23 October 2023

Is it time to rethink devolution?


Sir Billy Connolly once memorably branded Scottish nationalism as ‘shabby’ and was dismissive of the nation’s ‘wee pretendy Parliament.’

Boris Johnson appears to share such sentiments. At any rate, in his evidence to the Covid inquiry he suggested that the devolved settlement was more of a hindrance than a benefit during the pandemic. He pushed back at criticisms that he should have deferred more to joint decision making with the First Ministers of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Specifically that he should have chaired more ‘four nations’ emergency COBRA meetings.

‘It is optically wrong, in the first place, for the UK Prime Minister to hold regular meetings with other DA First Ministers, as though the UK were a kind of mini EU of four nations and we were meeting as a ‘council’ in a federal structure,’ he said. ‘That is not, in my view,
how devolution is meant to work’.

That constitutional point is the simple reality. The Prime Minister of the United Kingdom is not on a level with the devolved leaders. Why indulge the Ruritanian fantasies of these jumped-up grievance mongers? English politicians are overly keen to placate their Celtic counterparts. A more robust and honest approach would be more effective. Not least because most of the Scots, the Welsh and Northern Irish show little enthusiasm for the extra layer of Government they are burdened with. The Scottish Nationalists are at a low ebb. But as far as Wales is concerned, the arrangements for devolved government were only approved by a tiny margin in the 1997 referendum. I suspect if they were given the chance now the Welsh would vote to scrap it.

The meetings might have been supposed to provide a united front but instead, there were leaks and ‘political point-scoring’ leading ‘many
people were confused and frustrated’.

So Michael Gove, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, was given the liaison duty. ‘I am afraid I was conscious that I tended to be a particular target of nationalist ire’, Boris explained. ‘Rather than provoking the SNP, I wanted to mollify and gain consent. I believed Michael would do a good job’.

Gove was certainly a shrewd choice for the cynical stroking of egos. In WhatsApp messages leaked to the Daily Telegraph, the then Health Secretary Matt Hancock texted Gove before a meeting asking what they were trying to achieve. Gove replies: ‘Letting people express concerns in a therapeutic environment before you and I decide the policy’.

Despite Gove deploying his legendary effusiveness the devolved leaders would sometimes assert themselves. They did have genuine power to vary policy but when this was exercised it was not advantageous to those concerned. Mark Drakeford, the Welsh First Minister, defended the slower rollout of the vaccination programme in Wales, saying supplies of the Pfizer jab were being stretched out so that vaccinators were not ‘standing around with nothing to do’ later on. Another bright idea he had was to ban supermarkets from selling ‘non-essential items’, causing hopeless confusion.

Then we had the response to the Omicron variant with yet another damaging lockdown in Scotland and Wales in January 2021 – something Boris Johnson made the right call in resisting for England.

Northern Ireland also had an unnecessary Omicron lockdown. It lasted six weeks into February 2021. Arrangements for devolved government in Northern Ireland have proved particularly dysfunctional. It was based on expediency rather than a rational basis of good government based on equal citizenship. Abolishing the Northern Ireland Assembly and passing the powers down to local authorities would be more practical.

Grandstanding politicians will always itch to burnish their ‘leadership credentials’ by imposing more restrictions on us. So it was depressingly predictable that devolution led to that over-government during Covid. The First Ministers made poor use of the power they had. It is refreshing that Boris didn’t pander to them by pretending they had more power than they do.

Click here to subscribe to our daily briefing – the best pieces from CapX and across the web.

CapX depends on the generosity of its readers. If you value what we do, please consider making a donation.

Harry Phibbs is a freelance journalist

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