Boris Johnson’s announcement of the next steps in his government’s coronavirus response has generated some sharp, public disagreements with the devolved administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. The tensions underlying these differences stem from differing approaches to public communications and to the management of risk. They also reflect the increasingly fragile relations between the governments of the different parts of the UK.
While there has been fairly close co-ordination on some of the key decisions in earlier stages of the crisis, on this occasion the devolved governments complained that announcements had been trailed in the press before they had been properly consulted. Much of the content of Johnson’s phased plan to loosen the lockdown, including encouraging more people to go back to work and the possible reopening of schools from 1st June, actually applies only in England, although that is rarely made clear in UK government communications. All the administrations elsewhere have announced their own, more limited, adjustments to lockdown. Their leaders have all made a point of maintaining the ‘Stay at Home’ messaging instead of adopting Johnson’s new ‘Stay Alert’ campaign, sending a clear signal to their own domestic audiences that they are able and willing to act independently of the UK, in both political and policy terms.
These differences cannot be explained purely in terms of epidemiological conditions on the ground across the UK, given that the trajectories of the coronavirus outbreaks in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are broadly similar to those in England. The reality is that the leaders of the devolved governments have reached a different political judgement from Johnson on the appropriateness of signalling even a modest relaxation of restrictions at this stage. At a time when the UK’s response to the pandemic is eliciting growing criticism, and as it is now one of the worst hit countries in Europe, they have decided to strike a clearer distance from Johnson’s strategy. Each of them had been coming under pressure to move away from UK government, with some commentary asserting that the earlier ‘four nations’ approach had been a mistake.
The degree of unity until this point was, as we argued previously, somewhat overstated. And the underlying state of relations between the different tiers of government within the UK have deteriorated greatly since devolution was introduced, and were significantly damaged by Brexit. Institutional arrangements for bringing these governments together to discuss matters of common interest have widely come to be seen as inadequate among the devolved governments. Additionally, the surprise of some of London’s politicians and journalists at the ability of these other governments to determine their own course, in relation to lockdown, is a telling sign of the lack of awareness of the nature and extent of devolution among much of the UK’s political class.
One particular source of resentment arises from the dual role of Johnson’s government, which is both the executive authority acting for the UK in its entirety on some key areas of policy, and also the de facto government of England in policy areas that are devolved – like public health. Over recent weeks the devolveds have become increasingly irked by UK government announcements relating to issues that are in their own competence, and where the English scope of the government’s writ is not made clear.
The failure to acknowledge and name the English focus of much governmental decision-making reflects an enduring habit of British governance, and – in the current context – a sense of unease among Conservative ministers about publicly acknowledging that the centre does not have the authority over the whole of the UK on issues that have become so sensitive. Although devolution has been in existence for two decades, its implications and operation have still not been internalised fully in Westminster or Whitehall. And this mixture of indifference and incomprehension are now coming back to bite Johnson’s government.
One possible consequence of this lack of clarity is that it may sew confusion in the minds of ordinary citizens living in the devolved areas, about which are the rules they should be following now that there are some important variations between those that different governments are going to enforce. Equally, the implications of these variable new rules for those people who live along the edges of England’s borders, and are used to moving across this boundary for educational, employment or health reasons, remain to be seen.
Inevitably, a debate has begun to stir about what all this means for the future of the Union. Commentators like Alex Massie and Chris Deerin have argued that the co-operative ‘four nation’ approach witnessed earlier on in the crisis might herald an era of better relations, and perhaps end up boosting the unionist cause. But others see things very differently. For Iain Macwhirter ‘far from reviving the United Kingdom as a going concern, this pandemic could be the final nail in its coffin’. And on the island of Ireland, claims that the pandemic promotes the case for Irish unity are commonplace, as both the imperative for some degree of all-Ireland co-operation and the apparently more effective response of the Irish government have become important factors in debate within Northern Ireland.
It is, in truth, far too early to predict with any certainty how public opinion will move in the coming weeks in the different parts of the UK, and what the longer-term political and constitutional consequences of the pandemic will be. But it does seem increasingly likely that the deep crisis triggered by Covid-19 will become a vital chapter in the history of the UK as a pluri-national state.
This blog was first published on 11 May 2020 by the Centre on Constitutional Change
About the author
Before he arrived in Cambridge, Michael held positions at: Queen’s University, Belfast; the University of Sheffield, where he was appointed Head of Department; and Queen Mary University of London, where he was the inaugural Director of the Mile End Institute. He served on the Leverhulme Trust’s Advisory Committee (2010-2018), was co-director of the British Academy’s “Governing England” programme (2015-2018), and is currently a visiting Fellow at the UCL Constitution Unit, a member of an external experts panel convened by the Scottish Parliament to advise on the constitutional implications of Brexit, and a member of the advisory board of the Constitution Society. He also serves on the scientific advisory panel for the ‘Behaviour Change by Design’ project funded by the Wellcome Trust, and is senior advisor to ‘The Science of Global Risk’ project funded by the Templeton Foundation.