This assessment was completed in January 2014.  It was submitted for publication because I think it is interesting to consider the look of the Union at the start of the year, then to consider how much has changed since then.

Abstract

The purpose here is to demonstrate that devolution has reinvigorated democracy in Britain. Through analysing the devolution arrangements, reasons for devolution and democratic issues of each of the four individual nations of the UK I will present my view that devolution has enhanced the realisation of voters’ desires for devolution and desires for their own policies to be carried out in Scotland and Wales. My view that peace and negotiation are being realised in Northern Ireland, allowing democratic functions, will also be demonstrated, as well as my opinion that further devolution is required in Scotland and Wales and further reconciliation is needed in Northern Ireland. I will also address the problems facing the devolved nations and the issue that has arisen over England’s governance and its position within the Union.

Devolution

Devolution is the transferral of power from central government to bodies representing regional communities or, as is the case in the UK, to separate nations within the union state. This takes the form of bodies such as the Scottish Parliament, Welsh Assembly and Northern Irish Assembly, which have legislative power over issues not reserved to the UK government in Westminster, whilst England is not exclusively represented by any single body. Different issues and arrangements surround the four separate nations within it, so issues of democracy should primarily be assessed by focusing on each state separately.

1. England

Devolution has led to a debate over the governance of England. Those such as The Campaign for an English Parliament raise the issues of Scottish voters being able to vote on English policy but not vice-versa (known as the West Lothian question) and that the funding system of the UK means Scotland can spend 20 per cent more per head than England:the Barnett Formula (The Campaign for an English Parliament). Their proposed solution to these issues is an English parliament, which should hold at least equivalent powers to the Scottish parliament. However, the resulting financial costs, loss of power from Westminster, need for new MPs at a time of voter fatigue and the fuelling of new debates over independence have all been cited as obstacles by Leyland, for example (Leyland, 277;pp.277). Even those such as Bogdanor, who acknowledge the issue of England in the union, think this is not workable, and that asymmetrical devolution can be stable (Bogdanor, 2010; pp.157). It therefore seems that devolution has created a (perhaps insignificant, as support for an English parliament is low) democratic problem, acknowledged by Jowell and Oliver, as a question of England and the Union, (Jowell and Oliver; 2011;pp.235) that seemingly cannot be solved by more devolution.

2. Scotland

Scotland saw the greatest push for devolution of the four nations; the reasons for this are, as noted in most literature, most notably those of identity and of political allegiances. As McLean points out, most Scots identify as Scottish before British (McLean,2005; pp.1) and as Leyland notes the policies the majority of Scottish people support are far more interventionist, particularly in education and social affairs, than English policy (Leyland, 2012;pp.252). The latter point is reflected in the fact that the largest party in the UK, and the larger half of the governing coalition, hold just one seat in Scotland. This trend suggests that the insistence Bulpitt observed of the Conservative Party to, during the Thatcher years, prioritise the policies of central government over those of the periphery (Bullpit, 189) has led to the Scottish dissatisfaction with the Union, the support for devolution having resulted from campaigning since the 1980s, as Flinders highlights (Flinders, 2009;pp.2).

Issues such as the UK’s membership of the EU and Scotland’s voice within it, highlighted by Leyland, as furthering Scottish nationalism, still exist (Leyland, 2012;pp.248). In addition to this, the debate has shifted from the need for devolution to the need for independence, although polls suggest a ‘No’ vote is most likely in the 2014 referendum (Daily Mail, 1/12/13). Academics such as Finders had seen a referendum on Scottish independence as unlikely (Flinders, 2009;pp.3), although he was addressing whether it would happen in 2011, the case still stands that most did not foresee a referendum. This could be the result of devolution furthering Scottish conviction in their identity or of devolution not satisfying nationalist sentiment. In any case, devolution has still benefited Scotland in terms of pursuing their own policy on issues such as tuition fees and foundation hospitals, and allowed the greater autonomy the majority of Scots favour.

3.Wales

Welsh devolution has been motivated by a similar nationalist push to that seen in Scotland, although to a lesser extent. The case seems to be that, like Scotland, the periphery-centre relationship noted by Bulpitt has furthered the desire for devolution since the 1979 referendum, as has the clash of a Labour government in Cardiff and a Conservative government in Westminster. It can therefore be seen as a matter of representation in government and realisation of policy. However, the extent to which power has been dissolved has lagged behind Scotland, reflecting public attitudes to Welsh governance. Nearly 25 per cent less Welsh voted for devolution in the 1997 referendum than those in Scotland (Judge, 1999;pp.180), but support for Welsh devolution has increased since the assembly was formed (McLean, 2005;pp.1). It is possible that support for Welsh devolution has been motivated by the increasing power given to the Scottish parliament, as support for more powers – akin to those in Scotland – to the Welsh Assembly has increased despite a lack of support and praise for the current arrangement.

Despite increasing support for Welsh devolution, the current arrangement has had its critics in academic literature. Devolution has, as Flinders noted, been the result of a compromise on both sides of the debate (Flinders, 2009;pp.2) and the result is an assembly with secondary legislative powers. Leyland has stated that this has not worked out as envisaged, primarily due to tension between the assembly as a government and the assembly as a representative body (Leyland, 2012;pp.255). This can be attributed to the relative lack of power devolved to the Welsh Assembly and is, as Finders phrases it, ‘indicative of the fragmented approach to territorial politics taken by the union’[1]. He too is critical, saying most academics believe it to be unfit for purpose, and points to Jones and Scully’s finding that full legislative power has always been more popular than the current secondary powers the Assembly holds (Wyn Jones and Scully 2008: 68). It is, according to Flinders, the result of the Welsh Labour Party having too narrow a perspective on Wales’ relationship with the UK (Flinders, 2009;pp.2). Despite this, it has made a significant improvement to democracy in the UK, in terms of satisfying the calls for decentralisation. However, in order to fully satisfy the desire for Welsh devolution, more power must be devolved to the Welsh Assembly.

4. Northern Ireland

Devolving powers to the Northern Irish Assembly was born out of a very different situation to the Scottish and Welsh settlements. The debate surrounding the need for devolution has, as Flinders notes, been based on conflict management (Flinders, 2009;pp.3), and its intentions are to unite the Democratic Unionist Party, Sinn Féin and other major political parties in political cooperation. This shows that the efforts are more about facilitating the democratic process than identity and minority rights politics, which reflects Flinder’s view that traditional Catholic-Protestant divisions are the main influence on identity (Flinders, 2009;pp.3); it is not simply a question of being Northern Irish before British or vice-versa. He points to MacGinty’s finding that 80 per cent of Protestants would prefer to remain in the UK, whereas reunification with Ireland is supported by around 50 per cent of Catholics. As devolution had followed around 30 years of violence in ‘The Troubles’ preceding the Good Friday Agreement in 1997, the arrangement inherited a number of long-standing and complicated issues to tackle if it was going to benefit democracy.

In terms of creating union it seems that, as is in the consensus in most literature, the process was beset by early problems that are now gradually being overcome. As Flinders has stated, ‘There may, in that case, be a solid platform for power-sharing devolution’[2] and, as Leyland notes, power-sharing can work despite ongoing violence (Leyland, 2012;pp.259); this optimism is justified by the fact that the Northern Irish Assembly completed its first full term- i.e., without suspension- in 2011. The challenge for the future then, is, as has been pointed out by Wilson and others, to move beyond ‘consociationalism’ and to a ‘cosmopolitan’ agenda where the territory of Northern Ireland can provide a shared commitment (Wilson, cited by Flinders, 2007;pp.). Recent talks between the country’s five major parties to resolve outstanding issues around parades, flags and ‘the past’ ended without agreement, leaving the problems unsolved. However, Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams and DUP leader Peter Robinson have, along with representatives of the other parties, spoken of the need for a response to the talks, in order to grab the opportunity for a resolution (BBC, 2/1/14). Therefore, in terms of allowing a democratic and peaceful Northern Ireland to function, devolution has, although it still faces issues, benefited democracy.

Although devolution has created a democratic issue surrounding England and the purpose of the Union, these problem do not seem to be particularly pressing. When this is compared with the progress made in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, despite ongoing issues that need to be addressed, it is clear that devolution has reinvigorated democracy in the UK.

 

Sources:

BBC News (2/1/14) Haass document needs clear response says Gerry Adams

Bogdanor. V (2010) ‘The West Lothian Question’, Parliamentary Affairs 63 (1) 156-72

Bulpitt, Jim (2008). Territory and power in the United Kingdom : an interpretation. Colchester : ECPR Press

Campaign for an English Parliament:  http://www.thecep.org.uk/

The Daily Mail (1/1213) Setback for Scottish independence as poll reveals just a QUARTER of voters want to leave UK following launch of referendum campaign

Flinders, Matthew V (2009). The Oxford handbook of British politics. Oxford : Oxford University Press

Wyn Jones and Scully (2008): 68 cited by Flinders, Matthew V (2009). The Oxford handbook of British politics. Oxford : Oxford University Press

Wilson (2007) 26-8, cited by Flinders, Matthew V (2009). The Oxford handbook of British politics. Oxford : Oxford University Press

Mac Ginty (2006) 37-9, cited by Flinders, Matthew V (2009). The Oxford handbook of British politics. Oxford : Oxford University Press

Jowell, Jeffrey L and Oliver, Dawn (2011). The changing constitution. Oxford ; Oxford University Press

Judge, David (1999). Representation : theory and practice in Britain. London : Routledge

McLean, Iain (2005). State of the union. Oxford : Oxford University Press

 

[1] Flinders, Matthew V (2009). The Oxford handbook of British politics. Oxford : Oxford University Press, pp.2

[2] Flinders, Matthew V (2009). The Oxford handbook of British politics. Oxford : Oxford University Press, pp.3