The pandemic has seeded the idea of a prime minister “who speaks for England alone” as relations between the four nations of the UK deteriorate amid “deep-rooted complacency”, a senior former civil servant has warned.
There is widespread ignorance towards the union, meaning ministers can be kept in the dark about major reforms with little consideration for the four nations, Philip Rycroft, the permanent secretary to the Brexit department until 2019, says in a report.
His damning conclusion says the 300-year-old union is in deep peril and even major political ructions such as the close-run 2014 Scottish referendum and the following year’s SNP landslide prompted little soul-searching in Westminster.
Rycroft said the pandemic had deepened the crisis with a breakdown of communications with central government and the demonstration to citizens that devolved leaders could chart their own course.
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Boris Johnson’s “union unit” in the cabinet has been plagued by infighting over strategy amid growing momentum for a second referendum on Scottish independence and the deterioration of relations in Northern Ireland following the Brexit deal. In recent days clashes described as the worst street violence in years have taken place.
Though public messaging was coordinated at the start of the coronavirus crisis, cracks appeared as Johnson announced the reopening of schools in late spring 2020 before agreeing it with devolved nations, and ceased Cobra meetings until the autumn, replacing them with new committees with no devolved representation.
With little consultation and as Johnson’s decisions on reopening society began to appear unpopular, devolved leaders charted a different course. “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,” Rycroft said.
Rycroft’s co-author, Prof Michael Kenny, said it was political decision-making, not devolution itself, that caused widening divisions. “It was dismantled by political decisions primarily made by No 10.”
Rycroft said Johnson had a “muscular brand of unionism” that asserted the value of the union rather than demonstrating it, appearing reluctant to share platforms with first ministers.
The report’s conclusion highlights that Conservative scepticism of devolution is also flourishing anew, as evidenced in Johnson’s unguarded comments to MPs about devolution in Scotland being “a disaster”.
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Rycroft said the instinct to preserve the union was “not in the bloodstream of the UK state” in the same way concern for the territorial settlement was at the forefront of policymaking in countries such as Canada and Spain.
The study, conducted by researchers from the Bennett Institute for Public Policy at the University of Cambridge, looked at two decades of devolution from inside UK state machinery.
Rycroft suggests there is an ingrained tendency to “muddle through” relations with the union with no defined strategy. Recurring tropes include an over-reliance on informal backchannels while the main intergovernmental committees have at times been “largely tokenistic”, with devolution issues often ranked as a low priority by some of Whitehall’s main departments.
“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.”
Kenny said the approach was “fundamentally unstrategic” and said trying to stem the tide of nationalism in the devolved territories by incrementally devolving new powers was “no longer sustainable”. He said the “serious risk” to the union required a fundamental overhaul of approach.
Rycroft said policymaking needed close communication and consultation with devolved administrations at a much 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,” he said. “Yet it is still a regular occurrence.”
A UK government spokesperson said: “The United Kingdom is the most successful political and economic union the world has ever seen … Strengthening the United Kingdom is at the heart of everything we do and we are working alongside the devolved administrations to establish new ways of regular, meaningful and effective cooperation so that we continue to deliver for people right across the United Kingdom.”
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