Union at the Crossroads: Can the British state handle the challenges of devolution? by Michael Kenny, Philip Rycroft and Jack Sheldon

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The future of the UK Union is of increasing salience for British policy-makers. Against the backdrop of the twin crises of Brexit and coronavirus, speculation about its break-up has become widespread. Boris Johnson’s administration has so far approached the existential threat to the state it governs by adopting a notably assertive style of unionism, expressed through a concerted push to strengthen the profile and influence of the centre in the devolved territories. A competing strand of thinking, influential in particular in parts of the Labour Party, makes the case for wholesale reform of the UK constitution, including further decentralisation from Westminster.

In this new paper, Michael Kenny, Philip Rycroft and Jack Sheldon contribute to these topical debates by emphasising the need for the UK government to urgently take steps to improve the way it approaches, and manages its relationships with, the devolved governments in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Drawing on a historical analysis of how the British state has approached the multi-level territorial constitution since the introduction of the modern devolution arrangements, the authors contend that central government has often been complacent and un-strategic, and that this has contributed significantly to the pressures on the Union.

They argue that the deficiencies in the political and administrative centre’s approach to territorial governance stem from devolution’s early years, when little consideration was given to developing institutional machinery fit for a more challenging context for territorial politics. The outcome of the 2011 Scottish Parliament election, at which the SNP won a majority, formed an initial catalyst for more troubled territorial relations, which the machinery of the British state was ill-equipped to handle. Over the past few years, Brexit and coronavirus have further exposed the inadequacy of the established ad hoc and reactive approach to managing relations with the devolved governments.

The authors conclude by arguing for consultation and engagement between the UK and devolved governments to be embedded far more deeply into both the culture and machinery of the state. Specific suggestions include engaging with the devolved governments from the earliest possible stage of the policy process where UK policies impact on devolved responsibilities, overhauling the Joint Ministerial Committee and incentivising civil servants working in each government to spend time learning about how the other governments work. 

Michael Kenny is Professor of Public Policy and Director of the Bennett Institute for Public Policy, University of Cambridge.

Philip Rycroft is a former Permanent Secretary at the Department for Exiting the European Union
(2017-2019). From 2015 to 2019 he was head of the UK Governance Group in the Cabinet Office. He is a Senior Distinguished Visiting Fellow at the Department of Politics and International Studies
and the Bennett Institute at the University of Cambridge.

Jack Sheldon is an ESRC-funded PhD candidate in the Department of Politics and International Studies at the University of Cambridge. Before becoming a full-time PhD, he worked for five years as a researcher on British constitutional politics.

This publication presents the personal views of the author and not those of The Constitution Society, which publishes it as a contribution to debate on this important subject.