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by Louise Wilson
12 April 2021
Union ‘at serious risk’ without ‘major overhaul’ of UK governance

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Union ‘at serious risk’ without ‘major overhaul’ of UK governance

The UK Government must undertake a “major overhaul” of its approach to the devolved nations or else the Union is “at serious risk”, according to a new report from the University of Cambridge.

Researchers have warned the “ad hoc” approach to devolution which has characterised the last 20 years is unsustainable.

The report calls for greater awareness of devolved government to be embedded within British institutions.

It also warns the “neo-unionist” attitude prevalent at the top of the current UK Government could risk increasing support for Scottish independence and dividing pro-devolution unionists.

Co-author of the report Professor Michael Kenny said: “Existential threats to the Union, crystallised during the Scottish referendum, and exacerbated by Brexit and coronavirus, keep exposing the inadequacy of the ad hoc approach long adopted by UK governments.

“Trying to undercut nationalism in the devolved territories by incrementally devolving new powers is no longer sustainable and betrays the fundamentally unstrategic mindset which prevails in Westminster and Whitehall.

“Without a major overhaul of the way in which central government approaches its relations with Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, this 300-year-old Union is at serious risk.”

The report recommends that any policy from Westminster must be “devo-proofed”, with any implications of proposed legislation fully considered at an early stage.

A “new culture of consultation and mutual engagement” must be underpinned by the mechanisms for intergovernmental relation, it says.

It also suggests understanding of devolution must be a prerequisite for promotion into the senior civil service, supported by development programmes and joint learning events.

Philip Rycroft, another co-author and former senior civil servant, added: “The cost of getting things wrong on devolution is seen as somebody else’s problem for most Whitehall departments – even in the wake of Scotland’s referendum.

“There is little emotional engagement across government with the trends towards independence, no sense that maintaining the Union is part of everyone’s job.”

He added: “There is no good justification for devolved ministers hearing about policies that will have significant knock-on effects for their own territories at the last minute, yet it is still a regular occurrence.”

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