Five key questions about coronavirus and devolution


The coronavirus is a once in a generation event that has required an almost unprecedented response from government at all levels, from Westminster to West Lothian. Akash Paun argues that it has raised five crucial questions about the politics of devolution at a time when efficient and effective intergovernmental relations are crucial. 

Coronavirus has hit all parts of the UK and has required a comprehensive response by government at all levels – central, devolved and local. The crisis has raised (at least!) five big questions about devolution, intergovernmental relations and the politics of the Union:

  • Does the crisis show that the UK and devolved governments can cooperate effectively?
  • To what extent does devolution enable policy divergence between the UK nations?
  • How is the crisis affecting the operation of the devolved institutions themselves?
  • How is the pandemic response being funded – and with what impact on devolution?
  • What might this period mean for wider constitutional debates and the Union?

It is too early to give a definitive answer to any of these questions. But developments over the past few months already point to some preliminary conclusions, as well as identifying important lines of investigation for future research.

The UK and devolved governments can work together – at least in a crisis

One important finding, as the Institute for Government (IfG) recently concluded, is that the UK and devolved governments have shown the ability to work together well at various points over the past three months. Given the many disputes over Brexit, the Union and other matters in recent years, and the underlying weaknesses of the UK’s system of intergovernmental relations, it was far from a foregone conclusion that the different administrations would be able to cooperate at all.

But credit should be given where it is due. In early March, the UK and devolved governments published a joint Coronavirus Action Plan – a rare sighting of a government policy paper that was co-branded by the four administrations. There was close working too on the Coronavirus Act, which was drafted with significant devolved input before being passed at Westminster with devolved consent under the Sewel Convention. And devolved leaders participated in meetings of the COBRA emergency committee throughout this period, helping to ensure that major announcements, not least the imposition of the lockdown in late March, were coordinated between the capitals.

More recently, however, it appears that the trust and close relationships that underpinned that cooperation may have begun to dissipate. The key announcement by Boris Johnson, on Sunday 17 May, that the lockdown was to be gradually eased did not reflect a consensus between the four nations, and the change of slogan from ‘Stay at Home’ to ‘Stay Alert’ was publicly disowned by the three devolved administrations. In keeping with an enduring habit of British governance’, the Prime Minister also chose not to clarify that his announced changes to lockdown rules would apply in England only. Subsequently, the UK and devolved governments have each published separate exit strategies from lockdown, whose varying formats and terminology, perhaps more than their substance, point to a decline in coordination.

It may be that only under the red hot pressure of a crisis can joint working between governments become the norm, in which case a return to a more competitive relationship was inevitable. Nonetheless, lessons can be learnt – by the respective governments and those seeking to hold them to account – about what has worked well in facilitating cooperation. This will be of interest not only for historical reasons, but for informing consideration of how the UK and devolved governments could better work together on the looming tasks of restarting the economy, negotiating the future UK–EU relationship, and developing UK-wide common frameworks to replace EU law in devolved areas.

Devolution inevitably leads to policy divergence – but within constraints

It is a feature – not a bug – of devolution that it enables different parts of the UK to reach different decisions and test alternative solutions to common problems (the idea of devolution as a ‘policy laboratory’). However, it appears to have come as a surprise to some in Westminster and the national media that the devolved bodies in Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast might adopt different lockdown rules or move at different speeds in allowing businesses, schools and normal social life to resume operation.

There are a number of reasons why policy divergence might be expected to occur. In the first place, ministers in each nation are legally required to lift restrictions if they deem that the rules are no longer necessary to protect public health. All four governments have been clear that they will base such decisions on scientific evidence, in particular the ‘R Value’ or reproduction number that captures the spread of the virus. If, as the Scottish and Welsh governments have suggested, this value is now measurably higher in their territories than in England, this would provide a logical, evidence-based reason for proceeding more cautiously. In Northern Ireland, meanwhile, the shared land border with the Republic of Ireland might create valid reasons to align on some matters with decisions taken in Dublin, even if that leads to divergence with the rest of the UK.

In addition, ministers might simply reach different positions on what they view to be the appropriate trade-offs between public health, economic concerns and other factors such as personal freedom. Governments naturally wish to avoid the charge that they are ‘playing politics’ amidst a health crisis, but the reality is that evidence can inform but not determine policy choices, especially when there is substantial uncertainty about the consequences of particular decisions, such as allowing schools to reopen in June (as in England) rather than August (as in Scotland). There is, in other words, scope for legitimate political judgement, for which ministers can be held to account. In such circumstances, the transparency of the decision-making process and the evidence used to inform such decisions becomes of crucial importance – and, whether or not one agrees with any particular decisions taken, it is notable that Whitehall has moved more slowly than the Scottish and Welsh governments in showing its workings.

But while a degree of divergence is highly likely for the reasons set out above, the scope for major differences to arise between the four UK nations will be constrained by several factors, including the fact that many important policy levers (such as control of ports and borders) are reserved to Westminster. Another relevant factor is public opinion. In what is sometimes termed the ‘devolution paradox’, voters often simultaneously express support for the principle of devolved decision-making, and resistance to the reality of different rules and rights applying in different parts of the country. This may create political pressures for convergence of lockdown rules. 

Coronavirus has led to a substantial rise in public spending – by both UK and devolved governments

A further constraint on divergence comes from fiscal pressures. According to the Scottish Parliament Information Centre (SPICe), the Scottish government is expecting to receive some £3.7bn in extra funding via the Barnett Formula, as a result of additional spending in England on the NHS, and support for small businesses, rail providers and charities. Wales and Northern Ireland will receive similar per capita funding increases. To some extent, this allows the devolved governments to set different priorities in responding to coronavirus – as Scotland did, for instance, when it moved more quickly to offer support to the fisheries sector. But, as if to underline the devolution paradox, the SPICe analysis finds that Scottish ministers have committed to follow quite closely spending decisions taken for England, for example in creating a similar small business support scheme.

Furthermore, alongside the extra money provided through the Barnett block grant system, the devolved nations are benefitting from UK Treasury-controlled schemes for supporting employers, employees and the self-employed during this period, funded mainly via an expansion of public borrowing. These are expensive programmes. For instance, the Office for Budget Responsibility estimates that the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme (the ‘furloughed workers’ scheme) will cost the exchequer £14 billion per month between mid-March and July of this year. This figure is not broken down territorially, but if the four nations were to receive a share of this money in proportion to their populations (which will not be precisely the case), then Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland would gain around £5bn, £3bn and £2bn respectively over this period. The devolved governments do not have the resources or fiscal levers to replace this and other UK-wide schemes once they are phased out. This will limit their ability to operate on a different timetable to England when it comes to reopening the economy.

Coronavirus creates big challenges for the four UK governments – and for the four legislatures

The scale and complexity of the policy response to coronavirus is placing great strain on the capacity of the UK and devolved governments, making it difficult for them to make progress with other priorities. The coronavirus legislation passed at both Westminster and the devolved level has also conferred on ministers a swathe of new powers, including (in the case of Scotland and Northern Ireland) the health protection provisions under which the lockdown was introduced in late March.

In this context, with ministers using delegated powers to impose restrictions on civil liberties and economic activity, the need for effective accountability mechanisms is as great as ever. Yet the UK and devolved legislatures are all having to operate in a new way, in order to carry out their important scrutiny functions while abiding by social distancing rules. All four UK legislatures have amended their procedures and practices accordingly. The Scottish Parliament has created its new COVID-19 committee and introduced new formats of ministerial question time. In Wales, fully-online plenary meetings have been held. In both Northern Ireland and Wales, proxy voting has been used. In the House of Commons, virtual voting has been rolled out for all MPs, along with hybrid meetings of the House. 

This is an impressive set of innovations, but some parliamentary experts are concerned that moving to remote working may lead to a loss of informal conversations and interactions that form an important part of the accountability process. Over the coming months, researchers and the legislatures themselves should continue to review the effectiveness of their approach to scrutiny in lockdown, and look for lessons to be learnt from each other and from overseas.

Coronavirus may create new opportunities for unionists – and nationalists too

At the start of the coronavirus crisis, the Scottish government officially dropped its plan to hold a second Scottish independence referendum in 2020. But with elections to the Scottish and Welsh parliaments less than a year away, the debate over the future of the Union has just been put on temporary hold and seems likely to reignite as May 2021 approaches, a period in which the ever-divisive issue of Brexit will also return to the top of the agenda. The resumption of arguments over the UK-EU relationship may also reopen divisions in Northern Ireland, potentially sparking further talk of a ‘border poll’ on Irish reunification.

How the constitutional debate plays out is impossible to predict. But one can already identify certain effects that coronavirus might have on the politics of the Union. On the one hand, unionists will point to the role the UK government has played – both in providing additional financial resources to all parts of the country, and in coordinating a UK-wide public health response, for instance through creating additional COVID-19 testing capacity – as evidence of the strength of the Union, and the need for strong UK-wide action led from Westminster. Falling global oil prices will also make it harder for the Scottish government to explain how an independent Scotland would balance its books.

On the other hand, the crisis has enabled the devolved administrations to demonstrate their own capacity to coordinate much of the coronavirus response within their territories. Data from Ipsos MORI suggests that, in Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon’s performance was viewed far more favourably than that of Boris Johnson, even before the controversy about Number 10 adviser Dominic Cummings. In addition, evidence that the UK may emerge from the pandemic with one of the worst mortality rates in the world may strengthen the nationalist argument that Scotland would be better able to deal with such challenges if it were independent, and therefore had the full panoply of fiscal and other levers available to ministers in Westminster. On the island of Ireland, contested reports of a higher coronavirus death rate in the north than the south may similarly help pro-reunification politicians to press their cause.

Following the 2014 Scottish independence referendum, the 2016 EU referendum, and the bruising Brexit battles that followed, coronavirus is the latest black swan event to raise big questions about devolution and the Union. Answering these questions seems set to keep those of us who follow such matters busy for some time to come.

This is the latest in a series of blogs in response to the constitutional challenges posed by the coronavirus. To see past blogs in the series, click here. To be notified of future blogs as they go live, sign up for updates in the left sidebar.

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About the author

Akash Paun (@akashpaun) is a Senior Fellow of the Institute for Government and associate of the Centre on Constitutional Change and the UCL Constitution Unit.