What are the impacts of Brexit, Covid-19 and the Johnson government on our constitution and system of governance? Professor Michael Kenny discusses whether the arrangements, that have evolved over decades if not centuries, are sufficiently robust and fit for the purpose of governing a diverse and complex UK.
What are the issues arising from the UK’s new relationship with the EU?
Brexit has certainly had major repercussions for the health and harmony of the UK’s own Union. From 2016 to 2019 there was a notable deterioration in the relationship between devolved governments and central government in London. Significant legal and political disputes broke out during this extended political crisis.
Key choices made by the May and Johnson governments made conflict with Cardiff and Edinburgh (which were both opposed to Brexit) inevitable. This was certainly the case once May decided that her government’s ‘red lines’ in negotiations with the EU involved leaving the Single Market and the customs union. In other respects, it adopted a more consultative and conciliatory approach notably in the 2017 dispute over returning powers from Brussels in areas of devolved competence. Still, this was a low point in relations between these governments, and the Withdrawal Agreement passed at Westminster was never given formal consent by Holyrood.
Johnson’s government adopted a more combative approach. In 2020 it introduced the controversial UK Internal Market Act, which introduced new rules based upon mutual recognition and non-discrimination in goods and services. These were applied to a variety of policy areas right across the UK, and effectively cut across the devolved administrations’ regulatory autonomy.
Yet, despite these disputes, the territorial tensions created by Brexit were somewhat mitigated by the changing political weather of 2019–20. The December general election resulted in a clear majority for the Johnson government, clearing the way to securing Brexit. Then, the May 2021 Holyrood elections again made the SNP the largest party at Holyrood, falling just short of an outright majority in favour of a further Referendum on Scottish independence.
The idea that Brexit has been the sole cause of the instability that characterises territorial relationships within the UK is in some ways misleading. It leaves out of the picture the immense challenges to the UK’s model of territorial governance that the pandemic has raised and the notable shift of perspective and policy on the Union at the top of British government.
How have processes and relationships been affected by the Covid-19 pandemic?
Had the pandemic not arrived in the UK in 2020, it is possible that the UK’s territorial politics might have become slightly less volatile — although Northern Ireland would have been a notable exception. The pandemic also helped take the sting out of the referendum question, reducing pressure on the First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, to secure a further poll on Scotland’s future.
Instead, new points of tension within the UK’s system of territorial governance emerged. One of the key questions raised by the Covid-19 pandemic is how central government should operate in the face of a crisis in which many of the key decision-making powers sit with the leaders of the devolved administrations.
Another has been the need to accept and communicate the reality that, in key respects, the UK government’s writ has been confined to England. All the while, the UK government’s decisions are readily subjected to comparisons with these other territorial governments.
What has made this situation more complex still is that central government still holds the key fiscal levers in the UK. The Chancellor’s introduction of the furlough scheme to prop up businesses and workers during much of 2020 showcased the economic benefits of a union that pools risks and redistributes resources geographically. His subsequent reluctance to re-introduce a similar scheme in the late 2021 was hailed by nationalists as emblematic of the need to reacquire sovereignty for the smaller nations.
As the pandemic hit, there was a brief period of wary cooperation between all four governments within the UK. This was followed by a growing inclination to move at different speeds, and adopt somewhat different rules, as all sought to move out of the lockdown introduced in early 2020. This shift was triggered in part by the British government’s decision to end the pattern of including devolved leaders in consultations ahead of key announcements. It also resulted from the political incentives for these leaders to contrast their own more cautious approach to Johnson’s methods, although this was often more about hyping minor differences in rules or guidance than substantive policy differences.
What impact has the Johnson government’s approach to governing had?
Figures at the top of British government have shown considerable unease, and some outright hostility, faced with the challenge of working with and potentially coordinating the efforts of these other governments.
The growing push-back against the pro-devolutionist ethos that captured large parts of the British political establishment after 1997 signals an important turn in unionist thinking within British politics. It reflects the gradual re-legitimation of an older species of integrationist unionism — last politically prominent during the Thatcher years, and now reconstituted in pro-Brexit circles around the
conviction that sovereignty regained from Brussels means sovereignty restored to the Westminster parliament.
This assertive form of unionism has been particularly influential under Johnson, and its current hegemony is to some degree contingent on his tenure as Prime Minister. Other Conservatives, including figures like Michael Gove, have signalled their commitment to a more realist and strategic understanding of the tasks facing the central government in the context of devolution, and some
Conservatives have stressed the importance of improved intergovernmental coordination and a more balanced policy agenda to promote the union. Flesh has been put on the bones of this agenda in the form of the proposals advanced by the Intergovernmental Relations Review, which involved officials from all four governments.
There is a growing conviction that the domestic union is now a first-order political issue — and not just because of ongoing instability in Northern Ireland, or the independence issue in Scotland. The return of the UK union to the forefront of political life is one of the most important repercussions of the crises that have wrought British politics since June 2016.