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Federations Magazine Article
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U.K. devolution hits a snag after 10 years

U.K. devolution hits a snag after 10 years
FEBRUARY | MARCH 2008 Federations
ine years after the law was
passed creating the Scottish
Parliament and the Welsh
Assembly, devolution
appears to be producing the kind of
transformation that many expected. All
the new devolved governments established
after the 2007 elections in Scotland,
Wales and Northern Ireland contain
nationalist political parties with ambitions
in the short or long term to leave the
U.K. The Scottish National Party (SNP)
leads a minority government in Scotland.
The Welsh nationalist party, Plaid Cymru,
is junior partner in coalition with Labour
in Wales. Finally, Sinn Fein, the Irish
nationalist party, became number two in
the improbable coalition government of
U.K. unionists and Irish nationalists that
was finally formed successfully, and
relaunched devolution in Northern
Ireland in May 2007.
Unsurprisingly, given this set of election
outcomes, arrangements for
government in the four nations remain
contested. The SNP published a historic
White Paper in August 2007 advocating
independence. In Wales the Labour and
Plaid Cymru coalition plans a referendum
on stronger legislative powers for
the Welsh Assembly by 2011.
A new debate about the government
of England has also flared up. Prompted
mainly by Conservative commentators,
the English debate highlights concerns
about the post-devolution Anglo-
Scot t ish relat ionship, including
representation at Westminster and the
higher level of public spending Scotland
enjoys. The problem was that, while
Scottish MPs at the U.K. Parliament at
Westminster can vote on decisions that
affect England, after the creation of the
Scottish Parliament, the same Scottish
MPs had no say on similar decisions for
Scotland. They can still decide on local
matters for England because there is no
English Assembly. One outcome appears
to be a firming up of the Conservative
Party’s commitment to reform the way
the U.K. Parliament deals with English
business after devolution.
An unfinished devolution
Only on the subject of Northern Ireland
is there currently no appetite for revisiting
government arrangements – a
U.K. devolution hits a snag after 10 years
Local control for Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland – but not for England
Charlie Jeffery is Professor of Politics at the University of Edinburgh, U.K.
united kin g dom
Jack McConnell, the Scottish Labour Party leader (l.) and Alec Salmond, leader of the Scottish National Party, wait for the cue to begin a
pre-election debate in April 2007. Salmond won the race for the Scottish Parliament and formed a coalition with the Green party.
R E U T E R S / Davi d Mo i r
FEBRU ARY | MARCH 2008 Federations
reflection of the way that polarized constitutional
debate disabled earlier
attempts at devolution. Few would bet,
though, that the government of Northern
Ireland has achieved enduring stability.
The union of nations that makes up
the U.K. is, in other words, in flux. That
poses a particular challenge to the new
Scottish U.K. Prime Minister, Gordon
Brown. Brown is in a sensitive position:
an MP from a nation that has extensive
devolved powers of government is now
Pr ime Minister, responsible to a
Parliament that is unable to legislate in
wide areas of policy for his constituency.
While there are plans to reform the
House of Lords, almost nothing in
the proposals so far reflects a federal
relationship, let alone a
change to a second chamber for
the regions.
Brown has been the only senior
U.K. politician to devote serious
thought to the nature of the U.K.
union and what holds it together.
His theme has been “Britishness.”
In a series of speeches, he has tried
to map out the shared identity and
values that build a commitment to
the U.K. state across its component
nations. As Brown said in a
recent visit to Scotland: “For all of
my political life, I have stood up
for Britain and I stand here today
again to speak up for Britain and
Britishness and for the values that
make us proud of our Britishness.”
Sharing values with Scotland
Though it is doubtful that the Scots
and the English mean the same
thing by Britishness as an identity,
Brown has a point on values.
Public opinion research shows
that people across the U.K. have
more or less the same attitudes on
fundamental values such as the balance
of market and state, or the duty of solidarity
between rich and poor.
The problem Brown faces is that after
1997, governments in which he was a key
member have put too little thought into
crafting the institutional relationships
needed to underpin the partnership of
England, Scotland, Wales and Northern
Ireland after devolution.
To put it bluntly: devolution has been
a project of the parts, not the whole. Its
logic is piecemeal, with different U.K.
ministries introducing different types of
institutional reform for different reasons
in each part of the U.K. Those reasons
may all be good ones for devolution in
Scotland, in Northern Ireland, or in
Wales. But each reform has implications
beyond its own territory; all impact on
the nature of the union that makes up the
It is these implications – the effects of
reform in the parts of the U.K. on the
nature of Britain – that have been
neglected. Beyond Brown’s occasional
speeches there has been no attempt at a
systematic articulation of how the U.K.
envisions its post-devolution format as a
whole. One unanswered question is what
the role of the centre – the U.K.
Parliament at Westminster and the U.K.
government – should be. Nor is there an
answer to how Westminster now relates
to the devolved territories and how the
parts now add up to make a whole.
There are at least four reasons why
this understated and piecemeal
approach to devolution is a problem:
The structure of devolution is unusually
permissive of policy-making
autonomy. This permissiveness was
expressed in legislative powers, freedom
of spending within the block grants
received by the devolved administrat
ions , and in the weakne s s of
mechanisms for co-ordination with the
rest of the U.K. That permissiveness is
amplified by the different dynamics of
government formation produced by the
distinctive electoral and party systems in
operation outside England, as seen in the
2007 election results. All this, of course, is
to an extent what devolution was for, to
bring different approaches to government
better reflecting preferences
outside England. But there is somewhere
a tipping point where the scope for
autonomy begins to rub up against
the content of common citizenship,
which membership of a union
implies. The U.K. lacks an institut
ional s t ructure capable of
recognizing and regulating that
Restoring legitimacy
Devolution reforms were each
introduced in a self-contained way
to address a problem in one part of
the U.K. and did not take into
account the possibility of spill-over
effects on other parts of the U.K.
For example, devolution was introduced
in Scotland to restore for
Scots the legitimacy of U.K. government.
And it has largely done so,
but what we have seen, especially
in the last year or so, is a growing
sense in England that Scottish
devolution is unfair to the English.
Piecemeal devolution may solve
one problem, but end up creating
The biggest problem of piecemeal
devolution is England itself.
England dominates the U.K., with
85 per cent plus of U.K. population
and GDP. It is governed by U.K.-level
institutions that combine and often confuse
England-only and U.K.-wide roles.
The devolved administrations have little
grip on those fused Anglo-U.K. institutions.
Within a single U.K. economic
market, welfare-state and security-area
decisions taken by those Anglo-U.K.
institutions all too easily neglect, ignore
or confound devolved interests – sometimes
with wilful intent, more often
because the devolved nations lie low on
the Anglo-U.K. radar.
British Prime Minister Gordon Brown carries the legacy of
devolution, an initiative of the Labour Party.
REUTERS/Stefan Roussea u
FEBRU ARY | MARCH 2008 Federations
Piecemeal devolution superimposes
political borders on what is, in large part,
borderless public opinion across the U.K.
There are few significant differences in
the values that the Scots, English, Welsh
or Northern Irish hold. Most people
across the U.K. appear to dislike the idea
that policy standards might diverge from
place to place af ter devolut ion.
Devolution did not reflect vigorous public
demands for different policy agendas
from those favoured by the English; it
was much more a demand for proximity
and ownership of decision-making, a
sense that Westminster was too remote
and unresponsive.
Resolving tension
There might appear to be a contradiction
here between a preference for uniform
policy standards and a demand for
devolved government likely to produce
diverse policy standards. There might be
indeed, but the British are not unusual in
that contradiction. The same contradiction
plays out in Germany, Canada,
Belgium, Australia, and pretty much anywhere
wi th federal or devolved
government. The difference is that those
other places have well-established techniques
for managing and resolving that
tension which the U.K. lacks. Some of
those techniques are institutional, and
include, for example:
• nationwide legislation which sets
minimum or framework standards;
• conditional grants or co-funding
arrangements between central and
devolved governments that address
agreed nationwide priorities;
• intergovernmental co-ordination
structures that give devolved governments
real grip at the centre.
Such co-ordination structures can be
highly formalized, written into the constitution,
carried out through territorial
second chambers, and subject to judicial
process. They can also be highly informal,
lacking a legal basis, but reflecting
instead convention and practice. They
can police quite exacting assumptions
that all citizens should have more or less
the same package of public policies
wherever they live (as in Australia or
Germany). They can express looser
understandings of nationwide “social
union,” which act as minimum standards
amid quite divergent packages of public
policies from one region to the next (as in
Belgium or Canada).
The U.K. lacks such institutional techniques
for balancing the whole and the
parts. It has haphazard sets of interactions
between devolved and Anglo-U.K.
officials and ministers that are not transparent
as to when they happen or what is
discussed. The interactions are also
asymmetrical: the Anglo-U.K. officials
and ministers are more powerful. They
certainly do not give the devolved administrations
the weight at the centre that
might balance the English elephant in
the U.K. boat.
The absence of routinized rules of the
game in balancing nationwide and
devolved interests is perhaps the central
reason why the Union has not found
equilibrium after devolution, and that
constitutional debates about how to govern
the four nations were reignited
during 2007.
Debate reignites
The reason why those debates flared up
last year is important. Until then, devolution
had a smooth ride because Labour
led the governments at the U.K. level and
in Scotland and Wales from 1999 to 2007
(devolution was mostly suspended in
Northern Ireland in that period). In those
roles, Labour could act as a broker of differences
between U.K. and devolved
governments. But, more generally,
Labour dominance was also the basis for
complacency regarding the adequacy of
the institutional arrangements for union
established in 1999.
The challenge Prime Minister Brown
faces is to make up for lost time in a situation
where he now has to deal with other
parties, including a long-standing foe in
the Scottish First Minister, Alex Salmond.
He has not yet shown much of a hand.
Brown’s 2007 Green Paper on The
Governance of Britain said nothing about
devolution. Perhaps he will have more to
say if he wins his own mandate at the
next U.K. election, which must be called
before June 2010.
Brown will be looking for Labour to
do well everywhere so as to engage from
a position of strength with the centrifugal
pressures devolution has set free. But he
will face a resurgent Scottish National
Party in Scotland and, perhaps, a
Conservative Party tempted to play an
“English card”: because it has so few seats
to defend in Scotland and Wales, it could
see votes in presenting the English as the
losers of the devolution era and the
Conservatives as their defenders. Brown
may get caught in a pincer movement of
English Conservatives and Scottish
Nationalists. As the leading Conservative
critic of devolution, John Redwood, put
it: “The more the question of England
becomes central to debate south of the
border, the more Alex Salmond will fuel
it, and the weaker Gordon Brown will
Playing the English card
How the Conservative Party plays “the
English card” could change things in the
U.K. While their party had opposed the
devolution of Scotland and Wales as
brought in by the Labour government,
some young Tories are calling for the
completion of this process, not its repeal.
Conservative MP Mark Field has called
for “four, full, national parliaments in
England, Scotland, Wales and Northern
Ireland with most of the existing powers
of the House of Commons and over them
a federal United Kingdom parliament,
which would debate defence and foreign
affairs, make treaties and administer a
cohesion fund for the poorer parts of the
U.K.” In his model, the House of Lords
would be abolished, and the U.K. parliament
would meet in the old House of
Lords chamber. This new U.K. parliament
would be made up of delegates
from each of the four regional parliaments,
thus avoiding increasing the
number of politicians to pay and to elect.
The official Conservative Party policy
is far from such a proposal, however.
The re a re e v en s i gns that the
Conservatives are seeking common
cause with Labour, with both signed up
to a new Scottish Constitutional
Commission proposed by the Labour
leader in Scotland, Wendy Alexander,
last December. That unprecedented
show of unity across the U.K.’s main
unionist parties suggests the stakes are
high as we approach the next U.K. election.
Only a decade after leading Labour
politicians argued that devolution was a
“settled will” and would “kill nationalism
stone dead,” that election may well be
about whether Labour can hold the U.K.