The pandemic has deepened the sense of constitutional crisis gripping the UK. Strained relations between UK and devolved leaders have visibly deteriorated at a time when the public turned to their representatives for effective action.
The institutions facilitating intergovernmental relations have been found wanting – both before and during COVID-19. The existing Joint Ministerial Committee is ineffective in resolving disputes, meets irregularly and was bypassed entirely through the pandemic. It is now outdated, pre-dating English devolution and increasingly complex post-Brexit relationships, including Northern Ireland’s membership of the EU single market for goods. It creates political incentives to shift blame, but few channels for devolved leaders to exert influence. With devolution in its third decade, reform is overdue to reshape intergovernmental structures which have changed little in that time.
The pandemic crystallised the core challenge facing all governments – efficacy. That is why intergovernmental institutions must do more to deliver on the purpose of devolution – more representative and effective government. This is an enabler for other policy ideas to rebuild post-covid. Reforms should extend beyond structures so that devolution better promotes policy effectiveness and experimentation.
Public attitudes make reform urgent. Twenty consecutive Scottish opinion polls have recorded support for independence. But while the Scottish public drift away from the union, similar concerns are growing in the English regions. Mayor Burnham’s opposition to UK Government support measures enjoyed majority support locally. That the public place greater trust in devolved institutions should be a benefit of the union, not a threat to it. But today the reverse is true.
That is why we must redraw the institutions of intergovernmental relations. Reforming the UK’s hidden constitutional plumbing would strengthen public trust and public services post-pandemic. If this problem goes unaddressed then the pandemic may claim another victim: the union of the United Kingdom.