During the 2019 British general election, a fear lingered that large sections of the NHS would be sold off to the US in post-Brexit Britain. This is the health service that was celebrated at the opening ceremony of the London Olympics. Given Boris Johnson’s track record of U-turns and broken promises, this is not an impossibility. But never mind the future bartering of the NHS, during the pandemic Johnson has arguably hijacked the NHS and used it as an instrument for English nationalism. This is evident in the glaring similarity between Brexit rhetoric and the current “Protect Our NHS”. The use of the personal pronoun by Conservative politicians appears strategic. Firstly, it allows Johnson to deflect attention away from the nine years of austerity that has effectively run the health service into the ground. It should be stressed that these policies have directly hindered the UK’s response to the virus as a sufficient capacity of PPE, ventilators and ICU beds were not available. Secondly, it allows Johnson to satisfy the appetite of his fellow Brexiteers, by instilling nationalism.
If this nationalism in Johnson’s pandemic policy was not already clear, it becomes evident when the origins of “Our NHS” are traced back to the controversial red bus that promised £350m a week to the health service during the “Vote Leave” Brexit campaign. The architect behind this was Dominic Cummings, Johnson’s special advisor. Ironically, Cummings, who may be credited for the linguistic rhetoric, has damaged Johnson’s leadership following accusations of breaching lockdown restrictions.
“The reality is the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) were wrong to invest in the Brexit project and place their faith in Johnson.”
But make no mistake, this is unequivocally English nationalism, not British. This is despite the fact that an insecure unionism in Northern Ireland has repeatedly sought to ride on the coattails of English nationalism. This error of judgment is now stark as Tory politicians have no qualms about a Brexit border down the Irish Sea, complete with EU checkpoints, an ultimate stab in the chest to unionists. The reality is the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) were wrong to invest in the Brexit project and place their faith in Johnson. Interestingly, they appear to have learnt their lesson somewhat this time around by rejecting Johnson’s shift from “Stay at Home” to “Stay Alert.” Instead of religiously following the Tory line as a means of expressing their “Britishness”, they may be beginning to realise sound bites from Westminster are merely empty rhetoric aimed at an English population.
“Watching Johnson’s Churchillian-style speech, those in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland would have struggled to ascertain whether the measures outlined applied to them.”
As universities switched to online learning, many students studying in different parts of the UK returned home to their families. Watching Johnson’s Churchillian-style speech, those in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland would have struggled to ascertain whether the measures outlined applied to them. As pointed out in the Sunday Business Post, the Prime Minister’s dismissive attitude towards the devolved administrations showed a distinct lack of understanding. Johnson could have consulted the various administrations before his address and conveyed a clearer message. Instead he decided to act unilaterally and spoke to the English people, the purveyors of the Tory vote.
“Unionism in the North has not learnt the lesson that it cannot ride on the coattails of English nationalism.”
Despite the DUP’s reluctant decision to diverge from London on Covid-19, the recognition that the Tories were steering a course of English, not British, nationalism has not trickled down to the DUP electorate. Growing up in Belfast where paramilitary slogans are commonplace, observing “NHS” graffitied on the walls of loyalist areas, accompanied by union jacks was quite surprising. Arguably this shows two things: firstly, the personal pronoun works; it bestows a sense of collective ownership that the health service belongs to everyone and the nation, arousing nationalism. Secondly, and more importantly, that unionism has been fooled again. During Brexit, they piggybacked on the “Take Back Control” slogan, interpreting it as an all-encompassing expression of Britishness. Unionism in the North has not learnt the lesson that it cannot ride on the coattails of English nationalism. While the other three administrations retained the previous position, England charged on ahead with an approach even more reminiscent of Brexit with commands like “Stay Alert” and “Control the Virus.”
Johnson’s premiership has notably been centred around English nationalism; it’s all he appears to know. This has resulted in an incompetent and unusual response to Covid-19 which has featured bombastic and boastful addresses despite the UK’s death rate being second highest in the world. Ultimately, Johnson’s England-centric approach has shown that English nationalism is more than capable of overpowering British unionism. His approach certainly does not prioritise pro-union considerations. Although this response to a pandemic may be dismissed as a moot point, it should not be considered in isolation. The electoral success of Sinn Féin south of the border adds fuel to Irish nationalism, coupled with the drive towards independence in Scotland, could mean the union may be facing an existential crisis. The crucial development in the years to come appears to be the relationship between English nationalism in implementing Brexit’s deregulated “freedoms” and the counter-move by Scottish nationalism towards independence. The fate of these two opposing chess pieces will ultimately decide the future of the UK and hence the fate of Ireland and its border.