Published on 8 February 2024
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The Union and the State: Contested visions of the UK’s future

In this guest paper, Ciaran Martin analyses the current state of the UK Union, analyses the competing visions for the UK’s future, and looks at which strategies and levers of government can be used to further each of the competing visions.

The British Union seems to have faced down a serious challenge to its very existence: no one expects either a second Scottish independence referendum or an Irish border poll in the near future. But the evident and serious strains in the territorial constitution are unlikely to fall away in the long term simply because of short term political difficulties faced by, for example, the Scottish National Party. So the UK is likely to continue to face significant political activity aimed at its break up.

How will the central state in Whitehall and Westminster respond? In a new paper for the joint Review of the UK Constitution with the Institute for Government, Prof Ciaran Martin, a former senior civil servant who once served as Director of Constitutional Policy under the Coalition Government, argues that too is likely to be hotly contested. There are at least three different version of approach on offer at UK level: a more ‘muscular’ approaching, emphasising Britishness through UK wide statecraft and an increasing scepticism about devolution; a ‘multinational’ approach to the union state, bordering on federalism, and, as ever, a ‘muddling through’ option, focused on technocratic measures to make the current, asymmetric devolution system work better.

Prof Martin comments: “Whoever forms the Government in the next Parliament is likely to have a bit of breathing space on the territorial constitution. That’s something that’s been absent for the last ten years or more. It’s not clear how a newly elected Labour Government, or even a returning Conservative one, will approach the constitution. The paper aims to set out the key areas where the choices are likely to arise.”


Prof Ciaran Martin

Ciaran Martin is Professor of Practice at the Blavatnik School of Government, University of Oxford. Previously, he was the first Chief Executive of the National Cyber Security Centre at GCHQ....

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