IN SEPTEMBER 2014 the future of the Union was apparently settled. Scotland had voted no to independence by 55% to 45%, there was cross-party support at Westminster for further devolution to all regions and Alex Salmond had just resigned as leader of the Scottish National Party. For those supporting the Better Together campaign the future looked secure.
Fast forward a year and the picture is not quite as rosy for Unionists. The Scottish National Party has gone from strength to strength, winning 56 out of 59 MPs at the 2015 General Election and support for independence remains high. While the chances of Wales seceding are practically non-existent, there remains some disgruntlement over the extent of the devolved powers and another Wales Bill is expected next year. As for Northern Ireland, the National Assembly is currently deadlocked and the leader of the Labour Party is that other sort of unionist – one who believes Northern Ireland should not be a part of the UK. So it seems like an opportune time to reflect upon devolution in the UK, and why it’s not working.
Devolution was introduced early under Tony Blair’s premiership for a variety of reasons, but a key factor was to quieten those agitating for Scottish independence and increase democratic accountability. The Minister for Wales had not represented a Welsh constituency in Parliament for 11 years prior to devolution, for example. Referendums were held in each region on whether a national assembly should be established, and in Scotland and Northern Ireland the population was firmly in favour, voting yes by 74% and 71% respectively. In Wales the yes vote snatched victory with 50.3% of the vote.
With this democratic mandate, regional governments were created. Yet this was done in a rather odd way. Scotland got a full Parliament with a significant amount of devolved powers. Wales got a National Assembly with very little power to begin with, and although later expanded in 2006 these powers remain less than those devolved to Scotland. The Northern Ireland Assembly was given some significant powers, with the proposal to devolve more as time went on, but has spent significant amounts of time suspended. While a London Assembly was introduced in 1998, a 2004 referendum held in North East England rejected the idea of a regional assembly by 78% to 22% – halting English devolution in its tracks.
Nearly two decades later this arrangement is clearly unsatisfactory. While it has to a large extent succeeded in one of its primary aims – to increase democratic accountability – this has been haphazard and uneven. Northern Ireland may justify a different approach, but many in Wales could feel justified in asking why Scotland is trusted with more extensive devolution. The argument that Scotland required more devolution to head of independence holds little water, as it has clearly failed so far.
There are two further problems with devolution currently. Firstly, there is the West Lothian question. This is the issue where particularly Scottish, but sometimes Welsh and Northern Irish, MPs can vote on issues affecting only England. English MPs do not have this same right, as the matters are devolved to the relevant national assembly. A recent attempt to introduce an English votes for English laws (EVEL) bill failed, although something similar is required. Secondly its impact on British national identity was underestimated, as admitted by Tony Blair in recent weeks. In the 2011 census 62% of residents in Scotland identified themselves as ‘Scottish only’, while on 18% identified as ‘Scottish and British’. This perhaps shows one of the greatest threats to the Union – a lack of ‘Britishness’.
The evolutionary nature of British government is one of its greatest strengths, but a better solution for devolution is needed. The size of England (84% of the UK’s population) prevents a fully federal solution, but a proper constitutional settlement is needed that clearly sets out the responsibilities of local, regional and national government in a coherent and accountable way. I believe that three actions are required for the future of the Union. One, the power of the devolved assemblies must be clearly stated and as equal as possible. Two, the West Lothian question must be answered to ensure equal treatment for England. Three, government at Westminster must become more representative of the UK as a whole. Not easy tasks, particularly with the size of England, but not impossible tasks either.
Devolution in the United Kingdom is not fit for purpose, but there is an excellent opportunity to fix that in the coming years.