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Published: Fri, 02 Feb 2018
Power Devolved is Power Retained
Since the formation of the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly in 1999, Westminster has handed over an increasing amount of power, allowing the devolved administrations progressively more influence in the shaping of their nation’s management. The natural question that still arises today is whether devolution poses a threat to Westminster’s sovereignty (Dickinson & Lynch, 2000:2), as at an initial glance, devolving power could be seen to weaken the power of central Government.
In this essay, however, I shall disagree that this is the case, and instead argue that ‘power devolved is power retained’. Using the examples of devolution in Scotland and Wales, I will show how despite the apparent increase in power for both devolved administrations; this does not signal a reduction of Westminster’s sovereignty, nor a move towards a permanent loss of power through independence for either country. In particular, I shall focus not just on how Westminster’s power has remained intact, but also on how the Labour party has ensured that its own power is maintained and in some cases actually increased through devolution.
To demonstrate my argument, I shall first discuss the lead up to the creation of the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly, before focusing on the benefits that devolution has brought to both the local people and the national Government; thus granting power to devolved administrations whilst simultaneous retaining the power of Westminster.
New Labour’s original motives for the introduction of devolution will then be discussed, as well as explaining how the policy was not intended to weaken or dilute power, but to strengthen it whilst in Government and arguably, opposition. I shall then look in detail at the main reasons the policies were introduced; to appease nationalist demands and to contain the threat of independence. Thus, I will conclude that devolution has ultimately benefitted the Labour party, yet it has not marked a loss of power for Westminster and nor is it a step towards the breakup of the United Kingdom.
The Formation of the Devolved Administrations
It is within Scotland that the nationalist movement has been the more prominent, with an aversion to English rule being a far more common theme running through Scottish history than for the Welsh. This is perhaps reflected in how devolution policies for Wales often seemed to be made as an afterthought (McLean, 2007:497); always placed second to Scotland, with Wales originally only being granted a secondary legislative Assembly whilst Scotland enjoyed a Parliament that had a primary legislative role and tax varying powers (Laffin, Shaw & Taylor, 2007:89).
The combination of rising electoral support for the Scottish National Party (SNP) in the 1970s (McLean, 2007:488) and the loss of the Labour Government’s majority in Parliament accumulated in devolution being put on the political agenda (Anderson & Mann, 1997:279). The resulting referenda in 1979 showed that support was far more widespread in Scotland than Wales (Bogdanor, 2001:190), and despite neither being successful, support for the devolution movement grew steadily through the 1980s and 1990s (Dodds & Seawright, 2004:108). By the 1997 general election, the Labour Party had explicitly adopted it as a policy commitment, with both Scotland and Wales voting in favour for devolved administrations soon after (Bromley, 2006:192).
As previously mentioned, the Scottish Parliament had primary legislative powers and was able to vary UK income tax by 3 pence in the pound (The Tax-varying Power, 1999). However, Scotland’s legislative role is not unlimited, with certain policy areas being reserved for only Westminster to legislate on, such as monetary and fiscal policy, defence and immigration (Devolution to Scotland, 2002). Therefore, despite devolving certain powers to Scotland, Westminster still retains control in some defined policy areas.
In Wales, Westminster’s control was greater, with the Assembly only having secondary legislative powers; only being able to implement legislation that Westminster has already agreed (Buller, 2011). However, the recent referendum on the 3rd March 2011 has seen Wales vote in favour of having the same devolved powers that the Scottish Parliament benefits from, and thus enabling them to directly legislate in 20 areas (Wales says Yes in referendum vote, 2011). The power of the Scottish Parliament is also set to increase under the Scotland Bill currently going through Parliament, which would allow Scotland control of one third of its budget, as well as devolving power in areas including air weapon control and speed limits (Holyrood to get new budget powers under Scotland Bill, 2011).
These latest developments could be perceived as a weakening of Westminster’s power, yet despite marking another step away from a concentrated centralisation of power within the UK, no threat is posed to central Government. It must be remembered that devolution is only at Westminster’s choosing and that ultimately, should it choose to alter or withdraw power from Scotland and Wales tomorrow, this could be done (Hague & Harrop, 2007:293).
The Northern Irish Assembly’s suspension from the 14th October 2002 until the 8th May 2007 (Devolved Parliaments and Assemblies, n.d.) shows well enough that devolution does not mark a total sacrifice of power by Westminster. Instead, by continuing to have sovereignty over the devolved bodies, Westminster retains the power it has devolved and reaps the benefits of devolution; strengthening its power and legitimacy and thus benefitting both the people and Government.
An Increased Legitimacy and Strengthened Democracy
One of the benefits of devolving power is that it allows local bodies to deal with local needs (McAllister, 2007:510), and on a much larger scale than councils can. Instead of decisions that specifically affect Scotland or Wales being made in Westminster, government is brought closer to the people and is therefore better equipped to assess and meet the needs of Scottish and Welsh communities, particularly with regard to social policy (Keating, 2003:431). Hence Westminster can be confident that those affected by legislation are the ones discussing and debating it.
Legitimacy is also increased by the Additional Member System (AMS) that is used to elect members of the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly. Higher representation is a natural by-product of devolution, as both countries continue to have MPs in Westminster as well as either Members of the Scottish Parliament or Assembly Members, yet AMS enables a more proportionate way of electing officials which better reflects voting patterns (Bogdanor, 2001:226). It can also quite plausibly result in the Scottish or Welsh executives being of a different party to that in power in Westminster.
From 1979 to 1997, there was a dramatic decline in Conservative support in Scotland and Wales, resulting in the party holding no seats in either country following the 1997 election (Tetteh, 2008:14 & 15). As a result, prior to 1997, both Scotland and Wales were being governed by a party that had not won a majority of their vote, leading to the Conservatives increasingly being seen as an ‘English Party’ (Buller, 2011). Devolution therefore, enables the devolved bodies to be run by a party that has both support and a mandate from the Scottish or Welsh people regardless of who is in national Government.
I would argue that this increased legitimacy gained from the devolved administrations did not just retain power for New Labour, but also increased the party’s power. Following 18 years of Conservatives rule, Labour’s popularity resulted in the 1997 landslide election victory. This was reflected in the devolved administrations’ elections that followed in 1999, with Labour winning 28 of the 60 seats in Wales, and 56 of the 129 seats in Scotland (Tetteh, 2008:50 & 52). This increased legitimacy that the Labour party gained would have improved their mandate drastically. Unlike the Conservatives before them, Labour was now a party with a majority in England, Scotland and Wales. The resulting Scottish and Welsh coalition executives that formed also both included Labour (Seyd, 2004:8), and so the party was able to remain at the centre of the devolved administrations’ politics despite the apparent decentralisation of power from Westminster.
Of course it could be argued that devolution seems a highly bureaucratic way for Labour to make sure that they continued to influence politics in Scotland and Wales, and that they would have had just as much power and authority through the usual channel of Westminster, had devolution not occurred. This is true, but only for when Labour are in power in Westminster.
For over thirty years before devolution, Labour had consistently had the majority of electoral support in Wales and Scotland (Tetteh, 2008:14 & 15), and this has not changed much. Following the formation of the Welsh Assembly, Labour has won a majority of seats in all three elections, with over 30% of the vote (Tetteh, 2008:50). Similarly, in elections to the Scottish Parliament, Labour have consistently had over 30% of the vote, winning a majority of seats in 1999 and 2003, and gaining one less seat than the SNP in 2007 (Tetteh, 2008:52).
Therefore despite Labour’s general election defeat in 2010, the party still has high levels of influence in Scotland and Wales and are unlikely to be surpassed in popularity by the Conservatives. Through devolution to areas with strong support for the party, Labour has ensured their power and voice within these areas will be preserved and maintained. Thus they need only fear losing control of the devolved administrations to nationalist parties, which is why Labour has tried to keep them close. I will soon go on to explain the important relationship between Labour and the nationalist parties, but first we must look at their original reasons for granting devolution, and see the benefits that they sought.
The Objectives for Devolution
Following four consecutive Conservative election victories, the Labour Party under the leadership of Tony Blair, set out to radically modernise its image; moving the party away from far-left ideals and towards a central ground (Labour Party, 1997:3). Thus New Labour was formed, as ‘a radical social democratic party in contemporary guise, [that] put constitutional reform and all manner of related issues firmly at the ideological centre’ (O’Neill, 2004:81). However, devolution was not a policy commitment that Blair himself was particularly keen on; he had inherited the party’s pro-devolution stance from the former Labour leader John Smith (McLean, 2007:487), and aside from carrying out and overseeing his predecessor’s policy commitment, Blair actually had little input into the devolution policies for Scotland and Wales. Indeed, Anderson and Mann have commented that Blair ‘didn’t seem to be very keen on’ devolution (1997:283) when he became leader of the party in 1994.
It would hardly be irrational therefore, to have assumed that Blair would have dropped the policy when he became the party leader, especially as the 1979 referenda had originally been held with the belief that Scotland and Wales wanted devolution, and not that the policy was central to Labour’s ideology (Bogdanor, 2001:191). However, the formation of New Labour signalled an increase in support for devolution, with it becoming one of the main features of their manifesto in 1997. Following Labour’s electoral success, the referenda bill for devolution was the first to be introduced into Parliament (Anderson & Mann, 1997:271).
This support that the party held for devolution despite Blair’s lack of enthusiasm has to be explained by an advantageous outcome from the policy, as unless something is of benefit to the Government, it is unlikely to be pursued. In the 1980s, Labour came to the realisation that devolution was an issue that needed to be addressed; else they would suffer electorally (O’Neill, 2004:80). In Scotland especially, the SNP had won a significant proportion of the vote in 1974 (McLean, 2007:488) and were increasingly becoming a loud nationalist voice calling for Scottish rule over Scotland. Less radical support increased during the late 1980s, with campaigns for a Scottish Assembly and a constitutional convention in 1980 and 1989 respectively, both showing just how wide the support for devolution had become (O’Neill, 2004:74).
The fear of separatism also became a worry, especially with the Conservatives receiving so little support in Scotland and Wales. The proposed devolution plans were to act in a way that would reinforce, and remove the threat of the breakup of, the United Kingdom. Labour also made sure to expressively state that the aim of devolution was not to weaken the power of Westminster, but for it to remain sovereign and thereby strengthen the Union (Labour Party, 1997:33), thus retaining power.
Devolution was never intended to weaken the power of Westminster, but to meet nationalist demands in order to increase legitimacy and contain the risk of independence, which did threaten Westminster’s power. I shall now look in detail at how this was achieved, by discussing how Labour have aimed to appease the nationalist parties, and thereby succeed in retaining power whilst limiting the nationalists’ demands for independence.
Meeting Nationalist Demands
The growing influence and voice of the nationalist parties wasn’t the only reason that devolution came to the forefront of politics. In 1976, the Labour Government under Wilson lost their already small majority in Parliament and soon became dependent on votes from the Liberals and nationalist parties to get legislation passed (Anderson & Mann, 1997:279). In order to hold onto power, Labour needed their support and loyalty; in return, the nationalists called for devolution.
Although the 1979 referenda did not result in devolution, Labour still managed to gain the allegiance of the nationalist parties, following their adoption of devolution as a policy commitment. In particular, the support gained from the SNP and Plaid Cymru still plays a significant role today, and good relations are especially important in the devolved administrations.
Although no longer in Government at Westminster, Labour has a central role as part of the coalition Welsh executive with Plaid Cymru (Seyd, 2004:8). Cooperation is therefore vital for making progress with Welsh legislation. In Scotland, good relations between Labour and the SNP are equally as important in order for legislation passed by the minority executive to be in broad agreement with Labour’s values and policies. Hence despite losing power in central Government to the Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition, Labour has managed to retain power and influence in the Welsh Assembly and to some extent in the Scottish Parliament also.
However, accepting the demands of the nationalist parties is not just beneficial to a particular party in order to achieve support in whichever chamber debates may be occurring. Through the granting of devolution, cries for independence from nationalist parties are more likely to be contained and popular support for such movements reduced. This was certainly the hope of Labour in 1997 (Labour Party, 1997:33), as independence of any part of the UK would mark a significant loss of power for Westminster. The less radical approach of devolution, however, retains control of Scotland and Wales and power is held on to.
Both the SNP and Plaid Cymru are committed in principal to independence, with the SNP originally pledging to hold a referendum on Scottish independence by 2011 (Jeffery, 2005:384 & 388), yet the likelihood of achieving such a goal seems slim. The planned referendum has been shelved due to a lack of Parliamentary support (Carrell, 2010), and the SNP have become less demanding for separatism. The embarrassment of the RBS bailout has shattered confidence in Scotland’s ability to be dependent from Westminster and public opinion shows no desire for an independent Scotland (Buller, 2011).
Hence the plausibility of a breakaway for either Scotland or Wales seems unlikely, despite future increases in both administrations powers, as previously mentioned. This hesitancy towards independence may signal that full autonomy is perhaps not the true goal of the nationalist parties and is instead being used as a bargaining tool to ensure better representation and legislation for their people. If this is the case, a future containing an independent Scotland or Wales continues to seem unlikely.
Nevertheless, even if the nationalist parties were set on achieving independence from the UK, the devolved administrations have been created in a way that would greatly hinder such moves towards a break with Westminster. The initial purpose of AMS for elections was to prevent the SNP having a majority and therefore claiming a mandate for independence (McLean, 2007:488). Elections using AMS are unlike to create a strong one party executive, so Scotland and Wales are most likely to be governed by either a minority or a coalition, and the probably second party to form that coalition in either country is Labour.
Independence for Scotland and Wales is not a policy commitment for Labour (Labour Party, 1997:33), so both of the devolved administrations would struggle to pass legislation to enable such a move with Labour holding so much support in both countries. Even if independence came as a result of a referendum, Scottish and Welsh Labour politicians would still have party ties, complicating a move towards independence further. Hence we can see that an independent future for Scotland or Wales is unlikely, with Labour having successfully managed to contain the threat of separatism.
Thus we can see that through devolution, Labour has not only successfully managed to retain Westminster’s power through restricting moves towards independence, but they have also managed to retain some power within the devolved administrations despite losing their place in national Government.
Power devolved is therefore power retained, so much so that the current coalition Government committed themselves to consider the West Lothian question, to implement the Calman Commission’s recommendations for Scotland and to hold a referendum on further Welsh devolution (Cabinet Office, 2010:27 & 28). The Scotland Bill that is currently going through Westminster and the Welsh referendum that occurred earlier this year show how the coalition have been implementing their plans to extend devolution, which could gain them support in Scotland and Wales, and possibly reap some of the benefits Labour have enjoyed since 1999.
Ultimately therefore, through devolution, Labour has managed to maintain both their power and Westminster’s. They have increased their influence over politics in Scotland and Wales by maintaining their voice in the devolved administrations and doing so, have limited the threat of independence and thus made sure Westminster remains sovereign.
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