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