The deep problems facing Britain will continue to dog Labour

Weak central government that fails to deliver is making the nationalist case in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland stronger

Dysfunctional is a term widely used to describe Britain and the UK’s political union in the terminal months of this Conservative government. Hopes that a new Labour-led statecraft can repair the deep moral and structural damage it inherits will be really difficult to deliver on given these problems and party leader Keir Starmer’s pervasive caution.

The Sunak administration’s mediocrity following the toxic Johnson and Truss premierships has meant the wider governance problems facing the UK state have not been tackled: concentrated but disjointed rule at the Westminster/Whitehall centre; fragmented national politics between that centre and devolved authorities; huge regional inequalities, especially between London and the rest of England; falling political trust; and poor economic productivity, competitivity and investment after Brexit.

Dysfunctionality has to do with faulty machines or bodies; it is being used to analyse badly performing democracies incapable of adapting to change and hence more likely to produce unintended harmful outcomes. Statecraft speaks to the art of managing state affairs by turning power into effective rule. It concerns the survival and prosperity of a sovereign state. These traditional skills used to distinguish the Conservative and Unionist Party’s running of imperial and domestic affairs within the UK’s unwritten constitution, but have now deserted it.

Such a loss should worry unionists all over the UK, including in Northern Ireland. Labour’s statecraft traditions involve the welfare unionism it brought into being with the National Health Service after the second World War. It oversaw the introduction of Scottish and Welsh devolution in 1998, alongside the Belfast Agreement in Northern Ireland. They are now revived in Starmer’s strong support for the union, as he competes with the SNP in Scotland.

The Cambridge academic Michael Kenny’s recent book on the UK’s fractured union talks of “the ever more disjoined and dysfunctional way in which England itself has been governed” after devolution elsewhere

Participants and observers keep returning to the dysfunctional theme. Dominic Cummings spoke of “excellent teams doing excellent work within an overall dysfunctional system” in his evaluation of Covid policy after resigning as chief adviser to Boris Johnson. Rory Stewart’s book on his time as a Tory MP reveals an amoral and disintegrating system of governing. That is confirmed by interviews with departing MPs: the House of Commons “is utterly, utterly dysfunctional”, says the Green Caroline Lucas. “I mean, really, it’s loopy.” The Cambridge academic Michael Kenny’s recent book on the UK’s fractured union talks of “the ever more disjoined and dysfunctional way in which England itself has been governed” after devolution elsewhere.

Another perceptive analyst of the UK state and union is Ciaran Martin, a Northern Ireland-born civil servant who was constitution director in 10, Downing Street during the Scottish independence referendum, then directed cyber security at GCHQ and is now an Oxford professor. In his recent paper on contested views of the UK’s future, he argues the union is secure for the next five years (the likely term of an incoming Labour government), but will become much more contested in its possible second term into the 2030s.

This is because the deep problems facing Britain will continue to dog Labour. “If the UK has become a more transactional union, the onus on the state to prove its worth has only increased,” he writes. That makes pragmatic outcomes producing security and prosperity the touchstone of good governance. If they are not delivered, the nationalists’ case that people would be better off in a united Ireland and an independent Scotland or Wales become all the more convincing. Likewise, the unionist case that voters are better advised to stay in a well-functioning UK would be more difficult to demonstrate and deliver.

An alternative ‘muscular’ unitary Conservative unionism which emphasises a new Britishness and is impatient with devolved institutions could return to power emboldened – if the party survives

Martin says “no UK government this century has had a clear strategy for the union”. He suggests there are three narrative models of the union in play. A multinational union acknowledges its voluntary character; it could be federal if it can tackle the UK’s dogmatic doctrine of absolute parliamentary sovereignty.

That, however, is unlikely under Labour, which buys deeply into the centralist mindset. Its tendency to deprioritise constitutional issues until a second term may rebound as it underestimates and miscalculates the effects of delaying constitutional change in the smaller nations.

An alternative “muscular” unitary Conservative unionism which emphasises a new Britishness and is impatient with devolved institutions could return to power emboldened – if the party survives. A third model would muddle through these governance problems reactively, but risks similar miscalculations.

Martin argues that governing statecraft at the union’s centre will be the most important factor determining its survival over the next 10 years. Sharing governing with the devolved authorities requires a “fundamental reimagining of UK statecraft” which he is sceptical it can do. The issue will crop up in crisis management, the civil service’s role and determining boundaries between devolved and reserved powers.

Muddling through is more likely to result in break-up than survival, as the impressive Independent Commission on the Constitutional Future of Wales concluded in its recent final report.

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