British Politics

Palgrave Foundations Series, second edition

by Robert Leach, Bill Coxall and Lynton Robins

Chapter 16 notes - Devolution: A Disunited Kingdom?

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  • To many Britons in the nineteenth century, nationalism was a doctrine to be applied in other countries, as it was widely assumed that there was a British nation, and Britain was therefore a nation state.
  • Yet British nationalism confronted Irish nationalism in Ireland, and never fully replaced older Welsh, Scottish and English identities and allegiances.
  • Independence for 26 Irish counties, and divided allegiances in Northern Ireland, coupled with the rise of Scottish and Welsh nationalism, have contributed to the erosion of a sense of British national identity and posed problems for the long-term survival of the British state.
  • In Northern Ireland following 30 years of bitter conflict between republicans on the one hand and the British state and ‘loyalists’ on the other, the Anglo-Irish agreement (1998) led to new devolved institutions with power sharing. Despite periodic crises the peace process survives. Arms have been decommissioned and justice and policing devolved to the Northern Ireland Assembly and Executive.
  • The growth of nationalism in Scotland and Wales converted the Labour Party to a policy of devolving some powers to representative bodies in those countries. After the first attempt at devolution failed in 1979, Blair’s Labour government established the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly (with fewer powers).
  • While Liberal Democrats were consistent supporters of devolution, the Conservatives opposed it, until referendums in favour obliged acceptance. Nationalists were at best lukewarm over devolution, but were prepared to accept it as a stage towards independence.
  • Devolution is asymmetrical in that it involves different institutions, functions and electoral systems in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales,and it does not cover England (with 86 per cent of the UK population).
  • One possible solution, a separate English parliament, would involve too much duplication with Westminster. Another, devolution to the English regions, is only weakly supported: an elected regional assembly was decisively rejected in the North-east.
  • Outside England devolution is unlikely to be reversed. It is more likely that more powers will be devolved over time. Possible future scenarios could be a fully federal Britain, or the break-up of Britain into separate nation states.
  • A Conservative-led coalition government may lead to increased tensions with Scotland in particular, and increase prospects for Scottish independence.