Staying in Britain for the summer has been, in many ways, entirely glorious. We have zigzagged from Shropshire through Derbyshire to the Northumberland coast, from Fife and Perthshire to Herefordshire and Devon. On the way, beautiful little towns and sweeping coastlines, not empty but not crammed either; excellent local food and plenty to keep us interested, from echoing cathedrals to buzzing bookshops. But it has also allowed me to see first hand just how desolate so many high streets are: not only the shops closed because of plague, but those shuttered, clearly from a long time back. Boarded up doors, bleached posters… If it wasn’t so wet, the tumbleweed would be blowing. Meanwhile, too many places of worship, museums and galleries seem to have taken Covid-19 as a catch-all excuse to stay shut, increasing the sense of weird emptiness. I am a mask-wearer and a social-distancer, but I’m getting increasingly irate at the prissy, prim, self-congratulatory way so many organisations are priding themselves on doing sod all for the paying (or simply ambling past) public. Provincial Britain seems to me a country fighting for its life.
We were up in Scotland following the loss of my father, a lifelong and keen reader of these pages. There, the difference in atmosphere over Covid is almost tangible compared with London. People are much more likely to be masked and much more cautious. They listen attentively to the First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, and pride themselves on Scotland’s lower death rates. The opinion polls confirm what general conversation suggests: that Scotland is likely to leave the United Kingdom before the end of this parliament. The SNP may be having feuds but they are self-confident, vigorous and optimistic. Unionism seems muffled and tired by comparison. But if independence happens, the end of GB is going to be a more traumatic moment for England than today’s ministers seem able to grasp.