For – Jack Telford
Devolution allows people of Scotland and Wales to become members of a participatory democracy, governed by those who understand their needs. The rejuvenating change that devolution offers is essential at a time when many are disillusioned with politics.
In the September 1997 referendums, both Wales and Scotland voted in favour of devolution, leading to the creation of the Scottish parliament and the Welsh Assembly. This was a massive step in allowing the people of these nations a more direct say in their own government, and allowed legislation to be passed in devolved regions. Although the vote for greater independence was marginal in Wales, the activities of the Welsh Assembly have proven that devolved government can have effective legislative powers.
Devolution has allowed nations to have freedom over education, health and social care and employment amongst many other important issues and has ceased the ineffective translation of national politics to the lives of some British people. The large nationalistic following in Scotland demonstrates a lack of trust in the running of UK politics. However, devolution offers an alternative to independence for those who distrust the UK government. Nationalistic support in both Scotland and Wales has decreased since devolution came into action, strengthening the United Kingdom.
Due to such changes, people of Scotland and Wales can finally feel a genuine agency in their politics, whilst supporting the United Kingdom as an entity. For 35 of the past 50 years, the UK has been ruled by a conservative government, despite the fact that there has never been a conservative majority in Scotland. Through devolution, Scottish people can elect their own policy makers, and allow the leaders whom they support to make decisions on their behalf, rather than having to settle for the politicians who were in the past chosen to represent them.
There are many aspects in which the UK is better off united – a combined military power, foreign relations and using a single currency all strengthen the UK rather than splitting it as opponents label it, devolution can strengthen the United Kingdom by ensuring its members are content in their political representation.
People in Scotland certainly seem to agree with it. Reuters found in a survey released last month that more people were in support of ‘devo-max’ – an extreme version of devolution – than Scottish independence or continuation of the status quo. Devo-Max would effectively hand Scottish representatives power over everything but defence and foreign affairs.
Many of the arguments against devolution focus on the inability of national policymakers in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland to make responsible decisions, without the experience of those in Westminster. Others voice concerns about the lack of infrastructure in place to deal with devolved states, and the financial cost of devolution.
These problems are far from incurable, as experience and infrastructure come with time, and an initial outlay of money is surely justified in the support of British unity. British people have shown through referendum that they are in favour of devolution, and its results so far have been encouraging.
Devolution is a process, and should be looked at in terms of its progress rather than its problems. Many promising changes have come into effect, including the Scottish land reform, and a system to make MP’s expenses more transparent. These policies are clearly responding to the will of the Scottish people.
Similar successes can be witnessed here in Wales, with record employment, rising educational standards, and the protection that Welsh students have been afforded against tuition fee rises.
Some devolved decisions have been so effective that they have been applied beyond the devolved region to a national level. Examples of this are the Scottish fox hunting ban and the Welsh 5 pence bag law, which saw a 75 per cent reduction in plastic bag use in Wales. Both of these policies have been extended to the whole of the UK.
Against – James Smith
As an Englishman I have often been a tad jealous of Welsh, Scottish and Northern Irish devolution, due to their fancy voting systems, modern parliament buildings and extra elections. With 200 days to go until the vote on Scottish Independence, now seems as good a time as any to criticise UK devolution.
Devolution’s biggest issue is its unfair and inconsistent nature. Due to Welsh assembly legislation I currently pay three times as much as my Welsh counterparts for my stressful five hours of history lectures a week. Meanwhile a Scottish version of me studying north of the border and presumably sipping Irn-Bru, gets his lectures for free. Similarly my Scottish self is immune to prescription fees, along with Northern Irish and Welsh residents, but not English ones.
Furthermore, even the devolved assemblies are not fairly organised. Rather than a US style federal system the different devolved bodies all have different political powers. For example whilst the Scottish parliament controls income tax, the Welsh and Northern Irish assemblies do not. Along with the issue of England having no assembly, this makes devolution appear as consistent as Joe Hart.
These issues link into what devolution writers helpfully call “The West Lothian Question”. The problem the question raises, is whilst English MPs cannot vote on matters granted to the devolved assemblies, Welsh, Northern Irish and Scottish MPs at Westminster all have the right to do so on matters concerning England. This issue was most prominent in 2004 when Scottish MPs voted in favour of tuition fees that would only apply to English, Northern Irish and Welsh students. Moreover, the law was passed by a five vote majority and had Scottish MPs been excluded from the vote it would have been defeated. With this in mind it is hard not to feel some resentment towards devolution.
It is this resentment which presents devolution’s most dangerous legacy. Because of this unfair policy, we no longer see ourselves as a United Kingdom. Instead we feel like four different nations, on an awkward long car journey, and Scotland is definitely choosing the radio station. Although a resurgence of national identity is presumably good for the company which manufactures those Welsh signs, it creates problematic issues for the future of the union itself.
Moreover devolution has had major influence on the practicality of independence movements. Traditionally fringe movements in national politics, the devolved assemblies have provided Plaid Cymru, Sinn Féin and crucially the Scottish National Party (SNP) with platforms to launch their nationalist movements. Whilst SNP leader Alex Salmond has a majority in the Scottish Parliament, his party only has six of the 59 Scottish seats at Westminster. Without the existence of the Scottish Parliament would Salmond be less than a year away from splitting up the 300 year old union?
Therefore a massive error of devolution is that it is damaging such a fruitful alliance. United our four great nations have achieved tremendous things. Together we invented modern industry, exported parliamentary democracy and even made the internet. The best tennis player is a Scot, the best footballer is Welsh and our Winter Olympic Gold medallist is from Kent. Thus it seems crazy that we have allowed devolution to damage the national unity of our great country to such an extent.
As a concept devolution has its merits, but in practice this sixteen year experiment has only damaged our nation. The different treatment of people depending on where they are born seems completely contrary to our ideas of democracy and its effect on our sense of “Britishness” has been just as destructive. At the very least British devolution needs revising, but ideally it needs retiring and sending off to the care home for the pieces of failed legislation.