In the News

Devolution differences

Mike McCartney

21st March 2022

The smacking ban in Wales is another example of the long term impact of devolution

One of my favourite quotes in American politics is the description of states as policy laboratories by Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis in the early 1930s. What he meant was that the federal system allowed states to develop new policy ideas, without the danger of the policy change having an adverse effect on the whole of the US.

This is, for me, one of the key advantages transferring power to lower levels of government. It works when considering the advantages of devolved systems of government and there is a comparative element when looking at the advantages of the post 1997 constitutional settlement in the UK, and a shift towards a system of quasi-federalism.

We have an example of Scotland ploughing its own tartan furrow recently by becoming the first country in the world to make sanitary products free. See: https://edition.cnn.com/2020/1...

This also comes on the back of another announcement from Holyrood regarding a ban on single use plastics: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-...

So, before looking at the latest policy announcement from Wales that gives us even more examples of policy divergence, let us revisit the devolution debate.

The arguments for and against devolution are well known. And the go something like this:

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.

Regarding the latest announcement from Cardiff, the BBC have said:

"Parents smacking their children will be illegal in Wales from Monday.

First Minister Mark Drakeford said it was a "historic" day for children as Wales becomes the second UK nation to ban physical punishment.

The legal defence of reasonable punishment has been removed, so anyone who smacks a child in their care could be arrested and prosecuted for assault.

Critics claim the new law was pushed through "by those who think they know better than parents".

Jersey was the first part of the British Isles to ban smacking in April 2020 before Scotland became the first UK nation to make it illegal in November 2020.

Sweden became the first country in the world to ban physical punishment of children in 1979 and it is now illegal in 63 nations around the world."

It is interesting to see how policies ripple through different parts of the UK. Just last week cyberflashing became illegal in England and Wales, over 10 years after it was outlawed north of the border.


Mike McCartney

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

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