Twenty years ago, devolution transformed the governance of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Wide-ranging powers to make law, manage public services, and set public spending priorities were transferred to new institutions in Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast. Devolution is now a permanent part of the UK constitution, but the devolution settlements have been anything but settled. Since 1999, devolution has evolved continuously. Extensive further powers have been transferred from Westminster, and the UK Parliament and Government have had to adapt in various ways. Since 2016, Brexit has created new tensions in the relationship between the UK and devolved governments.
On 6 May 1999, the first elections to the Scottish Parliament and National Assembly for Wales were held. Later that year, devolution in Northern Ireland began, when unionist and nationalist parties agreed to govern jointly in coalition. Since then, the devolved institutions in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have exercised considerable power over the lives of people in those nations.
In this report, we explore how devolution has worked and how it has changed over its first two decades.
- We look at the election and party systems, showing how different parties now dominate in each of the UK’s four nations, and how coalitions and minority governments are the norm in the devolved nations.
- We examine how the devolved parliaments and assemblies have worked in practice, and whether they have lived up to the expectations that they would practise more consensual politics than Westminster.
- We look at how the devolved administrations operate, including how they are organised, the size of their workforces, and how this has changed.
- We analyse devolved public spending and taxation, showing the divergence in spending priorities and tax policies across the UK.
- Finally, we show how Westminster and Whitehall have been affected by devolution, and how Brexit has put the relationship between central and devolved governments under strain.
The initial devolution settlements varied greatly between the four UK nations
The story of devolution is different in each part of the UK. Scotland benefited from more than a decade of deliberation about which powers should be devolved and how the new institutions should work. By 1997, there was a detailed blueprint, which was backed by almost three-quarters of Scottish voters in a referendum. Support for devolution was far weaker in Wales, with only 50.3% of voters supporting the change in 1997. Less consideration had also been given to the form devolution should take, and the initial Assembly had no ability to pass its own primary legislation. In Northern Ireland, devolution was the result of the peace process that had concluded with the signing of the Good Friday Agreement. The deal was overwhelmingly endorsed in referendums in both parts of Ireland, and elections to the new Northern Ireland Assembly were held in June 1998. Forming a government took longer, but by December 1999 the new Assembly and Government were ready to start operation.
England was left largely untouched by devolution, except for London where the Government created a Mayor and Assembly. Whitehall and Westminster were also barely affected, at least initially, and the UK and devolved government created few formal mechanisms for joint working between them.
Devolution has evolved in response to growing political and fiscal pressures
Devolution happened during a period of political alignment across Great Britain, as the Labour Party governed in Westminster, Edinburgh, and Cardiff. This changed in 2007 when the Scottish National Party (SNP) took office in Scotland, and after 2010 as the Conservative Party came to power in Westminster. In Northern Ireland, meanwhile, the more hard-line Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and Sinn Féin replaced their more moderate counterparts as the largest unionist and nationalist parties. By early 2017, when devolution collapsed in Belfast, the UK was governed by four administrations led by five different parties with distinct and often conflicting agendas.
From 1999 to 2010, public spending increased across all parts of the UK. Since then, however, and the start of a severe squeeze on public spending, all four UK governments have had to take difficult decisions about spending priorities. This created new tensions between the governments and fuelled calls for the devolved administrations to be given greater financial autonomy.
This has resulted in changes to the devolution settlements. Additional powers were transferred to the Scottish Parliament in 2012 and 2016, including over taxation and social security. Welsh devolution has also been transformed since 1999, with the Assembly gaining partial powers to pass primary legislation in 2007, and full legislative powers in 2011. The Wales Acts of 2014 and 2017 also extended of range of policy areas over which the Welsh Assembly has control. Devolution in Northern Ireland has been disrupted by several breakdowns in power-sharing between unionist and nationalist parties. When it has operated, further powers have been transferred, notably over policing and justice.
Most recently, Brexit has had a huge and disruptive impact on devolution. It has created great tensions between the different parts of the UK about the future relationships between the UK and EU, and between central and devolved governments.
Devolution has been a qualified success in its first two decades
The devolved institutions in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are now established as permanent features of the UK constitution. There is no serious appetite for devolution to be abolished. This was not always guaranteed, particularly in Wales, but by 2011 almost two-thirds voted in favour of full legislative powers for the Welsh Assembly. In Northern Ireland, despite the repeated collapse of power sharing, devolved government remains far the most popular constitutional option.
Devolution has allowed greater democratic expression in all three nations. Each can design policies and take public spending decisions that more closely align with local needs and preferences. Devolution has created space for greater policy experimentation, creating opportunities for the different governments to learn from each other. The devolved legislatures also tend to be more representative and politically balanced, as was the intention.
In terms of public service performance, however, it is less clear that devolution has had a positive effect. In Wales, in particular, there are signs that some health and education outcomes have fallen behind those in England. The devolved institutions have also added another layer of government, creating additional costs, although this is a small proportion of overall public spending.
There are big challenges for devolution in its third decade
Our analysis suggests that devolution faces unresolved challenges as it enters its third decade.
- Brexit requires the UK Government and devolved administrations to agree on how to manage the powers repatriated from Brussels. The governments have agreed that this should include a significant expansion of devolved autonomy, but that they will need to work together in some areas where EU law has until now provided consistency across the UK. They disagree, however, on which areas should be covered by UK-wide frameworks, and how these should operate. Reaching agreement will be hard, and require all sides to engage in discussions in good faith if there is to be a stable post-Brexit settlement.
- UK and devolved governments will increasingly have to work together and make joint decisions, including in many areas currently governed by the EU, and in areas such as social security and taxation where more power is in any case being devolved. This will require the four governments to establish better, more transparent systems for working together and resolving disputes. The review of intergovernmental relations announced by the UK and devolved governments in 2018 provides an opportunity to make progress towards achieving this.
- The UK and devolved governments do not agree on the rules governing their relationship, as demonstrated by the passage of the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018 without the consent of the Scottish Parliament. The Scottish and Welsh Governments regarded this as a breach of the Sewel Convention, while the UK Government saw this as a legitimate exercise of parliamentary sovereignty. This has contributed to the breakdown of trust between the UK Government and devolved institutions. To avoid a repetition, the UK nations need to reach agreement on the principles of the post-devolution constitution, including whether Westminster should be able to legislate in devolved areas without consent.
- Funding arrangements of the devolved nations have grown increasingly complex since 1999. Different tax powers are now devolved in each nation, while funding for Wales has been adjusted so that it is more based on needs. There have been good reasons for these changes, and demand for further devolution has differed in each nation, but the financial relationship between the UK’s four nations increasingly lacks coherence or any guiding principles. This approach seems unsustainable in the long run, and the complexity of the system could undermine rather than enhance accountability.
- The collapse of power-sharing in Stormont two years ago has created a void of accountability, while few new policies are being made. The absence of a devolved government also means Northern Ireland as a whole lacks a democratic voice in the Brexit process. The renewed effort announced in April 2019 to restore power-sharing is welcome. Otherwise a resumption of formal direct rule by the UK Government may become the only option, which could undermine the legitimacy of decisions taken about Northern Ireland’s future.
- The Welsh Assembly has too few members to manage effectively the expanded legislative and scrutiny functions it has taken on since 1999. There is a strong argument, as outlined in the report of the Expert Panel on Assembly Electoral Reform in 2017, that the Assembly should be bigger, with an electoral system that delivers at least the same level of electoral proportionality as the present one.
- England has largely been ignored in the devolution process. This can lead to resentment, for instance at higher levels of public spending in the other nations, and the lack of a distinctly English voice in the Brexit process. Meanwhile, the process of devolution to cities and regions within England has lost momentum. There is a need for serious consideration and debate about how England should be governed and represented within the Union state.
The overarching problem is that there has been too little consideration of the future of the UK as a whole. Instead, there have been separate devolution processes in each part of the country. This approach has its advantages. The UK constitution has shown an impressive ability to adapt to pressures in each nation as they have arisen. But the downside is the absence of guiding principles, which has led to disagreement about the nature of the post-devolution constitution. The 2016 referendum, and its aftermath, has made it more urgent that these big questions be considered by the governments, by political parties and potentially through a deliberative exercise involving citizens from across the UK.
If these challenges are not addressed, relations between the governments and the nations of the UK could deteriorate, putting the stability of the Union at risk. Addressing them successfully would help to strengthen ties between the UK nations, stabilise the constitution and enable each nation to move on from constant constitutional uncertainty to focus on other issues that are important to voters such as public services and the economy.