This year, the United Kingdom’s devolution settlement turns twenty. To mark the occasion, we have asked academics, policy practitioners and politicians to reflect on two decades of devolution and speculate on what the coming decades might bring. What impact has devolution had in Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland? How do people understand and view the devolved institutions? How have those in regions untouched by devolution responded? And what does devolution mean for the British state and for the broader union?
The perpetual refrain, that devolution is a process rather than an event, has been true in Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland. However, this process has manifested differently in each.
In Scotland, devolution would, in the oft-quoted words of George Robertson, ‘kill nationalism stone dead’. Devolution would satisfy Scotland’s demands for self-government, cement Labour’s role as Scotland’s party, and undercut the SNP. Instead, Holyrood became the institution on which nationalist ambitions could be built, bringing Scotland in 2014 to the brink of independence and necessitating a re-evaluation of the devolution settlement, not only in Scotland, but in Wales, and long-neglected England.
The population and parties of Wales were less enthusiastic about devolution than their Scottish counterparts, voting only narrowly in favour in 1999. However, Welsh leaders were keen to bring a distinctive vision to Welsh politics, beginning with Rhodri Morgan’s intention to place ‘clear red water’ between Wales and Westminster. The devolution settlement in Wales has also been in continual flux, with extensions made in 2006, 2014, and again in 2017 to increase the powers available to the Welsh Assembly and to move towards a reserved powers model.
Devolution in Northern Ireland was arrived at by a different process than that of Scotland and Wales, with a much more complicated history and status. The current consociational executive structure came from the Good Friday Agreement of 1998 and the resulting Northern Ireland Act. However, the NI Executive has struggled to overcome the legacy of the Troubles from which it emerged, with multiple periods in which devolution was suspended and direct rule implemented. The Executive collapsed in January 2017 and has failed to reform despite lengthy negotiations led by the British and Irish governments which continue at the time of writing.
When we speak about devolution in the United Kingdom, England is notably absent. Efforts to build support for an English Parliament or regional assemblies have been unsuccessful and English Votes for English Laws, an effort to address the West Lothian Question, appears insufficient. City Deals are the current government’s answers, to allow for the devolution of powers to combined authorities and the direct election of mayors. However, the question of where England fits into the UK’s constitutional settlement remains a live one.
Devolution occurred against the backdrop of the UK’s integration within the European Union, and the original devolution legislation reflects this. The UK’s vote to leave the European Union has implications for both the devolution settlements, particularly the ways in which powers are repatriated after Brexit, and for the constitutional settlement of the United Kingdom as a whole.
Each Thursday, we will publish a blog which reflects on the past decades of devolution and examines what we might expect to see in the coming years in all parts of the United Kingdom and across a wide range of policy areas.
Dr Coree Brown Swan is a Research Fellow at the Centre on Constitutional Change where she works on sub-state nationalism, intergovernmental relations, and party approaches to Brexit and constitutional change.