The politics of devolution
The politics of devolution

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The politics of devolution

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.


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