Printable page generated Thursday, 15 Nov 2018, 13:33

The politics of devolution


This course should take you about 8 hours to study if you attempt the recommended exercises and make summary notes of its key points. Doing so will allow you to practise the crucial academic skill of summary and précis – extracting the gist of an argument – which will be of particular help if you go on to study in related areas: perhaps the related politics courses on the OpenLearn website or in the Open University courses from which they come.

This OpenLearn course provides a sample of Level 1 study in Sociology.

Learning outcomes

After studying this course, you should be able to:

  • understand the process of political devolution in the UK

  • relate this process to both historical developments and to the wider context of contemporary events in Europe

  • practise the skill of reading, summarising and evaluating academic arguments

  • engage more actively as a citizen in relevant political debates (especially if you are a citizen of Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland!).

1 The politics of devolution

This course examines the politics of devolution and the relationships between the various nations that constitute the UK. It does so by examining the transformation of the UK from a centralised unitary state into a decentralised unitary state. (If you want a quick summary of the terms of devolution, you will find one in Section 5.5.) The course shows how the devolution process grew out of a long history, and how it is continuing in the context of ongoing political change in the UK, Europe and a world increasingly shaped by the forces of globalisation. A central theme of the discussion to follow is the relation between the centre and the periphery: that is, the contrast between those spaces where power and resources tend to concentrate (the political centre) and those other areas which somehow become or are considered marginal (the periphery)

Before going any further, lets define some possibly unfamiliar key terms. To call the UK a unitary state is to say that it is one in which political power ultimately resides in a central and sovereign UK parliament. A unitary state, embracing one large political unit, can be contrasted to a federal state, comprising several political units. Unlike in a unitary state, the units of a federal state are not mere local or regional authorities subordinate to a dominant central power. Such units that form a federation are states with state rights themselves (Burgess and Gagnon, 1993, p. 5). As Elazar (1997, p. 12) argues, ‘the very essence of federation as a particular form of union is self-rule plus shared rule’. Among many others, the UK, Spain, Italy and France are unitary states, while Germany, Canada, the United States of America, Switzerland and India are federal states.

A further relevant distinction, which impacts on the study of centre–periphery relations in the UK, concerns the difference between centralised and decentralised unitary states. A centralised unitary state, which governs its peoples from a central sovereign parliament, excludes the possibility of devolving any substantial powers to its territorially based minority national or ethnic groups. In some cases, the state may appoint a special representative for the area, responsible for the distribution of state subsidies and the administration of the area or region, but such a representative is usually accountable to the central parliament, not to a regional government (Guibernau, 1999, p. 35). In contrast, a decentralised unitary state does devolve some powers to regionally elected institutions while ultimately maintaining the sovereignty of its central parliament. The degree of devolution varies in each case. It ranges from very minor decentralisation structures, as illustrated by the division of France into départements, through the considerable political autonomy enjoyed by the 17 autonomous communities created in Spain after 1978, to the post-1997 devolution model adopted by the UK which provides differential degrees of political autonomy to the Scottish Parliament, the National Assembly for Wales and the Northern Ireland Assembly.

Centre–periphery relations in the UK are best explored by reference to the origins of modern Britain and the different histories of the nations that make up the contemporary UK. The complexity in this relationship can be illustrated by three approaches. First, by considering the connection between England, Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and the various regions within them. Second, by examining the relationship between London and other UK cities. Third, by exploring the internal complexities that arise from social, ethnic and religious differences and interests in the UK. Such complexities can be found within both the centre and the periphery.

This course also considers the politics of devolution in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland and looks at the prospects for regional government in England. At a supra-state level, centre–periphery relations are altered by the UK's membership of the European Union as regionalism plays an increasing role within the EU.


State models can be divided according to whether power and sovereignty are or are not shared and devolved in the following ways:

  • Unitary state. All powers reside in a central sovereign parliament. Power is not shared.

  • Federal state. Constituted by sovereign units. Power is divided between one central and several regional governments.

  • Centralised state. Excludes any form of devolution to its minority national and ethnic groups.

  • Decentralised state. Prepared to devolve some powers to regionally elected institutions while retaining sovereignty in its central parliament.

2 The making of the UK

2.1 England

England played a dominant role in the medieval history of Britain, and the history of the UK is undoubtedly the history of the political and cultural power of England in comparison to Scotland, Wales and Ireland. In the making of the UK, each component nation played a different role: the English and Scottish kingdoms, the incorporation of Wales into the English Crown, and the subjugation of Ireland. The making of the UK was complex and fraught with violent confrontations, particularly virulent in the case of Ireland.

England's leading role in the creation of Britain can partly be explained by its ability, in the latter part of the Anglo-Saxon period, to annex and control smaller kingdoms under the rule of a single monarch. England enjoyed a common legal and fiscal framework, as well as a single church organisation (Llobera, 1994, p. 23). The Viking invasions did not radically change this picture nor erode the sense of English identity that had already been created. It is widely accepted that England was ‘one of the first European countries to exhibit a sense of unity and identity, and that this was achieved long before the [Norman] Conquest. By the ninth century Alfred could be referred to as king of the English’ (Reynolds, 1984; Greenfeld, 1992). It is remarkable that the Norman invasion of England in 1066, and the subsequent elimination of the indigenous aristocracy, did not bring about the centrifugal effects typical of feudalism in other Western European countries. Yet as William I superimposed an alien dynasty and aristocracy on an already structured and unified kingdom, the consequence of such a move was that provincial dynasties able to challenge the central power of the monarchy were eliminated in post-Norman England.

2.2 Scotland

Having enjoyed political independence until 1707, the survival of many of Scotland's institutions – notably its systems of law, religion and education – after Union with England contributed to the preservation of its singular identity. The different way in which Scotland began to be incorporated into the UK, through monarchical ascent (of James I of Scotland to the English throne) rather than by conquest (as was the case in Wales and Ireland), may account for the lesser impact the development of the UK exerted on Scottish distinctiveness.

In 1296, Edward I forced the submission of John Balliol, King of Scotland, with ease. Subsequently, William Wallace led national resistance against the English, winning the Battle of Stirling Bridge (1297), losing at Falkirk (1298) before being executed in London (1305).

In 1306, Robert Bruce (Robert I) rose in revolt and was crowned the King of Scots, defeating the English army of Edward II at Bannockburn (1314). In 1320, the Scots Nobles sent a letter to Pope John XXII to persuade him of the legitimacy of King Robert the Bruce. This was a patriotic address known as the Declaration of Arbroath, invariably quoted as the first nationalist statement in Western Europe. The Declaration referred to Robert the Bruce as ‘King of Scots’, not King of Scotland, portraying the image of a limited monarch of a people, not only a ruler of the land. Successively, James VI, King of Scotland, became King James I of England in 1603, adopting the title of ‘King of Great Britain, France and Ireland’ in October 1604.

Following the Civil War and the beheading of Charles I, England was proclaimed a free Commonwealth ruled by the army under Oliver Cromwell's leadership. Although Scotland immediately proclaimed King Charles II as monarch, Cromwell invaded and defeated Scottish Royalists to offset this. Subsequently, following the Restoration of the English monarchy in 1660, the Act of Union of Parliaments was passed in 1707 enacting a full and incorporating union between England and Scotland. This meant that the Scots gave up their political independence.

In 1715, and again in 1745, the Jacobites attempted to break the Union, but were unsuccessful. Despite such opposition, it is open to debate whether the Scots consented to the Act of Union, or had it imposed upon them. Nonetheless, while Scotland was now governed at Westminster, the Union between England, Scotland and Wales did preserve the Kirk (the Scottish Church), as well as maintain distinctively Scottish forms of law and education, all of which contributed to a Scottish identity.

Figure 1
Figure 1 Presentation of the Treaty of the Union between England and Scotland to Queen Anne © National Galleries of Scotland

2.3 Wales

In 1282, Edward I conquered Wales and the Statute of Rhuddlan (or Statute of Wales, 1284) established English rule. Rather than involve the assimilation of the Welsh by the English the conquest saw ‘a colonial system … established in those parts of Llywelyn's Principality which were by 1284 in the hands of the king’ (Davies, 1991, p. 166). In 1400, Owain Glyndwr led the most outstanding and successful rising in Wales against the new order and the tyranny of the English border barons, which almost led to the re-establishment of Welsh rule. Glyndwr sought to create an independent Wales that would have its own independent church and educational structure through the establishment of a system of Welsh universities. However, the accession of the Welsh Tudor dynasty to the English throne, following Henry Tudor's victory at the Battle of Bosworth Field in 1485, encouraged Welsh assimilation on the basis of equality with England. Wales was territorially structured according to the English model of the shires. Leading Welsh families held their land from the king, others became lease-holders and tenants after the English pattern, and the feudal aristocracy was received at the English court. But a deep breach, fostered by economic inequality, opened between landlord and tenant, one which remained unhealed for centuries.

The Act of Union of 1536 was in response to Henry VIII's wish to incorporate Wales within his realm. It meant the complete administrative assimilation of Wales into the English system. Welsh customary law was abolished and English was established as the sole language of legal proceedings. In 1543 the Court of Great Session was constituted, a system of courts modelled on the practice already used in the three counties which, since 1284, had formed the municipality of North Wales. The Court of Great Session remained the system of higher courts of Wales until 1830, when, against considerable opposition, it was abolished.

Figure 2
Figure 2 Illustration of Owain Glyndwr, by permission of Llyfrgell Genedlaethol Cymru/The National Library of Wales

The Catholic tradition died slowly in Wales under Elizabeth I and James I; Puritanism was strongly resisted and Oliver Cromwell had to employ oppressive measures to impose it. In the eighteenth century, Wales turned rapidly from the established church to embrace dissent with strong Calvinist leanings. In 1735, the church gathered large numbers of followers from the Church of England. This also helped contribute to the rise of an incipient Welsh nationalism, particularly as the desire to protect Welsh native culture from progressive Anglicisation rose in the eighteenth century.

The Industrial Revolution transformed Wales, threatening the traditional ways of rural life, leading to protests such as the Rebecca Riots in 1843. Industrialisation also prompted the radical exploitation of the mineral wealth of Wales, particularly coal, which additionally transformed the life of Welsh people. Chronic poverty and increasing unemployment intensified in Wales before and after the First World War, continuing almost unchecked until the Second World War as the Great Depression hit hard. After 1945, as the Labour government drew substantial support from its electoral socialist stronghold of South Wales, nationalisation prompted a full-scale programme of industrial development. Yet, while the Scottish Office had been established in 1885, the Welsh Office was only set up in 1964. Here, while the Welsh celebrated their national identity, particularly in cultural terms, the political integration of Wales within the English-dominated UK meant than ‘Welshness’ was not as distinctive a national force as was ‘Scottishness’ north of the border.

2.4 Northern Ireland

Ireland was long considered a de facto province of England, a colonial possession dominated politically and militarily by its more powerful neighbour to the east. The English divided Ireland into counties for administrative purposes, introduced English law and established a Parliament in England and Ireland in 1297, within which only the Anglo-Irish were represented. By the fourteenth century Irish discrimination by the English had prompted widespread protests, which had resulted in a revival of the Irish language, law and culture, particularly as English power was seen to diminish. Yet, the recognition of Henry VIII as King of Ireland in 1541 led to the confiscation of monastic property and the isolation of would be rebels, many of whom had their lands confiscated. The beginnings of the Plantation of Ulster, the pronounced migration of Scots to the northern counties of Ireland, Ulster, dates from the beginning of the seventeenth century. Thus Ulster became a province dominated by Protestant, Scottish planters, while the native Irish, continuing to claim allegiance to the proscribed Catholic Church, became landless and displaced by the colonisers. The Plantation of Ulster can be considered as the starting point of an historical process which has resulted in the contemporary ‘troubles’ between Unionist and Republican, Protestant and Catholic.

In 1653 a union of the three kingdoms of England, Scotland and Ireland was secured. By this Act of Settlement, Ireland was portrayed as a conquered territory. By that time Ulster had become the most British and most Protestant part of Ireland, although a large Irish Catholic population was also located there, and the rest of Ireland remained Catholic. James II, a Catholic King of England and Scotland, sought to reverse Roman Catholic discrimination, but was challenged by William III, a Protestant, who defeated him and his Catholic supporters at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690, an event still commemorated by Unionists in contemporary Ulster.

Figure 3
Figure 3 Contemporary wall mural of the Battle of the Boyne in Northern Ireland © Nezumi Dumousseau

At the beginning of the eighteenth century, the Williamite wars reinforced Catholic discrimination by imposing the Penal Laws excluding Catholics from the army, preventing them from taking part in politics and depriving them of access to education (Jenkins, 1997, p. 93). Particularly repressive conditions in County Armagh gave rise to bitter sectarian strife. In 1795 a battle between Catholics and Protestants at the Diamond encouraged the creation of the Unionist Orange Society, which was later known as the Orange Order, organised to protect Protestant interests. The Act of Union of 1801 put Protestants under the formal protection of the British – now the Union – Parliament.

In 1829 Roman Catholics were emancipated, the British Test Act provided political equality for most purposes, but did little to alleviate discrimination in Ireland for all but the landed gentry. Still, the dramatic success of the Roman Catholic Daniel O'Connell's emancipation movement provoked Protestant hostility and led to its violent suppression in 1843. The nineteenth century witnessed a succession of Irish crises. Foremost among these was the Great Famine of the 1840s which desolated the countryside (Hayden, 1997), forcing large numbers of Irish people to migrate to the British mainland, North America, Australia and New Zealand. In Ulster, particularly in the industrial powerhouse of Belfast, Protestants held the monopoly of skilled jobs. Catholics were to be mostly found in non-skilled jobs, a divide which still exists in contemporary Northern Ireland.

The late nineteenth century saw ‘Britain's Irish Question’ elevated to the top of the political agenda. Prompted by a conservative Irish nationalist movement, successive Liberal governments attempted to introduce some degree of Irish self-government in the form of ‘Irish Home Rule’. Unsuccessful in 1886 and 1893, due to the determined opposition of Protestant Unionists and English Conservatives (and Liberal Unionists, too), a bill was finally passed in 1914, only for Home Rule to be postponed once the First World War began that August. Soon, however, the peaceful and conservative Irish campaign for Home Rule found itself displaced by a radical Republican movement for Irish independence, which organised an abortive uprising in Dublin at Easter 1916 which declared an Irish Republic. The harsh British repression of the Easter Rising, which saw the summary execution of the ringleaders of the revolt, lead to the rise of Sinn Fein, the emergence of a guerrilla force, the Irish Republican Army (the IRA), and the Irish War of Independence, 1919–21. Escalating violence further divided the country into the Republican majority and the Protestant minority located in the enclave of Ulster. It led to an unsustainable situation culminating in the Government of Ireland Act 1920 which divided the country into two self-governing parts.

As a result, Northern Ireland was formed by six of the nine counties of Ulster which remained within the British state. Ulster Protestants opposed leaving the UK and rejected the possibility of becoming a minority within a largely Catholic Irish state. The three remaining counties of Ulster, together with the 26 counties of the rest of Ireland, left the UK to become a dominion of the British Empire known as the Irish Free State. Eamon de Valera became its first president. In 1937, de Valera replaced the title of the Irish Free State with the word Eire (Ireland) and in 1949 Britain recognised Ireland as an independent republic and consolidated the position of Northern Ireland as a united province with England. Sadly, the partition of Ireland did little to promote a political settlement between the Unionist majority and the Republican minority in Northern Ireland. This inevitably lead to widespread conflict and a de facto civil war in the 1970s and 1980s, widening a political chasm which the post-1994 peace process and the paramilitary ceasefires have begun to bridge.

2.5 Summary of Section 1

  • England, Scotland and Wales are nations.

  • Wales was conquered by the English in 1282 and its parliamentary union with England took place in 1536.

  • The United Kingdom of Great Britain was formed by the Act of Union of 1707, although the term Great Britain had been in use since 1603, when James VI of Scotland became James I of England (including Wales). Later unions created the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland and, after 1921, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

3 Nation, state and nation-state

3.1 What makes a nation, a state or a nation-state?

Why do England, Scotland and Wales take part in the Six Nations rugby championship alongside Italy, Ireland and France? Are they all ‘nations’? What do we mean by calling them ‘nations’? The nation has become one of the most contested concepts of our times. Scholars, politicians and political activists present different definitions of the nation, usually focusing on a variety of cultural, political, psychological, territorial, ethnic and sociological principles. The lack of an agreement on what constitutes the nation suggests there is some difficulty in dealing with such a complex phenomenon. The crux of the matter probably embraces the link that has been established between nation and state and to the common practice of using the nation as a source of political legitimacy. Recognition as a nation grants different rights to a community that claims to comprise a single national unit. It usually implies an attachment to a particular territory, a shared culture and history and the assertion of the right to self-determination. Of course, as we shall see, nations are not internally homogeneous and are affected by internal and external migration flows. Yet, to define a specific community as a nation involves the more or less explicit acceptance of the legitimacy of the state which claims to represent that nation. If the nation does not possess a state of its own, it then implicitly acknowledges the nation's right to self-government involving some degree of political autonomy. This, in turn, may or may not lead to a claim for independence or secession from the state which claims sovereignty over the nation.

The nation, however, cannot be viewed in isolation and a clear-cut distinction has to be drawn between three main concepts: state, nation and nation-state. Max Weber defines the 'state’ as ‘a human community that (successfully) claims the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force within a given territory’ (Weber et al., 1991, p. 78). The concept ‘nation’ refers to ‘a human group conscious of forming a community, sharing a common culture, attached to a clearly demarcated territory, having a common past and a common project for the future and claiming the right to rule itself’ (Guibernau, 1996, p. 47). This definition attributes five dimensions to the nation:

  • psychological (consciousness of forming a group)

  • cultural

  • territorial

  • political

  • historical.

People who share such characteristics are referred to as having a common national identity. It is the sharing of a common national identity, expressed in terms of culture, language, religion, ways of life, common memories, shared past experiences and territory, that makes people feel they belong to the same community and have a certain degree of solidarity towards their fellow-nationals. However, a nation-state, being different from a nation and a state, has to be distinguished from the other two. The nation-state is a modern political institution. First, it is a state that both claims and exercises the monopoly of the legitimate use of force within a demarcated territory. Second, it is a state that seeks to unite the people subjected to its rule by means of homogenisation, creating a common culture, symbols, values, reviving traditions and myths of origin, and sometimes inventing them. In seeking to engender a sense of belonging among its citizens the nation-state demands their loyalty and fosters their national identity.

The nation-state aspires to consolidate the nation where it already exists, but, should the nation-state rule over a territory containing different nations, parts of nations or ethnic groups, it tends to prioritise the culture and language of a particular nation. These then become dominant under the state's protection. For instance, at its inception, the Spanish state imposed the Castilian language and culture on the various peoples living within its territory, notably Catalonia and the Basque country, which had previously enjoyed their own independent institutions and laws. In the case of Catalonia, these institutions were dismantled after 1714 as Spanish troops conquered and occupied Barcelona.

The nation-state has exercised control of institutions and laws, the national media and the national education system. It has variously sought to nominate and promote a single official language, sometimes a single religion, and disseminated a specific version of the nation-state's history based on remembering, ignoring or forgetting certain key events, and recovering and inventing national symbols, ceremonies, rituals, heroes, sacred places and traditions. Such strategies have been consistently employed in order to create and sustain a homogeneous national identity among its citizens. However, numerous examples prove that very few nation-states have managed to successfully homogenise their populations. Differences have prevailed in spite of the nation-state's historical strategies to instil a common identity among its otherwise diverse citizenry.

3.2 Sub-state forms of nationalism

The advancement of democracy in contemporary Western nation-states and the intensification of globalisation processes have encouraged the re-emergence of nationalist movements representing oppressed or silenced nations that demand the right to self-determination. In the case of ethnic groups formed by people of immigrant origin, democracy has provided them with the tools to pursue the right to develop and practice their indigenous culture and language alongside those of the host country. One very important point in any theory of ethnicity concerns its dual nature: there is an ethnicity that members of a group claim and feel for themselves, but there is also the ethnicity which is attributed to them by others. There is also the more complex possibility that the claimed or felt ethnicity of group members may be shaped by that which is attributed to them by others. Although nation-states often corrode subordinate ethnicities, some nation-states may define themselves as ‘multicultural’ or ‘multi-ethnic’. This is the case in the UK, and also in the USA and other countries.

The rise of sub-state forms of nationalism in Europe and elsewhere can be interpreted as being a product of globalisation. The globalisation of the economy and social relations has contributed to the transformation of the nation-state and also seems to have contributed to the intensification of regional forms of nationalism. Globalisation, which involves greater awareness of diversity as it stresses interdependence between peoples, markets and cultures, is not an even process. Access to the technology that facilitates globalisation is restricted to certain nations, individuals and groups being dependent on certain means and resources. On the one hand, globalisation contains the potential for creating a world in which a greater number of cultures interact with one another. On the other, it also contains the potential for cultural homogenisation, where a single culture expands globally to the detriment of other cultures. This perceived threat is one of the key factors contributing to the revitalisation of minority cultures, many of which are struggling to find a niche in the global marketplace. Control over education and the mass media are crucial for nations who wish to promote their own languages and specific cultures. However, these nations should acknowledge that their languages and cultures will have to survive alongside more powerful ones that are gradually permeating – and influencing – all aspects of life. Minority cultures struggling to survive can only do so by entering an unequal contest with a major global culture.

One of the key elements in the construction of national identity is a shared history formed by memories of a community having suffered and thrived together. Making history not only involves selecting some specific events critical to the life of the nation, but also includes the collective forgetting of some events. It even leads to the modification and invention of memorable and dramatic experiences endured by the community. History emphasizes the transcendent character of the nation, expanding well beyond the life span of any individual. Equally importantly, history also portrays the nation as a community of fate.


  1. Briefly, note down what is meant by the terms state, nation, and nation-state.

  2. What does it mean to say that Scotland and Wales are nations without states?


1. Your answer should include the points listed below.

  • The state is a political institution.

  • The nation refers to a cultural community attached to a clearly demarcated territory, having a common past and a common project for the future and claiming the right to rule itself.

  • The nation-state is a modern political institution, defined by a type of state which seeks to unite the people subjected to its rule by means of cultural homogenisation. Most nation-states are not homogeneous and contain various minority national and ethnic groups within their territory.

2. Although Scotland and Wales are recognisable nations in the terms set out above, they are presently sub-units of the larger nation-state of the UK. The powers they exercise under their devolved Parliament are curtailed: for example they have no powers to determine foreign or defence policy. A nation-state has a full range of state institutions – legislature, executive, armed forces, civil service, etc; in theory it exercises full powers over its own territory in matters of politics and economics; and part of its claim to sovereignty includes a monopoly of the legitimate use of force within its territory. Thus you can understand that for some areas of Belfast (both Republican and Unionist) to be ‘no-go’ areas for the police and army represented a serious challenge to the state.

4 Defining centre and periphery

4.1 National identities and UK politics

Why do British people speak ‘English’ and not ‘British’? Why is it easier to travel from London to any British city than to travel from Bedford to Leamington Spa? Why are the (British) National Gallery, the British Museum and the British Library all in London? Why does London house the Stock Exchange? This has to do with the pivotal role played by England in the constitution of the UK and by the designation of London as the capital of the UK.

Within any given country, we are likely to be able to establish a distinction between centre and periphery. The centre generally exerts political, economic and cultural power over the periphery, which is always dependent, tends to lack resources and often suffers from insufficient investment. The distinction between centre and periphery manifests itself, at least, at three different levels.

First, between the dominant nation or ethnic group within the country and the other nations and ethnic groups. For example, England's centrality in relation to Wales or Scotland. Second, between the country's capital city and other cities. For example, London in relation to Cardiff, Belfast or Edinburgh. Third, between different areas within the same nation. For example, the Scottish Lowlands, where the majority of the Scots live, the greatest concentration of Scottish industry is located and the main Scottish cities (Edinburgh and Glasgow) are placed, acts as a centre in relation to the Hebrides and the Highlands.

What are the consequences of being situated at the centre or in the periphery? If we return to the distinction between England and Scotland or Wales, we can observe that:

  • England contains the capital city of the UK in which key institutions of the state are located.
  • The Queen has her main residence in London.
  • The greatest concentration of jobs and industry are in England, although England does not enjoy an even distribution of industry itself: in terms of prosperity the south-east predominates. This illustrates the notion that peripheries are also to be found within a central area and the other way round (centres within peripheral areas).
  • All foreign consulates and embassies have their key representatives in London, although some of them may have further representatives in other cities.
  • England was the heart of the British Empire and led the emergence of the Union by incorporating with itself, through various means, Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland.
  • English, the language which originated in England, has become the language spoken by the majority of the British people (although some British citizens may not be able to speak it, and the government has decided to implement some measures to change this and make competence in English a requirement for British citizenship). Also, English is the language spoken in a number of Commonwealth countries and those countries formed by a substantial number of immigrants originating in the UK; for example, the USA, Australia, New Zealand and Canada.

Therefore, we can see some of the consequences of being located at the centre. For instance, the centre holds the most powerful governance institutions, and it enjoys greater economic and financial activity, generally resulting in greater wealth. In short, the centre rules, although it is also a place of vast contrasts. London has some of the poorest communities in the entire UK

Now consider how the place where you live relates to others in terms of centre and periphery. You will discover that the same place may act as a ‘centre’ in some cases and as a ‘periphery’ in some other contexts. For example, Edinburgh represents the periphery when compared with London, but Edinburgh is the centre when considered in relation to Aberdeen or Lerwick. If we consider the EU, then Brussels stands as the centre and the UK and London are located in Europe's periphery, not only for geographical reasons but also because of the UK's decision not to join the euro. This illustrates the complexity of the centre–periphery relationship and the different factors that can be employed when measuring a city, a region, and even a country's status as a centre or periphery.

The struggle for power and resources, which takes place between the centre and the periphery but also takes place within the periphery, may complicate matters even further. For example, devolution to Northern Ireland has resulted in the enhancement of Belfast as a capital city, placed within the UK's periphery and turned into a stronger centre within Northern Ireland. Yet the existence of sharp internal divisions between Unionists and Republicans adds greater complexity to the development of Belfast and Northern Ireland in general. For instance, it could be argued that confrontation between radical sectors of the Unionist and the Republican communities reveal fragility and great difficulty in implementing any development project for the area. Hence, internal conflict within a periphery can result in the perpetuation of its peripheral status by hampering investment and disrupting development plans which, to succeed, require the support of the whole community. Yet, some Unionists feel that their dominant position within Northern Ireland is being threatened by devolution. For this reason, they fear and oppose change. In contrast, the majority of the Republican movement has supported devolution, although some have been disillusioned at the impasse the peace process has often found itself at, typified by the suspensions of the Northern Ireland Assembly and its power sharing executive (the Assembly and other devolved institutions were dissolved in 2000, then several times in 2002 and again in 2003, before the St Andrews agreement of 2006 led to restoration in 2007). A long history of mistrust, suffering and violence cuts across both communities, factors which have undoubtedly played a key role in the perpetuation of Northern Ireland's peripheral economic status, marked by low investment, high unemployment and a lower standard of living than the rest of the UK.

A further question concerns how those who belong to the periphery feel about their own status. Usually, awareness of one's peripheral position is not very pleasant and people tend to develop a feeling of resentment against the privileges they perceive as being enjoyed by others. In the UK, the centrality of England has contributed to the fostering of nationalist feelings in both Scotland and Wales, which have been dependent on English rule exerted from London for considerable time. The demand for some degree of autonomy for Scotland and Wales has been closely connected with the desire of the Scots and Welsh to reverse the peripheral role their nations have played for centuries.

While nationalist movements in Scotland and Wales invoke various arguments, such movements invariably appeal to history, evoking the time when their nations were free and enjoyed their own independent institutions. They blame the homogenising policies imposed by England for the weakening of their indigenous languages and cultures. Their grievances include complaints about lack of investment and outside exploitation of their natural resources with little local benefit, as Scottish Nationalists claimed in regard to North Sea oil in the 1970s. A further argument employed by nationalists in Scotland and Wales, but also in Catalonia, Quebec, Flanders and Veneto, among many different nations without a state of their own, concerns their wish to strengthen democracy. In their view, devolution and self-determination, regardless of how they are defined, involve giving a voice to the people, increasing their participation and allowing those affected by decisions to have a greater influence over those decisions. This is why, among those who support nationalist claims in Scotland and Wales, we find not only people who invoke historical, cultural, symbolic and emotional arguments, but also those who see devolution as a step forward in the development of democratic practices. This feeling was felt strongly among a substantial number of Labour activists and voters who have embraced devolution even though they oppose the idea of an independent Scotland.

After the 1997 general election the Labour government undertook a programme of far reaching constitutional reform that began to transform the UK from a unitary state, ruled by the centre, into a decentralised unitary state. Its programme of Scottish and Welsh devolution was a response to longstanding demands for autonomy advanced by most of the people of Scotland and Wales.


  1. Write down simply what defines a political ‘centre’ in these terms, and what constitutes a ‘periphery’. How do these differences show themselves?

  2. Can a political centre also be regarded as a periphery?


1. Your answer should include the points listed below.

  • Within any given country, there is a distinction between centre and periphery.

  • The centre exerts political, economic and cultural power over the periphery.

  • The relationship between the centre and the periphery manifests itself in national and ethnic differences and at the city and the regional level.

  • The distinction between the centre and the periphery finds expression in geographical, economic, political and cultural terms.

  • The struggle for power and resources not only takes place between the centre and the periphery, but it also exists within the centre and within the periphery.

2. A political centre, like London in the UK, in comparison to which Edinburgh and Cardiff (not to mention Shetland and Aberystwyth!) are peripheral, is itself peripheral compared to the power centre of the EC (not to mention Washington, the political centre of the world's greatest military and economic power). In other words, a smaller political system is like a little cluster of stars within a larger galaxy).

5 Governance beyond Westminster: the politics of devolution

5.1 The UK model of devolution

In its programme of devolution, the Labour government had to decide whether to adopt a symmetric decentralisation model, which would confer an equal degree of devolution to the UK's constituent nations, or to implement an asymmetric decentralisation model, which would grant differing degrees of autonomy to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. They opted for the second model in an attempt to respond to different claims about self-determination and to react to different degrees of national identity emerging in Scotland and Wales. Asymmetry also weakened arguments for a UK 'federation' or federalism.

The UK model stands in sharp contrast with the symmetric decentralisation implemented in Germany after the Second World War, where all its Länder enjoy political autonomy, and in post-Francoist Spain, where its 17 autonomous communities are due to enjoy similar powers once the decentralisation process is completed. Devolution in the UK has been confined to Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, omitting the 85 per cent of the population that lives in England.. Some argue that in the omission of English regions lies at the heart of inherent instability in the UK decentralisation model, quite apart from the different devolution ‘settlements’ already in place for Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. In what follows, I examine the post-1997 UK devolution process. At this point, it is worth considering that democratic-, economic- and identity-based arguments are combined and play a different part in each of the following cases.

5.2 Devolution in Scotland

Scotland endured a long and complicated process towards self-determination. In a 1979 referendum, the Scots voted in favour of the Labour government proposals to establish a Scottish Parliament, but, thanks to a special majority provision requiring at least 40 per cent of the registered electorate to vote in favour, devolution was rejected when only 32.9 per cent of the electorate voted in favour in the referendum.

Figure 4
Figure 4 Referendum campaigners for devolution in Scotland, 1997 © Sutton-Hibbert/Rex Features

Subsequently, after 1988, a Scottish Constitutional Convention comprising political parties (Labour and the Liberal Democrats, but not the Scottish National Party), churches, unions and other civic groups began campaigning for change. Once in government, Labour organised referendums on devolution, which were held on 11 September 1997; 74.3 per cent of the Scots who voted, voted for a Scottish Parliament and 63.5 per cent voted to give it tax-raising powers. Once the devolved institutions were established, Scotland's status within the UK was transformed. In domestic policy terms it is no longer governed by the Scottish Secretary of State based at Westminster, but by a Scottish Parliament elected by the Scottish people. The Westminster Parliament retains competence over foreign and defence policy, welfare and pension benefits, European matters and, crucially, macroeconomic policy. A First Minister heads the Scottish Government, normally the leader of the party able to command majority or coalition support within the Scottish Parliament, although the SNP have ruled as a minority government (2007-11).

The 1997 referendum result has not by itself entrenched Scottish devolution (what the Westminster Parliament has created, it can still legally unmake), but it has certainly provided the Scottish Parliament with a moral and political legitimacy. Ultimately, the Scottish Parliament has secured its constitutional future by convincing the Scottish people of its relevance.

The absence of a UK written constitution able to respond to the above questions opens up a wide range of possibilities. The re-establishment of a devolved parliament in Edinburgh does not alter, in principle, the unitary character of the UK state since sovereignty continues to reside in Westminster. At the same time a Scottish National Party (SNP) majority in the Scottish Parliament has called for further autonomy and even a referendum on Scottish independence (in 2014).

The Scottish Parliament is composed of 129 members, 73 elected from single member constituencies and 56 additional members. Elections are held every four years. The first election to the Scottish Parliament took place in 1999, when turn-out was 58 per cent.In the 2003 election turn-out fell to 41.45 per cent, but rose again in 2007 and 2011. Table 1 shows the results for the 1999, 2003, 2007 and 2011 elections.

Table 1 Scottish Parliament election results: number of seats gained by different parties, 1999, 2003, 2007 and 2011

Political party 1999 2003 2007 2011
Labour Party 56 50 46 37
Scottish National Party 35 27 47 69
Conservative and Unionist Party 18 18 17 15
Liberal Democrats 17 17 16 5
Scottish Green Party 1 7 2 2
Scottish Socialist Party 1 6 - -
Scottish Senior Citizens Party 0 1 - -
Others 1 3 1 1

The establishment of the Scottish Parliament provides an asymmetric picture of the UK. It is based on the recognition of Scotland as being different from the rest of the UK in terms of having a specific culture, tradition and way of life, all of which stem from its past as an independent territory. To some extent, then, devolution has weakened the image of Scotland as a periphery within the wider UK. It remains to be seen if devolution has merely empowered an Edinburgh-Glasgow ‘centre’, leaving other, more remote areas of Scotland to be redefined as a new ‘periphery’. However, SNP governments (2007-13) have funded many capital projects aimed at integrating Scotland (for instance, duelling of the A9) which were not previously prioritised. Furthermore, the SNP fundamentally opposed the funding of the Edinburgh Trams project (which went ahead because initial costs had been paid) and scrapped central-belt schemes, like Edinburgh and Glasgow Airport rail links.

Scotland's place as a proud historic nation in the UK clearly acknowledges the multinational character of the UK state. Of course, post-devolution Scotland remains an integral part of the UK and the Queen continues to be the UK's Head of State, embracing Scotland and Wales as well as England. The Westminster Parliament currently remains sovereign even though it has devolved law-making powers over a wide range of matters concerning Scotland to the Scottish Parliament. As a result, Westminster retains many key powers and responsibilities over Scotland under the devolved settlement.

5.3 How devolution in Scotland differs from devolution in Wales

Devolution for Wales, rejected by the Welsh in a 1979 referendum, was also part of the constitutional reform package of the Labour government. However, in September 1997, the Welsh voted for the establishment of a National Assembly for Wales. The referendum result in favour was far narrower than in Scotland. On a 50.3 per cent turn-out in Wales, only 50.6 per cent voted in favour, indicating a far less entrenched sense of political identity and difference from the rest of the UK on the part of the Welsh, particularly when compared with feelings in Scotland. Table 2 shows details of percentage turn-out at constitutional referendums and initial assembly and parliamentary elections in the devolved areas.

Table 2 Turn-out at referendums and first and second elections for devolved parliament / assemblies in Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland, %

Scotland Wales Northern Ireland
Referendum year 1997 1997 1998
Referendum turn-out 60.4 50.3 81.1
Voting for devolution 74.3 50.6
Voting for tax-raising powers (Scotland only) 63.5
Year of first elections 1999 1999 1998
Turn-out in first elections 58 46 68.84
Year of second elections 2003 2003 2003
Turn-out in second elections 41.45 38 64.8

The very choice of name, the National Assembly for Wales, indicates a difference from the Scottish Parliament. The Assembly is comprised of 60 members, 40 from single member constituencies and 20 additional members. It too is elected every four years. In contrast with the Scottish Parliament, however, the Assembly has no-tax raising powers. The Scottish Parliament is entitled to vary the rate of personal taxation by plus or minus three per cent, although neither the previous Labour-Liberal Democrat coalition governments (1999-2007) nor SNP governments (2007-2013) have used these powers. Obviously, legislatures with tax-gathering powers are more powerful than legislatures without such powers. Initially, while the Scottish Parliament has primary legislative powers and full executive powers, the National Assembly for Wales had only secondary legislative powers. The Westminster government only consulted the Assembly and its Executive on proposed primary legislation. Executive functions previously enacted by the Secretary of State for Wales have been transferred to the Assembly. However, following the introduction of the Government of Wales Act in 2007, the Assembly now has primary law making powers. Table 3 shows the results of the elections of 1999, 2003, 2007 and 2011.

Table 3 National Assembly for Wales election results: number of seats gained by different parties, 1999, 2003, 2007 and 2011

Political party 1999 2003 2007 2011
Labour Party 29 30 26 30
Plaid Cymru 16 12 15 11
Conservative and Unionist Party 9 11 12 14
Independent 0 1 1 0

5.4 Devolution in Northern Ireland: a particular case

Devolution in Northern Ireland has been an integral part of the post-1994 peace process, which aims to share power between the two divergent communities, the Unionist-Protestant majority and the Republican-Catholic minority. All-party talks, chaired by the former US Senator George Mitchell, followed the 1997 renewal of a paramilitary ceasefire. The decommissioning of arms by paramilitary groups was made a condition of the talks, but no specific date for its accomplishment was ever given. This position underlined the government's stance on the illegitimacy of the use of violence for political ends, but also stressed peaceful means to attain political aims previously pursued through the use of violence.

The UK Prime Minister, Tony Blair, the Irish Prime Minister, Bertie Ahern, the then Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Mo Mowlam, and the then US President, Bill Clinton, all put pressure on all sides to pursue the talks. Finally, the Belfast Agreement, also known as the Good Friday Agreement, was signed on 10 April 1998. The agreement, marking a major breakthrough in conflict resolution strategy, seeks to reconcile the Unionist desire that Northern Ireland remains a province of the UK with the Republican claim for an independent united Ireland free from English domination. The two contradictory objectives, which have provoked years of intense violence and suffering for the people of Northern Ireland, were to be resolved in an internal power sharing accord in which Unionists and Republicans would be represented, and an external agreement in which the UK and Ireland guarantee the national aspirations of both communities.

The principle on which the agreement was based was ‘the achievement of reconciliation, tolerance, and mutual trust, and to the protection and vindication of the human rights of all’ (The Belfast Agreement, 1998, p. 1). It enshrined ‘the total and absolute commitment to exclusively democratic and peaceful means of resolving differences on political issues’ (ibid., 1998, p. 1) and the endorsement of consent as a principle on the basis of which the people of Northern Ireland should decide on their future. All participants ‘recognise the legitimacy of whatever choice is freely exercised by a majority of the people of Northern Ireland with regard to its status, whether they prefer to continue to support the Union with Great Britain or a sovereign united Ireland’ (ibid., 1998, p. 2).

The agreement provides for a democratically elected Northern Ireland Assembly with an inclusive, fully representative membership. The Assembly exercises executive and legislative authority shared across both communities and safeguards protect the rights and interests of all. The agreement also established a North-South Ministerial Council to develop consultation, cooperation and action between Northern Ireland and the Irish government on matters of mutual interest. A British-Irish Council, comprising representatives of the UK and Irish governments, devolved institutions in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales and, if appropriate, elsewhere in the UK, together with representatives of the Isle of Man and the Channel Islands, was also created with the aim of fostering harmonious, mutually beneficial relationships among the peoples of the British Isles.

Among the most controversial and delicate matters dealt with by the agreement were the provisions for the release of prisoners whose organisations maintain a ‘complete and unequivocal ceasefire’, and ‘the decommissioning of all paramilitary arms … in the context of the implementation of the overall settlement’ (The Belfast Agreement, 1998, p. 20). At the same time the agreement made provisions for changes in UK state security arrangements, reducing the numbers and changing the role of the armed forces deployed in Northern Ireland, removing security installations and ending emergency powers.

The agreement was endorsed by referendums in May 1998 when 71.1 per cent in Northern Ireland (turn-out 81.1 per cent) and 94.4 per cent in Ireland (turnout 56.3 per cent) provided strong support for the peace process. Elections for the Northern Ireland Assembly were held in June 1998 and again in November 2003. The Northern Ireland Assembly (Stormont) is formed by 108 members elected by single transferable vote and six members from each of 18 Westminster constituencies. Because of the specific nature of Northern Ireland politics, the Assembly is based on a system of weighted majorities to ensure cross-community consent between Unionist and Republicans on all major issues. The First Minister, the Deputy First Minister and the executive are elected by a system that ensures the distribution of ministerial portfolios between all major parties. The executive committee is not bound by collective responsibility, and the committees and their chairs are appointed in proportion to party strengths, to scrutinize and advise on the work of each Executive Minister (Hazell, 2000, p. 4). Table 4 shows the Northern Ireland Assembly election results for 1998, 2003, 2007 and 2011.

Table 4 Northern Ireland Assembly election results: number of seats gained by different parties, 1998, 2003, 2007 and 2011

Political party 1998 2003 2007 2011
Ulster Unionist Party 28 27 18 16
Democratic Unionist Party 20 30 36 38
Sinn Fein 18 24 28 29
SDLP 24 18 16 14
Alliance 6 6 7 8
UK Unionist Party 5 1 0
Green Party 0 0 1 8
Progressive Unionist Party 2 1 1 0
Trad, Uniionist Voice 0 0 0 1
Independent 1 1 1 1

While more than half of Unionists – and the majority of Republicans – support the Belfast Agreement, implementing the peace process was problematic, not least because it provoked a profound split within the ranks of Unionism. Opponents of the agreement saw it as a sell out, ushering in a united Ireland within which Protestants would lose their privileged status. In particular, Ian Paisley's Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) grew in electoral strength within the Unionist community. In addition, Unionists and Republicans initially failed to reach agreement on establishing a lasting power-sharing executive. While paramilitary ceasefires were achieved (although renegade Republicans formed the Real IRA, which killed 29 people in a horrific bombing in Omagh in 1998, the largest single loss of life in the modern history of Northern Ireland), disagreements over IRA decommissioning led Unionists to refuse to share government with Sinn Fein, something that then required the UK government to suspend the executive and the Assembly on several occasions between 2000 and 2005. As a result, the UK had to govern the province from Westminster up until the St Andrews Agreement Act (2007). At the time of writing, the ceasefires have prevailed amongst the main paramilitary groups and the peace process – and the agreement it sponsored – are now well established, with the DUP and Sinn Fein sharing power. .

5.5 Devolution in outline

Through devolution, Westminster has devolved different functions to the Scottish Parliament, the National Assembly for Wales and the Northern Ireland Assembly (Hazell, 2000, p. 4). [Brian McG1] 


Jot down the main differences in the powers devolved to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Then check the answer below: did you get it more or less right?

  • In all three administrations: health, education and training, local government (including finance), social services, housing, economic development, agriculture, forestry, fisheries, food, transport, tourism, the environment, sport, heritage, and the arts. The crucial difference between the Scottish Parliament and the National Assembly for Wales is that Scotland has unfettered control over these matters (subject to funding from Westminster), while Wales is obliged to implement and manage many decisions taken at Westminster, save in areas Westminster delegates to Cardiff.

  • In Scotland only: the legal system, penal matters and policing (these matters may be transferred to Northern Ireland at a later date if the Secretary of State sees fit).

  • In Wales only: the Welsh language.

  • In Northern Ireland only: social security (but the legislation contains mechanisms to ensure parity of benefit rates), employment, and the civil service.

In financial terms all three administrations are funded by block grant from Westminster. This is changed annually by the ‘Barnett formula’, which adjusts allocations in line with comparable adjustments in England. Within the block grant there is complete spending discretion. In addition, the Scottish Parliament has power to increase or decrease the basic rate of income tax by up to three pence in the pound.

The following functions are reserved to the UK Parliament and government (Hazell, 2000, p. 4):

  • the constitution

  • foreign affairs

  • defence, national security, immigration

  • macroeconomics, fiscal and monetary policy

  • trade

  • transport safety and regulation

  • policing, penal matters, and the legal system (in Wales and Northern Ireland)

  • employment legislation (in Scotland and Wales)

  • the civil service (in Scotland and Wales).

One of the main post-devolution concerns, which still remains unresolved, involves the political role of MPs who represent Scotland and Wales at Westminster. A prominent Scottish opponent of devolution, the Labour MP Tam Dalyell, when representing the area once posed the so-called ‘West Lothian question’ asking why Scottish MPs should be allowed to vote on Westminster issues when Westminster MPs could not vote on West Lothian matters. For many this is a considerable problem, one that reflects the reality of asymmetrical political reforms.

New political institutions require some time to bed down. Initially, devolution did not encourage further demands for increased power for the devolved institutions, nor prompt talk of Scottish or Welsh secession from the UK. This changed, at least in Scotland, in the years after the 2003 elections. Devolution has, in addition, triggered two major debates. First, about the nature of British identity. Second, about the issue of expanding devolution to make it a symmetrical process, including England, particularly London and the English regions.

5.6 Summary of Section 5

  • In 1997, the newly elected Labour government set in motion the asymmetric decentralisation of the UK by granting differing degrees of political autonomy to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

  • In 1997 referendums on devolution where held in Scotland and Wales. Their affirmative outcome in favour of devolution cannot of itself deliver constitutional entrenchment, but might reinforce its moral and political legitimacy.

  • The Belfast Agreement, signed 10 April 1998, represented a major breakthrough in conflict resolution strategies. It stood for ‘the total and absolute commitment to exclusively democratic and peaceful means of resolving differences on political issues’ (The Belfast Agreement, 1998, p. 1) and endorsed consent as a principle on the basis of which the people of Northern Ireland should decide on their future.


Do you think it is still true that the experience of devolution 'has not encouraged further demands for increased power for the devolved institutions, nor prompted talk of Scottish or Welsh secession from the UK'?


As ever, Northern Ireland is a special case. But there certainly exists some feeling in Wales that the powers of the Assembly are too restrictive, not least because they are able to compare their room for manoeuvre in the past few years with what has been achieved in Scotland. And in Scotland there were some interesting polls in 2005 and 2006 in which citizens were asked for their preferences; the choices were:

  1. to scrap the Parliament;

  2. to keep the current devolution settlement;

  3. to increase the powers of the Parliament;

  4. to go for independence.

The results, with minor variations, were consistent. The least popular option was to scrap the new Parliament; maintaining the status quo attracted more support, but not as much as going for independence; and the largest preference by some way was to increase the powers of the parliament. This would seem to be evidence for the proposition that devolution strengthens the political confidence and sense of identity of regions or 'sub-state nationalisms.’.

6 Elected regional assemblies in England

6.1 London

London's population and economic size are those of a region. As such it contains various peripheries within itself. Further to this, there are some issues, mainly economic planning and transport, which are closely connected with the rest of south-east England. The Labour government introduced a Greater London Authority (Referendum) Bill in October 1997 and organised a referendum on 7 May 1998 in which 72 per cent voted (on a low turn-out of 33.5 per cent) in favour of establishing a Mayor and Assembly for London. Established after elections in May 2000 the directly elected Mayor and elected Greater London Authority (GLA) has a ‘strategic’ rather than a service provider role, embracing transport, economic development, the environment, planning, police, fire and civil defence, and culture.

6.2 English regions

At present, regional government in England is divided between local government and central government agencies. Eight English regions have a tripartite structure with responsibilities and powers divided in each region between the Government Office for the region (GO), the Regional Development Agency (RDA) and the Regional Chamber (most of which have now renamed themselves Regional Assemblies).

The Labour government established Regional Development Agencies (RDAs) in April 1999. The role of the RDAs, appointed by Ministers in London, is limited with primarily strategic functions based around preparing an economic strategy for their region. They are totally dependent on central government for their modest budgets. In terms of their powers, functions and political authority they are much weaker than the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh and Northern Ireland assemblies.

Government Offices for the regions were initially created in 1994 as ‘Integrated Regional Offices’,

bringing together the regional functions of the Departments of Transport, Environment, Employment, and Trade and Industry. Their boundaries were used for Regional Development Agencies for speed and convenience (with the exception of Merseyside, absorbed into the North-West in 1996). The offices were initially conceived of as representatives of the centre in the regions. Policy programmes remained under the sponsorship of individual departments.

(Sandford and McQuail, 2001, p. 30)

Whereas Regional Chambers are

voluntary bodies containing approximately 70 per cent elected local authority representatives and 30 per cent ‘social and economic partners’ (SEPs). All Chambers have now been ‘designated’ by the Secretary of State under the Regional Development Agencies Act 1998, obliging the relevant RDA to ‘take account of their comments on its Regional Economic Development Strategy. This is their sole statutory role.

(Sandford and McQuail, 2001, p. 31)

The devolution process implemented in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland prompted fresh demands for elected assemblies in some English regions. The creation of Constitutional Conventions, inspired by the Scottish Constitutional Convention, in six English regions sought to foster a greater public debate on devolution. The first Constitutional Convention was set up in the north-east in 1998. The north-west and Yorkshire followed in 1999, and the West Midlands, the south-west and the Cornish Constitutional Convention in 2000. In 1999, the Campaign for the English Regions was launched as an umbrella group for the Constitutional Conventions.

David Marquand and John Tomaney (2000) cite four reasons in favour of directly elected regional government in England:

  • a tier of regional government already exists, but it is fragmented and poorly coordinated;

  • too much public policy is designed centrally in ways that do not match local conditions;

  • there is insufficient democratic scrutiny of the state both at a national and a regional level;

  • English politics needs to accommodate greater diversity and pluralism if it is to survive and promote greater participation in elections.

Some of the objections against elected regional assemblies have been considered by Sandford and McQuail (2001). These include:

  • Equity, in regard to maintaining common national standards in health care, education and certain other key services.

  • Risk of failure in the face of the considerable government intervention in setting standards, and the lack of confidence in existing regional structures.

  • Turbulence, depending on the range of functions proposed, the transfer of power could be a complicated and turbulent process with considerable transitional costs.

  • Scepticism about whether there are substantive arguments for change.

  • Vested interests, including inertia, concerning ‘the way in which England's administration, famously centralised, hangs together as a whole, and the weakness of regional identity that is another aspect of inertia’. Whitehall, referring to institutional resistance to change, and Ministers, that points to ‘the extent to which Ministerial rewards and motivation at present turn on their command over functions organised centrally and not territorially’ (Sandford and McQuail, 2001, p. 59).

6.3 What is the main requirement for regional government? Is it a shared identity?

If we compare the UK with other Western democracies such as Spain, Italy or Germany – all endowed with decentralised structures allowing various degrees of political autonomy for their regions – we discover that strong regional identity, as in Catalonia, the Veneto and Bavaria, is always a very important feature. However, some newly created regions such as La Rioja and Madrid in Spain also exercise devolved powers. What unites them is a common interest; the belief that regional government may generate economic prosperity and a shared awareness that devolution may improve services, deepen democracy and, in most cases, reduce their peripheral status.

For instance, the creation of Spanish political autonomous institutions has added to the dynamism of civil society, generating a sense of common regional identity where it did not previously exist, and strengthening it where it was little more than a weak idea. Devolution has contributed to the generation of regional identity by creating and promoting regional flags, anthems, folklore, cultural traditions and art. While some of these elements originate in the local cultures now integrated within the boundaries of the autonomous community, others are the product of invention. It is interesting to note that whether indigenous or invented, cultural distinctiveness both generates and strengthens the collective identities of each autonomous community. It is possible to conclude that devolution – and with it, the creation of regional institutions corresponding to autonomous communities lacking prior historical or cultural identities – is often conducive to the emergence and strengthening of separate regional identities. Nowhere more so for Spain's historical nations – Catalonia, the Basque country and Galicia – where there is a clear connection between past and present experiences of autonomous institutions, law and a separate political and cultural identity that accounts for the sheer force of nationalist feelings.

6.4 Summary of Section 6

  • The Labour government introduced a Greater London Authority (Referendum) Bill in 1997. The referendum took place in 1998. A Mayor and Assembly for London were first elected in 2000.The eight English regions have a tripartite structure with responsibilities and powers divided in each region between the Government Office for the region (GO), the Regional Development Agency (RDA) and the Regional Chamber (most of which have now renamed themselves as Regional Assemblies).
  • Devolution has resulted in the strengthening of regional identities where they previously existed but it has also contributed to the generation of ‘new’ regional identities where they did not previously exist.


  • Are you impressed by the arguments for further elected regional assemblies in England?

  • From what you have read, how would you support your answer?


I am not wholly convinced by the arguments for a further set of regional assemblies in England. It seems logical in democratic terms to have a more ‘symmetrical’ devolution of power rolled out to the whole of the British Isles. But there is a question mark over whether the English regions really want them, perhaps because their sense of identity (and grievance over a ‘democratic deficit’) is simply not as strong as in the nations of Wales and Scotland. I think that the demand for regional assemblies in England, like that for the Scottish and Welsh assemblies, was provoked partly by the increased centralisation of the Conservative governments of Margaret Thatcher and John Major (1979-1997). The Labour governments of Tony Blair responded to these aspirations, as explained above, but their plans for elected regional assemblies have received a severe blow. On November 4th 2004, a referendum in the North-East of England, where demand had been most vocal, voted overwhelmingly against a regional assembly. The vote was 78% against and 22% for, on a turn-out of 47.8%, and the project seems to have stalled. Interestingly, what the assemblies in Scotland and Wales have provoked is some discussion of a separate Parliament for England, presumably in a federal system where only a handful of British matters such as foreign policy would be left to Westminster.

7 When was Britain?

7.1 History

So far, I have provided a brief historical background for England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, one that accounts for their distinctive identities and for the origins of their differing role within the UK. I have also defined devolution as an asymmetric decentralisation process which responds to the claims advanced by the nations constituting the UK state. What, then, do we mean by Britain? Is it a nation? If so, when did the British nation begin to exist? The historian Linda Colley locates the birth of the idea of Britain after 1707. She describes war, religion and the prospect of material advantages as the three main factors that called the British nation into being.

War played a vital part in the intention of a British nation after 1707, but it could never have been so influential without other factors, and in particular without the impact of religion. It was their common investment in Protestantism that first allowed the English, the Welsh and the Scots to become fused together, and to remain so, despite their many cultural divergences. And it was Protestantism that helped to make Britain's successive wars against France after 1689 so significant in terms of national formation. A powerful and persistently threatening France became the haunting embodiment of that Catholic Other which Britons had been taught to fear since the Reformation in the sixteenth century. Confronting it encouraged them to bury their internal differences in the struggle for survival, victory and booty.

… the Protestant worldview which allowed so many Britons to see themselves as a distinct and chosen people persisted long after the Battle of Waterloo, and long after the passing of the Catholic Emancipation Act in 1829 as well. For most Victorians, the massive overseas empire which was the fruit of so much successful warfare represented final and conclusive proof of Great Britain's providential destiny. God had entrusted Britons with empire, they believed, so as to further the worldwide spread of the Gospel and as a testimony to their status as the Protestant Israel. And this complacency proved persistent. Well into the twentieth century, contact with and dominion over manifestly alien peoples nourished Britons’ sense of superior difference.

… impressive numbers of Britons did make the step from a passive awareness of nation to an energetic participation on its behalf. But they did so in the main not just because patriotism was recommended from above, but also because they expected to profit from it in some way.

(Colley, 1992, pp. 387, 388, 391)

According to Colley, the British nation is a recent invention, created in 1707, and superimposed on much older allegiances. In Britain, localism remained strong until the introduction of conscription in the First World War. This explains why, for more than 50 years after the Union, the relationship between Scotland and the rest of Britain was fraught with suspicion, as was the relationship between Lowland Scotland and the Highlands. But the lucrative gains to be obtained from the expanding British Empire, as well as the passage of years, contributed to smooth internal differences within the Union, though they never faded away completely. Yet, as Colley argues, ‘by 1837, Scotland still retained many of the characteristics of a distinct nation, but it was contained within a bigger nation. It was British as well as Scottish. By contrast, Wales was rather more distinct. Possessed of its own unifying language, less urbanised than Scotland and England, and – crucially – less addicted to military and imperial endeavour, it could still strike observers from outside its boundaries as being resolutely peculiar to itself’ (Colley, 1992, pp. 393–4).

Scottish and Welsh distinctive cultures and languages initiated a progressive decline after the Union with England; such decline was only partially altered by the influence of the romantic ideas about the value of distinctive cultures and languages which spread throughout Europe during the second half of the nineteenth century. Romanticism contributed to the assertion of Scottish and Welsh identity and gave rise to embryonic nationalist movements that, in the first instance, defended cultural objectives which, in time, evolved into fully fledged nationalist movements demanding self-determination.

Ireland enjoyed quite a different relation with the British Empire due to it being treated by London as a colony. The Catholics outnumbered the Protestants and since the invention of Britishness was so closely bound up with Protestantism, with war with France and with the acquisition of empire, Ireland was rarely able or willing to identify with it.

7.2 On Britishness

Earlier in this course I considered how Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland came to be included in the UK. That incorporation was often not free from conflict, resistance, war and military intervention. Hence, as well as cooperation and a common fellowship, suspicion, lack of trust, sometimes hatred, expressed in various forms, have characterised the relationship between England, the leading power, and those nations which were annexed or conquered by it or amalgamated with it.

Modern nationalism in Scotland and Wales has been fuelled by the desire for democracy to be strengthened, for citizens to have a voice and proper representation, and by the wish for greater prosperity, investment and economic development to reverse the peripheral role of these areas, compared with England (and with London in particular). Nationalism has also been fuelled by memories of oppression, a lack of recognition, and having insufficient power and resources to develop their nations and the elements that constitute their specific identities. This, among other issues, could account for the precarious survival of Gaelic and the low number of Welsh speakers. A situation that, when applied to the English regions, could also account for the practical disappearance of Cornish.

Most UK nations enjoyed some of the benefits the British Empire brought to the centre. The empire was so vast, diverse and rich it conferred an unprecedented world status on the British as a whole. In this instance, the formation of another periphery, the empire, helped for a time to smooth over differences between the earlier centre and its peripheries.

In the twenty-first century, however, Britishness seems a fragile concept. Many factors are affecting British identity, among them decolonisation, the questioning of the monarchy, the setting up of devolved institutions in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, and, perhaps most significantly, Britain's increasing ethnic diversity, prompted mainly by the settlement of large migrant communities originating from the former British Empire, in particular the Indian subcontinent and the Caribbean. A further ingredient might be the decline in the habit of equating British with English, an equation automatically excluding non-English people. Thus, at a time when the Scots and the Welsh are reasserting their separate identities, the English will have to reconstruct their own distinct identity. Being British requires a more inclusive definition of Britishness, one capable of embracing all the peoples of the UK regardless of regional and local allegiance. Being English, Scots, Welsh and Irish in Northern Ireland is just one way of being ‘British’. Finally, UK membership of the EU and the prospect of further European integration, not least the possible adoption of the euro, has served to question an already increasingly uncertain British identity. So much so, passionate reactions against European integration has led some to portray the EU as a threat to UK sovereignty and its historic identity.

7.3 Summary of Section 7

  • The historian Linda Colley locates the birth of ‘Britain’ after 1707. She mentions three main factors that contributed to establishing the British nation: war, religion and the prospect of material advantage.

  • The creation of the UK was not free from conflict, resistance, war and military intervention.

  • The British Empire generated a unique opportunity for most UK nations to participate and enjoy some of the benefits it brought. Their peripheral status was temporarily overwhelmed by a new periphery in the empire.

  • In the twenty-first century, Britishness is being redefined and an English identity is struggling to emerge as a distinct category separate from British identity. The two had been considered synonymous.

8 Governance beyond the UK: The EU

One of the elements invoked in favour of regional devolution involves the significance of regions within the European Union. While some refer to the principle of subsidiarity (governing, when possible, at the local level), as promoted by the EU, as an argument in favour of devolution, others emphasize that regional government improves the prospect of receiving EU regional subsidies. At the moment, there are striking differences between regions within Europe. While some regions have an economic, administrative or geographical basis, but a negligible or absent cultural heritage, others such as Scotland (UK), Catalonia (Spain), Flanders and Walloonia (Belgium) display a powerful cultural distinctiveness and are often referred to as ‘nations without states’ (Guibernau, 1999). The EU does not distinguish between the two.

Evidence of regional economic advantage began to emerge in the 1980s. The dynamics of the single market and the rising significance of European regional policy have encouraged the emergence of a new kind of innovative, specialised economic region oriented towards the global economy. The 1988 reform of the Structural Funds (resources designed to support national and regional convergence within the EU) and the new opportunities generated by the single market (designed to complete EU economic integration) contributed to a general move towards indigenous growth at the regional level (Cooke et al., 1997). Poorer regions benefited from changes in the Structural Funds, while better-off regions took advantage of the new opportunities provided by the single market; for instance, the ‘Four Motors of Europe’ (a cross-frontier collaboration involving Baden-Württemberg, Rhône-Alps, Lombardy and Catalonia, later joined by Wales) attracted European funds and foreign investment.

The Committee of the Regions was set up in 1994 under the Treaty on European Union (the Maastricht Treaty). The Committee of the Regions (CoR), which aims to represent the interests of regional and local authorities in the EU, is made up of 222 independent representatives of regional and local authorities. These representatives are nominated by EU member states and appointed to a four-year term by the European Council. The mixture of regional and local representatives within the CoR undermines its character as a regional body, which has sparked great controversy among its potential and actual members, especially since there are no rules about how the fixed number of representatives from each country is distributed between the various levels of regional and local authorities.

The EU's embrace of regionalism seeks to reverse, or at least mitigate, the peripheral role of regions. Within the EU – a quasi-supranational institution founded and governed by nation-states – regions, already peripheral within their own nation-states, may feel even more remote from the EU core. Relatively powerful regions that enjoy self-determination within their own nation-states lack direct representation in EU institutions. The European Convention, chaired by Valery Giscard d'Estaing, which drew up a proposed new EU Constitution in 2004, received numerous demands from regional bodies and movements throughout Europe seeking regional representation within EU institutions. For instance, the citizens of 75 EU regions already enjoying devolved legislative powers, some 56.3 per cent of the EU's total population, unsuccessfully demanded the recognition of their legislative and administrative relevance (European Convention, 2002).

Although the CoR has to be consulted by the Council of Ministers and the European Commission with regard to health, culture, promotion of general and vocational training, trans-European networks and structural and regional policy, it is merely an advisory body. Its opinions are not binding. As such, because of the CoR's limited scope and influence within the EU, the idea of a Europe of the Regions, which citizens of ‘nations without states’ desire, is far from being a reality, although the very existence of the CoR does represent the significance regional Europe may acquire in the future (Guibernau, 1999, pp. 172–3).

The process towards an eventual regionalisation of the European Union is still in its early stages. There are striking differences between various European regions and it is unlikely that all of them will obtain the same degree of political autonomy and recognition within the EU. It seems certain, however, that a new and unprecedented process, by which selected nations without states, such as Scotland, Wales, Catalonia and Flanders, achieve cultural, economic and political relevance, has already been initiated.

For some, the UK still plays a peripheral role within the EU. The core resides in the Franco-German axis. Historically, the UK has stood at the edge of Europe. Its propensity to not seek the initiative in promoting European integration is best illustrated by its refusal, to date, to enter the single currency. This further demonstrates the different centre–periphery roles that states, nations and cities may play according to different environments. Of course, the EU was itself formed from very different types of regions and nations, some of which had a well established clear, separate geographical, administrative or economic identity, while others had only a strong sense of cultural identity and a desire for greater political autonomy, but lacked the means to advance such interests and objectives. The European regional movement seeks to reverse, or at least ameliorate, the peripheral role many regions play within EU institutions, which are largely dominated by key nation-states.


This free course provided an introduction to studying sociology. It took you through a series of exercises designed to develop your approach to study and learning at a distance and helped to improve your confidence as an independent learner. 

Keep on learning

Study another free course

There are more than 800 courses on OpenLearn for you to choose from on a range of subjects. 

Find out more about all our free courses.

Take your studies further

Find out more about studying with The Open University by visiting our online prospectus.

If you are new to university study, you may be interested in our Access Courses or Certificates.

What’s new from OpenLearn?

Sign up to our newsletter or view a sample.

For reference, full URLs to pages listed above:

OpenLearn – openlearn/ free-courses

Visiting our online prospectus – courses

Access Courses – courses/ do-it/ access

Certificates – courses/ certificates-he

Newsletter ­– openlearn/ about-openlearn/ subscribe-the-openlearn-newsletter


The Belfast Agreement (1998) London, The Stationery Office.
Burgess, M. and Gagnon, A.G. (1993) Comparative Federalism and Federation, London, Harvester Wheatsheaf.
Colley, L. (1992) Britons: Forging the Nation 1707–1837, London, Vintage.
Cooke, P., Christiansen, T. and Schienstock, G. (1997) ‘Regional economic policy and a Europe of the regions’ in Heywood, P., Jones, E., Rhodes, M. and Wright, V. (eds) Developments in West European Politics, London, Macmillan.
Davies, R. (1991) The Age of Conquest, Wales 1063–1415, Oxford, Oxford University Press.
Elazar, D. (1997) Exploring Federalism, Tuscaloosa, Alabama, University of Alabama Press.
The Electoral Commission.
European Convention (2002) paper presented by regions with legislative powers within the EU, CONV 321/02, Marienhamm (Aland Islands), Helsinki/Brussels, 4–7 October.
Greenfeld, L. (1992) Nationalism: Five Roads to Modernity, Cambridge, Mass., Harvard University Press.
Guibernau, M. (1996) Nationalisms, Cambridge, Polity Press.
Guibernau, M. (1999) Nations without States: Political Communities in the Global Age, Cambridge, Polity Press.
Hayden, T. (ed.) (1997) Irish Hunger: Personal Reflections on the Legacy of the Famine, Dublin, Wolfhound.
Hazell, R. (2000) The State and the Nations, London, The Constitution Unit, University College London.
Jenkins, R. (1997) Rethinking Ethnicity, London, Sage. Llobera, J. (1994) The God of Modernity, London, Berg.
Marquand, D. and Tomaney, J. (2000) Democratizing England, London, The Constitution Unit, University College London.
Reynolds, S. (1984) Kingdoms and Communities in Western Europe 900–1300, Oxford, Clarendon Press.
Sandford, M. and McQuail, P. (2001) Unexplored Territory: Elected Regional Assemblies in England, London, The Constitution Unit, University College London.
Weber, M., and Gerth, H.H. and Wright Mills, C. (eds) (1991) From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology, London, Routledge.


This free course is an adapted extract from the course DD203 Power, dissent, equality, which is currently out of presentation

The content acknowledged below is Proprietary (see terms and conditions). This content is made available under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 Licence

Course image: Trey Ratcliff in Flickr made available under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Licence.

The material acknowledged below is Proprietary and used under licence (not subject to Creative Commons Licence). Grateful acknowledgement is made to the following sources for permission to reproduce material in this course:

Figure 1: © National Galleries of Scotland; Figure 2: By permission of Llyfrgell Genedlaethol Cymru/The National Library of Wales; Figure 3: © Nezumi Dumousseau; Figure 4: © Sutton-Hibbert/Rex Features.

Tables 1–4: The Electoral Commission.

Every effort has been made to contact copyright owners. If any have been inadvertently overlooked, the publishers will be pleased to make the necessary arrangements at the first opportunity.

Don't miss out:

If reading this text has inspired you to learn more, you may be interested in joining the millions of people who discover our free learning resources and qualifications by visiting The Open University - openlearn/ free-courses