One of the worst features of devolution is the tendency of devocrats to insist on doing their own thing in all circumstances and at whatever cost. The idea that decentralisation would lead to experimentation and the sharing of best practice now seems hopelessly naive.
Instead, politicians in Edinburgh and Cardiff try to use nationalism to earth criticism, treating an attack on their records as an insult to the Scottish or Welsh people. Perhaps the most abject example was when a Welsh minister accused Michael Gove of harbouring ‘colonial attitudes’ when the then-education secretary penned an article comparing English and Welsh school outcomes.
Even the evidence base that might have supported the idea of devolution as a ‘policy laboratory’ has been eroded, with both administrations opting out of international standards and changing the basis on which they collect their own data to thwart cross-border comparisons
The pandemic has seen this mean spirit out in full force. While each part of the UK has had its moment in the limelight in terms of the big stories, the devocratic determination on differentiation for its own sake has been very apparent.
Back in 2020, we saw Mark Drakeford refuse to sign up to the NHS’s GoodSAM volunteering app organised by Westminster. Instead, Welsh residents, who had been trying to sign up in their thousands were forced to wait for a local version. Some of them were only contacted this summer. It was the same story for emergency food deliveries.
Now it’s Nicola Sturgeon’s turn. For reasons best known only to complacent New Labour apparatchiks, the Scottish government and the Northern Ireland executive are issuing different vaccine passports to those given to residents in England and Wales. Predictably, they have got them wrong and Scots in France are discovering that their documentation isn’t recognised by Emmanuel Macron’s stringent new system.
This is far from the first time their determination to do things differently has caused problems. The SNP’s insistence on a separate track-and-trace app for Scotland left the UK without a functioning nationwide system. They refused to use the government’s public health messaging, confusing the public. And they set up a parallel Sage, only to staff it with loyalists.
For unionists, none of this is especially surprising. The Scottish government’s woeful track record in actually running things is well known. There is even a slight hope, now the wind seems to be really out of the nationalists’ sails, that the public might start holding them to account for it.
But the government really does need to make building a more coherent national response to crises part of its post-pandemic review. It can’t be said often enough that the foundations of any defence of the Union have to be the British state being seen to work. That’s true even if you believe it’s essential to build up an emotional case for Britain because it is much easier to forge emotional attachments to something that is doing practical good.
For all the government’s many mistakes, there were moments in this crisis when Britain shone. Vaccine procurement may be somewhat sui generis, but the ability to call on the awesome power of the Treasury to support a UK-wide furlough scheme is a structural advantage of being one country. Unionists are, rightly, pointing to it as a big part of the case for why we’re ‘better together’.
The problem is that as devolution gets more and more extensive, and the scope of the British state narrower and narrower, opportunities to act and be seen to do good will get fewer and farther between. A hollowed-out UK with full fiscal autonomy and no fiscal transfers, floated by some commentators as a way of finally buying off the separatists, would not have been able to rise to the occasion as today’s UK has done.
But it can’t be left to the Treasury, as one of the few remaining departments with a truly British portfolio, to do all the heavy lifting — especially because it sometimes results in very strange disconnects, such as devolved politicians being responsible for lockdown but not the furlough payments that make lockdown possible.
Rebuilding the legitimacy of the British state will take time. Thanks to the UK Internal Market Act, almost every department can play a role. But giving the Secretary of State for Health the authority to take control of the national response to an emergency situation such as a pandemic is an obvious place to start.