The purpose of this essay will be to consider whether the process of devolution in the United Kingdom since 1999 has been successful and consider some of the points of convergence and divergence, which have occurred in terms of policy development in the region, as well the impact which the austerity measures introduced by the Coalition government have had on Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
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The process of devolution is one that can be considered as a response to widespread processes of restructuring in the forms of governance in the Western world and also a part of a global phenomenon (Rodriguez-Pose and Gill, 2005; Williams and Mooney, 2008; Keating et al. 2009). In the context of the UK, the process of devolution should be understood as the process of granting semi-autonomous legislative powers to the Scottish Parliament, the National Assembly of Wales and the Northern Ireland Assembly on behalf of the UK parliament (Gov.uk, 2013).
Devolution in the UK specifically should be considered as a phenomenon of the political climate which existed in the second half of the 1990s. The process of devolution itself can be considered as an alternative to the policy adopted by successive Conservative governments in both Scotland and Wales (Trench, 2007). In addition, it was aimed to challenge the agenda set by more nationalist parties in the UK, whose political ideas and manifestos gained popularity at the time (ibid.). Even though the newly established governing institutions had their predecessors in the past, which exercised similar legislative functions, the fact that they were now recognised as autonomous and sovereign was a major historical precedent (Rose, 1982). As a result of referendums taking place in September 1997 in Scotland and Wales, the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh National Assembly were established. In Northern Ireland, as a result of the signing of the Good Friday Agreement and following a national referendum in May 1998, the Northern Ireland Assembly was established (Birrell, 2009). In line with these developments in UK governance, the following essay will examine the impact which the process of devolution has had in terms of successful policy implementation.
The impact of Devolution
In the UK specifically, there are four different models of devolution, all reflecting the asymmetrical nature of the process and the different politics which characterise the different regions (Hazell, 2000). The Scottish parliament, for example, has a responsibility of developing policy in tackling the majority of domestic affairs without interference on behalf of the UK parliament. The Northern Ireland Assembly, on the other hand, has the capacity of passing legislation related to a wide range of issues; and the Welsh National Assembly has an elected assembly, which has been granted legislative powers following a referendum in 2011 (Gov.uk, 2013). In the rest of England outside London, where an elected mayor and assembly were established, the changes in administration were quite marginal and were reflected in the creation of Regional Development Agencies and unelected Regional Assemblies which have subsequently been abolished by the Conservative–Liberal Democratic Coalition Government. As this indicates, UK devolution is a process rather than an event (Shaw and MacKinnon, 2011).
As a result of the implementation of UK devolution acts, the legislative competence over devolved matters and democratic representation and authority was transferred to the newly established devolved parliaments. Basing devolution on the functions previously exercised by the territorial departments served to reduce conflict over the distribution of powers and resources in the short-term, but at the expense of any long-term resolution of territorial imbalances and tensions (Jeffery, 2007). While Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have their own devolved institutions, England is governed centrally by the UK parliament, meaning that UK and English political institutions have effectively become fused. One of the unique features of UK devolution is reflected in the limited autonomy of the regions to raise their own taxes and be responsible for their re-investment (Gov.uk, 2013). This contrasts with many other devolved or federal states in which the national and sub-national tiers share responsibility for both the raising and distribution of revenue (MacKinnon, 2013). Arguably, this could have a negative impact on the overall performance of the devolved regions, as it puts them in a subordinate position to the UK parliament in terms of financing and self-sufficiency, a policy problem which in the occurrence of the global recession has affected all three of the devolved regions.
Devolution has important repercussions for public policy (Greer, 2007; Greer, 2009; Jeffery 2007; Keating, 2002; Keating 2009). In effect, the process of devolution has allowed the newly established governments to design and implement policies which take into consideration the specific economic and social conditions of the regions, thereby presenting localised solution to localised problems (Jeffery 2002). Despite the differences which exist among the regions, some commonalities in policy development can also be observed, namely in the provision of health care and tackling public health problems. The common economic challenges, combined with a tight fiscal policy means that the convergence of healthcare politics in all the devolved regions are likely to the preserved for some time (Smith and Hellowell, 2012). With the ongoing debates of more financial independence of the regions, however, it appears more likely than not that in the near future a more pronounced divergence in healthcare policy could happen in the nearby future (ibid.). To summarise this section, the process of devolution can be considered a success, as it has enabled the devolved regions to take the initiative of developing and implementing tailored policy decisions which take into consideration the specific conditions and challenges which exist in every one of the regions, despite the austerity measures and the impact of the economic recession.
Devolution has also brought with itself a political reconsideration and reprioritization equality and human-rights in compulsory-phase education and how these are promoted, following the government’s commitment to mainstreaming (Chaney, 2011). With the different dimensions which devolution has in the UK, it appears plausible that the priorities of one government will not necessarily coincide with the priorities of another government. Moreover, within the different contextual settings, it is more than likely that different definitions of equality will be used (ibid.). Although there is still a long way to go in terms of promoting equality and human rights, devolution in the long-term could be the ground upon which more equal societies could be built. However, this is a fragile and slow process, and which, despite the progress achieved in the previous phase, largely associated with the policy of the New Labour, has come under threat by the politics of the Coalition Government, as the next few paragraphs will show.
The process of devolution can be characterised by two distinct phases (MacKinnon, 2013).
The first phase of UK devolution between 1999 and 2007 was characterised by common Labour Party government at the devolved and UK levels, stable inter-government relations and substantial increases in public expenditure (ibid). Over the period, the budgets of the devolved governments rose substantially between 2001/2002 and 2009/2010, (61.5% in Scotland, 60% in Wales and 62.6% in Northern Ireland) as a result of spending decisions taken by the Labour Government in London (HM Treasury 2007; 2011, as cited in MacKinnon, 2013).
A new phase of devolution and constitutional politics has become apparent since 2007, defined by three distinguishing features (Danson et al., 2012). First, nationalist parties entered into government in Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast in 2007 as either minority governments or coalition partners. Second, there is the changed context of UK politics following the defeat of Labour in 2010 and the formation of a Coalition Government between the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats.
Third, the economic context has changed radically following the financial crisis of 2007–2008 and the ensuing economic recession. In response, the Coalition Government adopted a programme for reducing public expenditure by ?81 billion by 2015–16, thereby eliminating the UK’s structural deficit (Lowndes and Pratchett, 2012: 23). This has meant that the introduction of austerity measures designed to address the UK’s budget deficit by the Coalition Government since 2010 has also had significant implications for the devolved governments, reducing their budgets and requiring them to administer cuts locally, although they have been vocal in their opposition to austerity and support of alternative policy approaches such as increased capital expenditure (McEwen, 2013).
In this climate, the devolved governments have reaffirmed their commitment to social justice and solidarity (Scott and Mooney, 2009), with the Scottish Government, for instance, arguing that the UK Coalition Government’s welfare reform agenda threatens the social democratic values of ‘civic Scotland’ (McEwen, 2013). In summary, despite the fact that the process of devolution has been successful in several aspects, all associated with granting a certain level of autonomy to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, this could all prove in vain unless more revenue-raising responsibilities are given to the regions.
The aim of this essay was to review the impact which the process of devolution has had in the UK. As it was noted, the nature of UK devolution should be considered as a long-term evolving process, rather than a single even. Economic and political conditions have changed markedly since the establishment of the institutions in 1999, particularly in terms of changes of government at devolved and Westminster levels, the onset of recession from 2008 and the introduction of a new politics of austerity. The underlying asymmetries of UK devolution have become more pronounced with the tendency towards greater autonomy for Scotland and Wales contrasting with greater centralisation and the abolition of regional institutions in England. These contradictions raise some fundamental questions about the territorial integrity of the state and the possible dissolution of Britain (Nairn, 2003) in the context of the Scottish independence referendum which is to be held in September 2014. As this essay has demonstrated, the process of devolution has achieved some notable successes in terms of public health, education policy and promoting equality, though it is impossible to predict what the future might hold in terms of further developments.
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