Union at the Crossroads: where next for the UK?

Dr. Philip Rycroft, Centre for Constitutional Change, University of Edinburgh; Bennett Institute for Public Policy, University of Cambridge.

            Brexit has shocked the structures of the United Kingdom. Support for independence in Scotland has hovered at or above 50% for some time. The Northern Ireland Protocol is bitterly contested and is shaking politics in the province. In Wales, the number of the ‘indy-curious’, those tempted by the prospect of an independent Wales, has reached unprecedented levels.

Even pre-Brexit, there were signs that the UK Union was a fractured polity. To use a good Scottish phrase, the Union was – particularly in Scotland – on a ‘shoogly peg’; a 45% vote share for independence in the 2014 referendum was hardly a ringing endorsement of the status quo.

The roots of discontent with the Union go long and deep. Part of the reason for dissatisfaction in the devolved parts of the UK undoubtedly lies in the failure of the centre, Whitehall and Westminster, to adapt to the realities of the devolution settlements that were put in place in the late 1990s. A recent study by the Bennett Institute for Public Policy at Cambridge University details the inadequacy of the structures to support inter-governmental relations within the UK and the myopia of civil servants and politicians in London when it comes to navigating the particular interests of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.[1]

What does this mean for the future of the UK Union? Nothing is inevitable and the UK might survive the trauma of Brexit. But the constitutional future of the country remains deeply uncertain. The elections in May this year to the Scottish Parliament confirmed that Scotland is split down the middle. The Scottish National Party fell one seat short of an overall majority, but with the Green party also in support of independence, the nationalists claim a mandate in Parliament for another referendum on Scotland’s future in the UK, a claim that the UK government will reject.

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon will use that refusal by Prime Minister Boris Johnson to grant the powers to hold a legal referendum as a stick to beat the UK government, contrasting the mandate she holds in the Scottish Parliament with the deemed illegitimacy of Conservative rule in Scotland. Plaid Cymru, the nationalist party in Wales, will look to build on the momentum of increasing interest in independence in Wales. Meanwhile, the impact of Brexit in Northern Ireland begs questions about the nature of consent and the future of the peace process. Sinn Fein will exploit the confusion of Brexit and the turmoil in the Unionist community to further buttress their case for unification on the island of Ireland.

How can the UK government respond to these looming threats? Its intentions are unclear. No one doubts that Prime Minister Johnson is as keen as anyone to preserve the Union; the dissolution of the United Kingdom on his watch would be mark his legacy forever. But his capacity to deal with the fissiparous tendencies within the country are hobbled by his advocacy of a powerful brand of Anglo-centric British nationalism that drove the success of the Brexiteers. A government that was elected on a mandate to get Brexit done and return sovereignty to the UK parliament is not temperamentally suited to a respectful sharing of power with the devolved governments of the UK.

There is no doubt an instinct in some parts of the Conservative party that devolution has gone too far, that the powers granted in particular to the Scottish Parliament have just fed the nationalist beast. There is an impatience with compromise and a belief that assertive Unionism is the way to bring a recalcitrant Scotland to heel. This is to be achieved by aggressive political attacks on the SNP, by eroding the powers of the devolved Parliaments through instruments like the Internal Market Act which enforces the primacy of England in setting standards for goods and services within the UK, and by increasing the visibility of the UK government by spending money in devolved areas of policy, if necessary over the heads of the devolved governments.

This assertive Unionism can be seen as an attempt to re-make the UK as a unitary state, something that it has in practice never been. It is a strategy that appeals to committed Unionists in all parts of the UK but is not well designed to win over those who are vacillating in their commitment to the Union. An alternative approach, also seen in some actions of the UK government, acknowledges that devolution is here to stay and that people want the different governments to work together and above all crave a respectful hearing, and response to, the distinct interests of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. This strain of thinking can be seen in a commitment by the UK government to refresh the structures of intergovernmental relations and reformulate them on the basis of seeking consensus, and to bring the devolved governments into the tent to map a way forward for Covid economic recovery.

Which of these approaches will prevail or will the actions of the UK government be fatally undermined by an inability to choose clearly? Neither route guarantees success. One may simply harden opposition to the Union, the other may further elevate the platform from which nationalist parties can make their case for separation. Neither alone will rekindle the flames of emotional warmth for the Union. Much hangs on the actions of the UK government. Get this wrong and the damage done to the Union by Brexit will be further compounded.


Philip Rycroft is Senior Distinguished Visiting Fellow at the Bennett Institute for Public Policy, University of Cambridge and Honorary Professor, Edinburgh University. In the course of a 30-year career as a policy professional in government, he was from 2012 to 2019 the lead civil servant in the Cabinet Office advising UK Government Ministers on all constitutional and devolution issues, and from 2017 to 2019 Permanent Secretary in the Department for Exiting the European Union.

[1] Report available at: https://www.bennettinstitute.cam.ac.uk/publications/union-crossroads/


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