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A slippery slope?

Mike McCartney

9th May 2022

Latest announcement from the First Minister of Scotland raises an age old question

An assessment of the pros and cons of devolution are wroth rehashing

Yet again, let us consider the pros and cons of devolution in action in the UK.

What has been the positive impact of devolution?

  • Democracy has been enhanced within the UK since government is much more region sensitive:, e.g. the congestion charge in London
  • On a separate but related note, the new legislatures act as policy laboratories - e.g. the Scottish first smoking ban
  • The electorates within the devolved regions accept devolution and express the view that it is the preferred system of government.
  • Despite increases in support for the nationalists in Scotland support for independence has never been a sustained majority
  • Within England the vast majority want Scotland and Wales to remain in the Union, thus there has been no English ‘backlash’.
  • The use of proportional electoral systems in the new assemblies has resulted in UK politics becoming much more pluralistic.
  • Devolution has boosted the representation of women in comparison with Westminster.

What has been the negative impact of devolution?

  • Devolution is an expensive luxury in terms of the costs of setting up and running the devolved bodies:
  • The raft of different policy measures that have emanated from the devolved assemblies in Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland have been made possible simply as the result of the unequal distribution of public funds within the UK as allocated by the complex Barnett formula
  • Far from reinvigorating democracy, voters appear to be ‘underwhelmed’ (Curtice) by devolution.
  • Questions still remain about whether devolution will lead to the break up of Britain.
  • Participation in elections to the new arenas has been a disappointment.
  • There is tension and confusion regarding the roles of the elected representatives for different tiers of government
  • That Labour’s devolution plans did not appear to be fully thought through has become evident.
  • Devolution has not resulted, as proponents had hoped, in a new form of politics, free from the tales of corruption which are so often associated with Westminster life.

But an argument that was brought to the surface by the parliamentarian Tam Dalyell in the 1970s during the grand devolution debates in that decade has resurfaced after the last set of polls. Dalyell, was a Labour MP, a confirmed unionist, and opposed devolution, largely but not exclusively because he believed it would lead to the disintegration of the UK as legal and entity. He was wrong in the sense that during Holyrood's lifetime, support for Scottish independence north of the border has rarely been above 50%. Though, on the other had, it has led to the SNP being in power and triggering the first referendum on the issue. So Nicola Sturgeon has been reported in today's Scotsman newspaper as saying: "Her Government will soon start refreshing the “very positive case” for Scottish independence, as she insisted recent election results showed there was a “growing sense that the UK in its current state is not serving the needs of Scotland. Wales, or Northern Ireland”.

Growing up in Edinburgh and thinking about this a lot, I never thought I'd see independence in my lifetime. Not even remotely. But if the current incumbent of Bute House plays a blinder, it could happen.

Mike McCartney

Mike is an experienced A-Level Politics teacher, author and examiner.

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