Devolution dominoes

The State of the Nations 2001
February 1, 2002

This book falls into three distinct parts. Chapters two to five deal with "the nations" of the United Kingdom, and are in essence updated versions of the various monitoring reports already issued under the auspices of funded research based at the Constitution Unit at University College London.

The second part of the book deals with "the state", and argues that the centre has adapted to the fact of devolution but that this has not required any institutional restructuring. It includes much talk about devolution as constitutional reform, or a reform with "radical implications for the constitution".

Er... what constitution? We have had only a rearrangement of the structure of government, creating a new tier without disturbing the centre.

In his introduction, Alan Trench claims that devolution has changed the political landscape, but not enough to deliver what it promised, namely a genuine and significant transfer of power. High hopes. Still one cannot but wonder if Trench is not confusing devolution with federalism. At any rate, for him - as for Hazell - this is unfinished business.

Robert Hazell, the director of the Constitution Unit, echoes this in the concluding chapter of the book. He claims that devolution is on a roll and its success a foregone conclusion, for its dynamics will propel it forward: Wales will change, and England will come to love regional assemblies as a result of the domino effect of activities in the north filtering south.

For Hazell, the people of England await a lead from their politicians, but in this he ignores the fact that the English are wonderfully apolitical (and may they long continue so). For him, the advance of devolution is an inevitable one-way movement, and the endgame is the completion of the process.

The problem is that this one-way attitude to devolution is not even properly Whiggish. Indeed, the character of this part of the book is entirely polemical and highly political, notwithstanding the status of the constitution unit as a "non-partisan" body. Hazell simply ignores what is probably the most important chapter in the collection - namely John Curtice's analysis of public opinion on the subject, which has the sobering effect of a bucket of cold water. This book is probably worth reading if one begins with Curtice and reads his chapter again at the end. He provokes the thought that the attitude to devolution is largely flat, especially in England, and is probably also increasingly "disappointed" in Scotland, although matters are different in Wales and Northern Ireland.

Has devolution been an unnecessary exercise? Nationalists and political scientists passionately desire self-government, but for different reasons. In the end, nationalists are bound to be frustrated and disappointed, whereas we get more cases to examine. Knowing that government is no panacea, we nevertheless prefer it to be as close to the people as possible. But is Wales, with a population of 2.95 million, really a good candidate for fully devolved government, let alone an "independent" region within the European system? Is Scotland? There are good theoretical and practical reasons to argue for a reformed system of government for the whole of the United Kingdom - this time with a Constitution - rather than for the ad hoc tinkering that has characterised the British experience.

Trench claims that the book brings "what is happening" to a wider audience, places it in a broader context and paints a picture of the political landscape of year two of devolution.

But who is the target readership? If the target audience is the informed public, then it should have been written differently, because, dotted with abbreviations and carrying a heavy baggage of less-than-clear concepts, it is difficult to read. The book may be useful for some undergraduate courses on territorial politics and aspects of British government, but academics and research students prefer to deal with the raw material, possibly supplemented with the monitoring reports already mentioned.

As for the shape of the political landscape, the picture presented is heavily coloured by the conceptions and desires of the analysts. Of course, no account can be neutral, but just how much baggage is acceptable? The cognoscenti can filter some or most of it out, but not so the uninitiated.

Beyond its rather limited relevance, this book serves to underline the abject poverty of constitutional analysis and the lamentable lack of theoretical and conceptual grounding that has for so long been the abiding characteristic of fragmented approaches to the study of our system of government.

Fred Nash is honorary fellow in politics, University of Southampton.

The State of the Nations 2001: The Second Year of Devolution in the UK

Editor - Alan Trench
ISBN - 0 907845 19 3
Publisher - Imprint Academic
Price - £14.95
Pages - 283

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