Devolution is in disarray. A quarter of a century after its introduction by the Blair government, the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish constitutions are tired and tarnished. This week’s Covid inquiry in Scotland has revealed Nicola Sturgeon’s nationalist rule to be cliquish and shrouded in secrecy. Wales’s first minister, Labour’s Mark Drakeford, has resigned after plummeting approval ratings. Northern Ireland’s power-sharing has just stumbled back to a half-life after two years of total nonexistence.
The UK is the only western European state whose unity is unstable, except for possibly Spain. Almost half of Northern Irish voters expect to rejoin the rest of Ireland within 20 years, and nearly 60% of Scots want some form of independence. Even in Wales, independence is favoured by almost a third. In all these cases, younger voters are the most eager for a breakup of the UK. This is hardly a trivial matter.
Covid gave devolution a boost. Boris Johnson rightly delegated lockdown to national administrations. Both Edinburgh and Cardiff employed tougher Covid policies – with Scotland toying with “zero Covid” – in the hope of enhancing distance from England. Sturgeon and Drakeford saw their popularity surge as they paraded nightly on television. Sturgeon made it a stage for nationalism.
Now Covid is over and a grimmer reality is returning. Devolved government was meant to mean more accountability and greater efficiency. That has not happened. Half of Wales’s budget goes on health and social services, but its NHS is close to breakdown. Doctors are in desperately short supply. Dentists are near nonexistent, and one in five of the Welsh population are on what is called a “waiting well” list for medical diagnosis and treatment. Meanwhile, Wales’s once excellent schools are rated the worst in the UK and rank below the OECD average in its Pisa (Programme for International Student Assessment) ratings. Just under a third of Welsh pupils go on to university.
Devolved Scotland has ruthlessly centralised. Local police forces have been wound up. A spending splurge on free university tuition and free prescriptions has given Scotland’s government the highest public spending a head in the UK. While its NHS performs well, its plague of drug deaths has produced one of the highest mortality rates in western Europe. As for Northern Ireland, the British Medical Association rates its health service the worst in the UK, with waiting lists of five years not uncommon.
Yet these apparent failures have not led to any public desire to reverse devolved powers. Both Sturgeon and Drakeford were consistently more popular than Johnson. Since then, rumours of corruption swirling around Scottish nationalism and Drakeford’s fixation on 20mph speed limits may have caused damage, but not the wider cause of devolution and its variants.
At this year’s election, Keir Starmer’s parliamentary majority may well rely on a solid body of Scottish and Welsh Labour MPs. But if, as is almost bound to be likely, his popularity erodes over time, these MPs will no doubt be under pressure from a resurgent nationalism. While nothing seems likely to avert more trouble from Northern Ireland, in Scotland and Wales Starmer must be alert to the need to reform and enhance devolution within Britain.
Currently, Scotland can raise taxes and spend at will, but it relies on about £41bn a year from the UK Treasury under the Barnett formula, used, ostensibly, to give each nation the same pounds-per-person funding each year. The Institute for Government thinktank has estimated that each person in Scotland benefits from public spending worth £2,543 more than the taxes they pay, compared with the English who benefit by just £91. There can be no route to greater independence as long as such dependency continues.
As for the Welsh, their personal benefit is worth a lavish £4,412 a head, the institute found. This level of reliance has atrophied Welsh enterprise, fostered government hostility to (mostly English) outsiders and invited interference from London. The latest of many reports on Wales’s constitutional future came out last month from Rowan Williams and Laura McAllister. It is full of worthy abstractions, but it dares not tackle the elephant in the room: Welsh dependence on English subsidy.
In England, devolution is clearly popular among those to whom it applies. It enjoys public favour in cities and metropolitan regions such as London, the West Midlands and Greater Manchester, which have high-profile elected mayors. People of all ages, but especially the young, crave its enhanced local identity. But the UK’s separate “nations” are a constitutional mess and need reform.
In Northern Ireland, the only long-term future must lie in reunion with the Republic, eased by a Britain that rejoins the European single market. Welsh independence makes little sense, though as the Williams and McAllister report suggests, further devolution and self-reliance must somehow be found.
Scotland is a different matter. As the UK in 2016 slid so casually out of the EU, so could Scotland slide out of the UK. It should, by size and economic potential, be as rich and independent as Ireland or Denmark. Ireland shook off its reliance on the UK and became a Celtic tiger. While it might be a pity – and a sad comment on England – Scotland could do the same. The next British government should start by tearing up the Barnett formula and devolving real power – fiscal power – in Scotland. Otherwise we should welcome the future Denmark of the British Isles.