Union 'at serious risk' due to 'ad-hoc approach' by UK Governments, says study

Deep-rooted complacency and the UK Government’s inability to adapt to the changing face of devolution has led to “ad-hoc” governance and the union on the brink of collapse, a new report from the University of Cambridge has said.

A new study has said the failure of the UK Government to adapt to devolution has left the union on the brink.

The paper, co-authored by former permanent secretary in the UK Government’s department for exiting the EU, Philip Rycroft, and Professor Michael Kenny, the Director of the Bennet Institute, is a scathing assessment of Whitehall’s approach to the devolved nations.

It states that complacency around informal networks between governments and “benign fiscal policies” reflecting the Labour Party’s dominance at the start of devolution assumed the establishment of new parliaments would bring about no fundamental changes and required no new internal governance structures.

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The report is highly critical of several administrations including David Cameron, Theresa May and Boris Johnson’s governments in offering “piecemeal” reform following the Scottish independence referendum with Whitehall departments having “no sense that maintaining the union is part of everyone’s job”.

It also stated that Brexit and the Covid-19 pandemic had highlighted the “inadequacy of the ad hoc approach long adopted by UK Governments.

Professor Kenny said without a “major overhaul” of how Whitehall approaches the devolved nations, the union is at “serious risk”.

He 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.”

Mr Rycroft, who also served as a senior civil servant in the Scottish Government before moving to Whitehall and is a senior visiting fellow at the Bennett Institute, said there is often a lack of consideration about policy impact on devolution and the union.

He said: “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.

“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.

The report argues for much greater awareness of devolved nations and states that an improved understanding of devolution should be a prerequisite for promotion within the civil service.

It also criticised the nature of interaction between the UK and the devolved nations during the pandemic and Boris Johnson’s “muscular brand of unionism”.

Mr Rycroft said: “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. Yet it is still a regular occurrence.”

Prof Kenny added: “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.

“It was dismantled by political decisions primarily made by Number 10.”

A UK government spokesperson said: “The United Kingdom is the most successful political and economic union the world has ever seen, and this pandemic and our collective response, from the furlough scheme to vaccine procurement and the backing of our military personnel, has shown that we are at our strongest when we work together towards a common goal.

"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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