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Anya Pearson interviews Michael Kenny, Inaugural Director of the Bennett Institute for Public Policy at the University of Cambridge, about winning the 2021 Bernard Crick Prize. Kenny co-authored a piece about intergovernmental relations in the UK alongside Nicola McEwen, Jack Sheldon and Coree Brown Swan.

Congratulations to you and your co-authors for winning the 2021 Crick prize! How do you feel?

Michael Kenny: I’m delighted ­– and delighted on behalf of my co-authors. The Political Quarterly is a journal of great standing, and it has an ethos that is close to what we were trying to do in the article – which was to provide rigorous analysis of a contemporary problem but also try think about possible solutions to it.

In your article, you argue that both Brexit and the Covid-19 crisis have exposed the weakness of intergovernmental relations in the UK as overly informal, ad hoc, hierarchical – essentially, ‘not fit for purpose’. What reform would you say is the most pressing right now?

MK: While having a weak and undeveloped system for intergovernmental relations didn’t matter so much in the early years of devolution, it was pretty clear that there would be problems down the line once different political parties were in power in different parts of the country. In our article we observe that processes for bringing together different governments are a common feature of other countries that have decentralised in broadly similar ways. And the UK is pretty unusual in having such a weak and underdeveloped machinery for doing so.  

Brexit and Covid-19 have generated conflicts and divisions along territorial lines, and exposed the absence of robust intergovernmental relations in this context. We suggest a number of different reforms that might make this system more robust and meaningful.

At the level of basic logistics we suggest that meetings should be scheduled and announced in advance; and also that the Chair for meetings of the Joint Ministerial Committee should rotate. And in terms of more substantive reforms, which might be viable in the near future, we make the case for better dispute resolution procedures. Independent arbitration is, again, an institutional feature in many other countries. But remarkably, in Britain, the UK government can play dual role of arbitrator of, and party to, disputes that arise. And that raises basic questions of legitimacy for the other governments involved.

Your article contains insightful international comparisons. Can you talk to us about these?

MK: There is always a risk in looking at other countries’ institutional structures and assuming that we can pick and choose from them and easily transplant some of their features into our own system. But what drove us to make those comparisons was our sense that much of the commentary on devolution and territorial governance in the UK has been quite insular. It has worked on the assumption that the UK’s distinguishing features mean that comparison is not that useful. We wanted to break away from that way of thinking and try to prompt a richer debate with these comparisons in mind.

One of your suggestions is to create a Minister for England to avoid crowding out devolved concerns, and at the same time giving England a distinctive national voice – but would this accelerate the breakup of the UK, or possibly feed populism?

MK: There is a deeply entrenched assumption that England doesn’t need its own institutions or voice in the British model of parliamentary government. But in the context of IGR, the question of whether the UK government is acting on behalf of the whole state, or is acting as England’s government is fundamentally ambiguous. And this relates to a wider, unanswered question: does England need some form of national-level devolution and institutional recognition?

And so we tried, in the article, to think about ways in which England might be represented in this context, and its interests delineated from those of the UK government. One of the ideas we explore  is the notion of a Minister for England. Would a reform like this accelerate the dynamics that are pulling the UK apart? Some people think that it is not possible or wise to provide this kind of explicit institutional recognition for England. Others would say that the lack of voice and recognition offered to the English, as a national people, in the current system is a destabilising factor for the Union.

Also it’s worth remembering that some of the devolved leaders have questioned the merits of a model that conflates English and UK-wide interests and welcome a proposal that would clarify where England stands in relation to the UK when it comes to intergovernmental discussion.  

What are your views about whether the present government at Westminster grasps the seriousness of the intergovernmental issues that you write about in the article? Do you think there’s any real intention in Downing Street to try to resolve the issues?

MK: It’s hard to know with certainty from the outside. I thought it was interesting that following the recent elections Boris Johnson addressed the need to bring together the different heads of governments across the UK as we move out of the pandemic. Those are, so far, merely words, and we should judge a government by its deeds, so we will have to wait and see. But, given that his  government is increasingly focused on the Union, and heading off various threats to it, and given it wants to be more active in policy terms in this area, it could be that taking intergovernmental conversations more seriously fits with this agenda. But it’s worth noting too that his government’s  decision to bypass devolved governments in some areas of policy does not easily with the aim of securing agreement about IGR rules and processes.

How familiar are you with Bernard Crick?

MK: Very ­– I previously taught Politics at Sheffield University, the department that he founded. And I’ve actually written about some of his work in the past, and engaged with him from time to time when he was alive. This is another reason why I’m delighted to be part of the team that has won this prize.

Crick once wrote: “Democracy is like a raft. It never sinks but, damn it, your feet are always in the water […] One can with a paddle or a plank steer a little to stay afloat, trim forward direction slightly to left or right, perhaps even slow down or speed up a little, but there is no turning back against the current of democracy.” Do you agree?

MK: Bernard was very interested in issues of territorial government and politics in the UK, and was acutely aware of its character as a multinational union. He was also one of the first people in British political science to take seriously issues around English identity.

After devolution was introduced in Britain, and a distinctive form of multilevel governance emerged, the raft of British democracy had new parts grafted onto its existing, rather ramshackle structures. And when you add to your existing system, a different kind of territorial statecraft may be required and new institutional features created – in this case, processes to ensure intergovernmental co-ordination. In this sense too, I’d like to think that our article speaks to these deep questions about democratic governance and the challenges of an evolving multi-national union which were central to his work.

Read ‘Intergovernmental Relations in the UK: Time for a Radical Overhaul?’ via the Political Quarterly journal.