The Dis-United Kingdom? Devolution and the British State

Ian Howarth

The former British Prime Minister Tony Blair wrote in the ‘Economist’ in 1996 that;

”The challenge facing us is that which devolutionconfronted the Victorian reformers of the last century who, almost uniquely, gave Britain democracy without revolution.  It is to take a working constitution, respect its strengths, and adapt it to modern demands for clear effective government while at the same time providing a greater democratic role for the people at large’ (cited in Richards & Smith, 2002: 235) This was the goal of Labours constitutional reforms after 1997; to modernise Britain’s highly centralised government structures and create a modern European state.  This was to be both centrally strong, while at the same time being regionally representative, giving a greater role to regional and national political aspirations under the overall structure of  the British Parliament, while also providing greater territorial security for the UK.

This approach to reforming the British State was motivated by the failure of both socialism, and neo-liberal Thatcherism.  Anthony Giddens argued that ‘Tony Blair’s election in 1997 [confirmed] the failure of socialism as an economic system of management.  Yet, rather than marking ‘the triumph of Margaret Thatcher’, it [confirmed] also the failure of Thatcherism, and neo-liberalism more generally.  Neo-liberalism was an attempt to respond to the new conditions in which we live – to the impact of globalisation and intensifying global economic competition.  It was deeply flawed, not least because of its paradoxical mix of economic libertarianism and moral traditionalism.  Thatcherism wanted to modernise the economy but ‘de-modernise’ other areas…It was the enemy of devolution, since Thatcher drained power away from local councils and other bodies to the central state.’  (Cited in Richards & Smith, 235, 236)  The failure of these approaches to the management of the British State meant that ‘When Labour was elected to power in 1997, a number of serious stresses existed in the unitary nature of the UK.  Labours response to regional demands and concern over democracy was a commitment in its 1997 manifesto to devolve greater power to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland; and to England through the establishment of new English regional assemblies.’  (Richard & Smith, 2002: 250)

Labour’s reforms to the British constitution were partly in response to the demands of Britain’s modern political culture.  ‘The new political culture [of Britain] is sceptical of large bureaucracies and opposes political clientelism.  Many citizens see local and regional government as able to meet their needs more effectively than the nation state.’  (Richard & Smith, 2002: 238)  This translated itself into an ambitious programme of devolution with the Scotland Act (1998) the Government of Wales Act (1998), and the Northern Ireland Act (1998), all passing through parliament as part of Labours first legislative programme in two decades.

It is arguable that the first line of the Scotland Act (1998) represents the most significant shake up in the constitutional arrangements of the UK since the Act of Union (1701); it simply states that ‘There shall be a Scottish Parliament.’  (Scotland Act, 1998)  The autonomy from Westminster given to Scotland in the Act is the most developed form of devolution implemented under Labour’s 1997 constitutional reform programme.  This transfer of power recognises Scotland’s unique cultural heritage and former status as an independent nation state prior to the formal negotiated union of England (including Wales) and Scotland in 1707.  Scottish devolution transferred primary legislative powers in key areas of public concern like health, education, transport, the environment, and industry, from Westminster to Edinburgh.  This was accompanied by the ability of the Scottish parliament to raise and lower taxes, causing The Glasgow Herald to satirically comment that ‘freedom son?  [Is] the right to vary income tax by 3p in the pound.’  (Budge, Crewe, McKay & Newton 2001: 158)

Welsh devolution was not as extensive as Scotland’s.  The Welsh Assembly does not have the power to pass primary legislation even in it’s the central areas of competence, (economic development, health and social services, agriculture, environment, primary, middle and higher education).  The Assembly also does not have the tax raising powers of Scotland, with all major taxation decisions still residing at the Treasury in London and in the person of the British Chancellor of the Exchequer.

However, despite this, Welsh devolution is still a significant transfer of power, even if less so than that given to Edinburgh.  The Welsh Assembly has the flexibility to allocate central government funding to meet its concerns, for instance the Department of Health is given a set budget by the Treasury for Wales, this budget is placed under the control of the Welsh Assembly, and can be distributed to meet Welsh health needs rather than the policy targets set for England, as happened in the past when England and Wales were treated as a single administrative unit.  In Wales, this has meant free NHS prescriptions.  This demonstrates that although in its legislative remit the Welsh Assembly is far more constrained than the Scottish Parliament, it can pursue distinct Welsh polices for Wales.

The Welsh Assembly has reinvigorated Welsh democracy by breaking Labours monopoly on Welsh politics; particularly in South Wales where ‘Labour-dominated councils…were often…accused of corruption and nepotism.  The Welsh Assembly is open to wider influences and more party competition.’  (Budge, Crew, McKay & Newton, 2001: 148).  The Assembly has also recognised the distinct national heritage of the Welsh people, with the arguments of the 1980’s over Welsh integration and nationalism being replaced by the acceptance of Welsh as a national language (Welsh Language Act 1993) and the acceptance of Welsh culture as a legitimate curriculum subject in primary and secondary education.  The establishment of a Welsh centre of political power in Cardiff was the logical next step in the British states attempts to come to terms with its multinational makeup, and lessen the conflicts between its powerful unitary ministries in Westminster, with the demands and needs of the peripheries of the UK.

Devolution to the English regions did not occur.  The 2004 referenda on regional assemblies in the North East, North West and the Yorkshire and the Humber all led to resounding no votes from the public.  This only went to highlight the fact that the devolution project for England is in many ways far more complicated than those of Scotland, Wales, and even Northern Ireland.  This is because in England, a distinct non-fascist, English nationalism has not found expression politically at either county or national levels. Furthermore, regional identities while strong do not have a historic political heritage.  The English are English, and as such if devolution were to occur in England this would necessitate and English political identity.  Considering the overwhelming economic and demographic dominance that such a political identity would have within the United Kingdom it would represent a considerable challenge to the concept of a British government with any English First Minister commanding the interests of the vast majority of the British population.

This is compounded by both of the major political parties of England, Conservative and Labour, being British political organisations.  The Conservative party has traditionally been considered an ‘English Party’ however, in reality its political base is amongst the landed, capital interests of the upper and middle classes nationally, ultimately standing for the constitutional status quo, and the promotion of small government and big business.  The Conservatives opposed devolution in government and initially continued to do so in opposition, fearing the break-up of the union, they only accepted Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish devolution as a fact of life prior to the 2001 general election, and continue to oppose devolution to the English Regions, on the grounds of unnecessary bureaucracy, and the destruction of local government.

The Labour and Liberal Parties represent liberal, and working class constituencies, and the peripheral interests of regions like Scotland, and the Industrial North of England, with these two parties being as much parties of protest or opposition to the central authorities of the British state, as being based on class/religious cleavages.  Labour can be considered ‘…. as much a coalition of British peripheries against the centre as a class party.’  (Budge Crewe McKay & Newton, 2001: 157).  The Labour party’s roots are in the industrial heartlands of Northern England, Southern Wales and the densely populated Lothian, Stirling and Clydeside conurbation of Scotland running between Glasgow and Edinburgh.

The Labour party is further diversified in its religious cleavages with Roman Catholicism in Northern England and Scotland finding a political voice in the late 19th century and early 20th in the party, while ‘religious revivalism, spearheaded by…. radical protestant denominations opposed to the torpor and worldliness (as they saw it) of the Anglican State Church…[With its]…voiced demands for ‘disestablishment’…. expressed itself in support for progressive Liberalism and subsequently Labour and Nationalist Parties…’  (Budge, Crewe, McKay & Newton, 2001: 143,144).

The national appeal and roots of the two central parties of English politics means that English cultural, and political distinctions have been lost or over taken by more national social, economic and demographic interests across the Union, with Labour and Conservative party voters sharing the same interests and backgrounds across the country.

English politics as a result have been reduced to regional, county or civic levels, with it more resembling hometown loyalty than a greater national political voice.  This has led to England being described as the ‘dog that didn’t bark in the night’ considering its power and importance as the central economic, political and demographic entity of the UK.  ‘Within the United Kingdom, England is dominant.  It has a population of 47 million out of a total 56 million; the greater London area alone has a population of about 10 million.’  (Budge & Newton et al, 1997: 64)  The reality of England’s potential political power is partly responsible for moves toward reforming the structures of English governance, particularly in the Labour party.

The position of Scottish MP’s is a matter of controversy amongst the British/English press.  The ‘West Lothian question’ put first by Tam Dayell, could potentially lead to greater calls for the exclusion of Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish MP’s from matters of purely English concern.  The Conservative party has proposed the idea of a Grand English Committee of English MP’s to sit on these matters in the chamber of the House of Commons, while Liberal and Labour MP’s have argued for the exclusion of non-concerned parties from votes on English and or Welsh legislation.

Opponents to this position have responded by arguing that MP’s are members of the British Parliament, and that to stratify the rights of members is to lessen the significance of the institution.  Furthermore, to exclude MP’s from Commons debates would cause the alienation of the peripheries of the Union from the affairs of the most significant and dominant political entity of the Union, with events and legislative changes in England potentially having a significant effect on the internal affairs of the other nations.  Such alienation would more likely lead to the disintegration of the UK than the continued representation of these peripheries in English matters.

It is clear that some form of solution to this problem will be required.  The rights of British MP’s to have a voice in the affairs of England is essential considering its economic, and political importance in deciding the electoral outcome of general elections.  However, it is equally clear that English legislation should be determined by English representatives, and not by individuals who have no interests in the legislative outcomes.  Potentially House of Lords Reform could be an area where this could be addressed, or the establishment of a parliamentary protocol that created an understanding that MP’s would not vote on English matters unless thy deemed them to be of national importance.  Admittedly, the later suggestion is potentially open to much interpretation, but short of federalisation or an English parliament, which is unlikely, it is the most likely solution that the pragmatic British approach to constitutional reform will produce.

The constitutional changes brought about by devolution in Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland, have made the UK a more diverse political environment.  Administrations in Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast are more representative of its people’s demands and interests.  The central pillar of the British states authority, the sovereignty of parliament, remains unchallenged by devolution, parliament still ‘possesses, at least in theory, unrivalled and unchallengeable legislative authority.  Parliament can make or unmake any law it wishes; its powers are not checked by a codified or written constitution; there are no rival UK legislatures which can challenge its authority; and its laws outrank all other forms of English and Scottish law.’  (Heywood, 1997:129)  The Westminster Parliament stands at the centre of the new constitutional framework with all the institutions of devolution being established by Acts of Parliament, and therefore subordinate to the British State.

Critics of devolution argue devolution will hasten the break-up of the UK by allowing the legitimisation of nationalist claims to political autonomy, however supporters argue that ‘devolution [was] the only solution to the territorial crisis of the UK state, in that it promises to restore legitimate government and to stem the tide of rising nationalism.’  (Heywood, 1997: 132)  The current situation in Scotland which sees a nationalist pro-independence SNP government in power and campaigning for a Yes vote to independence in this year’s referendum would seem to have proven the early critics of devolution right.  However, in truth the likelihood of a Yes vote are low and the most likely outcome of the referendum is an increase in devolved powers for Scotland but the continuation of the British state none the less.

‘The British state has changed its territorial arrangements at many points in its history without disintegrating.’  (Richards & Smith, 2002: 57)  Devolution has addressed many of the constitutional problems that have been a source of tension in British politics for centuries, and in doing so has reinvigorated the political structure, providing diversity and representation to the people of Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland, and London and maybe in time the English Regions.  It is admittedly like all British constitutional arrangements a mixed bag, with Rose’s unity without uniformity being as relevant in the modern British State as at any other time in its 300 year history.

 Bibliography:

Budge, Ian, Crew, Ivor, McKay, David, Newton, Ken (2001) ‘The New British Politics’ Longman, Harlow, Essex, Great Britain, pp.143-144, pp.148, pp.149, pp.157, pp.158

Budge, Ian & Newton, Kenneth (1997) ‘The Politics of the New Europe’ Longman, Harlow, Essex, Great Britain, pp.64

The Scotland Act (1998) Her Majesties Stationery Office; http://www.legislation.hmso.gov.uk/acts/acts1998/19980046.htm

Richards, David & Smith, Martin J. (2002) ‘Governance and Public Policy in the UK’ Oxford University Press, Oxford, pp.57, pp.235, pp.236, pp.238, pp.250

Heywood, Andrew (1997) ‘Politics’ Palgrave, Basingstoke Hampshire, Great Britain, pp.129, pp.132

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