Henry Hill

More devolution won’t save the Union

Yesterday, Lord Dunlop – the author of the Dunlop Review into the British state and devolution – appeared before a joint meeting of four Select Committees.

It was the first time the Public Accounts and Constitutional Affairs Committee (PACAC), Scottish, Welsh, and Northern Irish committees had sat together, which was fitting given his remit. But the resultant Q&A only highlighted the ongoing tensions in the government’s approach to the Union.

Dunlop is an advocate of what he calls a ‘cooperative Union’. His emphasis is on getting the various parts of the governments of the UK to work together, and building on the past two decades of devolution. He summarised his mission as:

‘How do we get devolution and the Union running through the bloodstream of the Civil Service?’

But what if ‘devolution’ and ‘the Union’ are in tension? What if the reform the British state really needs is not yet more modification to accommodate the devolved executives, but restored capacity to make a visible and positive impact in the home nations directly?

At least one of the devolved administrations is not a good-faith actor that wants the UK to work

That was the logic underpinning the UK Internal Market Act 2020 (Ukima), and there are plenty of Conservatives (whom we might call ‘Ukima Unionists’) who want to use that controversial legislation as a beachhead for a more ‘muscular Unionism’.

It didn’t take long for the difficulties in Dunlop’s cooperative vision to start emerging. Pete Wishart, the Nationalist chair of the Scottish Affairs Committee, branded the array of ministerial positions Dunlop wishes to create to drive cultural change in government and the Civil Service an ‘invasion force’.

Dunlop himself also had to concede that, whilst he welcomed the Prime Minister’s decision to invite the various first ministers to a ‘Covid recovery summit’, he couldn’t compel them to attend.

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