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Category Archives: UK Government
Level 5 Response – Using the source, evaluate the view that devolution is in danger of undermining the unity of the UK (30 Marks)
Devolution is the process of delegating power away from central government towards national or regional governments. The UK is traditionally a unitary state that operates under the principle of parliamentary sovereignty. However, the process of devolution since 1998 has arguably served to undermine this key principle. In order to answer this question the following issues that are highlighted in the in the source need to be considered: the impact of devolution on calls for independence, the evenness of devolution across the UK and the long-term constitutional implications. Ultimately, it will be argued that devolution has undermined the unity of the UK and a new constitutional settlement may be needed to ensure the unity of the UK.
The source highlights that devolution fuels and encourages “continuing demands for independence”. Indeed, the acts of devolution have given a wide-range of powers to Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and some of the key regions of England, like London. For example, the Scotland Act (1998) gave the Scottish Parliament the right to change the income tax rate in Scotland by 3% either way of the UK rate. Further, the Scotland Act (2012) gave Scotland the power to vary tax rates by 10%, something the SNP has done by raising the top rate and lowering the bottom rate of income tax in Scotland. The purpose of these powers is to give nations more autonomy within the union and yet keeping the union together. Yet, despite these significant powers, it is arguable that they simply enhanced the thirst for Scottish Independence. Since 2011, the Scottish Parliament has been dominated by the SNP who stand on a mandate of independence for Scotland. Eventually, this led to the Scottish Independence Referendum in 2014. Although this resulted in 55% of Scots voting to remain in the UK, it no longer appears to be the “once in a lifetime” vote that the SNP had suggested it would be in 2014 and the SNP recently proposed a Second Referendum to be held in October 2023 before being thwarted by the Supreme Court. Conversely, the source also recognises that devolution “has satisfied some demands for self-government”. Indeed, in the other devolved regions, there has not been a substantial move towards greater independence, possibly suggesting they are content with the current devolution settlement. For example, in Wales, which only voted for devolution in 1998 by a margin of 0.3% in a referendum, there is little appetite for independence. Indeed, a Plaid Cyrmu rally for independence in 2019 had only 10,000 marchers. In addition, aside from the last three years of party-political bickering, the Good Friday Agreement in Northern Ireland has been a success and calls for a united Ireland are not as strong as they were prior to 1998. Overall, despite some evidence that devolved regions have been “satisfied” it is clear that Britain leaving the European Union will increase calls for greater autonomy and even independence from the devolved regions. Therefore, the view that devolution is undermining the unity of the UK is valid to a large extent.
Additionally, the source recognises that devolution is in danger of undermining unity because “power has been devolved in an uneven way”. Devolution in the UK has been very asymmetrical, demonstrated by the powers some devolved bodies possess that others do not. For example, Scotland has a fully devolved justice system whilst the Welsh justice system sis not devolved at all. Furthermore, the Barnett Formula unfairly distributes money across the United Kingdom. For example, currently Scottish citizens have £11k per head spent on them compared to £9k for English citizens. To compound the problems caused by funding is the problem of the West Lothian Question whereby regional MPs can vote on English Only issues but the same is not true vice versa. This has led to significant policies that effect only English citizens being passed because of the support of Scottish MPs, notably the introduction of Tuition Fees in 2005 is an example of this. This causes tension across the nations of the UK leading to a sense that it is undermining the union. Contrastingly, as the source states, devolution “reflects local democracy and identities, while maintaining the integrity of the UK”. Indeed, devolution has not taken place everywhere. In 2004, for example, the North East of England rejected the chance to have their own assembly. In addition, it now an accepted convention that considerable further devolution of powers will be subject to a clear mandate, for instance through a referendum or recent election. Whilst devolution may appear asymmetric, it is tailored to suit the demands of each individual country and region and the passing of recent acts such as the Scotland Act (2016) and Wales Act (2014) show that devolution will be extended where it is clearly called for. Overall, there can be no doubt that the asymmetric nature of devolution does undermine the unity of the UK. Whilst it allows for specific powers for specific regions, without a fully codified constitutional settlement this will never be acceptable to citizens.
Finally, the source suggests that devolution has threatened the unity of the UK by creating “tension and inequalities as policies diverge between devolved bodies”. Devolution has meant, for example, that the SNP who traditionally had only a handful of seats in the UK Parliament can now, through their position in the Scottish Parliament, claim a mandate to represent the whole of Scotland. This means that if the UK Governments and Scottish Government disagree over an issue a constitutional crisis can emerge. For example, with 60% of Scots voting to remain in the EU, Scotland feels that with Brexit it is being taken out of the EU against its will. Recently, tension has emerged over the Gender Recognition Act that was passed by the Scottish Parliament but the British Government chose to block using its Section 35 powers as they said it would undermine equality efforts across the UK. In addition, in 2019 the British Parliament directly legislated for Same-Sex Marriage and Abortion in Northern Ireland whilst the Executive was disbanded. These crises show the tension that continues to occur within devolution. However, the source also recognises that the four nations of the UK are “stronger together”. Despite devolution, the UK Government retains a number of reserved powers, these include foreign policy, defence and control of currency. Through these reserved powers, the UK Government retains significant power to direct the future of the UK. Any issues surrounding these devolved issues are adjudicated by the Supreme Court, which allows for a fair process to arbitrate disputes, thereby maintaining the unity of the UK – as seen recently in the Supreme Court judgement to prevent a the Scottish Parliament legislated for an independence referendum. In addition, divergent policies referenced in the source are not a weakness but a strength. Indeed, they allow for legislative laboratories to be created whereby the countries of the UK can learn from each other. For example, in January 2020 the Welsh Assembly banned smacking of children in Wales by their parents. This followed a similar policy in Scotland and now, in time, the UK Parliament may follow suit in legislating for England. Therefore, it is clear that the tensions are often overplayed between the different bodies and the Brexit crisis since 2016 may give a misleading impression of the normal relationships between the different institutions.
Overall, on balance, it is far to say that the unity of the UK is being undermined by devolution. Since its inception, devolution has grown slowly and steadily across the regions of the UK and only in Scotland has there been an explicit call for independence. However, Britain is no undoubtedly a “quasi-federal” state and devolution cannot realistically be reversed. Calls for independence will continue to grow. Although in the short-term devolution may satisfy the four nations, political events and circumstances will dictate that at some point the pressure to push from devolution to independence is too strong to counter unless significant constitutional changes are instituted.
Why is this a Level 5 Response?
- The answer starts with a clear introduction which shows knowledge of the topic, sets out the themes to be considered and, most importantly, sets out a clear argument.
- All the points of analysis originate from the source. They are not over-quoted – they are concisely highlighted to show the examiner the candidate is using the source (as required by the question).
- There are three sets of paired arguments originating from the source. (It is important to note that many students will not have time to do three sets and Level 5 can be achieved doing only two).
- There is detailed own knowledge (from outside the source) to help to analyse the points in the source.
- Analysis is built upon this detailed knowledge, with a consistent focus on answering the question.
- Clear mini conclusions are used at the end of the section which consider what the view on the question is as regards the issue that has been discussed.
Level 5 Response – Evaluate the view that Britain is now a Federal State (30 Marks)
Britain has traditionally been a unitary state in which power is located with a central body which must decide whether to delegate or devolve any of its powers. A federal state is one in which powers are split between clearly defined national and regional governments with shared sovereignty, policy divergences are encouraged, and different identities are fostered. Since the Acts of Devolution in 1998 it has been increasingly argued that Britain is now increasingly federal in nature, with Vernon Bogdanor saying Britain now has a ‘quasi-federal’ system. Ultimately, it is clear that Britain is now firmly a ‘quasi-federal’ state as whilst Westminster retains legal sovereignty, political sovereignty lies with devolved institutions and power has been used to make the kind of divergences in policy it would be expected to see in a federal state.
The British constitution operates under the key principle of parliamentary sovereignty. A.V Dicey summed this up as the fact that Parliament can ‘make or unmake any law’. This means that despite the existence of devolution, the British Parliament retains ultimate power over the political process. This fact has come into sharp focus through recent events. Notably, for example, during the absence of the Northern Irish Executive in 2019 the Westminster Parliament controversially legislated to legalise both Abortion and Same-Sex Marriage in Northern Ireland, despite the DUP being firmly opposed to this. Further to this, the British Government recently announced its plans recently to block the Scottish Parliament’s Gender Recognition Act. They plan to do this using the powers given to them under Section 35 of the Scotland Act (1998), powers that have not yet ever been deployed, and are doing so on the basis that the proposed Act will impact equality matters across the whole of the UK. Recently, the UK Supreme Court ruled that the right to hold a second Scottish Independence Referendum fell outside the competency of the Scottish Parliament and must be legislated for by the UK Parliament. These instances clearly show that the British Government retains the ultimate power in the political process and are willing to use this power, even over very controversial devolved matters. Conversely, despite the legal sovereignty of the Westminster Parliament, devolution is now very clearly politically entrenched in the UK and is realistically irreversible. Notably, the Conservative Party who were opposed to devolution in 1998 were in government for the most significant increases in devolution that took place between 2010 and 2017. This is an indication of how strongly devolution has become ingrained in British political culture. The political entrenchment of devolution is shown by the fact that elements of devolution that were traditionally conventions have now been codified. For example, the Sewell Convention that Westminster does not legislate on devolved matters was codified in the Scotland Act (2016) and the Wales Act (2017). In addition, the Scotland Act (2016) also now explicitly states that devolution can only be reversed via an explicit vote of Scots via a referendum. These changes highlight the political respect that Westminster now shows for devolution and that it is an important part of the wider principle of representative democracy. On the issues of the location of sovereignty is undoubtedly clear that whilst Westminster is legally sovereign, in reality, its power is less significant than it might seem. Whilst Westminster has occasionally legislated contrary to the wishes of the devolved regions, this is very much an exception. It is clear that the wishes of devolved institutions are now well respected, making the UK largely, if not completely, quasi-federal.
As part of New Labour’s constitutional reforms in 1998 devolved institutions, were set up across the UK with differing powers after different Acts of Devolution. This has led to the powers of each region being reliant on specific legislation by the Westminster Government, a characterisation of devolution, not Federalism. One the most significant differences was in the relative economic powers of the differing regions. For example, the Scotland Act (1998) allowed the Scottish Parliament to vary income tax rates by 3p in the pound. Conversely, the Government of Wales Act (1998) gave the Senedd no equivalent powers over their income tax. This shows a far more significant range of power across similar issues than would usually be seen in a federal system. In addition, different regions had different starting points as regards their autonomy. For example, Scotland already maintained its own legal system that had been different since the Act of Union (1707), whilst Wales had no policy intervention in that area, and its justice system is still legislated for in Westminster. With an area as important as justice delegated unequally across the UK, it undermines the notion that Britain is a federal state. Finally, a significant differential exists through the West Lothian Question. England does not possess its own Parliament and instead relies on Westminster to legislate for it. However, this allows Welsh, Scottish and Northern Irish MPs to vote on English-Only matters whilst the reverse is not the case. Notably, significant English-Only legislation has passed because of the support of Scottish MPs, such as the introduction of tuition fees in 2004. The fact that a key part of the UK is lacking its own legislative assembly is another indication that Britain cannot be considered a federal state. Conversely, it is important to note that devolution was always meant to be a long-term exercise with the Welsh Secretary saying in 1997 that “devolution is a process and not an event”. As such, devolution has grown through new statutes that have passed more and more devolved power to the regions of the UK. For example, the Scotland Act (2012) gave the Scottish Parliament greater control of income tax through which they introduced new 19% and a top rate of 46%. Similarly, the Wales Act (2014) devolved more tax to Wales and ensured the option of a referendum to adopt similar income tax powers to Scotland. In the 2019 General Election both major parties committed to improving the constitutional settlements and, most recently, the Brown Commission called for much faster devolution across the whole of the UK. Consequently, whilst devolution is asymmetrical, and always has been, it is consistently moving towards greater symmetry as is usually expected in a federal state. Consequently, whilst the differential in powers indicates that Britain is not a federal state, it is on an increasing journey to become so.
One of the key aims of federalism is to allow for distinct social and political structures to emerge across the state. This is why federalism is usually favoured in geographically large and less homogenous states. In the UK, differing political cultures have been seen in the policy divergences that have taken place. A good example of this can be seen in the fields of education and healthcare. In education, the British Government has legislated for tuition fees in English universities that can reach as high as £9,250, whilst in Scotland, for Scottish students, they are £1,820. This policy choice is a reflection of the more left-leaning governments that have existed in Scotland since 2009. Similarly, there is a divergence on health costs. Prescription charges in England are currently £9.35 whereas in Wales under Labour and in Scotland under the SNP there is no charge for prescriptions. Such significant policy divergences are what would be expected in a federal state and allow the expression of political priorities on a more local level. Similarly, devolution has allowed for the flourishing of distinct national cultures across the UK, whilst maintaining a sense of Britishness. For example, the Welsh Language is growing again and is a core subject in Welsh Schools. Contrastingly, perhaps due to Britain’s smaller and more homogenous nature, policy divergences in the UK have narrowed through time. This has been made more likely by the existence of the notion of legislative laboratories, whereby devolved institutions are able to consider the success of policies in other regions before instituting them. A number of policies have passed in this way, for example smacking was banned in Wales following a study of its successful prohibition in Scotland. Similarly, the Organ Donor Opt Out system was adopted by the UK Government following its success in both Wales and Scotland. This may in fact indicate that the UK is too homogenous to be a true federal state. It may also be argued that national identity has come at the expense of British identity. This has particularly been the case since Brexit where 62% of Scots voted to remain in the UK and in Northern Ireland which has become a pawn with the EU and has not had the same circumstances in Brexit through the existence of the Northern Ireland protocol. Therefore, it may be argued that based on the maintenance of dual-identities, a key facet of federalism, Britain cannot be seen to be a federal state, but is also arguably a troubled unitary one.
Overall, Britain can clearly best be described as a ‘quasi-federal’ state. Whilst power is distributed unevenly, these gaps are diminishing through time and are likely to continue to do so. Whilst Westminster is legally sovereign, it is now very clear that devolution is extremely well politically entrenched and cannot realistically be reversed. One of the biggest question marks over whether Britain is realistically federal is the relative consistency of policy across the UK, however, it is clear that where there are significant policy differences they account for the differing political opinions and identities across the UK. Therefore, whilst the UK is not a federal state, it is clearly ‘quasi federal’ but, tellingly, this might lead to pressure on its existence at all.
Why is this a Level 5 Response?
- The introduction immediately shows the examiner the candidate understands the topic. It lays out some of the key criteria of a federal state that are used to tackle the question.
- The introduction finishes with a clear indication of what the argument being made will be.
- Three body sections are completed each which put forward a clear point and corresponding counter point.
- Detailed knowledge is deployed throughout the piece, which is often very specific.
- Analysis is built upon this detailed knowledge, with a consistent focus on answering the question.
- Clear mini-conclusions are used at the end of the section which consider what the view on the question is as regards the issue that has been discussed.
- The conclusion is comparative in nature and synthesises the entirety of the arguments made before coming to a clear judgement.
- Political terminology is deployed throughout the essay.
- Synoptic links are made to Paper 1 through considering of party policies. (This in only required in Paper 2).