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Scottish and Welsh Devolution


The concept of a Scottish mandate, was at first a primarily nationalist belief, that sovereignty in Scotland rested not with the Westminster parliament but with the Scottish people. The concept however has a much clearer basis in Scottish history than in English history. It was implicit in the declaration of the constitutional convention that a Scottish parliament represented the "settled will of the Scottish people"

During the ‘80s this idea became accepted thinking within the Scottish Labour Party. Indeed while the doctrine of parliamentary sovereignty was dominant in Labour thought during the late ‘70s, the principles behind a devolution referendum clearly legitimised the concept of sovereignty being held by the people of Scotland. (Geekie and Levy, 401) Indeed, Geekie and Levy(406-7), writing in 1989, bemoan the fact that the whole national debate in Scotland became distinctly less Unionist during the 1980s. The SNP, after the failure of the 1979 Referendum, moved to a definitively pro-Independence position, while within Labour there was not only less opposition to devolution, but the official policy increasingly came to represent SNP policy of the 1970s.

As Geekie and Levy (400) note, the demands in Scotland increased as a conviction became current, both among the non-Conservative élites, and among the populace in general, that a Scottish parliament would have insulated Scotland against the worst effects of Thatcherism. Holliday puts it more bluntly, "Scots and Welsh did not wholly appreciate voting Labour but ending up with Conservative governments for four successive general elections." (Holliday, 225)

Even much of the Scottish and Welsh business communities were, however, in favour. "They also reflected a growing recognition among Scottish and Welsh élites…that national government was not an appropriate organisational level for managing industrial policy in an emergent ‘Europe of the regions’." (Holliday, 288)

Lessons from Norn Iron

Bloomfield (135) notes in relation to the pre-1972 devolved experience in Northern Ireland that "the grant of exhaustive powers was, on its face, exhaustive, while the legislative powers of the Northern Ireland Parliament were subject to the supreme and express authority of Westminster." While rarely used, three possible sanctions were open to central government if it came to blows with the devolved government in Northern Ireland; the powers under Section 75 of the 1920 Government of Ireland Act to over-rule it anyway; and the ability to reserve of withhold Royal Assent. However, these were rarely used, "It was clear that…successive UK Governments recognised how difficult it would be, having created responsible democratic institutions in a jurisdiction, thereafter openly to over-ride their decisions." (Bloomfield, 137) However, the 1973 Northern Ireland Constitution Act, drafted in the light of 50 years experience of devolved power, defined the powers of the devolved administration much more tightly, but gave an enabling rôle to the Secretary of State. This, in Bloomfield’s view, despite limited experience of operating the Sunningdale system, offered greater legislative flexibility and less dependence on enabling legislation at Westminster. (Bloomfield, 138)

"There is potential for conflict in a particular jurisdiction if the most prominent figure in a locally elected body has to vie with a heavyweight centrally appointed figure." (Bloomfield, 139)

In Northern Ireland, power to make financial arrangements was de facto sacrificed in order to achieve parity in social provision. (Bloomfield, 140) In recent times, funding has been allocated by the Barnett formula. As yet, no replacement for the Barnett formula has yet been devised, and the issue is seen as a political hot potato to be avoided for as long as possible.

The Parties and Devolution

Tam Dalyell, referring to the 1970s devolution Act, said "the whole devolution caper…has been…primarily an exercise in party politics…The legislation was hastily cobbled together to meet the electoral threat posed by the Scottish National Party." (Geekie and Levy, 400) For much of its history, Labour was by far the most centralising and essentially Unionist party. (Holliday, 231) Bennie et al, agree that Labour’s support for devolution is a response to changes in attitudes where a sense of Scottish identity has become important at the expense of the class and party loyalties which traditionally formed the basis of Labour’s strength. While some criticise this, is this not an important exercise of how party democracy works, in that demands for political change on the ground work their way into the parties and eventually effect that change. Moreover, Holliday notes that, "the party spent so long on the sidelines it was…that it was almost bound to develop a critique of the centralised state." (Holliday, 231)

In Wales things are somewhat different. "To many Welsh Labour politicians…political reform remains an irrelevance to the material concerns of their working-class electorate." (Holtham and Barrett, 74)

The Conservatives has obviously been a little more sceptical. The Thatcher governments further centralised government, for example by getting rid of the Regional Economic Planning Councils. (Holliday, 226) The Major government created more regional institutions but they were largely outside the control of local elected representatives, and led to accusations of quangoism, notably in Wales. While the party has been accused of "a form of constitutional romanticism which holds that the British constitution has now developed into something so very close to perfection." (Holliday, 233) Devolution, particularly in Scotland, has split the Conservatives more deeply than Labour. However, even in Wales, a realpolitik approach has increasingly characterised the Tories, aware that their only means of parliamentary influence in both nations was to accept the inevitable. Indeed, in London, Tories supported the proposals for devolution

The Future

"the Scotland Act creates a new locus of political power. Its most important power will be…that of representing the people of Scotland." (Bogdanor, 288) "The relationship between Scotland and Westminster…will also become quasi-federal." (op. cit., 290) Bogdanor sees the relationship between Holyrood and Westminster developing much as that between Stormont and Westminster, with the added separatist twist that Scotland is clearly and indubitably a nation. Bogdanor expects that the ‘convention’ which applied to Northern Ireland affairs during the Stormont-era will apply to Scottish affairs in the future. Moreover, no Westminster government could oppose a Scottish government except in extremely parlous circumstances, as happened in Northern Ireland. It is difficult to see such circumstances arising.

"If there is no rapid improvement in public services in Scotland, the Scottish parliament could become a focus for discontent." (Bogdanor, 295) The European experience, notably in Spain, is that devolution to regions which have a somewhat separate sense of nationhood from the centre, weakens rather than strengthens desires for independence. (Bogdanor, 296) Tindale agrees. Writing in 1996, he said, "John Major is right: we are facing the break-up of the United Kingdom. But the threat comes…from the Conservatives’ refusal to allow anything to escape their centralising grasp." (Tindale, 1)

Ultimately, "the British state has changed its territorial arrangements at many points in its history without disintegrating." (Holliday, 239) There is no real reason to assume that the break-up of the Unions is inevitable; a degree of tension may even be a good thing, a relationship outside the purview of the Westminster whips to weed out bad legislation. (Holliday, 239)


Bloomfield (139), "Shared responsibility can be, and indeed must be, made to work in a devolved institution, particularly where [the UK]…has to deal with EU institutions in respect of matters where future powers should be regionally devolved." (Bloomfield, 138)

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