The Lasting Effects of Covid on UK Politics | Matthew Birch

The coronavirus has not changed how we conduct politics- not in the long-run anyway.  Over the past year there have been some unavoidable changes to the way politics is carried out and the scope of political power; for example, we have seen great tranches of our liberties curtailed by a Conservative government spending enough money to make even Jeremy Corbyn’s eyes water.  These changes are only temporary.  As we vaccinate our way out of the pandemic it is not further change and reform that people want to see – it is a return to the ways of old.  

The changes that the pandemic necessitated will hangover for some time.  This does not mark the dawning of a new political age of virtual parliaments and speaker lists.  These will not become a staple of our parliamentary system and neither should they be.  As The Institute For Government uncovered in their investigation of the changes made to parliamentary procedure during the pandemic, “the spontaneity and quality of debates was reduced” and that this was “particularly significant for the scrutiny of legislation.”  Members in the Commons have been prevented from intervening on their colleagues streaming in to debates and vice versa, and the rigidity of the parliamentary timetable has meant reduced scope for MPs to raise the concerns of their constituents.  A parliament that cannot hold its members to account, properly scrutinise legislation, or effectively represent the people of this nation cannot – and will not – be allowed to remain.

The fate of the devolved nations appears set to revert back to its usual state too.  Granted it is still in a state of turmoil, but the pandemic has not managed to deal the final blow to the Union that it might have done.  The Scottish Parliament’s prerogative over health gave them the chance to demonstrate, once and for all, why Scotland does not need the Union.  It was Nicola Sturgeon’s chance to show that she could do things better than any Westminster government ever could – and for the most part she did.  Scotland got off to a troubled start but, as matters only seemed to worsen in England, the divergence in response that Scotland took has resulted in them having fewer deaths per 100,000 than England did.  This translated into Sturgeon enjoying an approval rating of above 80% at the height of the pandemic compared with Boris Johnson who had just 30%, and yet she has still not been rewarded with an overall majority in the Scottish Parliament following the May elections.  She was not able to make hay while the sun was shining, and now that the sun has well and truly disappeared – with the Telegraph labelling Scotland as “the COVID capital of Europe” – it looks as though the Union is safe for the foreseeable future.  In England too, despite widespread condemnation of Johnson’s handling of the pandemic, the public still do not want change: this is again evidenced by the Conservatives walking the May local elections.  Not only have they increased their hold on the localities but they managed to remove yet another brick in Labour’s so-called ‘red wall’ with their victory in the Hartlepool by-election.  When it comes to politics, it is the party of continuity – not the parties of change – that remain the people’s preference.

Our constitution is flexible enough that we have been able to adapt to the exceptional circumstances brought about by COVID-19.  Once those circumstances have gone, so too should the changes.  They have allowed our government to continue performing its key functions over the past year but they have done so at the expense of effective scrutiny and debate, and for this reason they do not mark the start of a new chapter in the way we conduct politics – they do not even mark the start of a new sentence.  There is no place in the prose of our politics for the changes necessitated by the COVID-19 pandemic.

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