WESTMINSTER'S 'deep-rooted' complacency and 'considerable indifference' towards devolved issues is contributing to the breakdown of the union, a new report has found.

Research from the University of Cambridge's Bennett Institute for Public Policy, released today, highlights concerns about the way the UK Government treats devolved administrations, and the sense in Whitehall that maintaining the union is "someone else's problem".

The hard-hitting 'Union at the Crossroads' publication comes after three years of research and dozens of interviews with key figures, as well as analysis of the relationships between Downing Street and the governments in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

It argues that urgent change is 'vital' for the survival of the union, warning that Boris Johnson's attitude towards devolution could contribute to an increase in support for Scottish independence, and risks breaking up the UK.

The report's co-author is Philip Rycroft, a former leading civil servant on devolution from 2012 to 2019 and former permanent secretary at the Department for Exiting the European Union.

HeraldScotland: Philip RycroftPhilip Rycroft

He said despite the 2014 independence referendum, “the cost of getting things wrong on devolution is seen as somebody else’s problem for most Whitehall departments.”

He added: “There is little emotional engagement across government with the trends towards independence, no sense that maintaining the Union is part of everyone’s job.”

The Prime Minister’s scepticism about devolution, according to researchers, represents a “revival of an older unionist” stance at the top of British politics “which is increasingly expressed in combative terms”.

The report references Mr Johnson’s remarks to a group of Conservative MPs last year, saying devolution was a “disaster” and one of Tony Blair’s “biggest mistakes”.

READ MORE: Boris Johnson deems Scottish devolution a 'disaster'

It adds: “Whether this yields the right strategic approach for unionists to adopt in the current, increasingly fraught, political context is an issue that needs to be more widely and publicly aired.

“If the choice that is presented, for instance, to the Scottish public in the coming years is between independence and a new species of unitarist unionism, there is a very good chance that more political support will grow for the first of these options.

“Furthermore, the ‘neo-unionism’ that prevails at the top of the current government could well generate a deepening divide with unionists who are still supporters of... devolution.”


The report states that political choices made mainly by Mr Johnson led to a breakdown in partnership working between the four governments during the pandemic, as the Prime Minister tried to distance himself from appearing to be on a par with the First Ministers.

It explains:"This co-ordinated pattern first broke down in a significant way as attention turned to how and when to exit the ‘lockdown’ ...

“On 10 May 2020 Johnson set out a phased process for the reopening of schools and different parts of the economy, in light of increasing pressure from some Conservative MPs and parts of the media for a clear ‘exit strategy’.

“Unlike previous announcements, this had not been agreed with the devolved leaders who complained that it had been trailed in the press before they had been consulted.

“There were complaints too that he failed to make clear in his broadcast that most of what he was announcing would apply only in England, giving rise to the suspicion that accepting this awkward reality might diminish the standing of his own office.”

READ MORE: Scottish Tory blasts Johnson's ministers in need of "wakeup call" and 'not focussed on whole UK'

It added: “One factor in the UK government’s decision to move away from the more collaborative mode for managing this crisis was Johnson’s wariness of the perception that he might be viewed as being on a par with the heads of the devolved governments.”

Mr Rycroft said the Prime Minister had “fudged sovereignty” by not clarifying during TV coronavirus briefings that his announcements were only applicable to England.

Professor Michael Kenny, report co-author and director of the Bennett Institute, said the devolution of new powers was not enough any longer.

He explained: “Existential threats to the Union, crystallised during the Scottish referendum, and exacerbated by Brexit and coronavirus, keep exposing the inadequacy of the ad hoc approach long adopted by UK governments.

“Trying to undercut nationalism in the devolved territories by incrementally devolving new powers is no longer sustainable, and betrays the fundamentally un-strategic mindset which prevails in Westminster and Whitehall.”

“Without a major overhaul of the way in which central government approaches its relations with Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, this 300-year-old Union is at serious risk.”

READ MORE: SNP accuses Westminster of 'systematic attack' on devolution

Researchers say policymaking in Whitehall should be “devo-proofed”, with the implications of any policies on devolved governments “considered and communicated” at an early stage.

They argue that a solid understanding of devolution and the governance of the whole of the UK should be a prerequisite for promotion into senior civil service roles.

The report states there is a “growing need for a more open and informed debate, more strategic thinking, and a more balanced, flexible and functional system of multi-layered governance”, with all four governments consulted and engaged with.

It adds: “Without this, it is almost inevitable that relationships between the governments of the UK’s component parts will continue to deteriorate, adding further to the already significant strains on the Union, and ultimately to the risk of its break-up.”

Mr Rycroft added: “There is no good justification for devolved ministers hearing about policies that will have significant knock-on effects for their own territories at the last minute.

“Yet it is still a regular occurrence.”

A UK government spokesman said:“The United Kingdom is the most successful political and economic union the world has ever seen, and this pandemic and our collective response, from the furlough scheme to vaccine procurement and the backing of our military personnel, has shown that we are at our strongest when we work together towards a common goal.

"Strengthening the United Kingdom is at the heart of everything we do and we are working alongside the Devolved administrations to establish new ways of regular, meaningful and effective cooperation so that we continue to deliver for people right across the United Kingdom"