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The introduction of devolution in Scotland and Wales, and its reintroduction in Northern Ireland, has wrought a welcome transformation in the governance of the United Kingdom, though this is not a point that contributors to recent debates on devolution dwell on. Instead, for many commentators the extraordinary first few months of the Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted the tensions inherent within the devolution settlement, notably the double role now performed by the British government, which is in charge of the response of the United Kingdom across certain policy areas and in others (notably health) functions as an unacknowledged government of England alone.
The Value of Devolution
To see the value of devolution, especially in the current crisis, it is worth remembering why it was introduced in the first place. One often mentioned reason in the case of Scotland and Wales is purely tactical. From this perspective, devolution was a device used by the UK state, or more specifically by the Labour Party when in control of that state, to outmanoeuvre Celtic nationalists who posed an electoral threat to the British party system and ultimately to the integrity of the Union itself. But this reading of the rise of devolution, though common, focuses on only one part of the story – and if the primary purpose of introducing a Scottish Parliament was to outflank the SNP, then the tactical wisdom of that initiative certainly looks less than sound today.
Rather, as I show in my new book The Case for Scottish Nationalism, the rise of Scottish and Welsh nationalisms in party political terms was itself one manifestation of a more general heightening of the tensions between the national identities within the United Kingdom in the late twentieth century. The most salient political expression of this was England, and hence the UK state, choosing a different political path from the one preferred by the electorates of Scotland and Wales in the 1980s and early 1990s.
The interaction between a historic sense of national community in Scotland and Wales and a reforming British unitary state that lacked democratic consent from those nations created a toxic political situation – particularly in Scotland. The only realistic way to address that tension was to grant greater democratic autonomy to Scotland and Wales. By refusing to accept this until it was much too late, the Conservative Party in Scotland caused itself significant electoral and reputational damage.
Devolution in 2020
As we have seen in recent months, the operational details of devolution remain only fuzzily appreciated in metropolitan politics – hence the note of surprise in some commentary about the role played by the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish governments in managing the crisis. But it is likely that, in the absence of this decentralisation, the politics of the pandemic would have played out in a more acrimonious fashion. Imagine a Conservative Secretary of State for Scotland managing the response while backed by 25 per cent of the Scottish vote and holding only 6 Scottish parliamentary seats and the benefits of devolution in terms of state legitimacy are evident. Or imagine – more dramatically – a British Secretary of State for Northern Ireland imposing lockdown via direct rule.
What the Covid-19 crisis has demonstrated is that the nation of the United Kingdom with a governance problem is now England. Boris Johnson’s administration does at least possess an electoral mandate to rule England, which makes the issue less severe than the pre-devolution situation in the other three nations. But as the English/UK state has struggled to handle the pandemic, two shortcomings have been evident in the government of England. First, the English response to the crisis has been chaotically driven from Whitehall with little consideration given to regional preferences and interests – something likely to become even more problematic as the government pivots to local lockdowns whenever an outbreak of the disease flares up. Second, the government has failed to make a clear public distinction in its communications between its different roles in England and the UK.
These two criticisms of government performance point towards different solutions. A clearer, and more formal, distinction between the government of England and the government of Britain could address the second of them – though a host of difficulties then emerge about precisely how to do that, some of which are discussed in an important recent article in Political Quarterly by Nicola McEwen and her colleagues. Insofar as the problem revealed by the last few months is over-centralisation in decision-making, though, it’s not clear that this would be resolved by having a more carefully delineated English component to UK policy-making.
An English Government
With a population larger than almost all of the member states of the EU, an English government (however constituted) would likely simply replicate in a more transparent fashion the same attempt to run everything from London that has struggled over recent months. This suggests that further decentralisation within England, probably building on the existing tiers of local government and city-regions, will be needed to attenuate the problems with command and control from Whitehall.
One doubt about proposals to decentralise government in England has always been that it is hard to imagine the UK state granting the kind of legislative powers enjoyed by Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland to any putative regional tier of government. That remains true – so such an exercise is unlikely to offer any kind of lasting symmetrical solution to the West Lothian question.
But the Covid-19 crisis has demonstrated that competent, democratically accountable local executive leadership, even without exercising legislative power, can itself play an important role in maintaining public trust in state decision-making and fostering collective action. The Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish governments have probably been more effective than Whitehall at commanding public support during their respective managements of the crisis. A model of English regional government that gives new opportunities for localities to exercise this sort of visible control over their own communities would significantly ease the centralisation of English politics.
It is easy, and perhaps realistic, to be gloomy about the challenges that face the UK state. But one plausible interpretation of the politics of the pandemic is that, so far at least, devolution is the element of the state’s response that has worked relatively well. The fiscal union of the United Kingdom – in combination with the monetary firepower of the Bank of England – has cushioned the initial economic impact across all four nations with unprecedented levels of state intervention while the devolved governments have been free to manage the health emergency in line with distinct national needs and priorities.
With a different government, led by a figure with greater credibility outside of England, the crisis might even have been a boon for unionists. But with the government we have got, the spirit of noisy pugilism that characterises all its works will probably drown out serious consideration of devolution’s successes. As Deborah Mabbett predicted in Political Quarterly last year, the tensions that have already begun to emerge between the Conservatives and the devolved governments now look set to degenerate in the next few months into an acrimonious turf war over how to regulate the UK’s internal market after Brexit. What might have fostered a resonant new narrative about the United Kingdom looks instead more likely to provide an open goal for Scottish nationalism.