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The next government needs a new strategy for the union

The devolution agenda needs a rethink.

Union Jack, Welsh and Scottish flags
To make progress on its core objectives, the next government will benefit from a shift of mindset towards treating the devolved governments as partners rather than rivals.

After years of poor relations between Westminster and the devolved governments, the incoming government needs a new strategy for the Union. Akash Paun and Matthew Fright set out how and why the prime minister should rebuild relations with Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast.

The devolution agenda needs a rethink after years of tension and disagreement

The state of the Union barely featured as a theme of the 2024 election campaign, with the main party manifestos promising little in terms of reform to the devolution settlements in Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland. 

But while the focus has been on public services and the economy – undoubtedly higher priorities for voters across the UK – strained relations between Westminster and the devolved capitals and sustained high levels of support for Scottish independence, Irish reunification and further devolution to Wales, highlight the fact that the stability of the Union cannot be taken for granted. The incoming government – and all polls suggest this will be a Labour administration – needs a new strategy. 

At the core of this should be a genuine “reset” of relationships – as the Labour manifesto promises – with Westminster treating the devolved governments as partners and protecting devolved autonomy, while the UK government concentrates on the big economic and distributional questions that are best dealt with at the national level.

The prime minister should send an early signal of a new approach to devolution

The tone on devolution is set from the top. If Keir Starmer becomes prime minister tomorrow then he should send an immediate signal that he wants to rebuild relations with Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast – including by travelling to the devolved capitals in the first weeks of holding office. 

There is precedent for this. David Cameron travelled to Edinburgh at the very start of his premiership, calling for a new “agenda of respect” between Westminster and Holyrood. Six years later, Theresa May toured the devolved capitals following an early commitment to develop a “UK-wide approach” to Brexit. 

In May’s case, consensus with the devolved governments proved elusive, so the practical benefits of a tour of the Union should not be overstated. But it is nonetheless a sensible, symbolic first step. A genuine shift in strategy, however, will also require substantive changes in how the government works with and protects the powers of the devolved bodies.

The next government should make a reality of the idea of a UK-devolved partnership

To make progress on its core objectives, the next government will benefit from a shift of mindset towards treating the devolved governments as partners rather than rivals. 

In 2022 a new, and more transparent, intergovernmental relations (IGR) framework between the UK and devolved governments came into effect, including a new set of interministerial groups underpinned by principles such as mutual respect, trust and openness. This set of reforms was welcome and overdue but has not radically altered the practice of IGR. The new system remains susceptible to being sidelined by UK ministers and appears to have been used more for (undoubtedly important) information sharing than for facilitating genuine joint working. 

The next government should go further by investing in a new culture of partnership working with the devolved governments – as well as metro mayors and local leaders in England – and ensuring that the IGR machinery becomes a standard part of the everyday business of government for both ministers and officials. Alongside this, ministers should prioritise further investment in the ‘devolution capability’ of Whitehall officials and interchange of staff between the UK and devolved governments. The Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland Offices should be at the forefront of delivering good intergovernmental relations, rather than seeing themselves as rivals to the devolved bodies. 

The benefit of such actions would not simply be to improve relationships for their own sake, but also to enable better coordination between the governments in pursuit of strategic priorities such as improved economic productivity, reduced regional disparities and a decarbonised energy system. For similar reasons, UK ministers should refrain from bypassing the devolved governments in the allocation of regional growth funding. Better outcomes are likely to be secured by fully devolving funding for local projects and working in partnership on larger strategic investments, for instance over transport and energy infrastructure.

Westminster should respect and protect the devolution settlements

Westminster is sovereign so retains the ability to legislate on all matters for all parts of the UK, but it should use this power to override devolved decisions very rarely, as was the case for the first two decades of devolution. Up until Brexit, successive governments adhered tightly to the Sewel Convention – that the UK Parliament does not normally legislate on devolved matters without consent.

Sewel serves to protect devolved autonomy and facilitate good intergovernmental relations, but since 2018 the UK government has pressed ahead with over a dozen bills that directly relate to devolved matters – or that take back powers from the devolved legislatures – without consent. There are occasional cases where this might have been necessary – for instance to avoid a no-deal Brexit or during the period of suspension of devolution in Belfast. But on other occasions, for instance in relation to the UK internal market, UK ministers have simply found it politically expedient to rewrite the rules of devolution unilaterally.

The next government should commit to respecting the Sewel Convention other than in truly exceptional circumstances. It should also reinforce the status of the convention both in terms of how Whitehall develops policy in consultation with devolved counterparts, and in how Parliament scrutinises legislation that relates to devolved matters. For instance, as the Institute for Government has previously recommended, ministers should lay a “devolution statement” alongside each bill, making clear how it affects devolved matters and how the devolved governments have been engaged in the policy process. 

Whitehall would also benefit from taking a more permissive attitude to policy experimentation, rather than using executive powers to block devolved policies it does not like – as it did when preventing Scotland from introducing a bottle deposit return scheme. A more hands-off approach was taken when UK ministers opted to allow Glasgow’s trial of drug rooms. The next government should follow this precedent, intervening to block devolved policies only when there is strong evidence that policy divergence will cause serious harm to UK-wide interests, and otherwise allowing devolution to operate as a “policy laboratory” in which all parts of the UK can learn from each other. 

The government should respond to reasoned proposals for more radical reform

Both Labour and the Conservatives have ruled out radical reforms to devolution – whether to create binding legal protections for devolution or to expand the powers of the devolved bodies. But when a reasoned and evidence-based case for reform is put forward – as for the proposals of the independent commission on the constitutional future of Wales earlier this year – the next government should at least engage with and respond to the recommendations put forward. Not to do so would not be in keeping with any new respect-based approach to devolution.

The state of the economy and public services will, of course, be a the top of the new government’s in-tray, but making progress on these fronts will be easier if the prime minister resets relations with the governments of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. This should be based on the principles of partnership working and respect for devolution – principles which have been strained to the limit, and sometimes broken altogether, in recent years.

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