IT was Louis Brandeis who coined the phrase. “A state may, if its citizens choose,” he said, “serve as a laboratory and try novel social and economic experiments without risk to the rest of the country.” From cannabis to climate change, America’s 50 “laboratories of democracy” are given the constitutional freedom to run different policies on welfare, on taxation, on how drugs are handled by the criminal justice system, and the other states of the union can see how these innovations go, to look, learn, and emulate – or not. That’s the theory, anyway.

Brandeis is a rightly celebrated justice of the United States Supreme Court, whose career and judgments are shot through with a sense of social justice and a moral seriousness about how the powerful abuse the powerless. But right now, his ghost must be reconsidering that closing line about being “without risk”.

Some American States are champing at the bit – or like Michigan last week, being harassed by gun-totting goons – into opening up their shops and stores and bars, whatever continuing risk Covid-19 still poses to the elderly and vulnerable. Others like New York seem committed to an orderly transition – like the rest of us – to something approaching normality, without embracing the bleak doctrine of “devil take the hindmost”. Or as Lisa Simpson put it, “one nation under the dollar, with liberty and justice for none”.

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Across the Atlantic last month, Donald Trump claimed that the call on ending the lockdown was his alone to make, from sea to shining sea. “When somebody is president of the United States,” he wibbled, “the authority is total.” You’ll be unstunned to discover this isn’t quite what his country’s constitution actually says. To their credit, both Republican and Democratic state governors told the tangerine twally where to go, defending their own constitutional prerogatives and the democratic mandates of the electorates who sent them to their state houses.

It isn’t quite Nixon’s notorious claim that “well, when the president does it, that means that it is not illegal” – but Trump’s ignorance of the law reflects his ignorance of everything else. There is space in the capacious emptiness of his cranium for ignorance of all of the works of man and god. The terracotta weeble hasn’t yet encountered an issue too complex, a conundrum too complicated, to ricochet off copper-plated cluenessness without leaving a single perceptible dent on the Euclidian geometry of his hairdo. He has all the republican spirit of a battlefield looter.

Back in Britain, basic features of our own constitution are making our home-grown mini-Trumpettes purple-faced too. They too have dreams of “total authority”, and generally imagine it should be vested entirely in Her Majesty’s Government in London. By existing, by doing her job, by exercising long-standing devolved prerogatives – we’re told Nicola Sturgeon is “undermining the UK Government” and “confusing” the public.

The First Minister’s principal responsibility isn’t to the people of Scotland who elect her, apparently, but instead to trot biddably after the Tory regime in London, whatever choices it makes, whatever jeopardies its choices might expose us to, whatever benefits we might derive from a different approach. Devolved government should just be a franchise outfit. Well, it’s certainly a take on where we are.

Attacks on devolution have become a longstanding theme of the response to the pandemic, which can’t but tell you something about the political imaginations of our Conservative overlords and their helpmeets in the corporate media.

As Aileen McHarg – professor of public law at the University of Durham – noted last week, “the repeated attacks on devolved decision-making throughout this pandemic by right-wing journalists and commentators worry me. They are outraged beyond any rational provocation, and I’m concerned about where that might lead them.” Outraged beyond any rational provocation. The professor has it exactly.

We all know the Tory Party were late adopters when it came to devolution. In their sinews, we know, their knees still jerk for the imagined perfection of a unitary British state which never existed. This week, Sun political editor Tom Newton Dunn tweeted that “yet again, Sturgeon announces a measure before the UK Government”. “If it’s not a concerted attempt to embarrass Westminster,” he said, “it’s having precisely that effect anyway.”

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In one respect, there’s nothing novel about the coronavirus. Faced with every recent crisis, the London’s impulses have been sure and steady: let’s centralise more power. This is an auld sang for Whitehall and the Treasury in particular – but it finds a strong political echo within the Tory party and its advocates and defenders in most leading British newspapers.

Tory MP for Shrewsbury and Atcham Daniel Kawczynski asked rhetorically: “Do we really need the massive additional expense of this Welsh Assembly? Just another layer of red tape and massive extra cost to taxpayers. I am looking forward to a day when we return to one parliament and one policy for the whole of United Kingdom.” In fairness, Kawczynski is a cracked pot in a party of crackpots, with form for attending far-right conclaves, cow-towing to Saudi Arabia’s tyrannical regime, and a broad spread of reactionary impulses.

But he isn’t alone in the serried ranks of Tory MPs and commentators who find themselves aching through the lockdown for the imagined sanctity of a truly united United Kingdom, when the laws stretched from coast to coast without distinction, when all Britons were Britons and you didn’t have to negotiate with jumped-up Jocks and Taffys who have the damned impudence to talk to you as if you’re their equal, never mind ignore your diktats.

DESPITE the best efforts of your Goves in government – who hope to spin the “one nation united” lesson of Covid-19 – there has been a palpable sense of irritation emanating from the imperial capital that any kind of reckoning with the many governments of these islands is required as part of a co-ordinated response to the virus.

But this reflects the wider governmentality, which sees the solution to devolved difficulties as being the greater centralisation of power and a unitary UK. Take Brexit. You’re the UK Government. You find yourself in a little local difficulty with the devolved nations over Brexit. What do you do? Easy. Pocket-veto Holyrood legislation, brazen it out in the courts, and abuse parliamentary sovereignty to get our way anyway.

We see this spirit playing out in Holyrood, too. Big Jock Carlaw was similarly incensed by the idea of regional differentiation on how we creep out of lockdown. “We can’t have a situation where building sites are back up and running in the rest of the UK, but lie empty here, Percy. In the interests of ensuring clear and

consistent advice to the public and businesses, the lockdown should be ended on a timeline agreed across all four nations of the UK.”

Our fundillymundilly former secretary of state for Scotland finds himself similarly baffled by elementary, centuries-old features of his Union state. “We are one United Kingdom. There is no border between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom,” David Mundell tweeted, showing that his days studying Scots law at the University of Edinburgh seem to have bounced off his consciousness too, without perceptive benefit.

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Not to be outdone, ickle Richard Leonard also piped up that “we cannot have the lockdown lifted in North Berwick and maintained in Berwick-on-Tweed. Cross-border co-operation is needed to protect our health and our economy.” As Mark Lazarowicz – the former Labour MP for Edinburgh North and Leith – observed: “Countries throughout Europe recognise that different ways out of lockdown may be needed in different areas. Decision should be determined by effectiveness in tackling Covid-19, not views on constitution.”

This may be vexing, but it’s also interesting. Devolution is two decades old now. Two decades. To sustain ignorance so profound after 20 years of devolved government is something of an achievement. A thick rind of ignorance like this doesn’t form without effort.

Resentment at not being the first to be told, on hand, at the centre of power, inside the tent, gossiping furiously out, perhaps explains the self-important whingeing of the Westminster lobby. But there’s something deeper at work here too. Recent experience suggests the constitutional imagination of many senior UK politicians and commentators still seriously struggles to encompass the idea of devolution. They don’t understand it. They don’t understand what it is for. In their heart of hearts, they don’t value it.

Decades ago, Tom Nairn observed that the last thing the British state was prepared to do was to re-evaluate the centre of its politics, Westminster and its supposed sovereignty over all things. It was, he said, certainly not going to do so for the sake of a handful of cantankerous Irish, or Scots, or Welshmen. So it goes. So little changes. In a crisis, we seek refuge in our deepest constitutional fantasies. Even, it seems, 20 years on.