The United Kingdom (UK) comprises four ‘home countries’, England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland; each with its own international football team. The UK’s ‘Union’ took centuries to build. England united with Wales in the 1530’s. Scotland joined England and Wales in 1707 to create Great Britain. In 1801, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland was formed. When most of Ireland became independent in 1922, the current United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland was established. Now, after centuries of nation and empire building, the UK’s future is in doubt.
Devolution in the UK, the transfer of power to regional governments, has been used as a tool to calm growing nationalism, particularly in Scotland, but also in Wales. Previous attempts to introduce devolution in Scotland and Wales and re-establish it in Northern Ireland (which had devolved government from 1922-72) in the 1970s failed. However, Tony Blair’s Labour government succeeded and established devolved governments in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland in 1998.
Nonetheless, passionate disagreements across the Union over the UK’s exit from the European Union (Brexit) and differences about how to manage the coronavirus pandemic have stirred the very nationalism that devolution was set up to control. While it is not unusual for national and devolved governments to disagree in any country, the UK’s lack of any clearly defined procedures to manage differences and expectations on issues that affect all parts of the Union threatens its existence.
Unequal parts of the Union
Devolution in the UK is unbalanced; different parts of the UK have different powers. Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland can all pass legislation in their countries in certain areas, such as education, health and social services. Scotland and Wales have limited but wider tax raising powers than Northern Ireland. Scotland and Northern Ireland are responsible for their own justice, policing and court systems, Wales is not.
England, where 84% of the UK’s population lives, has no devolved government. It is ruled directly by the UK parliament comprising members from all four parts of the Union. However, the English Votes for English Laws procedure ensures only members of the UK parliament from England decide issues affecting just England.
Importantly, the UK has no written constitution outlining the powers of the devolved governments in relation to the UK parliament. Each devolved government is created by a separate law passed by the UK parliament. Under the principle of UK parliamentary sovereignty, in theory, devolution can be reversed. The UK parliament can also override legislation passed by the devolved governments, however, it does ‘not normally’ do so due to a non-legally binding agreement known as the ‘Sewell convention’. Relations between the UK, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are managed through a Joint Ministerial Committee (JMC). Set up in 1999 by a ‘memorandum of understanding’, the JMC has no decision-making powers and meets ‘as required’.
Devolution in action
These ‘conventions’ and ‘understandings’ worked for the first decade. Devolution proved popular and the powers of the Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland governments were extended. However, at this time, differences between the national and devolved governments were not managed formally or discussed by all. Instead, they were resolved informally and bilaterally within the Labour party, which after becoming the UK government in 1997, was also elected to lead the new devolved governments in Scotland and Wales in 1999. The JMC held only one forum between 2003 and 2008 as the Labour party ruled national and devolved governments.
Things changed in 2007. The Scottish National Party (SNP) took power to lead a minority government in Scotland and the Welsh nationalists (Plaid Cymru) became Labour’s coalition partner in Wales. Labour also lost the UK election in 2010. As the Labour party lost power across the UK, the political glue holding together the UK’s devolved and national governments came unstuck. However, the new Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government, occupied with managing the effects of the financial crisis, did not anticipate problems with devolution.
Problems did come, however. The SNP had built a reputation for good governance and, after following victory in the 2011 election, formed a majority government in Scotland. Now stronger, the SNP asked the UK parliament for permission to hold a referendum on Scottish independence. The then UK Prime Minister, David Cameron, under no legal obligation to do so, agreed.
The UK government was ill-prepared for the 2014 Scottish independence referendum. Its Better Together campaign lacked coherent arguments about the benefits of the Union, rather than the dangers of breaking it up. As in the past, the UK government met the threat of nationalism by promising more devolution and Scotland voted against independence. The Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland governments were all given more powers. To address the lack of devolution for England, the English Votes for English Laws procedure was introduced.
This approach seemed to work. In the May 2016 election, the SNP remained in power in Scotland, but lost its majority. However, although the referendum had posed a real threat to the Union, proposals for a constitutional convention to explore how to resolve differences between the UK and devolved governments were rejected.
Devolution in trouble
A strongly Eurosceptic Conservative party won the 2015 UK election and, as promised, held a referendum on the UK’s EU membership in June 2016. The vote to leave split the UK.
In Scotland, people and government opposed Brexit. Wales voted for Brexit, but the Wales government opposed it. Northern Ireland voted against Brexit, but its largest political party, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), supported it. England’s vote to leave was decisive, but the UK parliament was divided. The decision to leave strengthened calls for independence in Scotland and Irish unification in Northern Ireland. However, the UK government accepted the referendum result and began the process to take the UK out of the EU.
The split across the Union widened over what Brexit meant. Scotland and Wales wanted the UK to stay in the EU’s Single Market and Customs Union. The DUP in Northern Ireland saw the UK leaving the EU as an obstacle to Irish unification and supported a hard Brexit. England had no direct say in the matter. However, the UK government, steered by English Eurosceptics in the Conservative party, decided that Brexit meant leaving the Single Market and Customs Union, wrecking any chance of a Brexit that could be supported across the Union.
The Scotland and Wales governments strongly opposed the legislation to leave the EU, but the UK supreme court ruled that the UK parliament did not need their consent to pass the law to leave. However, the minority Conservative government, elected in 2017, led by Prime Minister Theresa May, was struggling to pass legislation to leave the EU. To try and break the impasse, the UK government promised Northern Ireland £1 billion. In return, DUP members in the UK parliament would vote for the Brexit legislation, despite the Northern Irish people voting against Brexit.
Brexit showed that the ‘conventions’ and ‘understandings’ on which devolution was based were meaningless against a deliberate and calculated imposition of UK parliamentary sovereignty. There was no legal or procedural mechanism to protect the interests of democratically elected devolved governments against informal political deals in the UK parliament.
The election of a Conservative government, led by Boris Johnson, in December 2019, broke the logjam. Brexit legislation was passed, without needing DUP votes, and the UK left the EU on 31 January 2020.
The coronavirus pandemic began soon after Brexit. Health is the responsibility of the devolved governments, not the UK. At first, facing a deadly national health crisis, UK and devolved governments worked together. In March 2020, they agreed a joint action plan to deal with the pandemic, including lockdowns. However, cooperation began to breakdown over how and when to exit the lockdown. In May 2020, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson, under pressure from right-wing media and the right-wing of his Conservative party, announced plans to reopen schools and the economy.
However, under devolution, the UK Prime Minster could only decide policy for England. Devolved governments felt that the UK government was taking England out of lockdown too soon and were more cautious in lifting restrictions. By June 2020, each country had different rules, with Wales and Scotland governments restricting travel into their countries from other parts of the UK. Despite a common enemy, cooperation to combat the pandemic across the Union descended into internal competition, with each part of the Union seemingly eager to show itself as different from the others.
Devolution in dissolution
Brexit was a national issue over which devolved governments could not exercise significant influence over the UK government. Coronavirus was a national crisis in an area of devolved responsibility for which the UK government was unable to coordinate a national response. These two very different tests have opened a deep rift in the Union between UK and devolved governments. The lynchpin that should hold the Union together is the UK parliament, but its members prioritise UK and party interests above those of devolved governments and of England. The UK parliament can impose its will but seems ill-equipped for resolving differences between the different parts of the Union.
The informal agreements on which the Union rests will be severely tested in the coming years. The election of a pro-independence government in Scotland in May 2021 will strengthen demands for a second referendum, which they believe as justified by Scotland being taken out of the EU against its will by English votes. The lack of any clear representation for England, by far the largest and most powerful member of the Union, has also stirred English nationalism and resentment. English voters persistently prioritised Brexit even if it meant Scotland leaving the UK.
Brexit is also posing problems for Northern Ireland. Although in the UK, under the Brexit protocol, companies in Northern Ireland must complete documentation to move goods to Great Britain. This was agreed to keep open the land border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland to preserve the peace agreement of 1998 that ended 30 years of political instability and terrorist violence in Northern Ireland. However, the DUP fears this arrangement brings Irish unification closer and has made demands to renegotiate the protocol. Pro-Irish unity parties in Northern Ireland have begun to talk about a referendum on Irish unification in a few years’ time.
The breakup of the UK is not certain but, despite centuries of history, it is a real possibility.