Crises have a tendency to throw devolution into the limelight. In 2014, the vote on Scottish Independence saw calls for greater Welsh control over internal affairs. Following 2016 and the EU referendum, rhetoric was much the same. There is, in a sense, a devolution paradox – precisely when it matters, its status comes under the greatest scrutiny.
So far, the coronavirus is shaping up as a crisis carved from the old block. In many ways, nobody is surprised. More than ever, the decisions taken at Stormont, Holyrood, and the Senedd enjoy a remarkable degree of everyday relevance. Devolution is no longer simply a political affair – now, it’s socio-economic too. For some, it seems, this is too much.
Mark Reckless certainly appears to agree that devolution has gone too far. In an announcement unsurprising from a party seemingly bent on the dissolution of institutions of which they are a part, the leader of the Brexit Party in the Welsh Parliament described devolution as an institution now at a stage “so much further” than initially conceived. In Reckless’ view, the coronavirus pandemic means that “a lot of people who haven’t engaged with devolved politics now see the powers this place has.” He is, of course, by no means the first to question the future of devolution in the course of the pandemic. Daniel Kawczynski, Conservative MP for Shrewsbury, expressed a similar degree of contempt as early as May – albeit over the differing messages for his constituents around access to a beach, rather than any serious political concerns. Yet what Kawczynski and Reckless embody is a rising existential threat to the power of the devolved nations. Coronavirus, they argue, has exposed a fundamentally flawed system – as Rob Roberts, MP for the North Welsh constituency of Delyn puts it: “if we had taken that approach [a unified government], we would have avoided all of the mixed messaging, tit-for-tat and one-upmanship… which really annoys people.”
Are we to pay heed to such an argument? It seems that those in Wales aren’t so sure. I put out my own survey, to which one respondent to a recent survey remarked: “I think the Welsh Government has handled the crisis with caution and good communication on the whole.” Kier Starmer certainly seems to agree, praising the ‘real contrast in how the Welsh government’ approached the pandemic, when compared to their English counterparts. Matt Greenough, political consultant for Words Matter and former Welsh government chief special advisor, goes one step further. “What will annoy anyone who actually understands devolution is the idea that the devolved institutions are deviating from the Westminster approach for the sake of it, to flex their muscles or demonstrate their political differences”, he warns. “Nobody is approaching this as a way to score points”.
In fact, far from devolution frustrating efforts to deal with the spread of COVID-19, evidence indicates a remarkable degree of co-operation between leaders, be they in Westminster, Cardiff Bay, Belfast or Edinburgh. In a recent report, the Institute for Government (IfG) found that devolved bodies and central government in many ways demonstrated, perhaps for the first time, how an effective and successful co-operative form of governance can operate between Westminster and the devolved institutions. In March, the joint ‘Coronavirus Action Plan’ represented a collaborative consideration of approaches to both limiting the spread of the virus and to mitigating the impacts of it. The ‘Coronavirus Act’ too indicated a far more harmonious reality than that presented by Reckless, Kawczynski, and others – it was passed with the consent of the devolved nations under the ‘Sewell Convention’. What we see is not a failed and flawed system, but rather one under which effective and congruous government can and has taken place.
Collaboration and harmony aside, there also lies the undeniable truth that, in breakdowns of regional success in dealing with the pandemic, it’s those in the devolved nations that consistently come out on top. Take Scotland – in a recent YouGov poll, some 74% of respondents felt Nicola Sturgeon had handled the challenges posed by COVID-19 well. This is perhaps unsurprising – on the day of writing, the death toll lay at a comparatively lower 2,491. In England, by contrast, just 45% expressed confidence in the approach of the UK Government to the pandemic. – a level of support understandable when their own death toll falls at 41,802. The simple fact remains that members of devolved nations have fared better than their counterparts in London. Sure enough, it could be argued that variations in population density lend themselves to a higher death toll – England undeniably has a far higher population than Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland combined. Nevertheless, proportionally speaking England still fares worse than its devolved neighbours in both cases and deaths. Is this indicative of a system worthily condemned by Rob Roberts for ‘confusion… tit-for-tat, and one-upmanship’? Arguably not.
Nobody is suggesting, of course, that devolution has worked flawlessly throughout the pandemic. This is politics after all. It’s true enough that exceptions have presented themselves to the success of the policy (think streets on the Welsh-English border, in which No.42 lies under the jurisdiction of Cardiff, whilst No.43 listens to Westminster). Yet these are minor aberrations when compared with the wider picture. In simple terms, devolved nations have come out of the pandemic in a better shape than England. Leaders in Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland have seen rising approval ratings. Boris Johnson has not. The common denominator in all of this? Devolution. Hardly indicative of a system in need of change.
Few are convinced by Reckless’ comments. This is unsurprising – COVID-19 has, in many ways, been an endorsement, rather than an exposé, for the future of devolution. ‘The Welsh government has dealt with the coronavirus pandemic… [in] a more effective and more trustworthy way than England (and I’m English)’ remarked one individual in my study. Like most crises, Coronavirus has directed a spotlight at devolution – yet this has illuminated a system representative of political success, not failure. As an old Oxonian, Reckless lacks little in intelligence. Nevertheless, today, he doesn’t look too clever.