In any political system with federal or devolved government, there is one government making some decisions for the whole country (the state), and ‘sub-state’ governments each making decisions for the individual territories.
Symmetrical devolution or federalism occurs when all sub-state governments have the same structures and powers. In contrast, asymmetric devolution or federalism means that sub-state governments have different structures or powers. For example, in Spain, the sub-state governments (known as autonomous communities) of the Basque Country and Navarre have more tax powers than the other regions. Italy has five ‘special status’ regions that have historically had more powers than the 15 ‘ordinary’ regions. In Canada, Quebec is the only province to run its own pension plan.
A more radical form of asymmetrical devolution arises where devolved governments only exist in some parts of the state. This may be because these territories have historic identities, represent national minorities or are islands. For example, in Finland, the Swedish-speaking Åland Islands have their own government, with the power to make decisions over matters such as health and education. In the United Kingdom, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have their own governments and legislatures, but England does not, and so all policy decisions for England are made by the UK government.
Under the Spanish constitution of 1978, any region can establish an ‘autonomous community’. It was expected that not all regions would want to take up this offer. In the event, no region wanted to be left behind and autonomous communities sprung up across the whole country, although some proceeded faster than others. This has not happened in the UK, where there is little demand either for an English parliament or for devolution to the English regions. Nor do most people in England resent devolution to the other nations.
A recurrent complaint in the UK has focused on the West Lothian Question. This is the objection that Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish MPs in the UK Parliament can vote on matters like education and health in England, while neither they nor English MPs can vote on the same issues in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. It was to address this complaint that English MPs have been given the right to approve laws that affect only England. The provision is known as English Votes for English Laws (EVEL).
This, curiously, has never been an issue in Spain. Indeed, the votes of Basque Nationalist Party MPs have often been decisive in Spanish budget decisions, even though the Basque Country has its own tax regime. The explanation is largely political. Spanish governments of both main parties have done deals with the Basque nationalists so that neither can criticise the other.
Some observers have long criticized asymmetrical government on the ground that it gives special privileges to some regions and undermines the equal rights of all citizens. On the other hand, it can also be seen as an effective way to recognize national diversity and the fact that different places sometimes want different forms of government.