Muscular Unionism a Disaster for the Union

“As other UK nations pursue different lockdown rules and messaging, the public may be adapting to the strange idea of a prime minister who speaks for England alone.”  – Philip Rycroft.

A damning report by Philip Rycroft, the permanent secretary to the Brexit department until 2019, Prof Michael Kenny, and Jack Sheldon has concluded that the pandemic has seeded the idea of a prime minister “who speaks for England alone” and warns of complete deterioration of relations between the four nations of the UK amid “deep-rooted complacency”.

The study, conducted by researchers from the Bennett Institute for Public Policy at the University of Cambridge, looked at two decades of devolution from inside UK state machinery. The report: “Union at the Crossroads: Can the British state handle the challenges of devolution?” can be downloaded here.

“The authors, Michael Kenny, Philip Rycroft and Jack Sheldon, argue that the UK government must urgently take steps to improve the way it manages relationships with the devolved governments in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland if it is to prevent them from deteriorating further.”

Rycroft and Kenny’s damning conclusion says the union is in “deep peril” and even major political events such as the close-run 2014 referendum and the SNP’s 2015 landslide election victory prompted little soul-searching at all in Westminster. The report concludes:

  • Johnson’s “muscular brand of unionism” has asserted the value of the union rather than demonstrated it, and he appears reluctant to share platforms or communicate with First Ministers.
  • Michael Kenny said it was political decision-making, not devolution itself, that caused widening divisions. “It was dismantled by political decisions primarily made by No 10.”
  • Conservative scepticism of devolution is flourishing, as evidenced in Johnson’s comments to MPs about devolution in Scotland being “a disaster”.


Professor Michael Kenny, report co-author and Director of the Bennett Institute, 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,” he said.

It’s not clear to what extent this is due to a culture of ignorance and complacency or a strategic attempt at undermining devolved power.

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

The Bennett Institute blog on the report explained: “At the start of the Covid-19 crisis, the UK government was working fairly well with its devolved counterparts. First minsters sat in COBR(A) meetings and coordinated public messaging with Number 10. All of these governments attended SAGE and ministerial implementation groups – until Boris Johnson announced schools reopening in late spring 2020 before agreeing it with them.

COBR(A) then ceased until autumn, and implementation groups wound down, replaced by new committees with no devolved representation. The Welsh first minister spoke to Johnson only once between May and September 2020.”

While the report is highly critical it also seems strangely non-political. Describing the problem as being one of Whitehall’s failure to adapt to devolution seems to be a cutely naive framing of the problem.

You can listen to the authors discuss the report here:

Comments (6)

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  1. norm says:

    “he appears reluctant to share platforms or communicate with First Ministers”

    I’m sure that First Ministers (yes even Arlene Foster) would be equally reluctant to share platforms.

  2. Daniel Lamont says:

    The report as a whole is worth reading as it provides most useful background and context to our current situation . However, despite the fact that one of the authors worked in the Scottish government, there is little recognition of a Scottish history and culture .

    1. Daniel Lamont says:

      Insert “distinctive ” between ‘a’ and ‘Scottish ‘.

  3. Richard Easson says:

    When was the devolved English Assembly elected? Johnson is the Prime Minister, OK, but he is not the First Minister of a similar devolved Parliament as in Wales, Northern Ireland or Scotland. There have been no such elections and there are only three devolved Nations in the “United Kingdom”.
    To claim EVEL is the same thing as a proportionately elected English assembly with MEPs is tosh .

    1. Pub Bore says:

      Yes, electorates in England overwhelmingly rejected Labour’s proposals to devolve power away from the UK government in favour of more local assemblies, which might then have taken their places alongside the devolved administrations of Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland, and London. As a result, England has no devolved government of its own and remains almost entirely dependent on the central UK government for its public decision-making.

      That was 20 years ago, however. Not quite a generation, I know, but maybe it’s time to again refer that proposed constitutional change to those electorates. In fact, aren’t the Tories currently pursuing plans for such further devolution? Isn’t there a White Paper on English devolution and local recovery currently in the UK parliamentary pipeline? Maybe England will at long last achieve a greater degree of self-government.

      1. Laurie Pocock says:

        I am against devolved government covering hundreds of thousands of people and in the case of London millions but would prefer actual robust local government where communities have proper authority and resources. This is what we need rather than a higher level of regional authority that few people actually take account of.

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