On this page you will find discussion and analysis of devolution. The content here is specifically designed for A level politics and early undergraduate level students looking to deepen their understanding of the topic. At A level specifically, the component 2 topics on the ‘constitution’ and the ‘relations between the branches’ both cover devolution. This page will help students answer essay questions on the topic.
Click on any of the questions below to be taken to the answer.
What is devolution and how did it come about?
Devolution refers to the transfer of certain powers from the central UK government to nations and regions within the United Kingdom. It can involve the establishment of legislative assemblies or parliaments and governments or executives within these sub-state territories.
The existing process of devolution began in the late 1990s. The incoming Labour government promised referendums on devolution to Scotland and Wales as part of its 1997 election manifesto. In Northern Ireland, the establishment of a ‘power-sharing’ government was agreed as part of the Good Friday/‘Belfast’ Agreement – the peace agreement brokered between the nationalist and unionist communities to end the longstanding conflict known as ‘the Troubles’. Devolution to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland was confirmed in all three cases by referendum (although only by a very small majority in Wales). The devolved institutions were established by the Scotland Act 1998, the Government of Wales Act 1998 and the Northern Ireland Act 1998 (all three of which have been changed in various ways since). A more limited form of devolution was introduced shortly after for London, also after approval via a referendum in 1998.
Devolution was not an entirely new phenomenon: a devolved parliament and government had been set up for Northern Ireland by the Government of Ireland Act 1920. However, these arrangements were suspended in 1972. This aside, before devolution in 1998, England, Scotland and Wales had for a long time been run by a central UK government, based in London. During this time, the UK possessed many of the features of a ‘unitary state’ – where a territory is governed from the centre by a single government and Parliament. This changed with devolution.
It is worth also noting that the devolution of the late 1990s gave Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland, and London different institutional arrangements and powers. This variety is why devolution in the UK is often called ‘asymmetrical’ – it is not the same for all nations and regions. In England devolution remains very limited. Aside from London there are ten English cities and regions to which some additional powers have been devolved, most of which also have a directly-elected mayor.
Why is devolution a constitutional issue?
The constitution refers to the institutions, rules and principles which structure and define the political system. Devolution is a key feature of the UK constitution: it has meant the establishment of new political, legislative and governmental institutions. Through this it has changed the location of power and decision-making in various ways. Some have also argued that devolution has challenged and stretched some of the principles which have been held to lie at the heart of the UK constitution.
The principle of parliamentary ‘sovereignty’ has been conventionally understood as central to the UK constitution. This means that the Westminster Parliament is supreme and anything it passes becomes law. On this basis, the UK has traditionally been classified as a ‘unitary state’, because the ultimate decision-making power is located in one central institution. This is in contrast to federal or confederal systems where the state is divided into different territorial units with their own autonomy and protected decision-making powers, which are usually set out in a written constitution. In a federal system, sovereignty is usually thought of as shared between the territories and the centre.
Some say that devolution has moved the UK away from being a unitary state towards a system that more resembles the federalism of, for instance, the United States or Germany; in effect, a quasi-federalism has appeared to replace the unitary system. However, it is only ‘quasi’ because it has some but not all of the features of a fully federal state. As we’ve seen, federalism is where power is decentralised to smaller units across the country and where sovereignty is shared between them and the central authority. In Germany, for example, the central political institutions share power with 16 states. Many key decisions that affect the lives of ordinary Germans are made by these federal states and not the central government.
Some believe devolution has also challenged the notion of parliamentary sovereignty. There are a range of different areas, such as education, transport and housing, which are now the responsibility of the devolved bodies. For example, during the Covid-19 pandemic it became clear that the many of the rules enacted by central government did not apply in Scotland. This divergence came about because health is one of those areas that is devolved to the Scottish Parliament. There is an agreement that the UK Parliament would not normally pass legislation in areas which are devolved without the consent of the devolved parliaments. This is known as the ‘Sewell convention’. Furthermore, although the Westminster Parliament still technically retains the power to abolish the devolved governments and legislatures should it vote to do so, many have observed that it is highly unlikely to use this power, meaning the devolved institutions are in practice permanent features of the UK constitution. Some have said that, on this basis, sovereignty is in fact now spread throughout the United Kingdom and no longer resides solely in the Westminster Parliament. However, the UK Parliament has increasingly in recent years passed laws that relate to devolved areas without the consent of the devolved legislatures. Some have suggested that the present central government is keen to assert the sovereignty of the UK Parliament and govern in a manner more typical of a unitary state.
How are these bodies elected?
The devolved bodies are elected using electoral systems that differ to the First-Past-the-Post electoral system used for elections to the UK Parliament. This was a significant development, since there is a longstanding debate about whether the disproportionate system used for elections to the House of Commons is an appropriate one. Labour was committed at the 1997 General Election to holding a referendum on introducing a proportional system for UK parliamentary elections but it never held this referendum. However, it did introduce new electoral systems as part of devolution.
What powers do the devolved bodies have?
Since the introduction of devolution, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland have over time been given increased powers. When it was first established, the National Assembly for Wales (as it was then known) had no primary law-making powers. But its powers have been enhanced over the years to include the ability to pass primary legislation without consulting the Secretary of State for Wales. The Wales Act 2017 moved the Assembly (renamed in 2020 Senedd Cymru) to a similar model to that of the Scottish Parliament. The Scotland Act 1998 was also amended in 2012 and 2016 to give the Scottish Parliament more legislative powers. The different laws establishing devolution for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland set out which powers remain ‘reserved’ to the UK Parliament. This is sometimes referred to as the ‘reserved powers’ model. Reserved policy areas include defence, immigration and international relations, among several others. The reserved powers model is seen as more decentralising in its effect than its opposite, the ‘conferred’ powers model, which originally applied to Wales. Under reserved powers, the default position is that a given power, if not expressly reserved, is devolved. Under the ‘conferred’ powers model, the assumption is reversed: unless expressly devolved, a power remains at the centre.
The devolved systems have become more secure over time. The Conservatives were initially opposed to devolution in Wales and Scotland (though they supported the Northern Ireland peace process). Eventually they became more positive about it, although there are still some who criticise devolution and would like to see more central government involvement in devolved areas.
What are the challenges that come from devolution?
Devolution may have become a firm part of the UK constitution, but it comes with its own set of challenges and areas of contention. This is partly down to the piecemeal way in which devolution has been implemented. Four principal challenges that are associated with devolution are:
- The West Lothian question
- Uneven/asymmetrical devolution
- The power of the UK Parliament over the devolved bodies
- Calls for independence from the United Kingdom
What is the West Lothian Question?
The West Lothian question was named after Tam Dalyell, the former MP for West Lothian, who famously first raised the question in a debate on devolution to Scotland and Wales in 1977. As we’ve seen, since the various devolution acts of the late 1990s, large areas of policy such as health, housing, schools and policing are now devolved to devolved legislatures. This has led to situations in which Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish MPs get to debate and vote on legislation only affecting England in the Westminster Parliament, but English MPs have no equivalent say over the same matters in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
Tam Dalyell asked: ‘For how long will English constituencies and English Honourable members tolerate… At least 119 Honourable Members from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland exercising an important and probably often decisive, effect on English politics while they themselves have no say in the same matters in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland?’ At face value, this seems undemocratic.
Furthermore, there have been times when it has become a problem in practice. In 2003, for example, Tony Blair decided to introduce student tuition fees to English and Welsh universities for the first time. This controversial decision led to a showdown with his unhappy backbenchers. Blair was facing his first major defeat in the House of Commons. To push tuition fees through he had to rely on Scottish Labour MPs to meet the shortfall. The controversial use of Scottish MPs to vote through a law that would only impact upon non-Scottish students was even more of a problem because the official policy of the Labour Party in Scotland, where at the time they were in government, was to keep university education for Scottish students free.
In 2015, the Conservative government introduced ‘English Votes for English Laws’ (EVEL) to address the West Lothian question. This change to the House of Commons procedures meant that English MPs would have to approve England (or England and Wales)-only legislation before it could be voted on by MPs from the other territories of the UK as well. However, some criticised EVEL for differentiating between MPs based on where their constituencies were, in effect creating two levels of representative in the House of Commons. Others criticised EVEL for being insufficient and not providing for a proper forum for debating specifically English issues. The procedures were suspended during the coronavirus pandemic and then scrapped altogether in July 2021.
The Parliament website also has a great explainer on English Votes for English Laws (EVEL).
What is uneven or asymmetrical devolution?
Another concern has been the inconsistency of devolution. For instance, at the outset of devolution in 1999, the powers devolved to Scotland were significantly more extensive than those devolved to Wales. This gap has narrowed subsequently. The gap is most pronounced when considering the difference between the devolved systems in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, and the position in England. Where devolution exists, it is less extensive in England, and parts of England have no devolution at all. Some voices within England have called for an extension of powers: Greater Manchester’s mayor, Andy Burnham, for example, has called for more powers, including the ability to bring under his control Greater Manchester’s transport system.
Most devolution in England has been to a handful of cities, which have received some additional powers in exchange for adopting a directly elected mayor. Some argue, however, that devolution should be consistently applied across England. They propose that England should be divided into regions, each with its own regional assembly with more extensive devolved powers. This proposal is sometimes opposed on the grounds that there is an insufficient sense of regional identity to support political assemblies at the regional level in England.
Given this, some argue instead that England should have its own devolved Parliament, of a similar kind to the legislatures in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Proponents of an English Parliament believe that if Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have their own parliaments then it is only fair that England does too. This would provide a forum for English representation and the development of a specific English political ‘voice’. However, opponents of an English Parliament object that England’s population size, geography and relative economic prosperity would lead to an imbalanced union dominated by England and its Parliament. Furthermore, it is argued that devolution to England would not secure any of the benefits of a more local form of devolution, as England would be such a large territorial unit. This debate, which has been ongoing for decades, is likely to continue.
Further reading: Alex Walker, ‘English local government and devolution: inconsistent and incomplete’
What power does the UK Parliament have over the devolved bodies?
One final issue is the ability of central institutions to make decisions that override devolved bodies. According to the doctrine of parliamentary sovereignty parliament can, theoretically, override devolved laws, legislate in policy areas that are devolved, and indeed take powers back. As mentioned above, the Sewel Convention established that the UK parliament would ‘not normally’ legislate in areas that are devolved without the agreement of the devolved legislatures. This rule has been included in Acts of Parliament for Scotland and Wales and Scotland in 2016 and 2017. Recently though, the UK Parliament has been increasingly passing laws without the consent of the devolved legislatures. The controversial UK Internal Market Act 2020, for example, was rejected by all of the devolved legislatures but was enacted by the UK Parliament anyway. This has led some to conclude that the Sewel Convention is no longer viable.
The Scotland and Wales Acts also state that the UK Parliament cannot abolish the devolved institutions without first obtaining approval in the territories involved via a referendum. This stipulation reflects the fact that the introduction of devolution followed approval in referendums. Nevertheless, under the doctrine of parliamentary sovereignty, these provisions could in theory be repealed or replaced. This gives UK devolution a weaker basis than, for instance, the territorial systems of Germany or the United States, where federal and state powers are defined and secured by constitutional law that cannot so easily be overridden.
Further reading: Gordon Anthony, Devolution, Brexit and the Sewel Convention
Could parts of the UK become independent?
Perhaps one of the most pressing issues facing the United Kingdom is the cause of Scottish independence. In 2011, David Cameron, in the wake of the SNP winning an absolute majority in Scottish Parliament elections, agreed to an independence referendum for Scotland. In 2014, the pro-Union ‘better together’ side won the vote by 55-45 per cent. The result was closer than might have been anticipated when Cameron first agreed to the referendum; and in the late stages of the campaign there were some signs that the pro-independence side might even win. Calls for independence have not gone away. Polling from 2016 suggests that dislike of Brexit has given impetus to the cause. At the 2021 Holyrood election, the SNP won the most seats. It was one seat short of its own majority in the Scottish Parliament, but has since come to an agreement with the Scottish Green Party who are also in favour of independence. This has kept demands for another independence vote on the agenda. However, to legally secede from the Union would arguably require legislation at the UK level. At the time of writing, Prime Minister Boris Johnson has refused to facilitate a second referendum on Scottish independence. This highlights that there is no agreed mechanism within the UK constitution through which a territory might leave the Union. Even in the case of Northern Ireland, where the right to leave the UK is provided for in the Belfast/‘Good Friday’ agreement, there is some uncertainty as to the point at which a referendum on unification might be held. Some have criticised this lack of clarity as unhelpful.
Click here for a PowerPoint on devolution that condenses the information above. The PowerPoint is primarily designed for teachers covering the topic.
Further reading: Ciaran Martin, ‘The UK government and a second Scottish independence referendum: an unsustainable paradox?’