Devolved and UK ministers’ mistrust spans decades and parties, report finds

A report marking 20 years of devolution has revealed the depth of mistrust between UK and devolved ministers going back decades and spanning party lines.

Donald Dewar and Baroness Smith pose for photographs before the historic Devolution Speech.
Donald Dewar and Baroness Smith pose for photographs before the historic Devolution Speech.

In interviews with researchers from the Institute for Government (IfG), senior former Holyrood ministers reveal how they believed they were being ignored and patronised by Westminster counterparts, both Labour and Conservative.

The IfG report comes as relations between the Scottish and UK governments are at their most strained since the 2014 independence referendum, with major disputes over Brexit and the management of devolved powers after leaving the EU.

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Policy differences between Tony Blair’s New Labour and Edinburgh created early tensions, with former Health Secretary Andy Kerry describing how Blair “came to a conference and essentially slagged me off on the rostrum about not having reformed the health service”. “I was on television live and watching this speech and I’m like: ‘What the f*ck is this about?’”

Much of the breakdown in trust appears to be based on personalities and miscommunication. The SNP’s Alex Neil, who served as health and infrastructure secretary, described Philip Hammond as “arrogant” and said Jeremy Hunt was “distinctly unhelpful”.

Former First Minister Lord McConnell said the “dysfunctional relationship” between Mr Blair and Gordon Brown meant “things would be agreed with one and then took ages to be implemented by the other”.

Shona Robison, the SNP health secretary between 2014-18, claimed UK ministers’ approach towards devolved counterparts was “you only tell them what you need to tell them”.

And Lord Wallace, the Liberal Democrat who served as deputy First Minister from 1999 to 2005, said he doesn’t believe UK ministers are “living up to what they said” in terms of engagement with devolved governments on Brexit.

The feeling that Westminster doesn’t understand devolution extends beyond Scotland, the report finds.

Carwyn Jones, the Labour First Minister of Wales until last year, told researchers that appeals for a constitutional convention to clarify devolved powers were ignored. “It fell on deaf ears, honestly, in Whitehall, they couldn’t see what the problem was,” he said. “That problem has been magnified by Brexit.”

Akash Paun, a senior fellow at the IfG and author of the report, said: “These interviews lay bare the extent to which decisions taken at Westminster impose constraints on the Scottish and Welsh governments – sometimes deliberately but sometimes just because the UK government is often bad at remembering the devolved nations.

“To be effective, Scottish and Welsh ministers need good relationships with their UK counterparts but must also learn to stand their ground to defend their interests.”