Union at the Crossroads

Union at the crossroads: can the British state handle the challenges of devolution?

Published: 12 April 2021

The looming sense of crisis over the Union of the United Kingdom seems to thicken with each passing week. As we head towards the May elections, polls indicate that there will be a nationalist majority in the Scottish parliament, giving renewed vigour to the demand for a second independence referendum. Support for independence in Wales is moving into hitherto unexpected territory. Brexit has added hugely to the manifold uncertainties over Northern Ireland’s political future.

This is shaping up to the biggest post-Covid challenge for the UK government. But does it have the capability to respond to these multiplying pressures on the Union? The signs are not propitious for those who worry about the future of the UK. A new report out this week [link] looks at the track record of successive UK governments in handling devolution since the devolved settlements were put in place in the late 1990s. It is not an auspicious history.

Much of the British state has no long tradition of close engagement with the politics of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Even prior to devolution, most policy issues were handled by the appointed departments of state, the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Ireland Offices. This was a domain for the specialists; most Whitehall civil servants steered clear if they could. When administrative devolution was complemented with legislative devolution, the incentive to ‘devolve and forget’ became all the greater.

With Labour-led governments in power in London, Edinburgh and Cardiff for much of the first decade of devolution, there was little perceived need to develop a functioning system of inter-governmental relations. Problems and disputes could be sorted out through ad hoc political deals. There was no pressure to develop a robust standing infrastructure that could demonstrate visibly how the four governments of the UK interacted to reach consensual decisions.

The election of a majority SNP government in Scotland in 2011, and the subsequent prolonged referendum campaign, might have bounced Whitehall out of its complacency. But it was only towards the very end that the polls tightened sufficiently to administer an emotional punch to a complacent system and the impact of that faded rapidly once the referendum was won for the Union. The centre’s response to the outcome of the referendum was in keeping with its overall approach to the territories of the UK; offer further devolution to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland but only contemplate marginal changes in the way that it functioned itself.

The creation of a new unit at the heart of government, the UK Governance Group, in June 2015 did give more clout to those striving to ensure that Whitehall was engaged at a more strategic level in the challenge to maintain the territorial integrity of the United Kingdom. But it was uphill work and, for most departments, never high on either a policy or political agenda. Whitehall was ill prepared to handle the twin shocks of Brexit and Covid as they rocked the management of relations between the different governments of the United Kingdom.

Brexit was always going to prove hugely challenging, given that Scotland and Northern Ireland both voted to stay in the EU, and the governments of Scotland and Wales took a radically different view of the handling of Brexit to the UK government. Under Prime Minister May, the centre made determined efforts to offer the form of engagement under the auspices of the Joint Ministerial Committee. But the substance was lacking; there was no serious attempt to bring the devolved governments into the inner circle of thinking about the withdrawal negotiations. That frost set hard under the Johnson government; despite many warnings, the lure of the untrammelled sovereignty of the Anglo-British parliament trumped the deep anxieties about Brexit in the devolved parts of the UK.

Since a virus respects no borders, the pandemic offered an opportunity to put in place a pattern of collaborative work across the UK, to bring the leaders of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland into a collective tent. The signs at the start were good; the devolved governments appeared to be walking in lockstep with the UK government. But that early spirit dissipated in the scramble to ease the first lockdown and has not been re-established since. Instead, Nicola Sturgeon and Mark Drakeford in particular have seized the opportunity to emphasise the distinctive application of their devolved powers. When the Prime Minister speaks, it is often unclear whether he does so for the whole of the UK or for England only.

The report we published this week argues that it is now imperative that the UK government get its devolution house in order. Whitehall needs to re-think and re-learn how it engages with the devolved parts of the UK to demonstrate unequivocally that it understands the interests of people in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Understanding of devolution must be embedded far deeper in the culture of the civil service. The UK government should support a fundamental over-haul of the system of inter-governmental relations to show that the voice of the devolved governments will always be heard on cross-UK policies of concern to them.

These are not in themselves radical proposals. They build on what has been attempted before and complement the conclusions of the recently published review into UK government Union capability by Andrew Dunlop. But the need now is urgent. If Whitehall cannot fix its own house, it will struggle to project a sense of common endeavour to the devolved parts of the UK. If it is to do what is required, the centre needs to upend its order of priorities and put the Union at the core of all it does. But can a mindset so set in its ways and so traditionally oblivious to the workings of its own territory change in time? We will find out soon enough.


Union at the Crossroads
Can the British state handle the challenges of devolution?

Michael Kenny
Philip Rycroft
Jack Sheldon



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