Devolution in the United Kingdom

Devolution in the United Kingdom
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In the United Kingdom, devolution refers to the statutory granting of powers from the Parliament of the United Kingdom to the Scottish Parliament, the National Assembly for Wales and the Northern Ireland Assembly and to their associated executive bodies the Scottish Government, the Welsh Government and the Northern Ireland Executive.


Irish home rule

The issue of Irish home rule was the dominant political question of British politics at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century.

Earlier in the 19th century, Irish politicians like Daniel O'Connell had demanded a Repeal of the Act of Union of 1800 and a return to two separate kingdoms and parliaments, united only in the personal union of the king of Great Britain and Ireland. In contrast to this, demands for home rule called for autonomy for Ireland within the United Kingdom, with a subsidiary Irish parliament subject to the authority of the parliament at Westminster. This issue was first introduced by the Irish Parliamentary Party led by Isaac Butt, William Shaw and Charles Stewart Parnell.

Over the course of four decades, four Irish Home Rule Bills were introduced into the British Parliament:

  • the First Home Rule Bill was introduced in 1886 by Prime Minister William Ewart Gladstone. Following intense opposition in Ulster and the departure of Unionists from Gladstone's Liberal Party, the bill was defeated in the House of Commons.
  • the Second Home Rule Bill was introduced in 1893 by Prime Minister Gladstone and passed the Commons but was rejected in the House of Lords.
  • the Third Home Rule Bill was introduced in 1912 by Prime Minister Herbert Asquith based on an agreement with the Irish Parliamentary Party. After a prolonged parliamentary struggle was passed under the provisions of the Parliament Act of 1911, under which the Commons overruled the veto by the Lord. Again, this bill was fiercely opposed by Ulster Unionists who raised the Ulster Volunteers and signed the Ulster Covenant to oppose the bill, thereby raising the spectre of civil war. The act received royal assent (with restrictions in regard to Ulster) shortly after the outbreak of World War I but implementation was suspended until after the war's conclusion. Attempts at implementation failed in 1916 and 1917 and the subsequent Irish War of Independence (1919–1922) resulted in it never coming into force.
  • The Fourth Home Rule Bill was introduced in 1920 by Prime Minister David Lloyd George and passed both houses of parliament. It divided Ireland into Northern Ireland (six counties) and Southern Ireland (twenty-six counties), which each had their own parliament and judiciary but which also shared some common institutions. The Act was implemented in Northern Ireland, where it served as the basis of government until its suspension in 1972 following the outbreak of the Troubles. The southern parliament convened only once and in 1922, under the Anglo-Irish Treaty, Southern Ireland became the Irish Free State, which in turn became the Republic of Ireland in 1949.

Northern Ireland

Home Rule came into effect for Northern Ireland in 1921 under the Fourth Home Rule Act. The Parliament of Northern Ireland established under that act was prorogued on 30 March 1972 owing to the destabilisation of Northern Ireland upon the onset of the Troubles in late 1960s. This followed escalating violence by state and paramilitary organisations following the suppression of civil rights demands by Northern Ireland Catholics.

The Northern Ireland Parliament was abolished by the Northern Ireland Constitution Act 1973, which received royal assent on 19 July 1973. A Northern Ireland Assembly was elected on 28 June 1973 and following the Sunningdale Agreement, a power-sharing Northern Ireland Executive was formed on 1 January 1974. This collapsed on 28 May 1974, due to the Ulster Workers' Council strike. The Troubles continued.

The Northern Ireland Constitutional Convention (1975-1976) and second Northern Ireland Assembly (1982-1986) were unsuccessful at restoring devolution. In the absence of devolution and power-sharing, the UK Government and Irish Government formally agreed to co-operate on security, justice and political progress in the Anglo-Irish Agreement, signed on 15 November 1985. More progress was made after the ceasefires by the Provisional IRA in 1994 and 1997.[1]

The 1998 Belfast Agreement (also known as the Good Friday Agreement), resulted in the creation of a new Northern Ireland Assembly, intended to bring together the two communities (nationalist and unionist) to govern Northern Ireland.[2] Additionally, renewed devolution in Northern Ireland was conditional on co-operation between the newly established Northern Ireland Executive and the Government of Ireland through a new all-Ireland body, the North/South Ministerial Council. A British-Irish Council covering the whole British Isles and a British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference (between the British and Irish Governments) were also established.

From 15 October 2002, the Northern Ireland Assembly was suspended due to a breakdown in the Northern Ireland peace process but, on 13 October 2006, the British and Irish governments announced the St Andrews Agreement, a 'road map' to restore devolution to Northern Ireland.[3] On 26 March 2007, Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) leader Ian Paisley met Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams for the first time and together announced that a devolved government would be returning to Northern Ireland.[4] The Executive was restored on 8 May 2007.[5]. Several policing and justice powers were transferred to the Assembly on 12 April 2010.

The 2007-2011 Assembly (the third since the 1998 Agreement) was dissolved on 24 March 2011 in preparation for an election to be held on Thursday 5 May 2011, this being the first Assembly since the Good Friday Agreement to complete a full term.[6] The fourth Assembly convened on 12 May 2011.[7]


Ever since the Parliament of Scotland closed down in 1707 as a result of the Acts of Union, individuals and organisations have advocated the return of a Scottish Parliament. The drive for home rule first took concrete shape in the 19th century, as demands for it in Ireland were met with similar (although not as widespread) demands in Scotland. The National Association for the Vindication of Scottish Rights was established in 1853, a body close to the Tories and motivated by a desire to secure more focus on Scottish problems in response to what they felt was undue attention being focused on Ireland by the then Liberal government. In 1871, William Ewart Gladstone stated at a meeting held in Aberdeen that if Ireland was to be granted home rule, then the same should apply to Scotland. A Scottish home rule bill was presented to the Westminster Parliament in 1913 but the legislative process was interrupted by the First World War.

The demands for political change in the way in which Scotland was run changed dramatically in the 1920s when Scottish nationalists started to form various organisations. The Scots National League was formed in 1920 in favour of Scottish independence, and this movement was superseded in 1928 by the formation of the National Party of Scotland, which became the Scottish National Party (SNP) in 1934. At first the SNP sought only the establishment of a devolved Scottish assembly, but in 1942 they changed this to support all-out independence. This caused the resignation of John MacCormick from the SNP and he formed the Scottish Covenant Association. This body proved to be the biggest mover in favour of the formation of a Scottish assembly, collecting over two million signatures in the late 1940s and early 1950s and attracting support from across the political spectrum. However, without formal links to any of the political parties it withered, and devolution and the establishment of an assembly were put on the political back burner.

Harold Wilson's Labour government set up a Royal Commission on the Constitution in 1969, which reported in 1973 to Ted Heath's Conservative government. The Commission recommended the formation of a devolved Scottish assembly, but was not implemented.

Support for the SNP reached 30% in the October, 1974 general election, with 11 SNP MPs being elected. In 1978 the Labour government passed the Scotland Act which legislated for the establishment of a Scottish Assembly, provided the Scots voted for such in a referendum. However, the Labour Party was bitterly divided on the subject of devolution. An amendment to the Scotland Act that had been proposed by Labour MP George Cunningham, who shortly afterwards defected to the newly formed Social Democratic Party (SDP), required 40% of the total electorate to vote in favour of an assembly. Despite officially favouring it, considerable numbers of Labour members opposed the establishment of an assembly. This division contributed to only a narrow 'Yes' majority being obtained, and the failure to reach Cunningham's 40% threshold. History took an ironic twist when the Labour Government led by James Callaghan lost an SNP-inspired vote of no confidence on the issue. This ushered in 18 years of Conservative government under Margaret Thatcher and then John Major, who both strongly resisted any proposal for devolution for either Scotland or Wales. The 1979 General Election also saw a collapse in the SNP's vote, returning only two MPs.

In response to Conservative dominance, in 1989 the Scottish Constitutional Convention was formed encompassing the Labour Party, Liberal Democrats and the Scottish Green Party, local authorities, and sections of "civic Scotland" like Scottish Trades Union Congress, the Small Business Federation and Church of Scotland and the other major churches in Scotland. Its purpose was to devise a scheme for the formation of a devolution settlement for Scotland. The SNP decided to withdraw as they felt that independence would not be a constitutional option countenanced by the convention. The convention produced its final report in 1995.

In May 1997, the Labour government of Tony Blair was elected with a promise of creating devolved institutions in Scotland. In late 1997, a referendum was held which resulted in a "yes" vote. The newly created Scottish Parliament (as a result of the Scotland Act 1998) had powers to make primary legislation in certain 'devolved' areas of policy, in addition to some limited tax varying powers (which to date have not been exercised). Other policy areas remained 'reserved' for the UK Government and parliament.

Devolution for Scotland was justified on the basis that it would make government more responsive to the wishes of the people of Scotland. It was argued that the population of Scotland felt detached from the Westminster government (largely because of the policies of the Conservative governments led by Margaret Thatcher and John Major[8]) However, devolution for Scotland has brought to the fore the West Lothian question which is a complaint that devolution for Scotland and Wales but not England has created a situation where MPs in the UK parliament, including Welsh and Scottish MPs, can vote on matters affecting England alone but on those same matters Scotland and Wales can make their own decisions.


The 1974 – 79 Labour Government proposed a Welsh Assembly in parallel to its proposals for Scotland. These were rejected by voters in the Wales referendum, 1979 with 956,330 votes against, compared with 243,048 for.

In May 1997, the Labour government of Tony Blair was elected with a promise of creating a devolved assembly in Wales; the Wales referendum, 1997 resulted in a "yes" vote. The National Assembly for Wales, as a consequence of the Government of Wales Act 1998, possesses the power to determine how the government budget for Wales is spent and administered.

The 1998 Act was followed by the Government of Wales Act 2006 which created an executive body, the Welsh Assembly Government, separate from the legislature, the National Assembly for Wales.

Devolution for Wales was justified on the basis that it would aid in bringing government closer to the people in the nation. The population of Wales felt detached from the Westminster government (largely because of the policies of the Conservative governments led by Margaret Thatcher and John Major[8]). In Wales the referendum on devolution was only narrowly passed, and most voters rejected devolution in all the counties bordering England, as well as Cardiff and Pembrokeshire. However, all recent opinion polls indicate an increasing level of support for further devolution, with support for primary law-making powers now commanding a majority, and diminishing support for abolition of the Assembly.

Critics of devolution, such as the Conservative party, believe that it will undermine the existence of the United Kingdom, indeed David Cameron has cited the calls for Scottish independence as evidence for this when speaking in the House of Commons. An alternative view[who?] is that it is the asymmetric nature of the current devolution settlement that presents the greater threat to the Union.

A March 2011 referendum in Wales saw a majority of 21 local authority constituencies to 1 voting in favour of more legislative powers being transferred from the UK parliament in Westminster to the Welsh Assembly. The turnout was 35.4% with 517,132 votes (63.49%) in favour and 297,380 (36.51%) against increased legislative power.


England is the only country of the United Kingdom to not have a devolved Parliament or Assembly though a movement for the establishment of a single devolved English Parliament, the English Constitutional Convention, is backed by the English Democrats and Campaign for an English Parliament as well as the Scottish National Party and Plaid Cymru who have both expressed support for greater autonomy for all four nations while ultimately striving for a dissolution of the Union. Without its own devolved Parliament, England continues to be governed and legislated for by the UK Government and UK Parliament which gives rise to the West Lothian question. The question concerns the fact that, on devolved matters, Scottish MPs continue to help make laws that apply to England alone though no English MPs can make laws on those same matters for Scotland, in practice only the Labour Party and Liberal Democrat MPs in Scotland do this, as SNP MPs do not vote on England-only matters as a matter of policy, and Scotland's sole Tory has refused to as a matter of principle.

In the first five years of devolution for Scotland and Wales, support in England for the establishment of an English parliament was low at between 16 and 19 per cent.[9] While a 2007 opinion poll found that 61 per cent would support such a parliament being established,[10] a report based on the British Social Attitudes Survey published in December 2010 suggests that only 29 per cent of people in England support the establishment of an English parliament, though this figure has risen from 17 per cent in 2007.[11] John Curtice argues that tentative signs of increased support for an English parliament might represent "a form of English nationalism...beginning to emerge among the general public".[12] Krishan Kumar, however, notes that support for measures to ensure that only English MPs can vote on legislation that applies only to England is generally higher than that for the establishment of an English parliament, although support for both varies depending on the timing of the opinion poll and the wording of the question. He also argues that "despite devolution and occasional bursts of English nationalism – more an expression of exasperation with the Scots or Northern Irish – the English remain on the whole satisfied with current constitutional arrangements".[13]

Within England, regional devolution has only extended to London where the Greater London Authority has greater powers than other local authority bodies. Proposals for other Regional Assemblies in England have been indefinitely postponed following the rejection in a 2004 referendum of proposals for the North East.


There is a movement that supports devolution in Cornwall. Its strongest advocates in elections are the Mebyon Kernow party who aim to establish a regional Cornish Assembly. A proportion of Cornish devolution supporters such as the Cornish Stannary Parliament, Cornwall 2000, the Cornish Nationalist Party, Cornish Solidarity and the Cornish National Liberation Army support further devolution for Cornwall to become either a constituent country of the United Kingdom or even split from the UK entirely.

Several Cornish Liberal Democrat MPs such as Andrew George, Dan Rogerson and former MP Matthew Taylor are strong supporters of Cornish devolution.[14]

On Wednesday 12 December 2001, the Cornish Constitutional Convention and Mebyon Kernow submitted a 50,000-strong petition supporting devolution in Cornwall to 10 Downing Street.[15][16] In December 2007 Cornwall Council leader David Whalley stated that “There is something inevitable about the journey to a Cornish Assembly”.[17]

In November 2010 British prime minister, David Cameron, said that his government would "devolve a lot of power to Cornwall - that will go to the Cornish unitary authority."[18]

Crown Dependencies

Crown dependencies are possessions of the British Crown, as opposed to overseas territories or colonies of the United Kingdom. They comprise the Channel Island bailiwicks of Jersey and Guernsey, and the Isle of Man in the Irish Sea.[19]

The dependencies are not part of the United Kingdom. For several hundred years, each has had its own separate legislature, government and judicial system. However, as possessions of the Crown they are not sovereign nations in their own right and the British Government has historically retained a number of residual powers in relation to the internal affairs of the islands and is responsible for the islands in international law. Acts of the UK Parliament may be extended to the islands only with their specific consent.[20] Each of the islands is represented on the British-Irish Council.

Jersey has moved further than the other two Crown dependencies in asserting its autonomy from the United Kingdom. The preamble to the States of Jersey Law 2005 declares that 'it is recognized that Jersey has autonomous capacity in domestic affairs' and 'it is further recognized that there is an increasing need for Jersey to participate in matters of international affairs'. In July 2005, the Policy and Resources Committee of the States of Jersey established the Constitutional Review Group, chaired by Sir Philip Bailhache, with terms of reference 'to conduct a review and evaluation of the potential advantages and disadvantages for Jersey in seeking independence from the United Kingdom or other incremental change in the constitutional relationship, while retaining the Queen as Head of State'. The Group's 'Second Interim Report' was presented to the States by the Council of Ministers in June 2008.[21] In January 2011, one of Jersey's Council of Ministers was for the first time designated as having responsibility for external relations and is often described as the island's 'foreign minister'.[22] Proposals for Jersey independence have not, however, gained significant political or popular support.[23].

There is also public debate in Guernsey about the possibility of independence.[24] In 2009, however, an official group reached the provisional view that becoming a microstate would be undesirable [25] and it is not supported by Guernsey's Chief Minister.[26]

In 2010, the governments of Jersey and Guernsey jointly created the post of director of European affairs, based in Brussels, to represent the interests of the islands to European Union policy-makers.[27]


  1. ^ "IRA Ceasefire". The Search for Peace. BBC. 2005. Retrieved 25 October 2011. 
  2. ^ Alvin Jackson, Home Rule, an Irish History 1800–2000, (2003), ISBN 0-7538-1767-5
  3. ^ March target date for devolution, BBC News Online, 13 October 2006
  4. ^ "NI deal struck in historic talks". 26 March 2007. 
  5. ^ "Historic return for NI Assembly". 8 May 2007. 
  6. ^
  7. ^
  8. ^ a b Devolution in Scotland
  9. ^ Hazell, Robert (2006). "The English Question". Publius 36 (1): 37–56. doi:10.1093/publius/pjj012. 
  10. ^ Carrell, Severin (16 January 2007). "Poll shows support for English parliament". The Guardian. Retrieved 9 February 2011. 
  11. ^ Ormston, Rachel; Curtice, John (December 2010). "Resentment or contentment? Attitudes towards the Union ten years on". National Centre for Social Research. Retrieved 9 February 2011. 
  12. ^ Curtice, John (February 2010). "Is an English backlash emerging? Reactions to devolution ten years on". Institute for Public Policy Research. p. 3. Retrieved 9 February 2011. 
  13. ^ Kumar, Krishan (2010). "Negotiating English identity: Englishness, Britishness and the future of the United Kingdom". Nations and Nationalism 16 (3): 469–487. doi:10.1111/j.1469-8129.2010.00442.x. 
  14. ^ Andrew George MP, Press release regarding Cornish devolution October 2007
  15. ^ The Cornish Constitutional Convention
  16. ^ BBC News 11th December 2001- Government gets Cornish assembly call
  17. ^ Cornwall Council leader supports Cornish devolution
  18. ^
  19. ^ House of Commons Justice Committee, Crown Dependencies, 8th Report of 2009-10, HC 56-1
  20. ^ In relation to Jersey, see Institute of Law, Study Guide on Jersey Legal System and Constitution
  21. ^ Second Interim Report of the Constitution Review Group (States Greffe, Jersey)\documents\reports\46527-24954-2762008.htm
  22. ^ 'Meet our new foreign minister', Jersey Evening Post, 14 January, 2011; Editorial, 'A new role of great importance', Jersey Evening Post, 17 January 2011
  23. ^ Editorial, 'Legal ideas of political importance', Jersey Evening Post, 21 September 2010; Andy Sibcy, 'Sovereignty or dependency on agenda at conference', Jersey Evening Post, 17 September 2010
  24. ^ Thom Ogier, 'Independence--UK always willing to talk', Guernsey Evening Press, 27 October 2009; Juliet Prouteaux, 'It IS time to loosen our ties with the UK', Guernsey Evening Press, 23 October 2009
  25. ^ Thom Ogier, 'Full independence would frighten away investors and firms', Guernsey Evening Press, 13 October 2009
  26. ^ Simon Tostevin, 'Independence> Islanders don't want it, says Trott', Guernsey Evening Press, 9 July 2008
  27. ^ 'Channel Islands' "man in Europe" appointed', Jersey Evening Post, 27 January 2011

External links

Cabinet Office: Devolution guidance

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