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.