Divided, different, but not a disaster

The State and the Nations
January 4, 2002

The rolling programme of devolution initiated by the Blair government may yet come to rank as its most significant achievement. In a very short space of time, the carapace of Britain's ancien régime has been broken. Powers once handed out are hard to take back and devolution is developing a momentum for further change. But for many constitutional reformers, the way in which the Labour government has approached devolution has been highly frustrating. There appears to have been no overall set of principles guiding its proposals, the implications of which are often far-reaching for the whole British system of government, and Labour for a time seemed bent on retaining central control over the devolved institutions. Devolution has been asymmetrical, with different arrangements being devised for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, and the implications for England left suspended in the air.

The government chose to proceed cautiously and incremen-tally, devising different solutions for each area of the United Kingdom in response to its specific problems and grievances. The State and the Nations sets out to map the progress of devolution in all its different aspects. Produced by the Constitution Unit, it is the first of a series of annual reviews of devolution based on 11 research projects funded by the Leverhulme Trust. Apart from those on Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, there are chapters on regional governance in England (John Tomaney), intergovernmental relations (Robert Hazell), devolution and Westminster (Meg Russell and Hazell), public attitudes to devolution and the Union (John Curtice) and the governance of London (Tomaney), as well as two overview chapters (Hazell). Each chapter provides useful material and factual chronologies and tables on the process of devolution so far, as well as an assessment of the many problems and obstacles to future progress.

This first volume contains much that is of interest, although there are no great surprises in the findings or the analysis. Hazell's general assessment of devolution is that so far it has been quite a success. At the same time, it has encountered numerous problems and created many anomalies, and its eventual outcome is unclear. Will it lead to a genuine federal state with a federal constitution? Will it yet unleash forces that will in time lead to the dismemberment of the Union? Or will the present patchwork of anomalies and inconsistencies continue more or less indefinitely?

Some of these questions are raised but not really tackled in this book. The position will be clearer at the end of the five-year research programme. What the book points to, however, is that the present position is unsustainable. Anomalies in the British system of government are not new. The coherence of the British unitary state has long been qualified by special territorial arrangements for the small nations within it, even though they contain only 15 per cent of the population. Devolution makes their anomalous position more transparent, particularly in respect to allocations of resources, to representation at Westminster, to the structure of the House of Lords and to representation in the cabinet. The English question puts the spotlight on the anomaly of Scottish MPs voting on English legislation when English MPs are debarred from voting on Scottish legislation. It is now an argument for extending devolution, by giving powers either to an English parliament or much more probably to English regions. But it will happen only if the English regions campaign for it.

The strongest campaign for devolution was always in Scotland, and it is there that devolution has had most success, although Graham Leicester shows how dissatisfied most Scots are with the new parliament, which is compounded by a negative Scottish press. In Wales, the demand for devolution was much weaker than in Scotland and the referendum only narrowly won. It was followed by the fiasco over the imposition of Alun Michael as leader of the assembly. John Osmond describes how the first year of the assembly was rather like the constitutional convention that Scotland had held before the Scottish Parliament was set up. The powers given to the Welsh Assembly were more limited than in Scotland (for example, there is no power to initiate primary legislation), so the ability of the assembly to make a difference to the lives of people in Wales was much weaker. But this seems to be leading to demands for more powers to be given to the Welsh Assembly rather than for the assembly to be abolished. The support Rhodri Morgan received in Wales for his withering retort to Jeremy Vine's metropolitan condescension on Newsnight is an interesting portent.

Northern Ireland presents the bleakest picture. Although devolution has been restored, it remains highly precarious. Rick Wilford and Robin Wilson argue that the Belfast Agreement, by legitimating the two ethno-nationalist extremes, has led to a shrinking of the centre and of the willingness to compromise. In the absence of the emergence of a stronger civil society and more normal politics, they are pessimistic about the chances of the agreement succeeding. Devolution, as Curtice shows in his survey of public attitudes, is not wildly popular, but neither has it been the disaster that some predicted. The question now is whether the new institutions will be extended, their powers increased and their legitimacy strengthened. The real test of devolution and its significance for future British constitutional development will probably not come until there are different parties in power in Westminster and in Wales and Scotland. How those tensions are resolved may determine the future of the Union.

Andrew Gamble is professor of politics, University of Sheffield.

The State and the Nations: The first Year of Devolution in the United Kingdom

Editor - Robertt Hazell
ISBN - 0 907845 80 0
Publisher - Imprint Academic
Price - £14.99
Pages - 290

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