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Monday, April 12, 2021

PM puts union in peril

Anybody watching the Prime Minister's performances from one of the devolved nations during the last 18 months will already know this, but at last it is being acknowledged in the UK media a the Guardian reports on the views of Sir Philip Rycroft, who was permanent secretary to the Brexit department until 2019.

He has worked with Professor Michael Kenny and researchers from the Bennett Institute for Public Policy at the University of Cambridge, to look at two decades of devolution from inside UK state machinery, concluding that 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”. 

They add that 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:

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.

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”.

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.

His suggestion that there is an ingrained tendency to “muddle through” relations with the union with no defined strategy has been well known in devolved administrations from the very beginning of devolution. 

He says that there has been 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. This is very much as it was in 1999, the only surprising thing being that it has not improved in twenty two years but got worse.

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