The politics of devolution
The politics of devolution

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The politics of devolution

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.


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