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The Civil Service and Intergovernmental Relations in the Post-devolution UK

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Abstract

The civil service, as an ‘apolitical’ actor, may supply a significant facilitating role in intergovernmental relations. This is especially the case in the UK, where even the most senior civil servants are not politically appointed and remain in office when their political masters change party colours. Furthermore, civil servants who work for the Scottish or Welsh governments are part of a unified (British) Home Civil Service. As such they have been socialised in and respect similar operating procedures, which also encompass Northern Ireland despite its independent civil service. These factors have contributed to oil (lubricate) and glue (hold together) intergovernmental relations. Experience since 1999 is of a civil service accommodating well to various kinds of party incongruity and of working successfully with nationalists in government. The unified service seems well-entrenched, including in a 2010 UK statute, and relationships at official level on financial matters have become particularly important in times of austerity. In the longer term the ‘interdepartmental’ mode of working may be harder to sustain as operating procedures set up in a path-dependent way from before 1999 erode as more civil servants are externally recruited and contact with Whitehall departments is reduced. It is even possible to envisage a reversal of attitude in which the devolved administrations value the civil service link to Whitehall more than does the UK government.

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