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Understanding devolution in Wales
Understanding devolution in Wales

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5.3 Comparisons with Scotland and Northern Ireland

In 1999, three of the four home nations were granted some form of devolution. This naturally leads to comparisons between the three – although comparisons between Wales and Scotland are far more prevalent given Northern Ireland’s recent history of conflict.

However, comparing Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland is not always instructive. There are many differences between the three which have led to diverging political situations.

Table 1 Home nation comparisons
  Scotland Wales Northern Ireland
History Scotland is both peaceful and relatively prosperous however there has been extensive discussion of its constitutional position over the last 50 years. Although it has seen economic decline, Wales has enjoyed a very stable peace for many decades. Discussion of radical constitutional change has been limited. Northern Ireland endured thirty years of violent conflict (“The Troubles”). Most of this violence ended with the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998. The devolved political institutions were a cornerstone of this peace.
Border geography The Scottish border is sparsely populated and commuting between Scotland and England to access work and services is limited. The Welsh border is populous. There is frequent commuting between Wales and England to access work and public services. Northern Ireland does not share a land border with the rest of the UK but with the Republic of Ireland. Those who live in border areas often commute to access work and public services.
Economy Scotland has several high value industries including North Sea oil, whisky and a significant financial services sector based in Edinburgh. Wales is a post-industrial nation which has struggled to replace the skilled jobs which have been lost in manufacturing and mining over the last century. Cardiff boasts a vibrant creative industries sector. Like Wales, Northern Ireland has struggled to replace heavy industry. Due to the Troubles, economic investment in NI has been limited historically but it is becoming a growing centre for FinTech and cyber-security.
Politics Labour were the dominant force in Scottish politics throughout the 20th century but the nationalist SNP won the Scottish Parliament election in 2007 and have been the largest party in Holyrood ever since. Labour dominate Welsh politics. Both the Conservatives and nationalist Plaid Cymru have well established presences but neither has come close to winning Senedd elections. Party politics are drawn along unionist and nationalist lines. Much of the population identifies with one of these ideologies.
Public institutions Scotland has always had its own church, education and legal systems. Many public institutions in Wales are part of a broader ‘England and Wales’ system. For example, the same qualifications are offered in Wales and England. NI has its own legal and educational systems. Churches (both Catholic and Protestant) are organised on an all-island basis as the organisation of dioceses predated the formation of Northern Ireland. Similarly some professional bodies operate on an all-island basis.
  • Why do you think there is such established opposition to devolution in Wales which does not exist in Scotland or Northern Ireland?

  • While all three nations were granted a degree of devolved government at the same time, the historical factors which led to that point were very different in all three cases. Support for Welsh devolution has always lagged behind the other two nations. The significant shortcomings in the settlement meant that Welsh politicians spent much of the first few years of devolution engaging in arcane discussions which did not feel relevant to the majority of people. Consequently, anti-devolutionist political positions became entrenched in some quarters.

Further reading - The State of the Union

The complex links between all parts of the British Isles are explored in an Open University video ‘The State of the Union’, which is a conversation between Professor Linda Colley and Professor Richard Wyn Jones. Links can be found in the Further Reading section.