7 April 2020

Coronavirus is a wake-up call: devolution isn’t working

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The Covid-19 crisis is a long way from over, but already fierce debates are breaking out over whether and how it will transform British politics. So far these have focused on economic and social policy. But what if the fallout has a constitutional dimension?

Over the past couple of weeks MPs, ministers, and voters have come face to face with what happens when successive Westminster governments all but completely abdicate responsibility for health policy. It hasn’t been pretty.

From priority access to supermarket home deliveries to volunteering for the NHS through ‘GoodSAM’, thousands of Scottish and Welsh residents have found themselves locked out of England-only measures, often with local alternatives either running late or entirely unavailable. The Scottish Parliament met, days into lockdown, in order to pass legislation which could have been enacted at Westminster the week before. Time and again, policy responses have been delayed for the sake of avoiding their being implemented from London.

This isn’t a new problem, nor an artefact of the unique circumstances created by the pandemic. These rows will come as no surprise to anybody who’s been following the constitutional debate – especially not those who were paying attention during the Brexit negotiations.

The row over ‘post-Brexit devolved powers’, which I covered at the time, illustrated clearly the depths of devolved politicians’ opposition to Westminster. They had been perfectly happy for these powers to be exercised by Brussels in order to harmonise the Single Market, but would not stand for London being allowed to step into that role to protect the British internal market.

When David Lidington delivered the Government’s capitulation on this question, it signalled the victory of an extremely crude interpretation of devolution in which entire portfolios were either devolved or not. The counter-position that the centre should have a strategic stake in certain powers, even when the broader policy area was generally devolved – a position which was in fact the status quo under our EU membership – was abandoned.

In its place, defenders of the new order – including Gordon Brown in his speech at These Islands’ recent conference in Newcastle – put their faith in intergovernmental negotiations between Westminster, Holyrood, Cardiff Bay and Stormont. But from the row over Nicola Sturgeon using her access to Cobra briefings to upstage the Government to the now-forgotten but very recent standoff between London and Edinburgh over the COP26 conference, experience shows that no matter how high or low the stakes, such a structure is far more likely to produce grandstanding and gridlock than swift and effective government.

Of course, this experience is not universal. In the United States, for example, local and state governments have stepped in to fill the void created by Donald Trump’s foot-dragging. But this simply illustrates how the appropriate constitutional settlement can vary from country to country: the United Kingdom not only lacks America’s Tocquevillian town-hall culture but is also only about the size of a large US state.

A more pertinent example might be Spain, a country whose constitutional challenges more closely match our own and whose programme of ‘coffee for all’ – which amounts to granting very extensive devolution across Spain – offers us some insight into how a ‘federal UK’ (of the sort apparently favoured by Keir Starmer) might fare. There the central government is struggling to coordinate a national response despite having actually bitten the bullet and declared a state of emergency. London retains the capacity to take command in a crisis. Madrid’s has decayed.

But if these problems aren’t new, why might the result be different this time? In short, because Covid-19 looks as if it might serve as a wake-up call to two groups whose inattention has played a critical role in letting matters get to their present state.

The first of these is the electorate. The rows over the coronavirus response have transformed abstract and often arcane constitutional debates into much more concrete questions about why vulnerable residents in Wales aren’t receiving the same support, on the same timescale, as their neighbours in England.

The results are already being felt, with Welsh Conservative MPs – and not just the devosceptic usual suspects – reporting growing anger on the ground and being spurred into increasingly vocal criticism of the Labour regime in Cardiff Bay. It remains to be seen if this attitude will take root amongst the inevitably more pro-devolution Assembly group, but a major Welsh party being pushed in this direction could have significant long-term implications.

The other is Westminster politicians, who have too often been prepared to go along with a devolve-and-forget approach to decentralisation or yield to specious appeals to the ‘spirit of devolution’ instead of taking the time to grasp the detail and make the case for their own relevance.

The fragmented and faltering national response to Covid-19 clearly shows that the question of what should be devolved or reserved to Westminster cannot be neatly divided up along the lines of departmental responsibility. In fact, all the devolved politicians blaming the national media for not adequately signposting that the Government’s policies were England-only suggest that the current simplistic setup hasn’t even, after two decades, left the public clear who’s responsible for what.

Pandemic response is just one area where the Government has a clear and legitimate strategic interest in a devolved policy area, and the public response to initiatives such as GoodSAM show that there is much broader acceptance of UK-wide action on the part of the public than it suits devolved politicians to admit.

If ministers emerge from this crisis with a clearer understanding of the need to fight their corner against their devolved counterparts, and a greater will to do so, then coronavirus could turn out to be a constitutional watershed.

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Henry Hill is Assistant Editor of ConservativeHome.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.