers of government of decentralization offered disproportionate influence to many average Joes with little chance of finding it elsewhere.
The pandemic has certainly highlighted this, but a long-standing dysfunction is also at play, such as the historic mismanagement of Welsh Labor of the NHS. Despite higher health spending per capita, Welsh citizens are struggling with a median wait time almost double that of England. Long before the pandemic, the decentralized government was spending huge sums on vanity projects like Cardiff Airport, while neglecting education, health and other areas where Wales has fallen behind. Such historic pressures have helped leave ambulance services still relying on the military almost two years after the start of the pandemic.
The big picture is one of failure, but also of a fragmented and uneven political style. Although nominally a trade unionist, the Welsh Labor has struck a deal with the Senedd nationalists. And despite the recent spate of Labor polls in the UK, Sir Keir Starmer’s most likely path to power would involve similar poker jiggery with the SNP.
Nicola Sturgeon may be an infinitely smarter political operator than Drakeford, but there are many parallels in their political style – the same victim mentality, the same black holes in the budget, the same ‘I’m not Boris ”and an infantile approach to criticism. Sturgeon regularly uses his public health press conferences to throw populist placards in the media. A reporter recently aroused her anger by politely asking if the 10-day isolation period could be shortened to ease pressure on areas crippled by understaffing. “Yes, that would really help – it would spread the infection even further,” she scoffed. Yet days later John Swinney, Sturgeon’s deputy, admitted that the Scottish government was considering precisely this policy change.
Any form of devolution seems to result in similar insignificance and differentiation for itself. Given a lever, you can be sure they will pull it. Even the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, preemptively canceled the capital’s annual NYE fireworks display long before there was any mention of omicron. It may be inevitable; in its structure, decentralization seems almost inherently biased towards failure and authoritarian politics. As the financial costs and nuances of decision-making are externalized, political capital accumulates here.
Hopefully, these real-time experiences will remind voters in the Westminster polls that leftist politics, even paid for by others, ends in disaster. Devolution has stranded millions of British citizens with rulers they don’t deserve, but it could prove to be a gift for Boris Johnson. As always, the best advertisement for voting Conservative is a quick glimpse of what their opponents are up to.