The benefits of our Union of four nations have truly come to the fore over the last twelve months writes Alun Cairns.
As a Union, we have seen unprecedented financial assistance raised by the Treasury to benefit businesses and families, in addition to the extra funding they have given to the devolved administrations to support citizens and communities in all parts of the UK. The weight and reputation of the UK’s financial capacity has enabled the Chancellor to borrow unprecedented sums at remarkably low rates to serve every part of our nation.
The combined effort of the UK’s research and development institutions, whose scientific expertise helped mastermind research, was central to the world’s Vaccine roll out.
These collective benefits mean that we will emerge from the COVID-19 challenge sooner than any other major economy, ready to bounce back.
I am confident that these merits are recognised widely amongst the public, in spite of the ever-noisy demands for independence that are regularly exaggerated by the BBC and other media outlets. This is why I am optimistic about the strength and longevity of our Union.
However, there is so much more to do for the mutual benefit of individuals and communities.
Since 1999, devolved governments have actively discouraged Whitehall departments from showing an interest in the nations. The legislative settlements prevented the UK Government from using its resources to support communities. This was wrong and something that I sought to change.
I regularly highlighted that an unemployed individual, living in a deprived part of Wales didn’t care whether a policy that could help was devolved or not. All they wanted was financial assistance, effective education and training, good public services and investment in their community. It was iniquitous that the UK, with its financial clout, was prevented from helping because Welsh politicians said it was not the UK Government’s role to prioritise. Opposition parties were equally shameful in exploiting this for political benefit – pointing to the ‘apparent disinterest’, creating unnecessary harms and divisions between communities and nations.
The UK’s departure from the EU created an opportunity. I argued within government that the successor to EU funding should be retained in Whitehall to be spent in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland directly. From this, the Shared Prosperity Fund (UKSPF) was born. Devolution was built on Barnett, rather than all sources of resources.
To the Prime Minister’s credit, he has gone much further. The UKSPF was just the start and he has extended his passion for the Union to include the Levelling Up Fund. This is a major step forward. Whitehall will once again have an interest and powers to deliver in all four nations.
This creates the opportunity to develop more coherent ambitions, focussed on outcomes, rather than just the question ‘who is in charge’.
The presence of the Union will become more obvious to us all, but more importantly, it will benefit all communities wherever they are in the UK.
Alun Cairns is a former Secretary of State for Wales and the Member of Parliament for the Vale of Glamorgan.