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Since 1998, intergovernmental relations (IGR) have been an important yet understudied part of the United Kingdom’s new machinery of government. To borrow a phrase from Lord Hennessey, they are “the hidden wiring” of the UK’s territorial constitution.

Origins of intergovernmental relations

Although IGR in the UK has a deeper provenance than is widely assumed, most of the present arrangements evolved following the Northern Ireland Act 1998, Scotland Act 1998 and Government of Wales Act 1998. These established three devolved legislatures and governments/executives in Belfast, Edinburgh and Cardiff respectively. What had previously been discussions within a single UK government became a new set of relationships between four different governments.

Since then, IGR have been necessary for two main reasons: resolving disputes between the UK Government and the three devolved administrations, and for joint decision-making where two or more administrations share competences or responsibilities. In the case of Northern Ireland, IGR also operates internationally.

Criticisms of IGR

The political and institutional structures that underpin those relations, however, have been criticised, particularly from the perspective of the devolved governments. Concerns include the lack of a statutory framework, the process for resolving disputes, and too much decision-making power resting with the UK Government in London. Some of these were resolved when a long-awaited IGR Review reported in January 2022.

Four phases of IGR

Since 1998, there have been four broad phases of intergovernmental relations in the UK: an initial period of stability (1999-2007) widely attributed to the dominant position of the Labour Party in Scotland, Wales and England. There followed a more uncertain period (2007-2016) in which several different parties led the UK’s four governments. Thirdly, Brexit and the Covid-19 pandemic put IGR in the spotlight as never before (2016-22). Finally, new IGR arrangements launched in January 2022 marked the beginning of the fourth phase.

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