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Devolution differences: success or failure? A note on a major post 1997 constitutional reform in the UK

Mike McCartney

30th September 2020

A visit to my home nation of Scotland this summer yet again highlighted how the two countries of Scotland and England are becoming ever more different.

We have had more long standing differences, such as the minimum price for alcohol, and on a related note, the fact that Scottish licensing laws on alcohol mean you can’t legally buy the stuff in shops between 10pm and 10am.

But covid has also brought into sharp relief, how different parts of the country are going it in their own way. Not least the fact that I would have been able to visit my mum had she lived in England, as a result of policy differences between the two nations.

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.

But when we return to the covid dimension, there have been stories in the news (press and TV) about how the different approaches taken by the four governments of the UK (i.e. the ‘UK government’ covering England, the devolved administrations in Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland - so excluding here the London Mayor and assembly) are heaping confusion on the public with different measures to control the virus.

But a piece on the Herald (a Scottish publication based in Glasgow) contains this piece recently.

Opinion: Rebecca McQuillan: If Covid has taught Britain one thing, it’s how devolution works

“After 20 years of devolution, different messaging from the devolved administrations is something that the people of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are used to.

The ban on smoking in public places came in here first, the drink-drive limit was lowered in Scotland before the rest of the UK and Scotland brought in a law on the minimum unit pricing of alcohol before other nations of the UK, to name but three examples. Those measures were evidence of devolution in action; so are the current lockdown restrictions. There’s little sign that Scots are struggling to accept the differences.”

And with direct reference to covid (see the full article for more argument):

“The former health secretary Jeremy Hunt raised concerns in an interview with Emily Maitlis about the divergent messages given to the public by the devolved administrations and the Government in London.

Should the devolved nations not go their own way then? asked Maitlis.

“They have the legal right to go their own way but I don’t think it’s helpful for people on the basis of the same evidence to be coming up with different decisions, because I think it just confuses the public,” said Hunt.”

The article goes on to say:

“With Covid restrictions, where Scotland and Northern Ireland have led, the UK Government is likely to follow. The Chief Medical Officer for England, Professor Chris Whitty, is said to agree with his Scottish counterpart Gregor Smith that banning household visits is necessary. Indeed, England might already have taken this step had Boris Johnson not faced opposition on his own backbenches.”

I suppose time will tell?

And notice that Germany, where there is a federal system (with different approaches, therefore, in its own landers), there has been widespread praise for its success in tackling the virus. And in fact there is even an argument in that country that the response has not been even more specifically targeted, supporting the argument that government should in fact be driven down to the lowest possible level (a policy long-supported by the UK Greens, for example).

Questions for discussion

Explain what is meant by devolution

Outline the different powers of the various devolved arenas in the UK

Does the response to the covid pandemic by governments in the UK support or weaken the case for further devolution throughout the regions?

Mike McCartney

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

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