Devolution: the basics

This blog is about how devolution in the United Kingdom works and develops.  It assumes a pretty high level of knowledge about the framework of devolution, as well as politics in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. The purpose of this section is to explain the key features of devolution in simple terms, and to help guide those who are new to the subject to places that will help them find out more.  As well as this page, there are separate pages discussing the Barnett formula and how devolution finance works, the Sewel convention and legislative relations between Westminster and the devolved legislatures, and sources of further information.  These are all available from links above.

What devolution to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland is

In essence, devolution is a way of enabling Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland to have forms of significant self-government within the United Kingdom. Each of those parts of the UK has legislative devolution; the UK Parliament has conferred various sorts of powers to make laws on the elected Scottish Parliament, National Assembly for Wales and Northern Ireland Assembly.

The devolved legislatures in Scotland and Wales are quite small.  The Scottish Parliament has 129 members and the National Assembly for Wales 60. Both are elected by the additional member system (very similar to the mixed member plurality system used in Germany and New Zealand).  Some MSPs or AMs are elected on the first past the post basis, from single-member constituencies.  This accounts for 73 MSPs and 40 AMs.  The remainder are elected from regional lists, on a second ballot, and are allocated to try to ensure that there is proportional balance between the parties in those regions, taking into account the party affiliation of constituency MSPs or AMs.

The Northern Ireland Assembly has 108 members at present (the UK Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Act 2011 will reduce it to 96 at the 2016 Assembly elections).  They are elected using the single transferable vote system in multi-member constituencies.

Legislative devolution is accompanied by executive devolution to the Scottish Government (formerly Executive), Welsh Assembly Government and Northern Ireland Executive.  Those governments are each accountable to their respective Parliament or Assembly.

All three devolved parts of the UK are still represented in the UK Parliament at Westminster as well.  Scotland has 59 Westminster MPs, Wales 40 and Northern Ireland 18.

Devolution within England

‘Devolution’ is also used to describe various forms of executive powers that operate on a regional level within England.  This includes the establishment of the Mayor of London and London Assembly in 2000, and more recently arrangements in a number of city-regions including Greater Manchester, Merseyside or the Sheffield city region.  Unlike Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, these forms of devolution involve only the transfer of some executive functions, not broad conferrals of law-making powers.  Each of these arrangements is different, and involves different packages of powers.  They do not create substantial elected institutions (the elected element is limited to a mayor in most cases outside London) and operate through combined authorities (of existing local authorities).  They are not embodied in statute but in secondary legislation and other agreements, and have not been underpinned by support in referendums.

What devolution isn’t

Because it combines self-rule with shared rule (through Westminster), devolution has something in common with federal arrangements in countries like Australia, Germany or Canada.  However, there are also many differences.  The most important of these is that the UK Parliament remains sovereign in law and can still legislate, in theory and in fact, for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.  By convention (the so-called Sewel convention), it does not do so for devolved matters without the consent of the devolved legislature concerned.

A second major difference between the UK and federal systems is that England is outside the devolution arrangements.  Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland now each have two legislatures, but for England there is only one – the UK Parliament and UK Government.  This in turn gives rise to many of the asymmetric features that are characteristic of devolution, and which create many of its constitutional anomalies.

A third major difference between the UK and federal systems is that the nature of devolved powers varies between Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.  Scotland’s legislative powers include policing and criminal justice; Northern Ireland’s don’t, as yet, but they do (formally) include social security.  Both Scotland and Northern Ireland have devolved powers to legislate for any matter save those expressly excepted or reserved to Westminster.  Wales, by contrast, has much more limited legislative powers in only those areas where powers have been expressly conferred on the National Assembly.  This is another set of asymmetries about devolution.

The devolved institutions are at present funded very largely by a block grant from the UK Government.  The arrangements for that are discussed here.  They raise only a small part of their own spending, and do that indirectly through their control of local taxation – they have no tax-raising powers of their own, apart from a power for the Scottish Parliament to vary the UK standard rate of personal income tax by 3 pence in the pound (up or down).  That power has never been used since 1999, however.

There is an ongoing debate about how devolution should change.  My views about that are discussed in detail in many posts on this blog.  The backdrop to that is, however, what the general public expects, and how the constitutional and institutional design of devolution relates to those public expectations.  A book chapter I wrote in 2008 discusses that, and that’s available HERE.

[Updated February 2016]