Whitehall has ignored devolution. It does so at its own peril

London must prove to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland that it takes their legislatures seriously—or face a break up

April 16, 2021
Photo: Alex MacNaughton / Alamy Stock Photo
Photo: Alex MacNaughton / Alamy Stock Photo

What is it about Whitehall and devolution? Substantial legislative powers have been devolved to Scotland and Wales for over 20 years. Devolution in Northern Ireland has a longer—and not always happy—history, but the modern variant also dates from the late 1990s. Surely time enough for Whitehall to adapt its own ways of working and to be at ease with the handling of the dispersal of power to the devolved parts of the United Kingdom?

Evidently not. A paper published this week by the Constitution Society and the Bennett Institute for Public Policy (which I co-authored with Michael Kenny and Jack Sheldon) paints a less than flattering picture. Whitehall, it concludes, has been un-strategic in its handling of devolution and complacent in its dealings with devolved governments. Devolution has not been well-understood, and it has rarely been accorded the attention it merits at a time when the territorial integrity of the United Kingdom is more challenged than it has ever been in over a century.

The blunt truth is that management of its own territory has never been high up Whitehall’s priority list. For most of the 20th century, much of the day-to-day business of the administration of government was in the hands of local elites in Scotland and Wales, transferring to the territorial departments of state, the Scotland Office and Wales Office, as the state grew in size and complexity. Whitehall paid little attention to the devolved government of Northern Ireland until it was compelled to do so by the civil rights protests of the late 1960s, after which it was drawn into a protracted period of troubled direct rule. But even then, the painful struggle to govern Northern Ireland was a specialist affair, not the concern of the generality of Whitehall departments.

Prior to devolution, then, there was no tradition across most Whitehall departments of close engagement in the territorial politics of the United Kingdom. Devolution in the late 1990s granted the parliament in Scotland and assemblies in Wales and Northern Ireland democratic oversight of the administrative affairs previously vested in the territorial departments of state. But it didn’t require Whitehall to adjust very much. The staff of the territorial departments were mostly absorbed into the new devolved institutions. The responsibilities of Whitehall departments barely changed at all, and the rhythm of life for most civil servants went on pretty much uninterrupted.

The accusation is now often flung about that Whitehall was content to “devolve and forget.” In practice, there was little to forget because there had not been much to remember. And there were precious few incentives to embark on a new course, once the devolution settlements were in place. In most policy areas, there was a clear demarcation line between what the devolved governments ran, and what departments in London were responsible for. Whitehall had never troubled itself much with education or health policy in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland and had no reason to do so after devolution. Where the boundary was more jagged, Whitehall might have been required to consult about policy changes that would impact on the devolved parts of the UK, but such consultation was usually a hoop to be got through rather than determining policy outcomes.

In the hierarchy of interests in Whitehall, handling the complexities of devolved power simply comes low down on the list of things that matter. Most civil servants’ and ministers’ primary loyalty is to the department they work in. Committing resource and time to getting to grips with devolved politics has rarely been the route to accolade. At times someone has had to deal with the nuisances of the interface with the devolved world, but this could mostly be handled at the margins of departmental life—and the bigger picture about the cohesion of the United Kingdom left to somebody else to worry about.

This is not to decry the efforts of many fine civil servants, at the centre, in the territorial offices and in departments, who have worked hard over the years to turn this around. The UK Governance Group in 2015 was created in the aftermath of the Scottish independence referendum, after the prime minister and Cabinet secretary recognised that more needed to be done to improve Whitehall’s grip on devolution and wider constitutional issues. Much work was put in train, including the creation of departmental devolution plans. But Whitehall departments are sometimes better at producing plans than delivering them; nicely drafted aspirations are no match for years of inherited disinterest.

Given time, Whitehall might have grudgingly come to accept that it needed to adapt to the reality of dispersed power across the UK. But Brexit has stolen the luxury of time. The existential question is back: in Scotland certainly, in a different form in Northern Ireland, and as Wales stirs restlessly. If Whitehall is to be part of the solution and not contribute further to the problem, it needs to act now, and fast.

What is to be done? In the very short term, permanent secretaries need to be directly answerable for the contribution their departments make to strengthening the sinews of the Union. Those departmental plans need to be made real, with every department demonstrating unequivocally how their actions respect the interests of the devolved parts of the UK. No policy should be allowed out of the door without being systematically vetted for the impact it will have on the Union. The bar should be set high; every policy that affects the whole of the UK should be demonstrably in the interests of every part of the UK.

The incentive structures need to be changed in other ways too. This will take more time, but there is no reason not to get moving on it now. No civil servant should aspire to promotion to, or within, the ranks of the senior civil service without having tangible experience of the world outside of Whitehall, working with or in the devolved governments, local government, the wider public sector or business. Mandating that broader experience is the only way to fix Whitehall myopia.

That, together with an invigorated learning programme to deal with the widespread ignorance about how their own country functions, could have a salutary effect. But the civil service can only do so much under its own steam. It will follow the lead of politicians; the tone is set from the top. That is perhaps the biggest short-term challenge of all: a coterie round the Cabinet table who have come to power on the back of the crude assertion of Westminster parliamentary sovereignty. It is not easy from that rampart to accept that there are other democratic powers in the land with a claim to a share of that sovereignty. But accepting that reality is the only way to show the people of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland that their interests are truly respected in the highest counsels of the state. Will the government in London recognise that it needs to change its approach? Which way that political wind blows will determine many futures.