The UK must reform how it is governed or risk becoming a “failed state”, former Labour prime minister Gordon Brown has warned.
Writing in the Daily Telegraph, he says Covid has exposed “tensions” between Whitehall and the nations and regions.
Mr Brown urges Prime Minister Boris Johnson to set up a commission to review how the country is run.
Polls have suggested rising support for Scottish independence and a potential border vote in Northern Ireland.
Mr Brown – who advocates a federal system with more power for nations and regions – says the pandemic has “brought to the surface tensions and grievances that have been simmering for years” between Downing Street and the various parts of the UK.
He points to “bitter disputes” over issues such as lockdown restrictions and furlough.
“The complaint is that Whitehall does not fully understand the country it is supposed to govern,” he writes – pointing to elected leaders’ claims that “local knowledge has been ignored” and they are “rarely” consulted.
Last year saw rows between the government and local authorities over coronavirus tiers, with the Labour mayor of Greater Manchester, Andy Burnham, objecting to plans to put the region into the strictest level of restrictions.
Mr Brown says the future of the union depends not just on a “fair and workable” delineation of powers after Brexit, but also “broken” relationships being rebuilt.
He argues that this will be achieved by rectifying the “economic and social inequalities” recognised in the Conservatives’ pledge to “level up” certain parts of the country – a drive that can only happen if regions return to being “vibrant centres of economic initiative in their own right”.
Mr Brown is advising the Labour Party on its devolution strategy – but has also held talks with government ministers including Michael Gove in recent weeks.
Government sources say they are focused on taking tangible steps to demonstrate the value of the UK.
The idea of a fundamental review of the UK’s power structures has been suggested as one possible way to counter support for Scottish independence ahead of May’s Holyrood election.
But a series of polls now suggest support for independence is higher than support for the union – and First Minister Nicola Sturgeon will demand another referendum if, as seems likely, her party – the SNP – wins in May.
“I believe the choice is now between a reformed state and a failed state,” Mr Brown says, calling on Mr Johnson to set up a commission on democracy which would review how the UK is governed.
The Conservatives promised such a commission in their manifesto before the last general election.
In his Telegraph article, Mr Brown suggests it would find that the UK needs a Forum of the Nations and Regions, citizens’ assemblies, and a greater focus on the benefits of cooperation in areas such as the NHS and the armed forces.
His assertion that the “status quo is not working” echoes recent remarks made by the current Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer, who supports devolving more powers from Westminster but opposes another Scottish independence referendum.
This SNP said last week that there will be a “legal referendum” after the pandemic if May’s Holyrood election returns a pro-independence majority.
The Court of Session is hearing arguments about whether Holyrood can legislate to hold one even if the UK government continues to object.
Mr Johnson has repeatedly stated his opposition to another referendum.
A cabinet spokesman said the 2014 referendm “settled” the issue, and the public in Scotland want to see British politicians “working in partnership to focus on defeating coronavirus”.
“That remains the top priority of the UK government, which has supported jobs and businesses across all four nations throughout the pandemic,” he added.
Meanwhile, a poll commissioned by the Sunday Times in Northern Ireland found 51% of people want a referendum on Irish unity in the next five years.
DUP leader Arlene Foster said such a vote would be “absolutely reckless”.