How pandemic exposed weakness of the union

16 Apr 2021 Nick Garbutt    Last updated: 16 Apr 2021

Boris Johnson with his new slogan. Picture: Downing Street

An important new report explores how the UK government’s handling of the Covid-19 pandemic has left an already fragile union even closer to breaking up.

Union at the Crossroads Can the British state handle the challenges of devolution? charts the history of devolution and examines the extraordinary weakness of the institutions that are supposed to hold the devolved governments together and the failure of the British state to get to grips with the reality of devolution. It is authored by academics Michael Kenny and Jack Sheldon together with retired senior civil servant Philip Rycroft.

It describes how an opportunity to bring governments together to  fight a common cause was dismantled by Boris Johnson under pressure from libertarians within his own party and elements of the media.

The report explains how the seeds of trouble to come were sown when devolution was introduced at the end of the last century by Tony Blair’s Labour government. Right from the start there was little if any consideration either for what devolution meant for central government institutions or what mechanisms would be needed to bring devolved institutions into regular dialogue with Whitehall. These were left to emerge over time, which in retrospect seems extraordinary.

The ad hoc Joint Ministerial Council had an advisory rather than an executive role and there was no attempt to replicate within the UK the more robust institutions that underpinned the Good Friday Agreement (the British-Irish Council, the North-South Ministerial Council and the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference).

Perhaps Blair didn’t think this mattered: after all Labour controlled Scotland and Wales at the time and also his government had excellent relations within Northern Ireland following the successful peace negotiations. Any problems could be ironed out discreetly behind closed doors.

Scotland’s minority SNP government of 2007 didn’t change much. What Scottish officials dubbed the “bumble bee” government (it shouldn’t be able to fly but can) was too focused on its own survival to test out constitutional issues.

But when the SNP won a landslide in the 2011 Scottish elections it demanded an independence referendum and PM David Cameron acceded. At the time polls were showing just 30% support for independence and Cameron thought a vote would teach the uppity Scots a lesson.

But what followed exposed the British state’s lack of understanding of Scottish affairs and its inability to co-ordinate its own institutions to respond to the independence movement.

The report observes that even as support for a Yes vote grew ministers and central government departments were no more visible in Scotland than in normal times and observes that this was a “striking reflection of the inability of the centre to make even an existential threat to its territorial integrity its main strategic priority, as well as to some extent a tactical recognition of the limited political appeal of UK ministers in a campaign context north of the border.”

The authors argue that Brexit exposed the extent of the subordination of devolved governments to the central state, shattering any illusions that people may have had about the constitutional standing and rights of the devolution settlements. They state: “A vote in favour of staying in the EU in Scotland and Northern Ireland was essentially of no consequence in the face of a majority in England and Wales. The convention that had emerged since devolution about the constitutional value of the legislative consent granted by legislatures outside Westminster was revealed to have no practical effect if they were opposed to the will of a majority of MPs in the Commons.”

This sense of powerless was compounded by devolved governments being given very little (if any) influence over the course of the EU exit negotiations.

So by the time the pandemic struck internal government relations were at an all-time low, support for Scottish independence had reached more than 50% and the implications of the Brexit settlement for Northern Ireland had emerged.

Some unionists saw this as a chance to repair fractured relationships. And they had reasonable grounds for their optimism – after all we were all facing the same threat and co-operation was an imperative. And there was another factor as well – this time around devolved governments were responsible for many of the major decisions.  

At first this is exactly what happened. The leaders of the devolved administrations were invited to attend meetings of Whitehall’s COBR (Cabinet Office Briefing Rooms) emergency committee.

They emerged on 2 March last year with a joint action plan which set out what they would do as the crisis escalated. Subsequent meetings led to other actions agreed by all governments, including those around social distancing and culminated in the decision to implement the first lockdown on 23 March. This was announced by Boris Johnson on TV and was followed by similar announcements from Belfast, Cardiff and Edinburgh.

At the same time the slogan “Stay Home, Protect the NHS, Save Lives” was adopted by all the governments as the central element of a shared communications strategy.

Medical and scientific advisors from the devolved administrations were attending SAGE, and communications strategies were co-ordinated through meetings chaired by Michael Gove.

But this was not to last. By late Spring Johnson was coming under increasing pressure from the libertarian wing of his party and elements of the media who were demanding a “clear exit strategy” from lockdown.   

On 10 May Johnson responded, setting out a phased process for reopening schools and other parts of the economy. This was not agreed or even discussed in advance with the devolved institutions and when he announced it he did not make it clear that it only applied to England.

The report claims: “One factor in the UK government’s decision to move away from the more collaborative mode for managing this crisis was Johnson’s wariness of the perception that he might be viewed as being on a par with the heads of the devolved governments.”

This was when co-ordinated  approach broke down. At the press conference Johnson ditched the “Stay at Home” message for “Stay Alert, Control the Virus, Save Lives” and the four administrations went their separate ways. By June there were four separate rules in place regarding meetings between households. It was confusing for citizens to follow.

Growing mistrust between the governments translated into a lack of engagement. There were no COBR meetings between May and September and when they resumed this did not lead to increased co-ordination. Meanwhile the UK government had streamlined its response to the pandemic, sharing responsibility between two Cabinet committees – the devolved governments were not invited to these meetings. Consequently in September Welsh First Minister, Mark Drakeford, reported that he had spoken to Johnson only once since May.

 

By the Autumn Covid-19 cases were rising rapidly, yet the collective response had broken down – a major issue given that the virus does not respect borders and that decisions taken in one jurisdiction will inevitably impact its neighbour. The classic example of this was when Wales decided to restrict travel into the country from other parts of the UK, drawing fury from Conservative MPs.

There was a brief rapprochement before Christmas when all governments agreed an approach to the holiday period but this broke down before it was implemented as cases spiked. This resulted in each government announcing its own containment measures.

The report concludes: “How and why the initial emphasis on co-ordination and co-operation gave way to much greater divergence, and open political conflict, during the course of pandemic, is one of the most important questions raised by the Covid-19 crisis for Britain’s structures of government. The pandemic has shone a harsh, unforgiving light upon the poorly developed, and often mistrustful, relationships between the devolved and UK governments, and set the scene for growing doubts about the future viability of the devolved Union.”

From a unionist perspective the potential for responding to the pandemic to heal some of the fractures within the union were squandered. From a nationalist perspective the prospect for independence movements have risen.

And as Brexit – with all its consequences - unfolds against a background of what the report describes as the “hyper-unionism” of Boris Johnson’s government, it is by no means certain that the centre will hold.

 

 

 

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