Deficient understanding, lack of communication, ‘excluded’ and an ‘afterthought’
The Institute for Government is “the leading think tank working to make government more effective”. It has a board consisting of 11 members: two lords, two baronesses, five knights and two other members without ‘gongs’ (yet) but who play senior roles in the civil service. It is a think tank that may be politically neutral but it is tightly wedded to the British Establishment. This makes the conclusions in its recent report on the workings of Westminster government during the Brexit process all the more revealing and notable.
Source: Jack et al (2020) The civil service after Brexit: Lessons from the Article 50 period. Institute for Government.
“This report draws on conversations with officials and politicians to reflect on lessons the UK civil service – and the government more widely – can take from the Brexit process so far. Much of what can be learnt from the Article 50 period can be applied to the next phase of Brexit, but beyond that there are lessons that are immediately relevant to the government’s handling of coronavirus.”
No vision, poor preparation, lack of understanding
The revelations by the IfG into how successive Tory governments from Cameron’s onward failed to prepare for and have since conducted the Brexit process is a damning indictment of the practice of government by the Tories. However, the purpose here is not to review the IfG’s findings overall – damning as they are – but to focus only on what they tell us about Westminster’s relationship with devolved government.
From the outset of the Brexit ‘journey’ the Tories are seen as poorly prepared and lacking understanding of key issues:
“The referendum offered no agreed vision for Brexit. The Leave campaign offered no detailed blueprint and David Cameron had largely prevented civil servants from doing detailed preparations during the referendum campaign. The country was deeply divided, and so were the two main political parties”
“The process exposed that government ministers, the civil service and MPs did not, in detail, understand the overall impact of the EU on the operation of the UK economy or how EU processes provided the ‘plumbing’ underpinning much of how the country functioned .… There wasn’t enough recognition of exactly how EU membership had provided the framework for devolution and its importance as a context for the Good Friday Agreement.”
Deficiency in preparedness and a lack of understanding of significance are bad enough in themselves but we should not forget they are compounded by a democratic deficit: a majority in Scotland rejected wholesale the Tories and their Brexit process from the beginning.
Attitudes of one-nation Toryism
There has long been a suspicion that so called ‘one-nation’ Tories wish to diminish the status and powers of devolved government and that Brexit is seen as presenting opportunities in this regard. However, the IfG report reinforces the different but still damning point of a basic deficit in understanding:
“Brexit placed new pressures on the relationship between the UK government and the devolved administrations – and exposed ministers’ and civil servants’ patchy understanding of the devolution settlements. Theresa May’s government’s initial approach to Brexit increasingly alienated the first ministers in Scotland and Wales.”
“Despite the government’s pro-Union stance, toxic politics and a lack of knowledge in Whitehall meant that the devolved administrations were excluded through much of the Brexit process.”
Lack of concern for Northern Ireland
Notwithstanding the special relationship the Tory Party and Tory governments purport to have with the Unionist parties in NI, the IfG report draws some remarkable conclusions about how NI has been treated. Again this throws into question the real attitudes underlying ‘one-nation’ Toryism.
“… the unprecedented circumstances saw the government prepared to risk major harm in Northern Ireland without a clear plan for minimising it. Brexit forced some extremely difficult trade-offs, which had to be made in a hostile political environment. But the government too often failed to be upfront about the consequences of its actions. In particular, the Johnson government – both ministers and senior officials – claimed to be ready to leave the EU without a withdrawal agreement but failed to address, or admit, the economic and political implications for the people and businesses of Northern Ireland.”
Can’t trust Westminster
The IfG has noted evidence that indicates Tory PMs can’t be trusted by the people in the nations of the UK, at least those other than England:
“Shortly after Theresa May became prime minister in the aftermath of the 2016 referendum, she visited Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, promising a ‘UK approach and objectives’ for the Brexit negotiations.”
The IfG reports on the reality of what happened:
“The UK government made key decisions without consultation with the devolved administrations, most notably drafting and introducing the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill with little consultation. This made the devolved powers returning from the EU default to Westminster and was labelled a ‘power grab’ by both first ministers of Wales and Scotland, undermining the warm words that Theresa May expressed at the start of the Brexit process.”
It appears that even on day-to-day matters the relationship with the devolved governments was conducted in a cavalier manner:
“Devolved ministers and officials were frustrated at the poor information flow: often they were not told anything they couldn’t read on the front pages of the newspapers – even in private forums – and sometimes the government wouldn’t even tell them what they could read on the front pages. While certain parts of the Chequers white paper were shared before publication in July 2018, the most sensitive parts were not.”
“Slow engagement with the devolved administrations reflected the delay in adopting cross-government planning assumptions for no deal – officials couldn’t share enough information when ministers hadn’t taken decisions. In some instances, technical notices published on GOV.UK were shared with devolved officials with very little notice before publication.”
To add insult to the injury caused by lack of understanding of devolution and deficient communication, the IfG finds that devolved governments were treated as an ‘afterthought’.
“This centralising tendency reflected the lack of consensus in the cabinet, since officials were reluctant to share information if it wasn’t clear they had sign-off from their ministers. But it also exposed a broader attitude in parts of Whitehall towards the devolved governments, which were sometimes treated as an afterthought rather than a priority.”
Could it be any worse?
Finally, the IfG reports views on the Johnson premiership to date. However difficult relationships between Westminster and the governments in Edinburgh and Cardiff may have been, matters have become worse:
“.. Boris Johnson’s government was less willing to work with the devolved administrations on Brexit, increasing the potential for the further deterioration of an already fragile relationship.”
“Despite labelling himself ‘minister for the Union’, Boris Johnson’s succession saw a deterioration in UK–devolved relations.”
The IfG notes: “Relations deteriorated under Boris Johnson, who needs to do more to live up to his title as ‘minister for the Union’.” I suggest a quite different course of action for Mr Johnson!