Devolution involves the delegation or transfer of powers using statutes from a centralised source of power such as government towards subordinate regional bodies. This can easily be seen to have been implemented within the United Kingdom in the creation of the subordinate legislative or assembly powers in Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales. Devolution has several aims which largely involve the overarching wish to allow a degree of self-government to members who form part of a larger state with the intention of creating a broader harmony; devolution also aims to move away from the over-centralisation of power in one area.
In assessing the position of the United Kingdom at present with regards to devolution it is certainly necessary to observe the individual reasons for which the UK Parliament felt it necessary to devolve power to these separate regions. Generally, the leading impetus which eventually brought about the devolution of power to Scotland within the Scotland Act 1998 was the gradual rise in nationalism which had been brewing in the country for many years.
Under the eighteen years with the Conservatives in power the Scots seem to have been treated unsympathetically with regard to legislation; this can easily be witnessed by the trial of a conversion poll tax on Scottish people before bringing it to England. Events such as this would certainly have proven to be a large affront to Scottish national pride which would have aided the notion that they ought to be given their independence. In addition it seems clear that the fire of nationalism was fuelled by the effective tantalizing prospect of devolution in 1977.
Here the Labour government withdrew their plans for Scottish devolution after much planning on the basis of impracticability. It seems clear therefore that the events leading up to Scottish devolution and so providing reasons for the act itself were the feeling that Scotland was improperly represented by a combined United Kingdom Parliament. Bogdanor certainly seems to concur with this in stating that "devolution was a solution to the perceived lack of legitimacy of British government, in the non-English parts of the United Kingdom, and particularly Scotland"1
The position of Northern Ireland when devolution was granted during the Belfast Agreement 1998 was one not dissimilar to Scotland yet on a larger and wholly more violent scale. A devolved assembly was necessary for the continued government of Northern Ireland "as a major part of the peace process aimed at securing a permanent move away from the use of armed force as an ever-present element in Northern Ireland politics"2.
The conflicting party nature of Northern Ireland was, according to Bradley and Ewing, reflected in the nature of the devolution of powers to them as "a complex system of power sharing between the main parties. "3 Wales' devolution seems to bear very different roots to the other two regions as is reflected, as will be seen, in the powers afforded to it under the devolution.
On one hand it can be seen that, similarly to Scotland, Wales was isolated by a Conservative government and so devolution could be viewed as an attempt to reconcile the Welsh with the Westminster Parliament once again. However, it could certainly be seen that Wales lacked the nationalistic feeling or uprising of the other two nations and so devolution was perhaps granted as a conciliatory measure to prevent this and to give the illusion of fairness and balance throughout the regions of the UK.
It seems fairly obvious that there are clearly differing reasons for which devolution has been brought about to each of the members of the United Kingdom ad this is reflected in the powers which are granted to the states under the devolution. Mccrudden views this 'pragmatism' as a traditional British approach in which disparate differences require disparate treatments. It would seem counter-productive and counter-intuitive to implement symmetric devolution to areas which are in fact completely asymmetric in aims and reasons for wanting devolution.
It is clear that the measures taken in Northern Ireland to reconcile conflicting groups would have been wholly unnecessary in either Scotland or Wales where inter-conflict was not an issue. It is now necessary, before assessing whether devolution is in fact asymmetric, to look generally at the powers which were given to each region in the individual acts which granted them devolved powers from UK Parliament.
The main administrative feature of Scottish devolution was the implementation of a unicameral system of government which used the Additional Member System which is a proportional representation system. The new Scottish Parliament was also afforded broad powers of legislation, however, with certain limitations which only Westminster could legislate on such as defence of the realm, finance and the economy, trade, industry and employment.
Another limitation upon the Scottish legislative body laid down in section 29(1) of the Scotland Act4 is that any Scottish legislation which goes beyond its competence and concerns 'reserved matter' should not be considered law. Financially too the Scottish Parliament was given benefits which applied solely to them such as the rules on taxation whereby the Scottish Parliament possess the power to raise or lower tax by three pence in each pound.
Another financial feature which seems to concur with Winetrobe's views that "the devolved institutions' financial responsibilities are mainly restricted to expenditure issues, rather than income or revenue side of the public accounts"5 is that of the Barnett formula. This formula is the one which is used to calculate the grant which Westminster Parliament gives to the Scottish devolved Parliament who has discretion as to the spending of the money.
It is for this reason that Scotland has the unusual power to offer social benefits such as free tuition fees for students or improved disability care. Under the Wales Act 1998, similarly a national assembly was created, however this assembly lacked the legislative freedom which had been given to Scotland and indeed had no primary legislative powers and was only permitted secondary legislation under a framework enacted by Westminster Parliament – "the body was a single executive body, setting and implementing policies…
within the frameworks created by… Westminster"6. Whilst there are eighteen clear areas in which Wales holds responsibility such as agriculture, education and economic development, Hadfield still notes that the assembly is lacking a document listing the full range of the Assembly's powers as well as clarity on what has been devolved and what will be. 7 Northern Ireland was similarly given its own Assembly however in this the proportional representation system of Single Transferable Vote was implemented.
Similarly to the other regions there are exceptions to the devolution such as defence, immigration, elections and political parties; also, again similarly to Scotland, there is a clause which states that the assembly cannot legislate outside of its competence. It is not difficult to see that devolution is asymmetric in many respects; what is also clear is that the independence afforded to Wales is on a much lower scale than to Scotland or Northern Ireland.
Sir Emyr Jones-Parry noted that "there was a general feeling that the differences in settlements of Scotland and Wales are unfair". The powers allowed to Wales seem to reflect far more those given to local government than a separate Parliament. It is certain that Wales enjoys none of the features of the Scotland Act such as tax-variation powers, powers of primary legislation and in addition, executive powers in Wales cannot be exercised by ministers.
Bradley and Ewing enhances this local government comparison in stating that the executive powers are afforded directly to the Assembly and are exercised by the committees. It could be viewed that this asymmetric nature is perfectly fair when one takes into account the "two countries' very different constitutional and governmental history. "8 There is certainly, however, a justification for the imparity of powers between these regions.
More powers in Scotland can be clearly traced back to the tide of nationalism which had to be stopped by affording greater powers. Similarly, the situation in Northern Ireland of civil politics and growing violence is incomparable with the pacifist situation in Wales where neither strong nationalism nor violence made extreme power devolution at all necessary. It must be said, in contrast, that there are some similarities and symmetrical features which exist between the separate instances of devolution however they appear largely administrative in nature.
One of these features is that Wales, much like Scotland, is funded by a grant from Westminster with a discretionary expenditure priority system. In addition the system of safeguards on legislation which exists for all of the regions shows a certain fairness whereby none of the regions is ultimately above or equal to the UK Parliament. A further manner in which devolution of powers in the UK can be seen to be wholly asymmetrical is the failure to implement any plans for the devolution of powers to England when every other member state has, at least, some measures in place.
Calls for a devolved English Parliament would certainly not lack justification when the 85% of the population of the UK who live in England are currently underrepresented with regard to a separate assembly. One definite explanation for this could be the lack of any strong English nationalism of the kind experienced throughout either Scotland or Northern Ireland; this, however, was the case in Wales yet devolution was still allowed to them perhaps for balance and so why not England? There are proposals as to ways which this imbalance could be reconciled yet these seem, on the whole, to be ineffective.
The first of these is to form an English Parliament and whilst this would pacify the criticisms relating to the imbalance and establish England's position in the UK, it would also create a UK which was "so unbalanced as to be unworkable. It would be dominated by the overwhelming political importance and wealth of England"9. Another proposed solution is the splitting of England into separate regions with devolved bodies; whilst this would prevent the centralisation of power, it would still not be effective enough in repairing the asymmetry of devolution.
England's position seems to be a relatively stable one without the kind of need for any change which was presented by other regions and so perhaps it is satisfactory and sustainable to allow this position to continue. In any case, it is often considered by many British people that Westminster is the English Parliament and so this reinforces the lack of any real need for separatist aims with regard to powers.