Sam McBride: Crisis reveals how the UK is drifting apart – but also the power of the centre

On a Monday evening almost seven weeks ago, along with tens of millions of other people, I watched Boris Johnson’s address to the nation in which he announced the sweeping curtailment of civil liberties in order to slow the spread of coronavirus.

Saturday, 9th May 2020, 9:13 am
Devolution is reshaping the UK and making it less clear who really takes the big decisions

Even though by then we knew that a lockdown was coming, and similar draconian measures in other countries had been widely reported, it was a solemn statement. Its specificity – particularly the line “excluding funerals” – was chilling, alluding to the scale of the emergency.

But, despite it being my job to understand the distinctions between the various arms of government and pick up on the small print of the language, I was confused. Nowhere in the speech had the prime minister clarified whether the measures which he said were coming into force within a couple of hours would extend to Northern Ireland.

The implication was that they would – he referred to throughout to “this country” and “the UK”, “this moment of national emergency”, and directed his “instruction” to stay at home to “the British people”.

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Yet it was clear that many of the areas about which he spoke are devolved. The confusion was exacerbated when the BBC coverage immediately cut to the Scottish first minister announcing that her government would also be implementing a lockdown and then the Welsh first minister doing likewise. Northern Ireland was not mentioned.

Baffled, I phoned a very senior figure in Stormont who ought to have been briefed on what was happening. When asked if the lockdown extended to Northern Ireland he replied; “I assume so, but I haven’t been told anything.”

Within a couple of hours, it was clear that the emergency measures would extend here and later that week the Stormont brought in legislation giving legal force to the restrictions. But the episode demonstrated how a devolved system of government contains intrinsic potential for confusion, especially in a crisis where monumental decisions have to be taken rapidly.

Now as we move towards some of that curtailment of individual freedoms being gradually lifted, similar room for confusion exists — and it could be more dangerous than the fleeting lack of clarity when those freedoms were removed.

At the heart of the tension between national and devolved governments is a fundamental question: What does it mean to be part of the same country?

There have always been quirks to the homogeneity of the UK has evolved, with Ireland having always been something of a place apart and Scotland’s legal system remaining separate from that of the rest of the country.

But the devolution of the last two decades has created the potential for far more rapid divergence between England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

Ron Davies, the architect of Welsh devolution, famously said that it would be “a process, not an event”. This week saw the latest step in that process with the Welsh Assembly being renamed Senedd Cymru — the Welsh Parliament — to reflect its growing powers.

While that is the ideological aim of nationalist parties, the history of devolution points to even many staunch unionists coming to want more and more devolution, reflecting the outworking of the inherent political desire for power.

That can lead to administrations which are more responsive to local needs. But even if that is the case, its downside is a patchwork of laws, taxes and standards across the UK.

And sometimes there is no good reason for such divergence, as exemplified in the now head of the Northern Ireland Civil Service’s evidence to the RHI Inquiry that Stormont often wanted to be seen to be doing its own thing rather than simply rubber stamping what came from Westminster. Divergence can be about justifying one’s own existence.

Six years ago the then backbench Tory MP Rory Stewart — a former diplomat who walked 6,000 miles across Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq and then governed two Iraqi provinces before helping to write the country’s new constitution — gave a thought-provoking interview to The Guardian in which he proposed a radical new localism.

The 40-year-old said that he had come to realise that the average Afghan is far more powerful than their British counterpart because they feel they can have a role in one of the country’s 20,000 villages while “we’re all powerless ... the secret of Britain is there is no power anywhere”.

The antidote to that, he argued, was to “create a thousand little city states” where the public could influence how the state operates — a sort of explosion of devolution which would lead to the current emerging four-nation patchwork of laws and systems becoming even more complicated and diverse.

That idea is closely related to libertarianism in that it would roll back the scope of the state. It would also be more inward – for instance, a ‘city state’ in the wealthy south of England would have little reason to consider the chronic unemployment in a town 300 miles north.

Yet as James Kirkup, former political editor at the Daily Telegraph, recently argued, this pandemic appears to significantly undermine the central argument of libertarianism – that individuals can be trusted to do a better job than government.

Overwhelmingly, the public from across most of the political spectrum have accepted the need for the lockdown because it became clear that the public either could not be trusted to behave well – even when their fellow citizens’ lives were at stake – or required the structures of government to enable those actions to be taken swiftly and supported by huge financial commitments to offset otherwise inevitable suffering.

Although this crisis has demonstrated how the UK is drifting apart, it has also reinforced the strength of a large nation state — its NHS, military and the financial clout to provide vast economic support in a time of crisis.

As we move towards a plan for leaving these restrictions, this week there have been tensions between each of the devolved administrations and London, with the Welsh government this week pointedly issuing a statement making clear that whatever the prime minister announces does not apply to Wales.

In these tensions are exhibited both the strengths and weaknesses of devolution — responsiveness to local circumstances and sentiment but also the potential for a multitude of confusing and conflicting messages across the UK.

This week the respected nonpartisan think tank the Institute for Government published a report on the impact of devolution on how the restrictions are eased.

It said that “a co-ordinated exit strategy would be preferable” but noted that Spain and Italy had implemented regional measures during the pandemic in response to infection rates.

But the report said it would be “undesirable if different decisions are taken in different parts of the country in an ad hoc way, for purely political rather than evidence-driven reasons” and noted the particular difficulty for Northern Ireland of whether to follow London or Dublin.

The pandemic has already accelerated by a decade or more major societal change. But it might also accelerate debate about a new UK constitutional settlement which addresses how a shrinking central government and burgeoning devolved administrations come together to coherently govern.

In dealing with a crisis, swift and decisive action is more difficult when there are multiple decision-makers. But the opposite of that is centralisation, the ultimate example of which is China where one man can effectively shut or re-open anything.

Setting aside the principles of freedom and democracy which that abandons, even at a utilitarian level coronavirus has demonstrated its shortcomings with that powerful state harming itself by persecuting the doctor who attempted to warn it of the looming catastrophe.

As imperfect as our system of government is, collectively we have the power to improve it without the fear of being driven over by tanks.

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Alistair Bushe