Last Thursday afternoon, I visited my workplace for the first time in almost three months. Equipped with special dispensation from my line manager, I cycled to Westminster through driving rain, initially to collect a new security pass (for which a time slot had to be pre-booked), and then to gather some much-missed books on Northern Ireland from an office on the fringes of the Parliamentary estate.
Westminster, a part of London I know like the back of my hand, wasn't its usual self. On Westminster Bridge, a souvenir stall seller was open but without patrons, in Parliament Square the statue of Churchill – covered up the last time I cycled past – now had a socially-distanced police guard, while on Whitehall the acronym 'BLM' still hadn't been removed from several buildings. Across from Downing Street, meanwhile, a modest crowd was protesting that day's visit by President Macron of France.
I wasn't in any hurry so took a circuitous route to the office. Approaching Horseguards, I could see another statue – subject unclear – surrounded with wooden bollards, while to the rear of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office Clive of India, who looms above the Cabinet War Rooms, had received similar treatment. You could still see him though, peeking out from above his makeshift protection.
On finally reaching my desk, I found a sign instructing me not to sit there (I got off lightly, some colleagues had another sign telling them to declutter). I was the only person in the building apart from a cheerful security guard doing his rounds, so I dropped off some books and collected others. They were like old friends I hadn't seen in some time. A few hours later, I loaded up my rucksack and cycled home, working hard to convince myself that I'd had a 'normal' day at the office.
Talking of Northern Ireland, it continues to fascinate. The period 1921-72 – when that part of the UK possessed its own legislature, Government and even governor – has long intrigued me, and fortunately I'm able to dig deeper for a paper I'm working on ahead of its centenary next year. It got me thinking about the Scottish devolution debates of the late 1990s, when the creation of a Scottish Parliament (and a Welsh Assembly, as was) was generally treated as a novel departure from British constitutional norms.
Of course it wasn’t. The delegation of executive and legislative autonomy to the 'six counties' of Ulster in 1921 wasn't even the first, for the Church of England had already been granted a form of 'devolution' the previous year with the creation of its General Synod (previously every Church 'Measure' had to be processed by the 'Imperial' Parliament). What followed were some striking parallels with the Scottish devolutionary experience post-1999.
Take the Sewel Convention, well known today as a self-denying ordinance when it comes to Westminster legislating in devolved areas. This had a Northern Irish antecedent, albeit un-named, which the UK Parliament only disrupted in 1969 at the onset of The Troubles. There was also a Barnett Formula, or rather several formulas governing everything from National Insurance to agricultural subsidies. Even the discourse was similar, with a long-running debate in the 1950s surrounding greater 'fiscal autonomy' or 'independence' for Ulster. The counter arguments were familiar too.
Part of me worries that I'll have less time to work on this project (and several others) now that England – and I mean specifically England – seems to be approaching the end of lockdown as we've known it since late March. As I write, the Prime Minister has been outlining the 'grand reopening' to the House of Commons, not only the hospitality sector – as widely trailed – but cinemas, museums and art galleries too, a nice surprise given I've missed them all. All this and a reduction in the two-metre rule is due to take effect on 4 July. I can already picture the 'Independence Day' banner headlines.
This allows me to plan, and oh how I've missed being able to do that. Plan a trip to a local restaurant with my brother and his girlfriend; plan to see a new (or old) movie at a much-loved cinema; plan to tick another Prime Ministerial grave off one of my many bucket lists. And plan a professional haircut, my first in more than a quarter of a year. Not only that, but the UK Government's heavy hints regarding 'travel corridors' to around 10 countries allows me to plan, albeit more tentatively, some long-delayed or cancelled jaunts to the Continent.
I wrote in my first London Lockdown Diary of my privilege at the beginning of this crisis, the privilege of having stable well-paid employment, the privilege of having somewhere comfortable to live and two amiable companions. It's also been a privilege getting to know my (twin) brother in different ways as we both hurtle towards our 43rd birthday; rewarding to catch up with myself, lose some weight and lose myself, as already mentioned, in stimulating research. I feel more connected to London and my physical surroundings than ever before, something I regard as an ongoing privilege.
A friend recently suggested I'd had 'a good war', and I suppose that's true, although a lot of it was down to good fortune. Of course, the usual caveats apply: this disease is still with us and a full vaccine continues to appear a long way off. Some believe this afternoon's announcements to be moving too fast, and that it risks a second wave or increase in the all-important 'R' figure. They might be right; they might be wrong. For now, I find myself looking forward to some aspects of Independence Day and feeling apprehensive about others. I wonder if I might end up missing the old normal as I get to grips with the new?