Arthur Aughey, Eberhard Bort, and John Osmond question whether the Union has reached its sell-by date

February 23rd, 2011

The way Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland became part of the UK was very different and is now having a direct bearing on the way devolution is developing.

In Scotland the new Parliament that was established in 1999 took charge of a pre-existing array of civic institutions that had survived and flourished beyond the 1707 parliamentary union with England, including financial institutions, a system of administration in the form of the Scottish Office from the 1880s, and a highly developed press and media.

To a great extent, Scottish identity revolved around these institutions. They provided Scots with a civic, and because of that a unified sense of their nationality. Consequently, when the Scottish Parliament met in 1999 it was as though a keystone was placed in the arch of an already existing structure.

In Wales the position could not have been more different. Apart from a much shorter experience of separate administration, by the Welsh Office from 1964, the idea of a civic identity embracing the whole of Wales was foreign to the Welsh. Instead, their identity relied upon a much more diffuse and fractious sense of locality, language and culture.

This was one reason why, in contrast with the Scots, the idea of a National Assembly was so controversial and when it came, only narrowly achieved. Moreover, when it was established, far from completing an institutional structure, the Assembly had to set about building one. Before it could become the keystone it had, so to speak, to construct the arch.

After 300 years, has the Union reached its sell-by date? Certainly, one thing has become clear. After a decade of devolution, the status quo in Scotland as well as in Wales is not tenable. There have already been significant changes to the original 1999 ‘settlement’ in both countries, and further change is inevitable. In one way or another, both Wales and Scotland are on the move.

Despite the stuttering start and the recurring problems of the devolved administration in Northern Ireland, a return to the dark and violent days of the ‘Troubles’ also seems unlikely. But here, too, the present arrangements seem transient. Unionists are pushing for the Assembly to become more akin to a ‘normal’ democracy, while the nationalist/republican parties are still pursuing their goal of a united Ireland. The devolution of justice and police matters were only completed by the end of the first decade of the new millennium.

Following the Richard Commission and the All Wales Convention’s recommendations, Wales holds a referendum on 3 March 2011 to decide whether the National Assembly gains further legislative powers akin to those the Scottish Assembly was offered in 1979, with the prospect then of moving towards what was granted Scotland in 1999. In that eventuality the creation of a legal jurisdiction for Wales separate from England, as already applies in Scotland and Northern Ireland, looks inevitable.

Meanwhile, following the 2010 general election the Westminster Conservative Liberal Democrat coalition is committed to implementing the recommendations of the Calman Commission, giving the Scottish Parliament greater powers, including greater taxation powers.

A decisive influence on how devolution will develop in future will be the by far and away larger part of the United Kingdom, namely England. Partly under the influence of devolution, but also in relation to the reality of the United Kingdom’s role as a medium-sized state within the European Union, England is steadily becoming more self-consciously English. This can be seen both politically and culturally.

In political terms voting patterns, which have always diverged markedly from England in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales, continue to throw up strong differences. As a result there are growing demands at Westminster for England to have powers over its domestic concerns in the way devolution has allowed for the three Celtic parts of the UK. This could begin with ‘English votes for English laws’ within the House of Commons and evolve towards some kind of distinctive English Parliament.

The more such trends gather pace, the more the United Kingdom will move from its existing quasi-federal structure towards a more formalised federation. There are, of course, difficulties with establishing a federation in the United Kingdom since England would be such an overwhelmingly large component. It may be, therefore, that in the medium to longer term, perhaps somewhere towards the mid 21st Century, a confederal solution will be found to the United Kingdom’s constitutional dilemmas.

It is noteworthy that, despite their formal commitment to independence, this has been suggested at various times by both Plaid Cymru and the SNP. It is not impossible that the Republic of Ireland might be tempted to collaborate more closely with such an arrangement as well. In turn that might see some resolution to the current irreconcilable identities within Northern Ireland. The creation of the Council of the Isles, as part of the 1998 Belfast Agreement, may come to be seen as a first step on this road. Looking further ahead we might even see the emergence of something akin to Scandanavia’s Nordic Union within the British Isles, co-operating of course within the framework of the European Union.

Decisions at devolved, UK and European levels will further influence the course of constitutional change. Although sub-state regions have been acknowledged in the European constitutional process, they have not made it beyond the margins of recognition. A strong regional tier in European governance would support devolution, an increasingly intergovernmental EU could strengthen tendencies towards ‘Independence in Europe’.

Some have described devolution as “a process not an event”, others as “a journey with no known destination”. The more apocalyptic have likened it to “travelling on a motorway with no exits”. Given the character of English/British political culture, which is essentially pragmatic and disinclined to construct elaborate constitutional arrangements, least of all to write them down, developments in the near future are likely to be piecemeal and without any clear sense of direction. Certainly, this is what has most typified the contrasting devolution paths within the United Kingdom thus far.

Unique Paths to Devolution is published by the IWA at £7.50 with a 20 per cent reduction for IWA members.

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Arthur Aughey is professor Politics at the University of Ulster, Eberhard Bort is a Lecturer in Politics at the University of Edinburgh, and John Osmond is Director of the IWA.

12 Responses to:“Unique paths to devolution”

  1. Jeff Jones says:

    But as the First Minister argued in an interview last week any movement from what is on offer on March 3rd will require another referendum. He also added that he didn’t see any chance of another referendum in his political life time. Scotland has a separate legal system for historical reasons. To argue that it will be ‘inevitable’ for Wales to have a separate legal system might excite Nationalist lawyers. Others might argue that it is yet more proof that certain individuals are not being honest with the electorate on March 3rd and have in fact a hidden agenda.

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  2. Stephen Gash says:

    Independence for England now.

    Why should we be treated as third class compared to everybody else in the UK merely because we comprise the majority.

    The English, as a nation, have never been consulted about devolution and it looks like we are not going to be asked now.

    We have enough of a cabal of Celts feeding off England without Ireland being brought back thanks very much.

    The English have come off worst on every measure since devolution and all we have heard is a long Celtic whine for more. Until very recently, not one British MP stood up and demanded to know why the English are being treated so venomously in post-devolution Britain.

    I tell you what, let the Celtic nations form their own federation and England become independent.

    We’ll have a veritable litter of Celtic tigers scrapping amongst themselves without us having to separate them.

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  3. Ste says:

    The sooner England is rid of the Non English Regions the better!, England does not need you Politically, Financially or Militarily and gains nothing from being in a so called ‘Union’ with them, in fact loses out by carrying these Regions.

    Wales is an EU Region ruled from Brussels, as is the Scottish Region, and the N Irish Region, the Welsh Assembly is an EU Regional Assembly, the only difference will be Wales will be a feeble and irrelevant little EU Region ruled from Brussels outside of the so called ‘United Kingdom’ rather than being a feeble irrelevant little EU Region ruled from Brussels within the so called ‘United Kingdom’ – rule from Brussels is NOT ‘Independence’, look the word up.

    Anyway enjoy! and good riddance! – heres to English Independence (ie real Independence, rid of the non English Regions and the EU!)

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  4. Philip R Hosking says:

    You can almost feel the hate of the English nationalist contributors to this debate.

    Yes, some form of European federalism is the way forward although the EU in its current form is far from perfect – almost a lost cause.

    It’s interesting to note that some English nationalists think that an independent England -independent from the Celtic nations and Europe- would in some way be able to maintain its independence when faced with blocks like the USA, China, Russia and India. You would be a national sardine in a sea of sharks, but isn’t that the truth of it. English nationalists don’t really want independence, they want to be the USA’s lap dog.

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  5. Toque says:

    “English nationalists don’t really want independence, they want to be the USA’s lap dog.”

    That’s a rather idiotic comment. unless you back it up with some proof.

    (Report comment)

  6. CPR says:

    You asked, “Is the Union past its sell by date?” In its present form it certainly is. Devolution has been an absolute dogs dinner where England is concerned. It has left the English with severe democratic, social and economic deficits, not experienced by the so called Celts who have benefited.

    You also argue that England is such an overwhelmingly large component that a federal system could not work. I believe this is the usual facile argument used to deny the English the same levels of democracy enjoyed by the Celts and to continue with the English regions that have balkanised England. Imposed, incidentally, without consulting the English or asking for their consent. So much for British democracy.

    You might as well argue that the federal system of the USA is unworkable because Texas is a much greater component than, say, Maryland.

    There is no political will to give England its own representation, based on the Scottish model, or even devise a workable federal solution because the entire devolution process was planned by the European Union as part of its strategy to devise a Europe of Administrative and Regional Units. The devolved UK fits exactly with the new map of Europe, published by the European Parliament in 1997. (I possess copies of this map).

    How ironic it is that we have gone to war to establish democracy in countries such as Iraq and Afghanistan, yet deny the English the right to represent their own interests, restore their own sense of national identity and realise their own aspirations. Which the Scots, Welsh and Irish have been encouraged to do through the devolutionary process.

    God help the Iraqis and Afghans if they end up with a democracy English style.

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  7. Adam Davies says:

    But what natural resources do England have? England relies heavily on tax contributions to raise revenue, mainly from the city of London.

    The Celts, (if independent of UK) obviously would not sustain themselves through tax since their population is low. They would rely on their resources – water, gas, slate, coal and soon green energy. England relies on the Celts for these things so if independent, its eceonomy would be solely based on tax…. rather like the UK is at present – is that working?

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  8. David B. Wildgoose says:

    Philip, if England would be a “sardine in a sea of sharks” then how much more would this apply to your beloved Cornwall, never mind Wales, Scotland or Northern Ireland?

    As for the so-called “hate” of the English nationalist contributors, what I see is a mirror that is reflecting anti-English attitudes back on the original bigots.

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  9. Stephen Gash says:

    @Philip Hoskins.

    Don’t tell us what we want and do not want.

    Yes hatred is spawned when people are constantly excluded from political developments by Welshmen like John Prescott who wrote ‘there is no such nationality as English’ and Scotsmen like Charles Kennedy who said (to rapturous applause from Scottish Liberal Democrats) ‘south of the border devolution is moving at such a pace it is bringing into question the very idea of England itself’.

    With friends like that we don’t need enemies.

    We never have needed the Celts and we don’t need ‘em now.

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  10. Home Rule for England says:

    Philip R. Hosking said:

    “English nationalists don’t really want independence, they want to be the USA’s lap dog”.

    Can’t resist it can you? Telling us English what we want. Unsubstantiated of course. I tell you what we do want. We want a referendum on an English Parliament. I can substantiate that statement. Polls by the BBC and others have show that around 70% of English people want an English Parliament. I’d go for an independent England.

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  11. David Lloyd Owen says:

    Fear not my English friends! I think one will find that over the centuries Westminster has served England very well and it will continue to do so, especially after the seats are rebalanced for the next General Election. A handful of tweaks will confirm Westminster’s role as England’s English Parliament. I do find some of the comments here quite intriguing, since we are meant to understand that England (well the London media) is to say the least, supportive of the Union and unionism. Are there other ‘processes’ at work?

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  12. Adam Davies says:

    I am a Welsh Nationalist, and when I lived in Oxford whilst at university, I voted for the English Democrats.

    I am a Welsh nationalist because I am ashamed to be British. I resent its imperialistic obsessions. I resent its inability to accept that the empire is over. I resent the fact that they keep on spending money on war, on nuclear weapons, on building its world leader status at the expense of massive cuts in our quality of life. I do not in any way, resent England, or the English.

    I hope that you do get indpendence, for all our sakes.

    (Report comment)

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