A Union of Equals

Andrew – Year 13 Student

Editor’s Note: This article was first published in GSAL’s student-led Politics in Review magazine. CPD

The United Kingdom is often described as a union of equals, implying an equal partnership between the four constituencies of the United Kingdom. It is for this reason that devolved assemblies exist in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland as well as in London, which undermines the idea of the ‘equal union’. What is unclear, however, is how and if they function properly, and how powerful they really are. This is the question that I am seeking to answer in this article.

The Scottish Parliament was founded following a referendum on devolution in 1997, and the details were specified in the Scotland Act of 1998. The Parliament are able to legislate on any matter not reserved to the UK government, and that legislative function has been used very effectively to improve Scotland’s infrastructure. However, there are also significant limitations to what they can do even in areas of solely Scottish importance; for example, such as the presence of the TRIDENT Nuclear deterrent program at the Clyde Naval base, to which the current SNP government has made its opposition clear, yet as it is a matter of UK foreign policy and national security they are overlooked in favour of the current majority Westminster government. The same can be said of nuclear energy projects in Scotland. In addition, the majority of the Scottish Government’s funding comes in grants from the central government in Westminster, which highlights how dependent the success of the devolved government is upon the funding from Westminster.

The situation is very much the same in Wales. A referendum was held in 1997, the result was a very narrow yes, and the Government of Wales Act of 1998 established the National Assembly for Wales, which can determine how the government’s budget for Wales is spent, much like the Scottish parliament is able to do. The areas over which the National Assembly for Wales and government have exclusive jurisdiction are very similar to Scotland, though the Scottish government has more jurisdiction over matters to do with the criminal justice system than the Welsh government, from civil and criminal law to policing and prisons. They are also dependent upon Westminster for their budget as they too do not retain revenue that has been generated within their region.

Northern Ireland is a far more complicated matter than Wales and Scotland. The Good Friday Agreement of 1998 established a new, power sharing executive in Northern Ireland, with powers that go further than the devolved assemblies in Scotland and Wales necessary to satisfy the Irish republicans. The executive is dependent upon cooperation between Sinn Féin and the DUP. This, however, presents a real problem, as the assembly has not been properly functional since June 2017 due to a breakdown in trust between the two parties. This means that power has since remained in the hands of Westminster, to the degree that same-sex marriage and abortion were automatically legalised, as was already the case in the rest of the United Kingdom, suggesting that, in its current format, the Stormont assembly is a completely unreliable form of democracy. This is likely to continue given that the DUP and Sinn Féin are becoming more and more hostile towards each other, which is largely down to the Irish border issue that was created by Brexit.

One of the main problems with devolution across the UK is the Barnett formula, which is the method by which the three devolved governments receive their funding from Westminster. The basic premise of the formula is that for any money spent by the government in England, the devolved assemblies all receive the same amount but scaled down in proportion of population. Though the devolved governments are able to determine themselves what this money is spent on, the main criticism of this formula is that the system should be based more on need than a population-based proportion of whatever funding England receives. Even Joel Barnett, who devised the formula whilst working as Chief Secretary to the Treasury in 1978, has disavowed it, calling it a “terrible mistake”.

The other significant devolved power in the UK is the Greater London Authority, which consists of the executive, led by the mayor, and the assembly. Some of the authority’s main powers include control over police and fire services as well as transport and land-planning, so its powers are far smaller than those of the main devolved governments and assemblies across the UK. The existence of the Greater London Authority has caused its own controversy, as other parts of England, particularly the north, have felt underfunded by Westminster for a long time and would like to have a similar form of devolution to that of London.

Overall, it would seem that every major devolved assembly presents its own major stumbling blocks. The divisive sectarianism of politics prevents any sort of devolution at all in Northern Ireland, whilst being too closely tied to Westminster and a lack of say over certain areas pertinent to the devolved countries present a problem in Wales and Scotland, thereby limiting any sort of domestic agenda from properly addressing every issue they need to. The formation of the Greater London Authority raises a serious question about devolution being introduced across the rest of England, which suggests overall that devolution in Britain is not nearly as successful as it could be – and that introduction of further devolution is certainly a question that will be asked of this and future governments.


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