Devolution in the UK: A Look at Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland

Published: Posted on


There is a demand for greater devolution – if not outright independence – in Scotland: a result of history and a distinctive sense of identity (Pixabay/ DesignFife/ CCO)

Previous blogs in this devolution series have considered the political and economic benefits of devolving decision-making power and looked at the situation in England, with the new combined authorities and the office of the Mayor of London. The countries of the Celtic fringe of the UK – namely Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland – also have their own governance arrangements distinct to the political structures in England. However, in most cases, power ultimately continues to be held by central government in Westminster. This is being vividly displayed by the ongoing struggle between the Scottish Government and UK Government over the terms of Brexit.

Devolved government – Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland

To begin, it is important to note that as a result of the Barnett Formula, the devolved nations receive more public funding per capita than England does. Using the Treasury’s formula, public spending per capita in England is 97% of the UK average; in Wales it is 111%, Scotland is 116% and Northern Ireland 125%. Having greater resources to hand is clearly beneficial to the devolved governments, which already marks them apart from the combined authorities in England.

Upon the establishment of the Welsh Assembly in 1999, it had powers only to pass secondary legislation in a few devolved areas. It took until 2011 for the Assembly to gain limited primary legislative powers in devolved areas such as housing, planning and education. In 2014 the Assembly was legally renamed the “Welsh Government”. From this experience we see that devolution is a journey; through demonstrating competence and capacity, Cardiff has been able to slowly increase the number of policy levers at its disposal over time. The Welsh Government now has powers in a range of areas, from agriculture and education to housing and health. This final area is a cause of political argument; the Conservative Party argues that the Labour government in Cardiff is less effective at managing the Welsh NHS than London is at running the English health service. While on some metrics this may be the case, such as increases in A&E and ambulance waiting times, in other areas (for example cancer treatment referrals or delays in discharging people from the hospital) the Welsh system appears to be performing better.

The case of Scotland is different, owing to its history as an independent kingdom prior to integration into the UK in 1707. Scotland’s legal and education systems remained distinct, as did other aspects of its society, such as the Church of Scotland. Devolution in the Scottish case, therefore, builds upon this history, which also explains the more widespread public appetite for devolved (or possibly even independent) government for Scotland. Since 1999 there has once again been a parliament at Holyrood in Edinburgh, and over time it too has grown in resources and power. The Scottish Government now has competency over parts of the social security system, income tax and health system. There is even a network of Scottish government offices overseas that serve many of the functions of embassies, such as encouraging trade and research partnerships as well as promoting the nation’s culture.

The Giant’s Causeway in Northern Ireland comprises over 40,000 interlocking basalt columns formed by ancient volcanic activity and is a major tourist attraction in the province (Pixabay/ Ben_Kerckx/ CCO)

Perhaps most unusual is the state of devolution in Northern Ireland. The rump of Britain’s colony on the island, arrangements there have to accommodate the partisan nature of politics that are strongly divided along ethnic and religious grounds. The 1998 Good Friday Agreement established the Northern Ireland Assembly in Belfast that has full legislative powers over health, education and housing as well as further competencies that Scotland and Wales do not have, such as pensions and childcare. Spending and decision-making are also far more concentrated at the regional level than local authority level; Northern Ireland councils are responsible for 4% of public spending, compared with 27% in Scotland and Wales. The Northern Ireland Executive has an 88% share of public expenditure, more than double that of the Scottish or Welsh Government. However, the province has been without a government for over two and a half years after the power-sharing deal in Stormont collapsed. This was caused after the Irish republican party Sinn Féin resigned from government after a spending scandal by Arlene Foster of the Democratic Unionist Party. The ability of the UK government to effectively mediate between the two parties has been compromised by the coalition of the Conservatives and DUP at Westminster.

Leaving the European Union – and breaking up the British Union?

The governance of Northern Ireland is uniquely exposed to Brexit owing to the risk of a hard border disrupting the trade on which it relies, which passes through the Republic of Ireland. There is also the large Catholic minority that is oriented towards the Republic, as well as the legacy of the Troubles that could be brought to the fore in the case of a no-deal Brexit. The fact that both Scotland and Northern Ireland voted to remain in the European Union also introduces new tensions into the British union of nations. We can reasonably expect a lot of turbulence to shake the British constitution once Brexit actually happens, but the impact on the devolved administrations receives rather less attention than it should.

The First Minister of Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon, has already called for another Scottish independence referendum to be held in 2021. Her argument for doing so is that the terms on which Scotland voted to remain in the UK – namely, being part of the European Union – have been dramatically changed, and therefore the vote should be re-run. The prospect of a “border poll” in Northern Ireland to determine whether the population of the province would like to remain in the UK after Brexit or unify with the Republic of Ireland is also now regularly raised. While calls for independence have up until this point been quieter from Wales, a YouGov poll in August 2019 should wake Westminster up to the fact this may now be changing. Plaid Cymru, the Welsh nationalist party, is put on 24% versus 23% for Labour. This is the first time that the party has topped an opinion poll in Wales, and maybe in part due to its pro-EU stance. It would appear that stormy times lie ahead for the United Kingdom that will require skilled statesmanship, democratic values and a commitment to improving the living conditions of people across the country. The current signs from the new government in this regard are far from positive.

This blog was written by Liam O’Farrell, Researcher at the University of Iceland and Research Associate of City-REDI, University of Birmingham.

The opinions presented here belong to the author rather than the University of Birmingham.

To sign up for our blog mailing list, please click here.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *