Published on 6 April 2021
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Union at the Crossroads: Can the British state handle the challenges of devolution?

Study of over two decades shows Whitehall’s failure to adapt to devolution has left Union on the brink.

There is a growing political focus upon the future of the UK Union, in the context of consistent support at 50% or higher for independence in Scotland, the destabilising impact that Brexit has had on Northern Ireland and the emergence of a more active independence movement in Wales. 

This paper argues that the debate on the future of the Union needs to encompass a clearer focus upon the lack of a developed culture of, and machinery for, bringing the different governments of the UK together. 

Drawing on a historical analysis of how the British state has approached the multi-level territorial constitution since the introduction of the modern devolution arrangements, the authors contend that central government has often been complacent and un-strategic, and that this has contributed significantly to the pressures on the Union. 

Central government was complacent about what devolution meant for its role in the early years following its introduction, which left it unprepared for the more challenging circumstances that emerged from 2011 onwards.

Brexit and coronavirus have exposed the inadequacy of the ad hoc and reactive approach to handling relations with the devolved governments adopted by UK governments since the late 1990s, which has contributed to a thinning out of trust between the governments within the UK’s borders.

The authors, Michael Kenny, Philip Rycroft and Jack Sheldon, argue that the UK government must urgently take steps to improve the way it manages relationships with the devolved governments in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland if it is to prevent them from deteriorating further. 

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.

Devolution changed the nature and structure of governance within the United Kingdom. Whitehall and successive UK governments have not adapted sufficiently to that new reality. Failure to act on this now will only increase the pressure on the Union. 

News release

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


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


Michael Kenny, Professor of Public Policy and Director of the Bennett Institute, and Philip Rycroft, former Permanent Secretary at the Department for Exiting the European Union (2017-2019),  share their insight into some of the decisions, events and mentalities within the state machinery that have led to the current situation and what the state must do to save the Union.


Professor Michael Kenny

Inaugural Director of the Bennett Institute for Public Policy

Professor Kenny is the Inaugural  Director of the Bennett Institute for Public Policy. Biography Before he arrived in Cambridge, Michael held positions at: Queen’s University, Belfast; the University of Sheffield,...

Philip Rycroft

Philip Rycroft

Distinguished Honorary Researcher at the Bennett Institute for Public Policy and POLIS

Philip Rycroft worked in DExEU from March 2017 to March 2019, from October 2017 as its Permanent Secretary. He was responsible for leading the department in all its work on the...

Jack Sheldon

Jack Sheldon

Jack Sheldon worked at the Bennett Institute Public Policy as a researcher on the ESRC-funded project ‘Between Two Unions: The Constitutional Future of the Islands after Brexit’. He is currently...

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