'Union summit' shows respect is required for relationships to work

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Global recovery from the Covid-19 pandemic, vaccine sharing with the world's poorest countries and the huge challenge of the climate crisis will all be on the agenda when Boris Johnson plays host to other world leaders at the G7 summit in Cornwall at the weekend.

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It's an opportunity for Britain to strut the international stage after Brexit. And already UK Chancellor Rishi Sunak is hailing a deal for G7 nations to set corporation tax at a minimum of 15 per cent as evidence that "we as a country can play a leadership role" – although Labour's shadow foreign secretary Lisa Nandy has blamed the UK government for blocking aspirations for a 21 per cent minimum which would have brought in billions more.

But while the Carbis Bay gathering of G7 leaders will be occupying the Prime Minister' attention this weekend, he had another summit last week with leaders a bit closer to home.

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Nicola Sturgeon and Boris Johnson outside Bute House in July 2019   Photo: Jane Barlow/PA WireNicola Sturgeon and Boris Johnson outside Bute House in July 2019   Photo: Jane Barlow/PA Wire
Nicola Sturgeon and Boris Johnson outside Bute House in July 2019 Photo: Jane Barlow/PA Wire

The talks with leaders of the UK's devolved governments and the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Ireland secretaries, took place online rather than face-to-face in a luxury seaside hotel, but they were also about Covid recovery. Mr Johnson called the "Union summit" shortly after the May 6 elections, which produced a comfortable pro-independence majority in the Scottish Parliament.

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It was interpreted as a bid to force Nicola Sturgeon and her colleagues to focus on the pandemic rather than independence as they planned their new term in office.

And the summit was delayed amid a "war of words" with Ms Sturgeon and Welsh counterpart Mark Drakeford asking Mr Johnson for greater clarity and substance about the issues to be discussed while the UK government claimed the Scottish government needed more time to prepare.

When it eventually went ahead last Thursday, Ms Sturgeon used the occasion to press for an extension of the furlough scheme. She described the talks as frank and positive, but added “good faith discussions about working together where we can” were not helped by the UK’s “power grab” and its attempts to “muscle in” on devolved spending.

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And that will always be the unhelpful background to cross-border co-operation as long as Mr Johnson maintains his current approach to the constitutional question. He won’t countenance another independence referendum despite the election mandate and he is provoking the SNP with direct UK funding for projects in devolved areas of responsibility.

The attitude also spills over into his handling of Covid. The Prime Minister can talk all he likes about the UK being "best served when we work together" but his record of co-operation over Covid fails to convince, with repeated complaints from the Scottish and Welsh administrations of lack of consultation or even information.

In April, Philip Rycroft, a former senior Scottish civil servant and now a visiting professor at Cambridge University, warned against Mr Johnson’s “muscular unionism” and said the pandemic had highlighted the “poorly developed and often mistrustful relationships” between the devolved and UK governments.

And in a recent interview, Scotland’s leading historian Sir Tom Devine, emeritus professor at Edinburgh University, said the survival of the Union was down to “respect and restraint by the big elephant in the bed” which now looked like being abandoned.

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Summits are all very well, but successful partnerships require a relationship of respect and a recognition of rights and boundaries.

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