Devolution in 2022: an action-packed year

With the future of the Union in increasing doubt, and the devolved authorities becoming more self-assured in light of the pandemic, the Headland Devolution team looks at what’s in store for the UK’s regions and nations in 2022.

Scotland: one year to go until IndyRef2?

Nicola Sturgeon has promised to begin a second campaign for independence this spring and has said she will ‘do everything in her power’ to hold a referendum by the end of 2023.

With the UK Government determined not to grant a vote, the SNP are set to bring forward their own referendum Bill. This is likely to pass given the pro-independence majority in Holyrood, but a challenge from Westminster could see it end up in the Supreme Court. What happens next is unclear – the SNP know there is little chance of the Court ruling in their favour (due to potential conflicts with the Scotland Act) but will be hoping that it’ll cause a political headache for Westminster.

It’s likely a referendum won’t happen until after the next UK general election, and with the Scottish Tories currently in open revolt in the wake of Partygate, and Boris Johnson generally hated in Scotland, the outcome will be key.

We’ll also see the SNP fighting to retain their seats at the council elections. An area to watch is Glasgow, which the SNP took from Labour in 2017. The council has faced intense criticism, including over waste building up in the streets ahead of COP26, but it remains to be seen whether the SNP will be voted out after just one term.

Northern Ireland: ongoing constitutional crisis

Although Brexit has largely moved to the bottom of the political agenda in England, the fallout over the Northern Ireland protocol continues to dominate politics in the region.

Liz Truss’s appointment as lead Brexit negotiator will not make that process any easier. The widely-tipped candidate in the next Tory leadership election has generated concerns that she may put the interests of Conservative Associations ahead of the nation’s. A recent incendiary intervention published in the Sunday Telegraph has done little to assuage those fears.

Her approach threatens to worsen tensions amongst Northern Ireland’s political parties. Although the DUP’s vote has recovered somewhat from its nadir in opinion polls last summer, Sinn Féin are on track to become the largest party in the May Assembly elections and claim the First Ministership for the first time in history. Even if the DUP don’t deliver on their threats to collapse Stormont’s institutions over the Protocol, the party’s base would struggle to accept the humiliation of entering Government under a republican First Minister. It’s quite possible that by mid-year the people of Northern Ireland could be living under direct rule from Westminster again.

Wales: Net Zero dominates the post-covid recovery

Fresh from winning a record-equalizing 30 seats out of 60, Welsh Labour is as dominant as it ever has been. Mark Drakeford now wields an enviable amount of power to implement his co-operation agreement with Plaid Cymru.

The agreement sets out 46 policy areas, but the net zero agenda will be front of mind for the government. Wales published its plan to become net zero by 2050 in October, but the agreement commits the government to aim for 2035. Expect further policy announcements later this year.

The agreement also means Plaid will have to straddle the two roles of being both partner to and critic of the government. It remains to be seen what this means for scrutiny in the Senedd.

Elsewhere, new Conservative MSs will jostle to replace the old guard as the party endeavours to find a vision for Welsh centre-right politics beyond knee-jerk opposition and a light distrust of devolution.

But Welsh Labour’s most formidable opposition may come from Westminster as relations between the governments at both ends of the M4 show little signs of thawing.

English Devolved Authorities: finally the low down on levelling up?

The Levelling Up White Paper, expected to finally be published early this year, may cause a monumental shock to local government in England in 2022 and beyond. Leaks suggest that the government plans to introduce a single-tier mayoral-style system. This would scrap the county and district council levels, taking an approach closer to that already seen in London and the devolved administrations.

After a spate of elections across England in 2021, this year’s only contest will be for South Yorkshire Combined Authority Mayor. The retirement of Labour’s Dan Jarvis has created a free-for-all in the race to replace him. But Labour’s crushing win in 2018 suggest the outcome is almost certain.

There will also be a handful of county council elections this summer, alongside elections to some district and metropolitan borough councils. In London, elections will run for all 32 boroughs – keep an eye on Tower Hamlets, which Labour gained in 2018 after it had been under no overall control, Barnet, Wandsworth and Westminster – which Labour targeted in 2018.

A year to watch

The threat of a constitutional crisis in Northern Ireland, the beginning of another independence campaign in Scotland, and a possible facelift of local governance in England, means there is no shortage of challenges to the Union. We can expect to see the devolved administrations continue to snipe at government policy, while regional elections across the UK will provide a closely watched barometer of public opinion. Although, in the case of the Prime Minister, it might be better to look away.