Humility is not a quality that one instinctively associates with Boris Johnson or his ministers. But an important research paper published on Tuesday by the Institute for Government shows why it should be considered a primary political virtue, particularly in a pandemic. As the IfG’s report illustrates, the government has instead showcased all too often the dangers of an arrogant refusal to listen beyond its Whitehall bunkers.
Released to coincide with the first anniversary of lockdown, and relying on interviews with public servants and politicians, the study concludes that where pandemic policymaking worked well, it was because of “broad, meaningful input from people across central, devolved and local government, the wider public sector, civil society academia and businesses”. The trade unions, for example, played an important role in the design of the economic support packages that provided early reassurance to households and businesses.
The serious and sometimes tragic failures came when, whether through panic, arrogance or a combination of both, the government and Whitehall insisted it knew best. Residential social care providers were not listened to when NHS patients were discharged into homes with no assessment of clinical risk. The chaotic mismanagement of the country’s schools, from botched reopenings to last summer’s exams fiasco, was partly the result of a failure to properly involve teachers in decision-making and planning. The government’s scientific advisers were not consulted over the Treasury’s wildly popular but unwise “eat out to help out” scheme, which contributed to the second wave of Covid in the autumn.
This damaging lack of cooperation and inclusion extended to the devolved administrations and local government. It was only when Westminster belatedly agreed to draw on local authority expertise that test-and-trace schemes began to achieve a respectable hit rate, after being bungled by the private sector. Why did it take so long? One interviewee working in central government tells the IfG report’s authors: “There is a disgraceful, patronising view of local government – that they are less capable, less experienced, more incompetent and more shambolic than people in central government.” Representatives of the devolved administrations were shut out of Westminster meetings, as the politics of locking down and opening up became treacherous and ministers hunkered down.
The circumstances of the pandemic have been uniquely pressured. But the signs are that the United Kingdom’s overmighty political centre must change its overbearing ways or see the landscape be changed around it. A combination of factors related to the handling of the pandemic, the fallout from Brexit and the centralising hauteur of Boris Johnson’s government has unleashed a desire for a radical redistribution of power away from Westminster.
In Scotland, now that an independent investigation has cleared Nicola Sturgeon of breaking the ministerial code in relation to sexual harassment allegations against Alex Salmond, the focus of May’s Holyrood election will return to the question of a second independence referendum. A poll published on Monday suggested that the bitter fallout of the Salmond enquiry dented support for independence, but 53% of Scots remain in favour.
In Wales, where the first minister, Mark Drakeford, has criticised the government’s “outright hostility to devolution”, backing for independence has risen in some polls to above 30%. Across England, local authorities have railed at the apparent partisanship that has seen billions of pounds of “levelling up” funds allocated by central government to Conservative-held constituencies. Speaking at the launch of the Industrial Strategy Council’s annual report on Tuesday, the Bank of England’s chief economist, Andy Haldane, called for Westminster to give communities the resources to take their own spending decisions and make their own priorities . “You don’t level up from the top down,” said Mr Haldane. “Rather you level up from the bottom up.”
Sadly, top-down is this government’s instinctive direction of travel. It didn’t benefit the population of the UK during the pandemic and it is likely to become unsustainable as the country emerges from it.