The politics of devolution
The politics of devolution

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The politics of devolution

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).


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