What The Coronavirus Crisis Means For The Future Of UK Devolution

With health – and other huge policy areas – devolved to Cardiff, Belfast and Edinburgh, it is unlikely this will be the last line in the sand first ministers choose to draw with Westminster.  So what does it mean for the Union in the long-term? Will the pandemic force the four nations to be more united or do all paths lead to divergence?  Matt Greenough, political consultant at Words Matter and former Welsh government chief special adviser, said the impact of the disharmony on future relations had the potential to be “significant”. “What will annoy anyone who actually understands devolution is the idea that the devolved administrations are deviating from the Westminster approach for the sake of it, to flex their muscles or demonstrate political differences,” he told HuffPost UK. “I don’t think we’ve seen anything deliberately antagonistic between the four national leaders, so while I think and hope those relationships are surviving, I think we may see some difficulties and frustrations between officials in the future.” Greenough said media briefings in early May targeting Westminster journalists and resulting in front pages announcing “freedom” from lockdown days before any formal announcement was made (and before devolved leaders or any MPs were told) were damaging.  “That sort of briefing happened during Brexit negotiations and it was sort of fair game then,” the former speechwriter said.  “Yes, it was calculated and annoying, but in ‘peace time’ it was almost expected.  But these are not normal times, and now it’s not annoying – it’s dangerous. “People do not see the border in their everyday lives – it doesn’t really exist for them.   “Wales took a cautious approach regarding easing lockdown last weekend because all four police forces reported an increase in the number of people entering Wales from outside.  “We are dealing with something extremely sensitive and important here, and it’s an absolute case in point as to why we need to see a mutual respect between the Westminster and devolved administrations.” Rob Roberts, the first Tory MP elected in the north-east Wales border constituency of Delyn for more than 25 years, said the different messaging between nations had led to confusion among the public.  “I represent people who live in Wales but work in England, and there are lots of people who travel from England to work in Delyn.  They’ve been in touch because they don’t know what they can and can’t do, and all sides seem to be blaming each other for the confusion,” he told HuffPost UK. “We would have had consistency, there would have been one briefing per day on a UK-wide basis, with the message delivered by one person.” Welsh Labour MP Anna McMorrin said she believed civil servants, who usually work closely together on devolved matters, would be “tearing their hair out” over the PM’s decisions. The media now has a duty to report the difference between nations as we move forward through this, and I hope what this will do is set that up as a precedent.” For Scotland, independence has remained a live question since 2014′s close-run referendum.  The same poll, carried out by YouGov, showed Scots were split on the UK government’s response, with 47% saying it was handling the pandemic well vs 48% badly. “I think what [the crisis] has shown is the difficulty in not being in command of all of the decision-making processes,” he said.  “Obviously, the four nations have been doing their best to work together because that is the right thing to do – and it would be the right thing to do if Scotland was independent.  “But we are starting to see a divergence now because different nations are at different stages in their journeys.”  Scottish secretary Alister Jack told MPs the R rate – which represents the reproduction rate in the virus - was at a different rate in different parts of the country, including in Scotland.  Scotland’s FM has an approach that has differed only slightly from Johnson’s, with schools set to return to August as opposed to June, and restrictions on socialising loosened to a greater extent.  As it stands, polls suggest the 2021 Holyrood elections will see the SNP once again hold the balance of power north of the border, at which point Sturgeon may again press for a fresh referendum.  Divisions could start to arise before then, however, as power-holders will urgently need to turn their attention to rebuilding the economy.  Chancellor Rishi Sunak is predicting a recession “like we have never seen” before and the spectre of mass unemployment sits on the horizon.  How leaders negotiate this will be key.  The SNP is already pushing hard for a universal basic income and further controls over immigration policy, while Labour’s Keir Starmer advocates a “new settlement” and further devolution.   Gray said the four-nations approach could splinter in the coming months, however.  “It is becoming more difficult, partly because the UK government is looking more towards the economic health of the nation,” he added. “I’m certainly very sure we must pick up the pieces of the economy thereafter, but I think the focus has got to be, from a government perspective, on making sure that the health crisis is dealt with first.” Leaders from the English regions, such as Manchester’s Andy Burnham, will also be trying to wrest more control from Whitehall, though most recognise the eye-catching press calls are for a later date.  In Northern Ireland, where DUP leader and first minister Arlene Foster has said “different parts of the UK move in different time” to respond to the outbreak, there is no mood to open up division and constitutional politics, even among some nationalists.  MP for Foyle and SDLP leader, Colum Eastwood, whose party advocates a border poll, said relations between the nation and the rest of the UK remain intact.  Brexit and the question of the Irish border may prove a bigger fault-line between Johnson and Ulster, with the UK set to leave the transition period with the EU in December and Johnson seemingly having broken his promise of no checks between NI and Great Britain.  Eastwood told HuffPost UK: “The scale of the crisis we’re facing, not just across these islands, but across our continent and across the world, has driven a sense of social solidarity. The constitutional outworking will wait for another day.”  Labour’s newly-appointed shadow Scotland secretary Ian Murray was also keen to stress unity.  Saying “there are far more important things than arguing about the constitution”, he acknowledges that “we can’t go back to the same old politics”, as the fallout from the lockdown will throw up questions about the economy.  He said: “This crisis is teaching us again the value of community, of solidarity and pulling together towards a common goal regardless of geography.