A scathing new report has accused Boris Johnson of “speaking for England alone” and having “considerable indifference” to the devolved nations.
Research from the University of Cambridge’s Bennett Institute for Public Policy accuses Westminster of treating devolved administrations with contempt and handling the maintaining of the Union as “someone else’s problem”.
The “Union at the Crossroads” document comes after three years of research and dozens of interviews with key figures, as well as analysis of the relationships between Downing Street and the governments in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
Philip Rycroft, the permanent secretary to the Brexit department until 2019, said even major political changes such as the Scottish independence referendum and the 2015 SNP landslide prompted little soul-searching in Westminster.
Rycroft said the pandemic had led to a deterioration of communication between Westminster and the devolved administrations.
Rycroft said despite the 2014 referendum, “the cost of getting things wrong on devolution is seen as somebody else’s problem for most Whitehall departments.”
He added: “There is little emotional engagement across government with the trends towards independence, no sense that maintaining the Union is part of everyone’s job.”
The report references Johnson’s remarks to a group of backbench Tory MP last year in which the prime minister described devolution as a “disaster”.
“Whether this yields the right strategic approach for Unionists to adopt in the current, increasingly fraught, political context is an issue that needs to be more widely and publicly aired,” the report read.
“If the choice that is presented, for instance, to the Scottish public in the coming years is between independence and a new species of unitarist Unionism, there is a very good chance that more political support will grow for the first of these options.”
Rycroft said the instinct to preserve the Union was “not in the bloodstream of the UK state” and that political choices made mainly by Johnson led to a breakdown in partnership working between the four governments during the pandemic.
The report claimed that a factor in the UK government’s decision to move away from the more collaborative mode for managing this crisis was “Johnson’s wariness of the perception that he might be viewed as being on a par with the heads of the devolved governments”.
Rycroft added: “As other UK nations pursue different lockdown rules and messaging, the public may be adapting to the strange idea of a prime minister who speaks for England alone”.
He said Westminster lacked enthusiasm for unionism. “The cost of getting things wrong on devolution is seen as somebody else’s problem for most Whitehall departments – even in the wake of Scotland’s referendum,” said Rycroft.
“There is little emotional engagement across government with the trends towards independence, no sense that maintaining the Union is part of everyone’s job.”
Professor Michael Kenny, report co-author and director of the Bennett Institute, said the Tory government’s approach was “fundamentally unstrategic”.
He said: “Existential threats to the Union, crystallised during the Scottish referendum, and exacerbated by Brexit and coronavirus, keep exposing the inadequacy of the ad hoc approach long adopted by UK governments.
“Trying to undercut nationalism in the devolved territories by incrementally devolving new powers is no longer sustainable, and betrays the fundamentally un-strategic mindset which prevails in Westminster and Whitehall.”
“Without a major overhaul of the way in which central government approaches its relations with Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, this 300-year-old Union is at serious risk.”
A UK government spokesperson has said: “The United Kingdom is the most successful political and economic union the world has ever seen.
“Strengthening the United Kingdom is at the heart of everything we do and we are working alongside the devolved administrations to establish new ways of regular, meaningful and effective cooperation so that we continue to deliver for people right across the United Kingdom.”
The report comes just months after the collapse of No 10’s Union Unit, which saw the departure of two of its leaders in the space of two weeks.