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by Louise Wilson
19 October 2020
Former top civil servant calls for further devolution across UK

Baldo Sciacca for CSW

Former top civil servant calls for further devolution across UK

Further devolution of power across the UK is required if the UK Government is to turn the tide on rising support for Scottish independence, a former top civil servant has said.

Philip Rycroft, who retired from his role of permanent secretary at the Department for Exiting the European Union in March 2019, said the “centralising” instinct of the UK Government was putting strain on relationships with the devolved administrations.

In an interview with Global Government Forum, he suggested mistrust had led to a failure to fully embrace devolution and the pursuit of a “so-called muscular or assertive unionism”.

And he called for “proper devolution of power and responsibility to the appropriate level in England, as well as to the devolved parts of the UK” to preserve the union and build more effective public services.

A recent poll by Ipsos Mori put support for Scottish independence at 58 per cent, the highest on record.

The most convincing arguments in favour of independence, according to the poll, were Scottish people wanting to take a “very different political direction to England” and that “Westminster governments cannot be trusted to act in Scotland’s interests”.

Rycroft, who was also head of the Cabinet Office’s UK Governance Group between 2015 and 2016, said accepting “differences in the way that things are handled across different parts of the UK” was vital in retaining good working relationships between the governments, but the COVID-19 pandemic had demonstrated a lack of trust.

He said: “Far from being a uniting crisis that has united the four governments in a common approach, it has become one in which the devolved governments have been able to portray themselves as acting outside the frame of the UK Government. It has become divisive.”

The former permanent secretary also expressed concern the UK Government was undermining the civil service and “weakening the structure of our democracy” and suggested a review of the UK’s constitutional arrangements.

He said: “If the alternative is the break-up of the UK, and this community of nations drifting apart, then maybe it’s time we thought about whether a more thoroughgoing review of our constitutional arrangements… is actually necessary.”

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