In 1998, the New Labor government passed the Scotland Act, the Government of Wales Act and the Northern Ireland Act, enforcing devolution in the United Kingdom. In order to determine if devolution constitutes a challenge to the British political tradition, one needs to look at pre-devolution Britain, examining whether or not devolution involves a philosophy of discontinuity, breaking with the past evolution of Britain. Secondly, one should wonder if devolution could initiate, in the near future or in the long term, essential changes in the British political tradition. If it involves, at least, one of these two dimensions, then, devolution can be said to be a challenge. It will be argued that devolution poses a challenge to the British political tradition. It will initially be demonstrated that the challenge does not lie in the fact that it is a breakthrough in British political tradition. Indeed, devolution, in spite of its apparently sudden character, is a logical continuation of British evolution and does not involve such radical short-term changes when considering its extent. The challenge lies elsewhere: it is embodied in the questioning of the deep-rooted fundamental functioning of the British political tradition (the so-called Westminster system, notably majoritarian).
The United Kingdom has not been constituted on a one State, one nation basis but as a Union of Nations. This provides for a sort of historical path of blatant or underlying regional particularities across the territory and throughout centuries. England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland were united step-by-step under the unique representation of a single parliament, and forced to give up their own parliaments (for those which had one). This union was first built on rather unequal terms. The 1707 and 1801 Acts reflect the supremacy of England (and particularly of Anglo-Norman elite). However, in spite of the fact that the destinies of Scotland, Ireland and Wales were fully placed in the hands of the Westminster Parliament, the Scottish and Irish particularities (not so much the Welsh one) were recognized. The way the United Kingdom was created and the persistence of regional specificities, in a sense, paved the way for devolution.
Meanwhile, frequent requests were formulated for Home Rules throughout the centuries. Indeed, the case for devolution, first advocated by Edmund Burke in the late 18th century, sounds a bit like a leit motiv in British political tradition. The late 19th century was significantly characterized by Irish nationalists' demands for a Parliament in Dublin. The same era also witnessed a revival of Scottish and Welsh nationalism. As a consequence, several proposals were formulated for Home Rule all-round in Great Britain (e.g. Russell's Home Rule plans from 1872 on). It is true that, prior to 1998, action has never replaced words as far as legislative devolution is concerned (except for Northern Ireland from 1921 to 1972). But what matters is that the concept of devolution is far from new in the British political tradition.
Therefore, one could see the 1998 devolution, following Bogdanor (1999) and based on these past evolutions as nothing more than a sort of logical renegotiation of the Union, and therefore not such a challenge to the British political tradition.
[...] It is true that, prior to 1998, action has never replaced words as far as legislative devolution is concerned (except for Northern Ireland from 1921 to 1972). But what matters is that the concept of devolution is far from new in the British political tradition. Therefore, one could see the 1998 devolution, following Bogdanor (1999) and based on these past evolutions as nothing more than a sort of logical “renegotiation of the Union”, and therefore not such a challenge to the British political tradition. [...]
[...] One instance among others is the aborted attempt of Westminster to oppose a Northern Irish proposed law aiming at abolishing proportional representation in local government. Second, Westminster has effectively ceased to deal with some devolved matters, whether those remain, in practice, “shared competences” or not. For instance, part of Tony Blair's promises before his 1997 election, such as the reduction of NHS waiting lists, are not solely in Westminster's hands anymore. By eliminating scrutiny and Ministerial responsibility on domestic matters (e.g. [...]
[...] In conclusion, devolution does not so much constitute an immediate challenge to the British political tradition. This is explained by the fact that it follows from an history of specificities and home rules and does not reform the existing institutions on such a radically large scale. However, it will certainly be a challenge to the future of the deep-rooted British tradition, by questioning its essential qualities. Devolution might have a drastic effect on the British system in the long run. [...]
[...] Evolution in the party politics of devolved territories could also have repercussions on the British political tradition. For example, Scotland is now characterized by a seven-party system (it had four parties before devolution). From unique to differentiated policies? The last challenge to the British political tradition would be the questioning of the existence of unique policies across the United Kingdom territory. It seems as if the State was “losing its ability to give to all citizens the same treatment” (Adams, John, Schmueker, 2005) according to needs, and not geography. [...]
[...] The 1998 devolution does not induce such radical changes in comparison with the pre-existing political status quo To start with, devolution, though it has been implemented in a large portion of the United Kingdom's territory (and in three over four regions), only affects a small share of the citizens of the population lives in England). In addition to that, a form of executive and administrative devolution has always pre-existed. Thus, one could consider that the main change brought by the reforms is merely the democratization of previously existing arrangements, that is to say, of the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish offices. [...]
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