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.


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;

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


An Unequal Union: The British State and Constitution in the 21st Century

Ian Howarth

Professor Richard Rose of the University of Strathclyde’s Centre for the Study of Public Policy argues that the ‘United Kingdom is best visualised as four separate identities, brought together by historical processes, which have maintained their Union through tradition and pragmatism.’ (cited in Reid Mackie, 1997) And that the nature of the state created as a result of the processes behind Britain’s state formation is a union without uniformity, a unitary, but multinational state.UK Flag

The United Kingdom is unique amongst modern states as almost all others have at their heart a written constitution that sets out the nature and the powers of their different institutions and the nature of the relationships between these institutions.  Within the United States the constitution establishes the exact powers of the executive, congress and judiciary.  It establishes a balance of power between these institutions and in doing so creates an institutionalised system of checks and balances between the branches of the federal, state and municipal government.  The United Kingdom does not have a written constitution and as such there is no clearly defined set of rules which govern the relationships of the different branches of the government, executive, parliament, the monarchy and the judiciary.  The British system of government does not contain within its self a system of institutionalised checks and balances as demonstrated in the American system and common in most modern liberal democracies.

This is not to say however that the United Kingdom does not have a constitution, it simply lacks a single document that legally binds its institutions in their relationships with one another.  Within the British system of government there are ‘…. numerous statutes concerning the composition and powers of particular institutions.  Thus, the powers of the monarchy are limited by the Bill of Rights of 1689 and the Act of Settlement of 1701; the powers of the House of Lords are defined by the Parliament Acts of 1911 and 1949; and the modern electoral system is regulated by the Representation of the People Acts of 1948 and 1949’ (Birch, 1998: 21) These different acts of parliament make up what is generally referred to as the unwritten constitution of Britain.  It sets out the various rights of the people, the monarchy, and the judiciary.  However, what is lacking within this constitutional framework is any legislative control over the powers of Parliament, or an overall territorial settlement that defines the powers and competences of the varying levels of government within the British state.

A central principle within the British system of government is the sovereignty of parliament, as such within the British system Parliament ‘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 constitution of the United Kingdom is contained within Acts of Parliament, which means that the constitutional documents of the United Kingdom unlike those of the United States are able to be revoked by a simple majority in the House of Commons.  In the United States such constitutional power would require two thirds of both chambers of congress and of the state legislatures.

The sovereign power of parliament resides within the House of Commons, the House of Lords since the passing of the Parliament Acts has lost the power to block or throw out government legislation and now has a role as a revising chamber.  Although the theory of the British system of government rests in the sovereign power of Parliament, in reality sovereign power lies with the majority party of the House of Commons, and in the person of the Prime Minister and the Secretaries of State.  The absolute power of the Commons means that the leader of the largest party within that chamber, the prime minister and their appointed government; are able to propose and implement any legislation that can gain a majority in the Commons.

The nature of the political party system in Britain is very centralized with a strong leadership commanding at most times the support of its members and elected representatives, as such a majority party in the commons is a guarantee of a majority vote for government legislation.  It is the reality then that sovereign power lies with the Executive, which is drawn from the Commons, but when in possession of a majority in that chamber can act without constraints from either its own backbenchers or the opposition parties.

This situation following the victories of Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s and the three landslide electoral victories of the Labour Party in 1997, 2001 and 2005 attracted accusations of a presidential style of government within Downing Street that was dismissive of parliament.  In the early years of the Blair government ministers would routinely announce new government legislation to the press before going to the chamber, which provided validity to this accusation.  However since the 2010 election and the resulting Hung Parliament, the role and power of this institution has to a great extent be reinvigorated. The rulling Conservative-Liberal Coallition must be mindful at all times of the thoughts and concerns of its backbench members if it is to be certain of passing its legislative agenda.  Rebellions have become more common, and considering the nature of Coalition politics so has their significance.

The accusations of a presidential premiership that were levied at Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair were not new and not entirely unfounded.  However the concept that Britain at times has been ruled by an elected dictatorship is a recent idea, with its origins in the 1980s.  The British prime minister is amongst the most powerful heads of government of any liberal democracy in the world.  They hold the power through the prerogatives of the crown to declare war, propose legislation, and through their party’s majority pass legislation.

The power that resides within Parliament and the executive has throughout the history of the United Kingdom led to ‘strains within the multinational UK state [which] have led to a recurrent devolution debate…. the growing gulf in the 1980’s and 1990’s between the Conservative-dominated Westminster Parliament and an increasingly Labour-dominated Scotland and Wales revived support for devolution.’ (Heywood, 1997: 132)  The position of the United Kingdom in the period described above left the peripheries of the country being governed by an unpopular and unrepresentative system.  The Conservative Party had no majority to rule in either Wales or Scotland and as such the imposition of what was seen as an English government was deeply resented and led to greater calls by nationalists for independence which throughout the 1990’s gained increasing support.

Critics of devolution argued that it would hasten the break-up of the United Kingdom by allowing the legitimatisation of nationalist claims to political autonomy.  However, the supporters argued 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) Initially this later view was borne out within the assemblies of Scotland and Wales, with Labour governments in both extending their majorities during the second batch of elections held in 2003 to the cost of nationalist parties. However, since 2005 in Scotland the SNP has seen growing electoral support to the point that during the 2011 Scottish Elections they won an outright majority following four years of minority SNP Government.  This historic electoral victory means that Scotland is now preparing for a referendum on independence in 2014.

However, despite the potential for a Yes vote in Scotland next year it is worth saying that support for independence remains at around 30% of the population and so it is unlikely to pass (UK Polling Report June 2013). This means that the United Kingdom will continue to operate at least for a short while under the current constitutional settlement.  Devolution has not altered the powerful position of the British Parliament and the Executive, the Scottish Parliament was established through an Act of Parliament, and is in theory beholden to the House of Commons for its authority. Parliament is capable of repealing an Act at any time, and could repeal any of the Acts establishing the devolved institutions, as demonstrated by the suspensions of the Northern Ireland Assembly.

In Northern Ireland the devolved assembly has been suspended twice by the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland.  This is due to the fact that the Act of Parliament establishing the Assembly at Stormont also maintained within it the power for the Secretary of State to suspend the Assembly if it became politically unsustainable due to the intransigence of its members or as in the final case the threat of the Democratic Unionist Party gaining a majority within the assembly and derailing the Good Friday peace process.  The suspension of the Northern Ireland Assembly meant a complete suspension of the entire political structure including elections and the powers of the Assembly Executive.

The powers of the British Parliament to bring the regions under direct control through the person of the Secretary of State for that region lie within the enacting legislation of the devolved assemblies, and is premised on the principle that no parliament holds the authority to bind future parliaments to its will.  Therefore Roses classic view of Britain as a centralised unitary state still holds true, to some extent.  However, a significant development within Roses thesis is the nature of how much less uniform this unitary system has become.  ‘Although the UK government insists that parliamentary sovereignty is unaffected and that devolution could be suspended at any time, the fact that the three assemblies were endorsed by referendum would make it politically very difficult for Westminster to recover its powers.’ (Heywood, Jones & Rhodes 2002: 211) This means that these institutions will probably become entrenched within the British System of government, much like the Bill of Rights and the Act of Settlement, adding to the evolving un-codified nature of the British constitution.

Roses claim that Britain is a Unitary State without Uniformity has grown starker in its meaning.  The power of the Scottish Parliament is far greater than that of the Welsh and Northern Ireland Assemblies, Scotland’s Parliament possesses tax raising powers and control over primary legislation such as Health, Education and Transport.  This is coupled with a distinct Scottish Judiciary and legal system.  Scotland has grown more independent yet within the confines of the United Kingdom, under the overall sovereignty of the Parliament at Westminster. This Parliament still holds control over Scotland’s Security, Defence, Foreign Policy and other areas of national strategic importance.

The Welsh Assembly on the other hand does not possess any tax-raising powers or control over primary legislation, leading to the criticism of some that the Welsh Assembly is nothing more than a glorified County Council. However, this is an unfair remark.  Wales does have control over environmental policy and over aspects of health and transport policy; the difference between Scottish devolution and Welsh devolution lies in the ability to pass primary legislation.  Wales is still beholden to London in its overall Health, Transport, and Education policies, but can make adjustments to these overall plans.  The Welsh Assembly is able to do this through the strategic use of its budget, shifting money from one sector of the Health system to another. An example of this can be seen in the Welsh provision of free prescriptions to all students, and the provision of NHS Dental and Optical care is more generous than within England.

This difference in the distribution of power within devolution has increased the lack of uniformity within the United Kingdom in the relationships of the peripheries with the centre. The aborted plans of the last Labour government to devolve power from London to the English regions would have furthered this pattern.  The system constructed by the constitutional reforms of the Blair government created a system of tiered autonomy within the unitary sovereignty of Parliament with the Executive at the centre.  The Scottish Parliament occupies the most extreme example of devolution, which is in its real world relationship with Westminster essentially federal.  The Welsh and Northern Ireland Assemblies occupy the second tier, with Northern Ireland at a slightly lower level than Wales but at least in theory occupying roughly the same scope of power in its region.  Finally the Greater London Assembly make up the lower tier of devolved government within the United Kingdom, with its powers focused largely on economic coordination and planning.

It is increasingly arguable that there is a fourth tier of government within the United Kingdom that exists above that of Parliament, the European Commission, Court and Parliament. These all have legislative and judicial powers within the United Kingdom that exist outside the remit of the British Parliament.  In the case of the European Court of Justice the decisions made by this body have jure-prudence over British law, and the European Court of Justice has on a number of occasions forced the British government to repeal or re-write legislation in order to bring it into line with the Courts rulings for example in the case of discrimination against homosexuals in the armed forces.  However the powers of European institutions within the United Kingdom like all other political or legal institutions are established within an Act of Parliament and as such in theory can be repealed by Parliament.

The argument that Richard Rose forwards that Britain is a unitary state yet without uniformity is in my view still borne out within the contemporary structure of the United Kingdom; the further statement that Britain is a multinational state is particularly strengthened by the creation of the Scottish parliament.  The de-facto independence of Scotland in most areas of legislation has created between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom a quasi-federal solution to the demands of the highly vocal Scottish National Party (SNP) for the complete severance of the relationship between Edinburgh and London.

The devolution settlements implemented by the Blair government further diversified and complicated the structure of the United Kingdom in a manner that has in my view disproportionably favoured the peripheral nations of Britain.  Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have all gained powerful local administrative structures that take account of their specific needs and provide their national identities with political legitimacy, whereas England was totally ignored by the process.

Devolution within England has been very limited, The Greater London Assembly is currently the only example, and was established as a remedy to ‘the lack of…. a planning authority for Greater London as a whole [which] made it difficult to make integrated decisions for the whole region.   New Labour set about to remedy this but in a novel way – by having an executive mayor elected directly by the whole area, overseen by a small council.  This ‘presidential’ system is completely different to the Assembly and council dominated systems that operate in Wales and Scotland…’ (Budge, Crewe, McKay & Newton, 2001: 169)  The powerful executive centred system operating in London was a far cry from the attempt at creating regional assemblies for England.

These assemblies would have prepared ‘…region-wide strategies to determine where developers can build new homes and businesses, and [would] decide how to hand out government grants for new social housing, giving them a crucial say in where it should be built.  They [would have funded] tourism programmes, museums and English Heritage sites, help determine how waste should be dealt with, advise the government and local quangos on transport, and have roles in promoting public health and tackling crime…’ (Parker; The Guardian: 2002)  The powers that were proposed for the English regions made them little more than beefed up County Councils.  Their focus reflected only the demands of business for wider economic planning, and development in the regions, and not the unique character and history of England and the English people, which Welsh and Scottish devolution provided.  It came as no surprise when the Coalition Government announced the abolition of the Regional Development agencies and an end to all plans for elected Regional Assemblies in 2010.

The attempt to devolve power to English regional assemblies could be viewed as an attempt by central government to fracture any attempts at the politicisation of English identity.  The current settlement that allows Scottish MP’s to vote on English and Welsh legislation, while Scottish legislation is beyond the remit of the rest of the Unions MP’s is a perversion of democratic representation. A more permanent solution to this situation will need to found, particularly if a reduced majority Labour government were to seek to govern England and Wales on the back of Scottish parliamentary votes on English and Welsh legislation, a reversal of the situation that prevailed in the 1980’s and 1990’s.  This was a situation that presented itself during the vote on Foundation Hospitals in the last Labour Parliament, but surprisingly it did not cause the national outcry you might expect, especially as a Scottish Prime Minister was forcing through legislation that would not affect his own constituents.

This so-called ‘West Lothian’ question put originally by Tam Dayell (MP 1962 – 2005) can only be remedied in my view by the establishment of a strong English Parliament with the same powers as its Scottish sister. This would mean the establishment of a federal system of government within the United Kingdom, which would provide a representative distribution of power within these islands.  The economic might of Britain lies in England, and yet the English are dispossessed of any political voice or institution that recognises its distinct national identity.  Governed by a unitary Parliament containing Welsh, Scottish and Northern Irish MP’s who have in the past and more recently been instrumental in the passing of government legislation that lacks majority support amongst English MP’s.

In conclusion therefore Roses classic model describing the relationships between the United Kingdom’s political structures is still relevant0, and if anything the effects of devolution have strengthened the validity of his view.  In the coming years the unitary British state shall be maintained, despite the introduction of new levels of autonomy within the regions and nations of Britain.  The pragmatic solutions of parliaments past present and future shall ensure the continuation of a multitude of political systems operating within the single overall doctrine of British Parliamentary sovereignty which during periods of strong majority party rule within the House of Commons will in reality mean the power of the land residing in Downing Street, as Enoch Powell once said ‘…power devolved is power retained.’ (cited in Hague & Harrop, 2001: 210)


Budge, Ian, Crewe, Ivor, McKay, David & Newton, Ken (2001) ‘The New British Politics’ (2nd Ed.) Longman, Harlow, Essex Great Britain, pp169

Birch, Anthony H. (1998) ‘The British System of Government’ Routledge, London pp21

Hague, Rod, Harrop, Martin (2001) ‘Comparative Government and Politics; An Introduction’ (5th Ed.) Palgrave, Basingstoke, Hampshire, Great Britain, pp210

Heywood, Paul, Jones, Erik & Rhodes, Martin (2002) ‘Development in West European Politics 2’ Palgrave, Basingstoke, Hampshire, Great Britain, pp211

Heywood, Andrew (1997) ‘Politics’ Palgrave, London pp132

Parker, Simon, (May 9th 2002) The Guardian ‘Government Offers Devolution for English Regions’,8150,712827,00.html

Reid Mackie, Claire (1997) ‘Perspectives on British Territorial Politics’ University of Strathclyde pp1

UK Polling Report, Scottish Independence Referendum Voting Intention

Political Cosmopolitanism and the Challenges it Faces

By Ian HowarthHuman Rights Abuse

The building blocks of the cosmopolitan international order can be found in what English school theorists such as Headley Bull and Charles Manning call the ‘four key pillars of international law, diplomacy, international organisations and the balance of power’ (Evans & Newnham 1998: 276). These four key pillars determine relations between nations, and form modern international society, and as such are the basis upon which the cosmopolitan international order stands.  The United Nations (UN), the European Union and financial institutions such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) represent common values and goals.  While the Security Council enforces the balance of power, and the implementation of international law in concert with the International Criminal Court (ICC) which upholds and prosecutes that law.

Cosmopolitanism is often mistaken as little more than a framework for moral judgements rather than as a perspective political framework for world order.  ‘Political cosmopolitanism…refers in general to any position which prescribes types of political practice and institution that operate over, above or across the boundaries of the nation-state and which are at least potentially global in their reach.’ (Hutchings 1999: 153-154)

This definition is clearly very general, and although political cosmopolitanism prescribes its framework above, the moral cosmopolitanism that most people are familiar with fleshes it out.  It is impossible to separate its moral or ethical foundations, from the political ‘frameworks’ it aims to promote as these frameworks are based on certain principles and ethical assertions that western societies have come to represent, defend and seek to export.

It is crucial to highlight political cosmopolitanisms emphasis on ‘frameworks’ in this discussion, as political cosmopolitanism does not necessarily seek to create world government.  In fact ‘most contemporary political cosmopolitans are wary of the idea of a world state formulated according to the familiar principle of state sovereignty.’ (Hutchings 1999: 154)  This is due to the potential for global tyranny within such a system.  ‘In general, contemporary work on political cosmopolitanism is premised on the importance of democratising the covert and undemocratic cosmopolitan decision-making which is already going on in the world.’ (Hutchings 1999: 154)

What political cosmopolitanism seeks to establish is a trans-national system of institutions that promote and protect what moral cosmopolitans see as fundamental human rights, such as democratic governance, freedom of speech, expression, and religion, freedom from unprovoked aggression.  It aims to do this through institutions such as the International Criminal Court (ICC) the World Health Organisation (WHO) and to some extent the United Nations (UN).

The ICC is probably the single best example of a cosmopolitan political structure as it has a global reach that rises above national sovereignty.  It seeks to enforce international standards of behaviour in war, and bring the perpetrators of genocide and tyranny to justice.  In short it aims to uphold the moral certainty’s of western and cosmopolitan thought.

The International Order that cosmopolitans strive for is therefore simply defined as a secular network of global institutions that strive to establish norms of behaviour throughout the international system, based on western concepts of human rights, and representative governance.  It aims to achieve this goal through a number of means the primary and most visible one being the globalisation of international trade.  This has brought the world closer together and made nation states more dependent not only on their own economic and political stability but also on the political and economic stability of their major trading partners, and international financial markets.  This growth in international trade and the emergence of an identifiable global economy has also led to the need for structural controls, and the creation of rules and obligations that apply to the whole of the international economy in order to ensure fair and free trade on a level playing field.   This has been partly achieved through organisations such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF) the World Bank (WB) and the World Trade Organisation (WTO).

Despite the fact that all three of these organisations are criticised by many cosmopolitan commentators as existing and operating in a moral vacuum the spread of their power and values has had a positive effect on the cosmopolitan agenda.  All three organisations work transnationally and uphold western economic ideals, which promote certain types of government, property right and individualism.  This individualism leads to an awareness of one’s self within a system creating demand and pressure for change.  These developments are seen widely by many sociologists and historians as the keystones that led to European political enlightenment and eventual democratic reform.  This therefore is what the international cosmopolitan order is, and the institutions mentioned above are the vehicles for its spread and its success.   However, this bold idea held aloft by many western intellectuals, and implemented rather cynically by bureaucrats and politicians is not without challenge.

The primary non-western ideology that gains the most media attention and creates the greatest debate is Islamic fundamentalism, and theocracy in general, but this is not the only non-cosmopolitan view of the world.   The Non-Aligned Movement that was first given voice in the ‘1955 Bandung Conference’ (Evans & Newnham 1998: 45), also has a very different view of the world.  The key principles of this movement can be summarised as a belief in the primacy of national sovereignty and consequently of non-intervention of foreign powers or international organisations in their internal affairs.  This later point when taking into account the type of government prevalent within the members of this international grouping is problematic for moral cosmopolitanism.  These governments can be generally defined as autocratic and repressive yet with diverse and rapidly growing capitalist economies.

The remaining communist nations of China, Vietnam, North Korea and Cuba also have very different opinions on the nature of the world order they wish to see prevail.  These powers are strongly opposed to international institutions that promote or aim to project what they see as uniquely western values.  Believing that the ultimate vision for the international order is a cooperative and self-sufficient society established along socialist principles.

The Non-Aligned Movement along with China argue against cosmopolitan values stating that they have equally legitimate Asian or African Values, which are promoted by state business elites within these nations; ‘turning the ‘liberal idea’ on its head, and arguing that individualism and pluralism actually negated economic success.  Asian values in Malaysia and Singapore meant liberal legislation to control the aspirations and behaviour of youth.’ (Baylis & Smith 2001: 460)  Asian Values are an explanation and justification for their systems of government and their attitudes towards western ideas of governance and human rights, couched in terms of economic benefits as a placation against the excessive aspirations of their young populations.

However many see this simply as a justification for tyranny and repression, that seeks to justify and give legitimacy to human rights violations within Asian states on the back of cultural preservation.  This is the common position of many who argue against the adoption of international norms and values with regard to human rights and the ideal of representative government.  They argue the imposition of western values on Asian or African societies is cultural imperialism, or Americanisation.  I personally believe that these arguments are disingenuous and immoral, as no one enjoys being oppressed, poor and scared, which are the brutal facts that the people who live with the realities of ‘Asian Values’ or ‘African Values’ must face in their day-to-day lives.

There is however an important distinction to be made here as regards to the nature of these non-cosmopolitan perspectives, with the Non-Aligned Movement and the Asian Values debate on one side and religious extremism on the other.  While all three represent different non-cosmopolitan perspectives on the nature of international order, the latter two are conducted within the traditional structure of international relations and diplomacy.   They do not actively seek to undermine and ultimately destroy the cosmopolitan agenda, but to maintain themselves as independent, existing outside the cosmopolitan agenda.  Their policies seek to weaken the institutions created as part of the cosmopolitan international order so as to maintain opt-out clauses to meet their specific requirements.

In short the Asian Values debate and the Non Aligned Movement recognise and operate within the international institutions established by the Bretton Woods and United Nations system, and almost all were part of the ‘Geneva consensus on free trade’ (Dunkley 2000: 17), and are members of the WTO.  With all the Non Aligned Movement states recognising the legitimate authority of the United Nations, and using these institutions to promote their interests internationally.

Religious extremism, with a particular emphasis on Islamic fundamentalism, does not operate on the bases of debate within international bodies such as the UN.  The various strands of their argument do not recognise cosmopolitan institutions and more particularly the post war balance of power.  The very aim of this perspective being to destabilise and destroy this balance and it’s supporting structures.   Whereas the previous perspectives aim to persuade and argue using the structures of international society as aides, Islamic fundamentalists preach the destruction of these institutions with the publicised aim of undermining cosmopolitan societies and doing so through terrorism and the fear and distrust it spreads.

It is a common mistake amongst the media and popular debate to portray the terrorist threat as not representing a genuine threat to the current international order.  Furthermore, the individuals behind these terrorist groups are seen as largely simplistic in their approach and possessing no overall global strategic plan for confronting cosmopolitan society.  Whereas it is true to say that the disparate bands of Islamic fundamentalism are not in intimate contact with one another through some James Bond style evil network, they are in common agreement as to their aims and methods.  They are also equally not blind to the clear vulnerabilities of our open pluralistic societies, where freedoms of speech and movement are considered sacrosanct.

September 11th (9/11) was more than just an isolated tragedy; it had a very well thought out objective.  Through the targeting of New York’s financial centre it was a strike against the capitalist bedrock of our western cosmopolitan societies.  Not only did it shake the confidence of the United States, but it also hit the confidence of all the Western Powers, and all those who believe in a cosmopolitan global order.  9/11 placed a global economy gradually climbing out of an economic downturn into a prolonged worldwide recession that hit the livelihoods of tens of thousands of people from Silicon Valley to Mumbai.

The primary goal of terrorist groups such as Al Qaeda is to establish Taliban style governments across the Middle East, and eventually the rest of the Islamic world.  With the subsequent threat to oil supply’s this would present this represents a distinct threat to international security, and the security of key nations within the international order, such as Pakistan and Turkey.

The cause of Islamic extremists is one that is utterly opposed to that of cosmopolitans; the two agendas are bipolar opposites that can only clash, as has been argued by realist academics such as Samuel Huntingdon and Benjamin Barber.  Huntingdon’s The Clash of Civilisations is in my opinion very much what we are seeing unravelling in the world today, a plural cosmopolitan international order cannot be achieved as long as fundamentalist ideology’s such as that of Al’Queda, Hezbollah, the Taliban and Wahhabism Islam still hold sway in the popular politics of a significant proportion of the populations of Muslim countries.

Osama Bin Laden was hailed as a hero from the West Bank to Jakarta by fundamentalist groups who stir up support amongst the young disaffected and oppressed populations of Islamic countries.  These are the very people that could potentially gain the most from the establishment of an international cosmopolitan political order with its moral and ethical implications for the tyranny’s that oppress them.

Benjamin Barbers Jihad vs. McWorld seeks to highlight the ‘deep crisis of modernization [that] exists in many Muslim countries.  Poor living conditions and few opportunities for improvement have created a young frustrated urban population.’ (Baylis & Smith 2001: 464)  A young population that can see the fruits of western capitalism flaunted in the media and enjoyed by their political elites, yet denied to them by crushing corruption and stagnant economies.  This lack of political and economic reform has led to a democratic deficit in the Arab world that drives these young populations into nationalism fundamentalism, and a hatred for the perceived evils of a corrupt international western regime that is weighted against them.

The answer therefore to the question of whether non-western views undermine the building of a cosmopolitan international order is dependent on the nature of the non-western perspective in question.   As I have previously argued the cultural protectionist arguments of the non-aligned movement and the religious fundamentalists is a smoke screen for unrestrained oppression and violence towards civilian populations.  However in the case of the Non-Aligned Movement it does not threaten the construction of an international cosmopolitan order.  On the contrary taking into account their economic integration with the rest of the international system in the long run it will strengthen calls for democratic and plural societies within these countries.

However with regard to the Middle East and the Islamic world, the democratic deficit a term coined by a recent United Nations Report on the state of political institutions and representation in the Middle East conducted by Arab academics, is resulting in the spread of a misplaced doctrine of hate towards Western Society and cosmopolitanism.   This must be confronted through the active promotion of political and economic reforms within these states, only then can a peaceful cosmopolitan international order be established.

If anything can stop the development of a cosmopolitan international order it is in my opinion the uncontained spread of religious fundamentalism which is spreading instability and violence not only within the Middle East and the wider Muslim world but also within Muslim communities throughout the western world. American and European Muslim communities are having a wedge driven between themselves and the wider cosmopolitan societies they live in.   This is creating a source of tension within previously tolerant societies. The recent brutal terrorist killing of Drummer Lee Rigby, a serving British soldier on the streets of his home town and the reactions of right wing political elements in the UK demonstrate this point vividly.  Events such as this are aimed at causing a breakdown in tolerance and mutual respect between different communities within multi-cultural societies.  They constitute a major threat to a way of life that we have come to consider civilised and in my opinion stand as the greatest force against the spread of cosmopolitan values in the world today.


Baylis, John & Smith, Steve (2001) ‘The Globalization of World Politics: An introduction to international relations’ 2nd Edition, Oxford University Press, Oxford p460, p461-467

Booth, Ken and Smith, Steve (1995) ‘International Relations Theory Today’ Polity Press, Cambridge p110-118

Dunkley, Graham (2000) ‘The Free Trade Adventure: The WTO, the Uruguay Round and Globalism – A Critique’ Zed Books, London p17

Evans, Graham and Newnham, Jeffrey (1998) ‘The Penguin Dictionary of International Relations’ Penguin Books, London p45 & p276

Hutchings, Kimberly, (1999) ‘International Political Theory’ Sage Publications, London p153-154

Ledeen, Michael (2003) ‘The end of the beginning’, The Spectator, 12th April 2003, p14-15

Weaver, Marry Anne (2003) ‘Qatar’s Move Toward Democracy’, National Geographic, March 2003, p89- 105