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‘Hard work’ ensuring UK Government thinks about devolution ‘even at a time of existential threat’ says senior civil servant

09 Feb 2022 3 minutes Read
Whitehal picture by Can Pac Swire (CC BY-NC 2.0). Inset: Philip Rycroft by HM Government (OGL 3).

A senior civil servant has said that getting the UK Government to think about the devolved governments is “hard work” even at a time of “existential threat” such as the 2014 Scottish independence referendum.

Philip Rycroft, a former Permanent Secretary in the UK Government, was giving evidence to the House of Commons’ Welsh Affairs Committee today on the subject of intergovernmental relations.

He was asked by committee chair Stephen Crabb MP to what extent the UK Government had learnt lessons from the Scottish referendum, Brexit and Covid.

“I have to say it was uphill work,” he said. “It was uphill work even in a time of existential threat to the United Kingdom, during the time of the Scottish referendum.

“I think there was a degree of complacency when that campaign started because people looked at the opinion polls and thought there’s no way that people in Scotland are going to vote for independence.

“That complacency began to fray a bit towards the end, and by the end people as you recall were getting very very worried. There was that famous opinion poll that had the ‘yes’ side ahead.

“And at that point, I had the attention of the senior folk in Whitehall. I remember going to meetings with Permanent Secretaries and people were listening – listening however perhaps for the first time.

“But after the referendum – after the victory for the unionist side in the referendum – a big sigh of relief and that feeling began to dissipate.”

‘Habit of mind’

Philip Rycroft said that working within Whitehall he had “had some success” in ensuring that civil servants thought bout the devolved governments.

“But it was hard work because for most departments this is in the periphery of their vision,” he said. “It’s not what is obsessing them hour by hour, day by day. Their priorities lie elsewhere.

“And I think it’s just worth remembering that most departments are either thinking about reserved issues involving the whole of the UK, or if they’re more on the domestic front they’re very focused on England.

“And until I think we see deeper devolution in England I think most Whitehall officials will not have the day to day experience of the sort of co-working, the collaborative working that is required with sub-national tiers of government to make that something that is natural to them.

“So that was the difficulty we faced, we worked hard to resolve that, but as you the Chir have experienced yourself, it was not always easy going.”

He was also asked by the committee chair Stephen Crabb to what extent different personalities made relations between the governments difficult.

“The system should not be dependent on particular individuals being in place at any one time,” Philip Rycroft said. “Structures matter, but beneath that what matters even more is the habit of mind, the habit of thinking, the habits of ways of working.

“Those habits of mind, those habits of thinking about intergovernmental relations, were not deeply engrained enough at Whitehall after devolution to withstand the twin shocks of Brexit and Covid.

“Thinking about intergovernmental relations, structures matter but more important, from a Whitehall perspective, is how people approach it in thinking about the nature of the distribution of power in the United Kingdom – how that power is expressed and how it is shared.

“And a commitment to working with other governments to achieve a good outcome for all the peoples of the United Kingdom.”


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Geoff Horton-Jones
Geoff Horton-Jones
4 months ago

The Civil service is simply accepting that Wales Scotland and Northern Island are on the very fringe of their functions
Their prime objective is to satisfy London and the Home Counties This has always been the case

We in Wales don’t have to accept this travesty against or even tragedy for our Nation

Erisian
Erisian
4 months ago

We’ve suspected it for years, despite repeated ministerial denials, now we have it from the horses mouth.
They are capable of only a parochial English view and simply don’t give **** about anybody else in the ‘Union’.

Steve Duggan
Steve Duggan
4 months ago

Complacency is common in Westminster and Whitehall. Complacency in how strong the Union really is based on belief in their own superiority. It will lead to the end of the Union.

Jonathan Edwards
Jonathan Edwards
4 months ago
Reply to  Steve Duggan

The real problem is complacency in Wales. The Union (of England and Wales) will plough on, because we lack the spirit and knowledge to make necessary changes.

Jonathan Edwards
Jonathan Edwards
4 months ago
Reply to  Steve Duggan

The end of the Union of Wales and England will not come unless the Welsh shed their own complacency ie accepting the status quo. We in Wales need to assert ourselves. People like Pycroft will help to sell it in Whitehall, but only when we have got a workable proposal. A Referendum is not a proposal.

Steve Duggan
Steve Duggan
4 months ago

Of course Wales is set in its ways – we’ve been forced to assimilate with our neighbour for centuries, we’ve been conditioned. It’s going to take a lot to break that conditioning but I believe that process is happening, our young are more open to independence than previous generations – a good sign for future success.

Quornby
Quornby
4 months ago

Yes Philip our “priorities lie elsewhere” like how long before we are a sovereign state.

Peter Cuthbert
Peter Cuthbert
4 months ago

Interetsing to see that the House of Commons Welsh Affairs Committe has dicussed the issue. I did not know there was such a Committe which is a small start in the right direction. It sounds as if Yes Cymru needs to make a bigger impact in Wales and grow its membership substantially so that Westminster feel that there is a ‘threat’. Can we learn from the SNP?

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