Rarely do I find myself talking about cricket, but somehow I recently got into a long conversation about it with a young Pakistani student. I had attended the trial in 1996 in which Ian Botham had accused Imran Khan of libel. Khan had called Botham and fellow cricketer Allan Lamb “uneducated racists”. We noted that Botham is now a lord and Khan prime minister of Pakistan. But the bigger conclusion we came to was that no one is actually in charge in this country any more.
Not Boris Johnson, not Dominic Cummings, not the EU. No one.
It’s not an unusual conversation for me, a chat about political drift with a stranger. A couple of years ago I described the UK as “ungovernable” and well, we didn’t need Brexit to tell us that, and we certainly didn’t need Covid. Any time we are tested there is an overt denial that our systems of government are failing, that the United Kingdom is falling apart.
As each part of the UK goes into its own particular regional lockdown, there is no unity whatsoever. In Scotland, people have been told to prepare for a “digital Christmas” whereas in England no one dares tell us any such thing. The Irish border is no longer frictionless – the Republic is in strict lockdown – and where there were once no border checks, now there may be ones to test for Covid. Northern Ireland is in a four-week firebreak.
Actually, can we just stop talking about this vast area that contains swing seats in such a way? Romantically, the miners’ strike was the last civil war, and it was lost for a number of reasons, some of which were as hard to admit at the time as they still are.
To connect Andy Burnham’s stand to it is simplistic but tempting because it is so rare to see a politician do what he has been elected to do: stand up for his people. Somehow the Blairite can connect now with bar workers and taxi drivers and those who cannot live on two-thirds of the minimum wage. He has found himself.
This was not another politician posing while a doing a fake job. (Remember when Rishi Sunak pretended to be working in a restaurant?) This was not a photo opportunity, it was a plea to stop further impoverishment of those Burnham represents.
The cycles of deprivation in the deindustrialised parts of the country existed long before Covid. The virus has exacerbated things.
Yet devolution, instigated by Tony Blair, is finally happening. Westminster centralisation, which hands out private contracts, is heartless and deeply inefficient. Those who stood to become regional mayors realised early on that they could achieve more this way than in the shadow cabinet – and they were right.
If Brexit is read as a reaction to globalisation, then localism is the future.
Still, though, we have an establishment that carelessly disunites the country, policies that make Scottish independence seem inevitable. Who thought England itself could fracture so easily? Well, I did. Remember the insane demand that London be free of England after leave won? Even those who despise the SNP can see that Westminster blocking another referendum will strengthen the case for it.
The problems we have now are English. England’s woeful test and trace system. England’s refusal to feed its poorest children. England’s own deep internal divisions. They cannot be solved by the imagined unionism of both main parties.
The new Conservatives conserve nothing beyond their own interests. Their little Englishness – embittered and embattled – could be countered by a bigger and better Englishness.
That is not blue sky thinking in a time of coronavirus, when none of us can go very far. Precisely because of this, the local becomes more heightened. The less mobile we are, the more it matters that those who represent us do not just know where we live, but how we live.
The saddest part of Tom Bower’s recent biography of Johnson is his sister saying that in his family they learned early on “not to have emotional needs”. Leaders have to meet at least some of the emotional needs of their people. We can see absolutely clearly now who is able to do that and who is not.
And it will never be this prime minister, who is in fact presiding over the breakup of Britain – in every possible way.
• Suzanne Moore is a Guardian columnist