Some years ago I found myself as one of a small team called to the Cabinet Office to be asked to do a study of the state of the devolution because Whitehall was too busy to do it themselves. The official in charge was Philip Rycroft who in retirement has now let fly with both barrels. Little in this report by the Bennett Institute for Public Policy at Cambridge is breaking news; but it updates an absence of pan -UK coordination we can observe in the handling of the pandemic. What remains to be analysed is whether closer coordination of Covid management would have produced better results. What seems undeniable is that the course of devolution since 1998 has placed the Union in peril and that successive UK governments have either barely noticed or have been indifferent to consequences for the Union,
. Despite rhetorical platitudes like Theresa May calling it “the precious Union” and Boris Johnson describing himself as “the minister of the Union. “ there is little sign that anything has changed. Indeed Brexit policy by making no attempt to involve the devolved institutions has considerably widened the gap between them and Westminster.. One thing is clear|: simply spelling out the threat to the Union will not be enough to save it. The report’s’ remedies while right in themselves may not be enough.
Consultation and engagement between the UK and devolved governments must now be embedded more deeply into the culture and machinery of the UK state. This should include engaging with the devolved governments from the earliest possible stage of the policy process where UK policies impact on devolved responsibilities or the interests of the devolved parts of the UK, and overhauling the Joint Ministerial Committee.
High levels of ignorance and misunderstanding about devolved politics and the territorial constitution within Whitehall must also be addressed, including by encouraging and incentivising civil servants working in each government to spend time learning about how the other governments work.
There is widespread ignorance towards the union, meaning ministers can be kept in the dark about major reforms with little consideration for the four nations, Philip Rycroft, the permanent secretary to the Brexit department until 2019, says in a report.
His damning conclusion says the 300-year-old union is in deep peril and even major political ructions such as the close-run 2014 Scottish referendum and the following year’s SNP landslide prompted little soul-searching in Westminster.
Rycroft’s co-author, Prof Michael Kenny, said it was political decision-making, not devolution itself, that caused widening divisions. “It was dismantled by political decisions primarily made by No 10.”
From the Bennett Institute report itself
There is little emotional engagement across government with the trends towards independence, no sense that maintaining the Union is part of everyone’s job…Concern for the territorial settlement is not in the bloodstream of the UK state the way it is in countries such as Spain or Canada,” Rycroft said.
At the start of the Covid-19 crisis, the UK government was working fairly well with its devolved counterparts. First minsters sat in COBR(A) meetings and coordinated public messaging with Number 10. All of these governments attended SAGE and ministerial implementation groups – until Boris Johnson announced schools reopening in late spring 2020 before agreeing it with them.
COBR(A) then ceased until autumn, and implementation groups wound down, replaced by new committees with no devolved representation. The Welsh first minister spoke to Johnson only once between May and September 2020…. Effective cooperation in the early days of the pandemic suggests that devolution itself is not the root cause of widening divisions over the last year,” said Kenny. “It was dismantled by political decisions primarily made by Number 10.”
Brexit set new constitutional fires blazing in Scotland and Northern Ireland while also introducing fresh tensions between London and Cardiff. Many of these problems had a common origin: the sense that the voices of the smaller nations were ignored.
In England, however, a different narrative has taken hold. England’s rights must be respected and it is past time that the devolved administrations were put in their place. A new, more muscular “unionism” is emerging that is intensely suspicious of the devolved administrations. This is a very English form of “unionism”, largely alien to unionists in Scotland or Northern Ireland or even Wales. Few unionists elsewhere either recognise it or want any part of it.
Often Boris Johnson has, in effect, been relegated to the status of prime minister of England.
As (the Bennett Institute for Public Policy report) makes clear, the co-operation between the UK’s various governments that was a feature of the initial response to the pandemic slowly broke down.
Some of this is a question of status: Nicola Sturgeon wishes to be seen as Johnson’s equal; he naturally bridles at any such suggestion. Yet inconveniently, in many aspects of the day-to-day management of the emergency she, first minister of Scotland, is the equal of a prime minister whose responsibilities are often confined to England.
Despite this, differences in the approach taken to virus-management prove devolution’s success, not its failure. If the UK has a future, it requires a clearer acceptance of the differences between its constituent parts. It is a United Kingdom but not a unitary one. Differences in policy or approach are no guarantee of success, but they do serve as a proof of concept.
It is not a question of being Scottish or British but of being both. Unionism is a plural identity, which means it requires a plural politics too. Devolution and what, to borrow from Northern Ireland, we might deem “parity of esteem” should be a feature, not a bug.
Alex Massie adds a deeply cynical twist which rings horribly true
The big secret is also an open one: there will not be a referendum in the next two years, no matter how much or how often anyone tries to pretend there will be. There are at least two good reasons for thinking this. The first and lesser of these is that the coronavirus emergency has some way to run. No decent prospectus for independence may be presented until such time as a post-virus landscape is visible.
The second, and rather greater, reason there will be no referendum is simpler. It is not in anyone’s interests for there to be a second independence plebiscite on anything like the timescale promised — or threatened — in this fantastical, land-of-make-believe, election campaign. The reason for that is also simple. Neither side can afford to lose a referendum and, since the outcome of any such enterprise cannot be hazarded, neither the SNP nor the British government can sensibly commi
Time may be on the nationalists’ side. Opinion polling and demographic trends certainly suggest as much. Two thirds of voters under 40 now say they favour independence. Perhaps they will change their minds but one should not assume they will. It seems quite clear to me that if independence must happen, it would be better for a referendum to confirm a clear and pre-existing sentiment in its favour than to decide the outcome on odds no better than those offered by the toss of a coin. In such a scenario, Scotland would have already made up its mind and the referendum would be not much more than the rubber stamp confirming this.
That time is not yet upon us. From which you might think this would actually be the moment for the UK government to gamble itself and agree to a referendum. Some government ministers in London seem to think this might be the only way out of the predicament in which they, and Unionism, find themselves. “I don’t see how we keep saying no for ever” one senior minister told The Sunday Times last weekend. “The time to do it would be in the middle of economic chaos, not when it’s all looking rosy”.
Hark at the grimness of this offer, though: “Everything is really shit, isn’t it? Now just imagine how much worse it would be if you voted Yes.” Even if true, I am not convinced this would be a persuasive argument.
But this line of thinking illuminates a certain impatience evident within some Tory circles south of the border. The Jocks are always and increasingly revolting and putting up with them is an increasingly tedious business. Time, then, for them to put-up or shut-up. Either way, we cannot be expected to endure much more of this.
It is certainly a thought, though not a good one. For here too the risks of losing a referendum on independence are so great even a gambling prime minister must think twice before pressing the nuclear button. Blowing everything up to discover what might happen next is not the cleverest policy. The risk of disaster is too great, Boris Johnson can only win the game by refusing to play the game at all.
Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London