The coronavirus pandemic has altered politics in the UK in a number of profound and unusual ways but it is devolution where some of the most fascinating impacts may just have taken place.

Assumptions that guided devolution have been tested and the mechanics underpinning the relationship between the four Governments reassessed. New language has emerged and new working arrangements invented on the hoof. There has also been unprecedented co-operation between the four administrations with territorial claims sacrificed in order to work together. Political differences have even been put on hold to ensure maximum co-operation.

When the COVID pandemic is over the whole episode will emerge as a pivotal moment in the history of devolution.  This is why the Scottish Affairs Committee has undertaken an inquiry into Coronavirus in Scotland with an emphasis on the working arrangements of the ‘four-nation approach’. We want to better understand its meaning and how it has worked as a collective strategy.

Has operational independence been suspended? What has informed its assumptions and who is actually responsible for the various interventions that have been put in place for the entire UK to follow? We’ll also inevitably stray into what this episode means for devolution across the UK and how effective and resilient the institutions that support it have functioned.

Even before the pandemic kicked off devolution infrastructure was under unprecedented pressure. 

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When the Scottish Affairs Committee conducted its inquiry into inter-governmental relations last year we found an infrastructure falling behind the development of devolution and hindered by disputes with devolved administrations feeling undermined and powerless.

During the pandemic it is perhaps not surprising that barely any of this infrastructure has been utilised.

The Joint Ministerial Committee, which should provide central co-ordination of the relationship between the four nations has essentially been forgotten. Instead, new informal relationships have emerged overtaking the old formal structures.

Supra- national bodies such as COBR and SAGE have become the main focus of inter-governmental engagement.  The common usage of the term ‘four nations’, and the concept itself, is perhaps the most consequential innovation for devolution.

It’s taken this pandemic to highlight the reality of a devolved UK and to finally acknowledge that distinct political administrations even exist. The concept of ‘four nations’ suggests an equality and operational independence that has barely been acknowledged in the history of devolution.

Now that this genie is out of the bottle it is unlikely to be put back. This new lexicon will necessitate approaching everything differently in the future.

But just as we are beginning to adjust to the new reality there is a sense of ‘back to business as usual’ creeping in. Where it seemed easy for the four nations to come together at the beginning of this emergency it is perhaps inevitable that coming out the other end would prove to be more problematic.

How this divergence is handled will perhaps determine the ultimate success of the whole four nations experiment.

After the conditional ‘truce’ the political temperature has also been turned up. As each Government faces identical issues, the remedies for which are equally problematic, they are feeling the heat of increased scrutiny.

The acquisition of PPE, testing, the high rates of infection in care homes, the ongoing debate about when we should have entered lockdown are the issues that are increasingly consuming political debate in both Holyrood and Westminster.

Different Governments are being held to account by differing oppositions even if the questions asked in one Parliament could easily be transferred and asked in the other. What is perhaps most ironic is that all the Governments seem to be basing their operational policy on the same science and information available to all four Governments.

The most significant juncture, though, was the UK Government’s arbitrary decision to initiate its own way out of lockdown and change the messaging to support its new approach. This drove a coach and horses through the general principle of an ‘agreed’ four nations agenda.

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If the four nations were assembled for one thing in particular, it was to ensure message clarity and the minimising of confusion across national boundaries. The ‘stay alert’ message was delivered UK-wide but was in fact exclusively for England, leaving respective national Governments tasked with the difficult job of clarifying the measures applying to their own countries.

Where all this leaves devolution we will try and examine in our Committee’s inquiry, but a return to usual business is unlikely. Devolution will be celebrating its 21st birthday soon. Perhaps it is finally coming of age.

Pete Wishart is SNP MP for Perth and North Perthshire