The Union’s promise is vanishing into myth

Team GB and the Queen cannot bind the nation together when its leaders serve England first

30 April 2021

By Charlotte Alldritt

5 minute read

CPP's director Charlotte Alldritt writes for The Times Scotland and argues that whether or not Boris Johnson grants a second referendum, the idea of the UK continues to fade into myth. A debate about devolution at all levels must be part of the fight for the soul of our nation.

Failure to piece together our national jigsaw is creating conditions for the break-up of the Union. The potency, legitimacy and sustainability of the UK government is threatened by apathy and incompetence as well as Westminster’s grating superiority complex.

The pandemic is accelerating the challenge. Nicola Sturgeon’s daily Covid briefings have made her political Teflon so impenetrable as to withstand the Alex Salmond affair with barely a mark. She not only survived a vote of no confidence but presided as Scotland collectively glossed over the lack of meaningful scrutiny in Holyrood. From a scandal that could have tipped other governments into constitutional crisis, the SNP is odds on to win a majority next week.

Sturgeon can only perform this political prestidigitation because Westminster has historically failed to understand the devolved administrations. During my time in Whitehall I witnessed unawareness at best and English arrogance at worst. Requirements to consult devolved administrations during policy development were routinely ignored and sometimes scoffed at. This was not a lack of leadership by senior civil servants; the tone was set by the leaders of the coalition government, who never anticipated that the push for independence might run as close as it did.

This attitude has not gone unnoticed by the Scottish people. To many Scots, Boris Johnson represents the archetypal unreformed and unrepentant Tory who has shown that his priorities lie south of the border time and again.

Despite the challenges facing the SNP, its stars are aligning. A decisive part of Sturgeon’s campaign is the idea that the UK government does not speak to Scotland or its values. “Who is best placed to decide and shape the kind of country we want to be after the pandemic?” the first minister asked at the campaign launch. “The people of Scotland and governments, of whatever party, elected by us — or Westminster and politicians like Boris Johnson?”

The Nationalists point to school holiday hunger, nursing pay and the expansion of the nuclear arsenal as emotive examples of the UK government wanting one thing and Scotland quite another. Mark Drakeford, the Welsh first minister, has pulled off a similar trick, revealing the extent to which the constituent nations of the UK can adopt different policies. The devolved administrations have been cunning, seizing more ground by applying their healthcare powers to international migration, determining who can enter during the pandemic and under what conditions. This caught the Johnson administration off guard and deepens the cracks in the UK’s fragile existence.

The secession of Scotland, or any other part of the United Kingdom, will inevitably cause massive upheaval. But the more the government disintegrates the worse that pain will be for those remaining in the Union, grappling with its new identity, trade relationships and position on the international stage.

Whether or not Boris Johnson grants a second referendum, the idea of the UK continues to fade into myth. Unsexy as it may be, debate about devolution at all levels must be part of the fight for the soul of our nation. The diminution of the UK government to “England only” status, in perception or reality, will only continue to erode the Union. No amount of benign civic nationalism (think monarchy, Team GB or the BBC) looks capable of reversing this trend. There have been suggestions that the Department of Health and Social Care in Westminster could put the “national” back into our National Health Service, delivering directly to devolved administrations to bind and safeguard the Union. The NHS may be the closest thing the British have to a religion but this tactic could backfire badly, particularly in the wake of Covid.

It seems instead that the most viable option is taking the best of both worlds. This pseudo-federalist approach would combine the UK’s economic and political clout on the one hand and promise on the other hand closer, more connected governance at devolved level. For the Cabinet Office and its Union directorate, delivering such an arrangement means treading a long and precarious path that depends on enthusiasm being shared in all parts of the United Kingdom. As we go into these elections north and south of the border, indications are that it will be a bumpy ride.

The future of Scotland, home to my parents, sister and many happy years of my childhood, rests on rising productivity and shared prosperity, from the remotest of islands to the most densely populated urban areas. Yet winning independence might be the easy bit; a Scotland that is fiscally sustainable, let alone one that hopes to join the European Union, will find itself in difficult territory on public spending, even if there is a consensus for higher tax rates. Living up to the promise of a more prosperous, more inclusive and more outward-looking Scotland will be harder. Just ask Johnson how his levelling up is going.