Late last year, the New York Times christened the United Kingdom “plague island.” In recent months, that epithet has lost some of its edge. The country’s COVID-19 vaccination program has been hugely effective. Just over 28 million Brits—almost half the country’s population—have been fully dosed against the virus; death and hospitalization rates have plummeted. Prime Minister Boris Johnson promises spring and summer will be “seasons of hope,” with social distancing rules relaxed and economic restrictions lifted. 

But in a devastating, blow-by-blow account, investigative reporters Jonathan Calvert and George Arbuthnott argue that nothing the Tory leader says about COVID-19 can or should be taken at face value. Despite the striking turnaround exhibited by the vaccine rollout, Calvert and Arbuthnott contend in their recent book, Failures of State, that policies implemented throughout the pandemic failed to prevent Britain’s grim absolute mortality figures (the highest in Europe, in absolute numbers) and the severity of its recession (the deepest in the G7). 

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Last week’s local and national election results in the United Kingdom revealed a country radically, and perhaps irreparably, divided.

Labour retained power in Wales; Boris Johnson’s Conservatives scored huge victories throughout England; and in Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon’s pro-independence Scottish National Party (SNP) won a remarkable fourth term in office.

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For Scots of my generation — millennial and younger — the belief that Scotland would be better off running its own affairs, free from the strictures of Westminster, is almost axiomatic. From the Iraq war to Brexit, the financial crash to austerity, Britain feels trapped in a spiral of crisis and decline. According to a September analysis of recent polls, more than 70 percent of Scots under the age of 35 think Scotland should abandon the United Kingdom. And the abrasive right-wing premiership of Boris Johnson, increasingly mired in accusations of cronyism and sleaze, has only strengthened that view.

At the other end of the spectrum, Scotland’s older, asset-owning classes remain staunchly opposed to a political breakup and the economic instability it might entail. An election this week should show which side has the wind at its back.

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In the rancorous aftermath of Brexit, the United Kingdom’s prime minister sees an opportunity: Boris Johnson wants to position the country as a global champion in the fight against climate change. With both eyes fixed firmly on the world’s next major climate summit, the U.N. Climate Change Conference (COP26), which is scheduled to take place in Glasgow this November, the British leader recently unveiled a suite of headline-grabbing new climate policies. Johnson’s “10-point plan for a green industrial revolution” would, he declared late last year, “create, support, and protect hundreds of thousands of green jobs, whilst making strides towards net zero by 2050.” For the conservative populist, COP26 presents an opportunity not just to bolster his country’s green credentials but also to repair some of the diplomatic damage sustained during the Brexit process.

Achieving this vision may be easier said than done. It’s possible the United Kingdom’s progress in cutting carbon emissions could grind to a halt over the coming decade, jeopardizing London’s push for green diplomacy. British climate campaigners are also skeptical about Johnson’s professed enthusiasm for environmental issues given the limited spending he’s committed to them so far.

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Boris Johnson became prime minister of the United Kingdom in July 2019. Since then, he has launched four separate initiatives aimed at ‘saving’ the Union from the threat of Scottish nationalism. The most recent of these, announced on Nov. 18., is intended to “boost the social and cultural case” for Britain following a “series of missteps” by the Conservative leader, according to the Financial Times

On Nov 17., Johnson reportedly told a group of Tory MPs that the transfer of partial legislative powers to Scotland from London in 1999 had been a “disaster north of the border.” His remark was clearly not meant for a Scottish audience: two decades after its creation, the Scottish Parliament remains hugely popular with Scottish voters. Opposition to devolution, on the other hand, is a fringe pursuit.

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Ten months after Boris Johnson led his Conservative Party to an epic election victory in the United Kingdom, surveys are showing an increase in support for Scottish independence — literally, the break-up of the British state.

Enthusiasm for ending Scotland’s 313-year-old union with England has spiked in the past, notably in the run-up to the 2014 independence referendum, when it looked, briefly, like the Scots were going to vote in favor of leaving the UK. (The final result was 55 percent to 45 percent against.)

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Nationalists have long believed in the inevitability of Scottish independence; now unionists are beginning to believe in it, too. “It’s over,” one former Better Together figurehead told The Spectator, anonymously, in July. “The horse has bolted.”

The recent string of opinion polls showing, for the first time, sustained majority support for separation has spooked the British political class. Boris Johnson’s panicked sojourns north of the border, and the hastily-arranged decapitation of Jackson Carlaw as Scots Tory leader, suggest unionism is a cause in search of a strategy – a point underlined by the absurd idea, floated last week by the FT’s Sebastian Payne, that Britain’s future rests exclusively on the shoulders of Richard Leonard.

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In Twilight of Democracy, Anne Applebaum charts the fracturing of the Transatlantic right. The book is part-memoir, part-polemic. Over the past 20 years, the conservative movement has split into two factions, Applebaum contends: traditional neoliberals, who believe in free-markets, democratic institutions, and the rule of law, and populists, who thrive on division, confusion, and nationalist paranoia.

Applebaum – a journalist and academic based, variously, in Poland, Britain, and the US – belongs firmly to the first faction. A veteran contributor to the Spectator, Sunday Times, and Washington Post, she has enjoyed ringside access to rightwing elites for decades. Until recently, she was on good terms with Boris Johnson, a man she now describes as an “all-consuming” narcissist with a “penchant for fabrication.” (“Nobody serious wants to leave the EU,” she quotes the future prime minister as saying in 2014. “Business doesn’t want it. The City doesn’t want it. It won’t happen.”) In 2008, she broke with the Republican Party after John McCain added Sarah Palin – “a proto-Trump” – to his presidential ticket. McCain “never spoke to me again,” she writes. In Poland, Applebaum and her husband, the politician Radek Sikorski, have become targets of anti-Semitic propaganda linked to the country’s ruling Law and Justice Party. “Whether I like it or not, I am part of this story,” she laments.

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Six weeks ago, Boris Johnson dismissed the idea of using spending cuts to pay off Britain’s rapidly-inflating coronavirus debts. “I’ve never particularly liked the term that you just used to describe government economic policy and it will certainly not be part of our approach,” the prime minister told a reporter during a Downing Street press conference on 30 April. “Austerity, by the way, was the term you just used.”

At first glance, the explosion of state expenditure triggered by COVID-19 seems to have been embraced by the Conservative Party. According to the Office for Budget Responsibility, the UK’s deficit will hit 15 per cent of GDP by the end of 2020 and public debt will top 115 per cent by the middle of 2021. These are staggering figures — at the height of the 2008 financial crisis, Britain’s deficit didn’t exceed 11 per cent of GDP.

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Nicola Sturgeon is having a good crisis — on paper, at least.

According to an Ipsos MORI poll published on May 26, 82 percent of Scots think the Scottish National Party (SNP) leader — who heads up Scotland’s semi-autonomous government in Edinburgh — is handling the coronavirus outbreak well and a further 78 percent believe her administration at Holyrood has made the right decisions over the course of the pandemic.

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STIRLING, Scotland—The constituency of Stirling sprawls across central Scotland, stretching from the Trossachs National Park in the west to the village of Fallin, at the tip of the Firth of Forth, in the east. An old adage dating back to the 14th century and the Anglo-Scottish Wars, states: “He who holds Stirling, holds Scotland.”

In 2019, that may still be the case.

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