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Written on 11 Apr 2021

‘Complacent and un-strategic’: Whitehall’s failure to adapt to devolution has left Union on the brink – report

Study of over two decades of devolution from inside state machinery.

A reactive and “ad hoc” style of governance, and deep-rooted complacency in parts of Whitehall, have characterised the British state’s approach to devolution and contributed to the fraying of the Union, according to a new report from the University of Cambridge.  

Researchers from the Bennett Institute for Public Policy argue that an urgent sea change in the way in which central government manages its relationships with Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland is vital to the United Kingdom’s survival.

The team’s research draws on thirty interviews with officials and politicians, as well as the experiences of report co-author Philip Rycroft, a leading civil servant on devolution from 2012 to 2019, and former DExEU Permanent Secretary.

The report, published by The Constitution Society, presents a brief history of devolution from within the machinery of the UK state, revealing an ingrained tendency to put tactics over strategy, as central government muddled through territorial relations in the years after 1997.

Recurring tropes include an overreliance on informal backchannels while the main intergovernmental committees have at times been “largely tokenistic”, as well as a degree of ignorance towards – and “considerable indifference” to – devolution issues, often ranked as a low priority by some of Whitehall’s main Departments.

Even 2014’s close-run Scottish referendum, and the following year’s SNP landslide, only resulted in “piecemeal tinkering”, such as the Scotland and Wales offices finally getting a voice at Permanent Secretary meetings in Whitehall.

“The cost of getting things wrong on devolution is seen as somebody else’s problem for most Whitehall departments – even in the wake of Scotland’s referendum,” said Rycroft, a Senior Visiting Fellow at the Bennett Institute. 

“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.

Professor Michael Kenny, report co-author and Director of the Bennett Institute, said: “Existential threats to the Union, crystallised during the Scottish referendum, and exacerbated by Brexit and coronavirus, keep exposing the inadequacy of the ad hoc approach long adopted by UK governments.”

“Trying to undercut nationalism in the devolved territories by incrementally devolving new powers is no longer sustainable, and betrays the fundamentally un-strategic mindset which prevails in Westminster and Whitehall.” 

“Without a major overhaul of the way in which central government approaches its relations with Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, this 300-year-old Union is at serious risk,” he said.

The report argues for much greater awareness of devolved government to be embedded within cultures and institutions of the British state. A better understanding of devolution and the governance of the United Kingdom should be a prerequisite for promotion into the senior civil service.  

Whitehall policymaking should be “devo-proofed”, with the devolved implications of Westminster legislation considered and communicated at an earlier stage.

“There is no good justification for devolved ministers hearing about policies that will have significant knock-on effects for their own territories at the last minute,” said Rycroft. “Yet it is still a regular occurrence.”

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.”

Johnson’s muscular brand of unionism has brought to the fore another recurrent theme from two decades of devolution: a deliberate ambiguity over where sovereignty lies. “Devolved nations see the Union as a voluntary one relying on consent, which conflicts with the old English idea of Westminster as sovereign,” said Rycroft.

“Unlike his predecessors, Johnson appears reluctant to share platforms with first ministers. He has fudged sovereignty by failing to clarify where Covid-19 rules do and don’t apply in televised announcements.

“As other UK nations pursue different lockdown rules and messaging, the public may be adapting to the strange idea of a Prime Minister who speaks for England alone.”

Complacency was established with the introduction of devolution, according to the report. Informal networks and benign fiscal policies – in part a reflection of the Labour party’s dominance in three of the four territories – instilled an assumption that devolution brought no fundamental changes, and the central state required no new structures to accommodate it.

This culture only partially shifted with recent initiatives to promote a more “devo-literate” approach across government.

When Brexit detonated a “constitutional explosion” underneath an increasingly fragile system of territorial governance, with two parts of the union voting Leave and two Remain, the report details how the established machinery was – and still is – unable to bring the different governments together in a meaningful way

But, as with the pandemic, the paper also highlights moments of successful coordination between these administrations during the Brexit crisis.

From the summer of 2018, ministers and officials from all devolved nations attended EU Exit Cabinet committee meetings, with “candid views” exchanged, but logistical agreements reached. The relative degree of trust this generated enabled the UK government to share Withdrawal Bill draft clauses with their devolved counterparts.

This led to serious discussion at the top of Theresa May’s government about the idea of more meaningful inclusion for these other governments in the Brexit negotiations – an idea that disappeared after her resignation.

“These examples of relatively successful co-ordination, and occasional examples of genuine partnership, illustrate that, while territorial politics in the UK has become much more fractious, devolution can be made to work,” added Kenny.

“However, with consistent support for independence at 50% or higher in Scotland, rising levels of support for it in Wales, and uncertainty over the constitutional future of Northern Ireland, if the UK government wants to preserve the Union it needs to change how it operates – sooner rather than later.”  

Read the full report: Union at the Crossroads: Can the British state handle the challenges of devolution?

Read the blog: Union at the Crossroads: Why the British state must overhaul its approach to devolution

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Image: Downing Street and Whitehall by Defence Images is licensed under CC BY NC 2.0