Devolution and the Union: then and now

The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted some of the flaws of the UK’s uneven devolution arrangements, and the mixed success of intergovernmental forums. Charlotte Kincaid summarises discussions from a Unit webinar in which four experts from across the UK tracked the country’s bumpy journey of devolution, and where it might go in the future. The webinar was the final instalment of the Unit’s series of celebrations to mark its 25th anniversary.

The details and arrangements of devolution have been played out in the public sphere while the UK has attempted to grapple with a pandemic. The public has seen devolution very much in action, with each part of the UK implementing its own lockdown measures and support packages, demonstrating the autonomy and limitations of devolved governments. With devolution in the forefront of the public mind, it was the opportune moment to discuss the journey so far, and where devolution is headed. The summaries below are presented in the order of the speaker’s contributions.


Michael Keating, Professor of Politics at the University of Aberdeen and former Director of the Centre on Constitutional Change, described Scottish devolution as an ambivalent project, and noted that there have always been different understandings of what devolution means. For some, it is a modification of the unitary state of the UK, for others the UK is a union of self-governing nations which come together for common purposes, while another group view it as a project in the direction of federalisation. In recent years these foundational issues have grown in relevance due to a number of constitutional confrontations. 

While public opinion has always favoured more devolution, support for independence is relatively recent. During the Scottish independence referendum campaign in 2014, the number of people in favour of an independent Scotland increased from 30% to 45% but surveys showed that the most popular option was more devolution within the UK. Recently, this has started to change – the elusive middle ground between pro-union and pro-independence supporters has begun to disappear. This is partly due to the impact of the referendum itself; the proportion of those in favour of independence has not dropped back down to its pre-referendum level. Secondly, Brexit has had an impact: Scotland voted to remain while England and Wales voted to leave. This has resulted in an increasing alignment between pro-Union and pro-Brexit views on one side and anti-Union and anti-Brexit views on the other. Scottish politics is polarised between unionist and nationalist camps to a greater degree today than in 2014. 

In the last 25 years, Scotland has emerged as a stronger political community, with much of the focus being on what plays out in Holyrood rather than Westminster. The COVID-19 crisis has allowed the Scottish government to occupy a political space in which it is perceived within Scotland as the leader of the response to the pandemic; this has had a knock-on effect on the level of support for independence, which now regularly scores above 50% in opinion polls

The UK government has shifted from a strategy of ‘devolve and neglect’ to a more active, or ‘muscular’ unionism in which it has engaged in strategies to defend the Union which have had the adverse effect of further distancing unionism and nationalism in Scotland. 

Professor Keating concluded that 25 years ago Scotland was organised around unionism, nationalism, left and right. Today, Scotland is increasingly organised around the poles of unionism and nationalism, and the middle ground is rapidly disappearing as a political option. 


Laura McAllister, Professor of Public Policy and the Governance of Wales at the Wales Governance Centre discussed the trajectory of devolution in Wales which, she argued, has progressed at a comparatively fast pace, via a relatively straightforward process.

Numerous reasons explain the transformation of devolution in Wales, which she described as the ‘quiet’ part of the devolution map. One driver for change was necessity: the initial devolution model was fundamentally flawed and needed to be fixed. The original Welsh government was essentially a corporate body with no division between the executive and legislature. Following a number of commissions and inquiries a stronger and clearer model for devolution has been established. Today, the Senedd reflects the normal ideas and expectations of a parliamentary system. This transformation went largely unnoticed by the rest of the UK, and by many people in Wales. 

Historically, the Welsh electorate hasn’t engaged with Welsh elections on a large scale. The 1997 referendum on devolution itself had a low voter turnout and Wales hasn’t yet hit the 50% turnout rate, though this is in line with academic understanding of second-order elections. The ballot results have been dominated by one party, Labour, which last lost an election nationally in Wales in the 1920s. This has created a lack of cultural pluralism amongst the political establishment, and a degree of stasis in Welsh politics. Labour has played the role of a ‘good’ Unionist party, but this has begun to change. 

One reason for Welsh Labour’s change of approach to devolution is the Brexit process. Despite Wales’ vote to leave the EU, the handling of Brexit has provoked the Welsh Labour government to flex its muscles, most recently in response to the Internal Market Bill, and more generally over conventions perceived to be under threat by a more active unionism. An additional, and larger, reason for change is the response to the COVID-19 pandemic by the Welsh government, which has made it more present and improved public understanding of its role. Recent polling on approval ratings in Wales for the Welsh government and the UK government sit at around 50% and 20% respectively. 

Professor McAllister concluded by expressing the view that although Wales is not on the same journey as Scotland, there is a level of comparability between Wales today and Scotland 10 years ago. Support for independence sits at 25%. Looking at supporters of independence by age, it is young people who are most in favour of independence, and the greatest increase in support for independence is seen amongst Labour voters. Polls also identify an expansion of the ‘indy-curious’ group: those who could be persuaded to vote for independence subject to contextual factors.

Northern Ireland

Cathy Gormley-Heenan, Professor of Politics and Deputy Vice-Chancellor at Ulster University highlighted that Northern Ireland is different from the rest of the UK for a number of reasons: it has a mixed history of governing itself and direct rule and its devolution settlement was the answer to a much more profound legitimacy crisis. A bespoke devolution agreement had to be established in order to form a government which was viewed as legitimate. This took the form of consociationalism: a power-sharing form of government between unionism and nationalism which prevents any form of majority rule.

Different measures are applied when examining the success of devolution in Northern Ireland: the absence of violence, a functioning executive, and reconciliation are the three main performance indicators. Arguably the most success can be seen in the reduction of violence; had devolution not been in place, it is estimated that another 2,400 people may have lost their lives over the last 21 years. Regarding the functioning of government, the conclusion is mixed. Cumulatively, since 1998 Northern Ireland has been without an executive for eight years – more than a third of its existence. In fact, Northern Ireland holds the record for the longest period without a government: 2017–2020. When the executive has been in operation, it is questionable how well it has functioned – Professor Gormley-Heenan described the operation of the executive as ‘power-snaring’ as opposed to power-sharing. Reconciliation is an incomplete project: 93% of children and young people are still educated exclusively in Catholic or Protestant ethos schools. One of the remaining peace walls in Belfast was built 50 years ago, standing longer than the Berlin wall.

The already shaky state of devolution in Northern Ireland is being rocked further by the ramifications of the Brexit settlement under the Northern Ireland protocol to the Withdrawal Agreement. Looking ahead, 2021 marks the centenary of Northern Ireland, which may add momentum to those who have long campaigned for a ‘border poll’. While a border poll is not imminent, it is stated in the Good Friday/Belfast Agreement and the Northern Ireland Act 1998 that a referendum should be called if it appears likely that a majority in Northern Ireland would vote in favour of a united Ireland. Little work has been done to map out what a referendum would look like, and only limited work so far on what a united Ireland would look like. The Working Group on Unification Referendums on the Island of Ireland – of which Professor Gormley-Heenan is a member – chaired by Unit Deputy Director Dr Alan Renwick, deals with some of these unanswered questions in its interim report. Cathy concluded by comparing devolution in Northern Ireland to a vehicle, not a destination: it is forever breaking down – that’s the relationships – and running out of gas – that’s the money. But it is a vehicle which everyone claps for when the ignition is turned, for the third or fourth time, and the engine eventually kicks in. 


Professor John Denham, Director of the Centre for English Identity and Politics at the University of Southampton and Director of the Southern Policy Centre, opened his contribution by stating that there has been little progress on devolution in England, which remains the most centralised nation in Europe. Since Labour took office in 1997 and enacted its devolution agenda, England is the only constituent nation of the UK which hasn’t been asked how it wishes to be governed. 

Devolution in England thus far has been limited to the establishment of elected mayors and city deals, but this has had little real impact on redistributing powers and resources. The motivation behind regionalisation in England has been a carrot to get local stakeholders to buy into the agenda of Whitehall, rather than an attempt to bolster local autonomy.

While England has its own domestic policies, such as in education, and health and social care, it lacks its own parliament, has no machinery responsible for coordinating English policy, and there is no ministerial accountability to English MPs. Polling suggests that people in England would favour a dual mandate commitment in which English MPs at Westminster sat as ‘England’ on English issues. This and other options for an English parliament were explored in a 2018 Constitution Unit report, Options for an English Parliament.

The politics of the UK has changed. There is now a distinct English political identity which is marked by scepticism of both Europe and the Union. This stands in contrast to how UK parties think of themselves, as British parties working for Britain. In reality, the idea of ‘British’ politics, has never been weaker. 

Devolution in England has been hampered by the fact that it is rarely discussed. British unionism largely dominates political discourse, in which England is rarely named as a distinct entity. For example, November’s spending review announcements which were specific to England were not identified as for England in official government communications. 

Casting an eye to the future, Professor Denham detailed three areas which may open up debate on English devolution. The first of these is the May 2021 Holyrood elections, at which Scottish Labour is discussing a federal future: this tells us that the Union isn’t likely to survive in its current form. Secondly, the possibility that a future general election would throw up a non-Conservative majority in the United Kingdom, but not in England, could provoke a crisis of legitimacy as Scottish, Welsh and Northern Ireland MPs would, setting aside English votes for English laws, be able to impose policy on England. The final area is Brexit. Professor Denham remarked that in the final days of the UK’s negotiations with the EU we are witnessing ‘peak Brexit’ with Brexiteers at their most powerful. Once the terms of our future relationship with the EU have been finalised however, the UK may adopt a more pragmatic approach to how it deals with Brexit.

This post is a summary of the main contributions of the four speakers, and does not include any discussion of the interesting Q&A that followed. You can watch the complete event here, and view previous event videos on the Unit’s YouTube page

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About the author

Charlotte Kincaid is the Constitution Unit’s Impact Research Fellow.