This week, we’ll be looking at the devolved assemblies of the United Kingdom – in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Each of them presents a different case study, and so we will tackle them one by one, rather than going by theme as we have in previous weeks. We’ll briefly see how these bodies came to be, what powers they have, and how they function in turn. We’ll also consider, right at the end, the missing piece of the puzzle, as it were – England.
Northern Ireland has not had a happy history – since the division of the island of Ireland in the 1920s, the province has been the scene of tensions between the Catholic (Nationalist) and Protestant (Unionist) communities. For the first 50 years of its existence, there was a Parliament of Northern Ireland, dominated by the Protestants. However, in the 1970s, a spiralling surge of violence in the province led to the dissolution of the Parliament and the assumption of direct control by the government in London. This continued up until the late 1990s, when a lengthy, tangled peace process finally resulted in an agreement between Nationalist and Unionist politicians. The centrepiece of this agreement was a new Northern Ireland Assembly, which came into being after the peace agreement was approved in a referendum in 1998.
The Assembly has power over agriculture, education, health, infrastructure, justice, and a variety of other areas, with members of the Assembly (MLAs) serving as members of the Northern Ireland Executive. Both the Assembly and the Executive function differently to how similar bodies in the UK function. In the Assembly, for example, certain votes require majority support of politicians from both the Protestant and the Catholic communities. The Executive is comprised of members of both communities – and sometimes from parties that define themselves as “other” – and there is no collective responsibility. Each minister is scrutinised by an Assembly committee chaired by someone from another party.
Since its creation, the Assembly has been suspended several times – most notably between 2002 and 2007 – when agreement between the two communities represented in the body broke down. Most recently, it has been dominated by the two largest, and traditionally less moderate, parties of those communities – the Nationalist Sinn Fein, and the Unionist Democratic Unionist Party. At the moment, there is an election campaign in process for a new Assembly, after the previous one was dissolved in the midst of a political scandal. This election, like all others, will be held using the Single Transferrable Vote system, but will see fewer MLAs than before – 90, rather than 108 – elected.
Wales’ path to devolution has been a far less violent one than Northern Ireland, but also a far less enthusiastic one. In a referendum in the 1970s, the people of Wales rejected the offer of a devolved assembly – when asked again in 1997 by the Labour government, they very narrowly voted (a margin of just over 6,000 votes) – in favour of the proposition. Wales is not a nation with a long history of independent political institutions from the rest of the UK – since the 16th Century it had broadly been governed on the same basis as England, and only after the Second World War did a party dedicated specifically to advocating for Wales – Plaid Cymru – emerge.
The Welsh Assembly that was approved in the 1997 referendum has typically had far fewer powers than its Scottish cousin – most notably with regards to tax, which the Assembly has no power to vary. It does have power over areas such as agriculture, education, health, local government, policing and transport, and an executive to carry out the responsibilities attached to these areas. But it has lagged behind Scotland in the scope and strength of powers it has had devolved to it by Westminster. The Assembly has long been dominated by Labour – though they have rarely had a full majority – and comprises 60 members, elected originally every 4 years using the Additional Member System.
The Scottish Parliament is perhaps the most complete, and stable, example of devolution in the UK. Much as with Wales, the Scottish people were offered a chance at devolution in the 1970s – and indeed voted in favour of the proposal, but a clause in the Westminster legislation requiring 40% of eligible voters to support the proposal meant that devolution was not pursued. Again, it was left to a 1997 referendum, offered by the Labour government, to re-open the issue. On a higher turnout than Wales, the Scottish people backed a Scottish Parliament by 75% to 25%, and giving it tax raising powers by 63% to 37%. Scotland had retained a host of independent institutions after joining the UK in the 18th Century, including its own legal and education systems, and its nationalist party – the Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP) was much more electorally successful than Plaid Cymru managed to be.
Subsequently, there have been further rounds of devolution to Scotland, as with Wales, most notably after the 2014 referendum on independence. The Scottish Parliament and Executive have control over a wide range of policy areas – cultural, education, health, environment, local government, justice, housing and planning are some of them. There are 129 Members of the Scottish Parliament (MSPs), elected, as in Wales, with the Additional Member System. The system originally delivered Parliaments where Labour were the largest, and formed a coalition with the Liberal Democrats – 1999, and 2003 – but since 2007 the SNP have been the largest party, and indeed from 2011 to 2016 they maintained a majority in the Parliament.
The ‘missing nation’ in this equation is, of course, England. The Labour government elected in 1997 was open to devolution to England, on a regional basis – in 2004 they held a referendum in the North East of England on the establishment of an assembly, a proposal that was very firmly rejected by voters there. Whilst London experienced a form of devolution through the Greater London Assembly, the rest of England has yet to gain devolved institutions.