Devolving for a Stronger Union

By Bogdanor, Vernon | The World Today, November 1997 | Go to article overview

Devolving for a Stronger Union


Bogdanor, Vernon, The World Today


The British Parliament will soon consider the biggest constitutional change for 165 years - bills to set up decision-making bodies for Scotland and Wales will be introduced before Christmas. Will a Europeanstyle devolved system of government help unify the Kingdom or be a precursor to its disintegration?

DEVOLUTION INVOLVES THE TRANSFER of some of the powers of Parliament to directly elected subordinate bodies such as a Scottish Parliament or Welsh Assembly. It can be distinguished from federalism as a process by which Parliament transfers its powers without relinquishing its supremacy. Being subordinate, devolved bodies can, in the last resort, be over-ruled, or in pathological circumstances, abolished by Parliament. This occurred with the Northern Ireland Parliament -- Stormont - in 1972.

It is this delegation of power from a superior body to a subordinate one which distinguishes devolution from federalism; federalism offers a legal guarantee to a sub-national tier of government. It would not, for example, be possible for the German government unilaterally to abolish the legislature of Bavaria, as the British government unilaterally abolished the government of Northern Ireland.

Until this year, devolution in Britain was largely the history of something that did not happen. Six Home Rule or devolution bills were introduced between 1886 and 1978. Of these, only part of one was implemented.

Four of the Home Rule bills -- those of 1886, 1893, 1912 and 1920 - were designed to deal with the Irish problem, by providing for the establishment of a Parliament in Dublin to legislate for Irish domestic affairs within the United Kingdom. The 1886 bill was defeated in the House of Commons and the 1893 bill was defeated in the Lords. The 1912 bill eventually reached the statute book in 1914, but was put in abeyance by the outbreak of the war.

HOME RULE

The only devolution bill which actually came into effect was the 1920 Home Rule Act - the Government of Ireland Act. But the Act was applied only in one part of Ireland, the six counties of Ulster in which the Unionists could be sure of a majority. The other twenty-six counties rejected Home Rule, and fought for their independence which, in 1921, they won as the Irish Free State.

Northern Ireland, the only part of the United Kingdom to gain Home Rule, was, then, very much the exception to the rule. It was, paradoxically, the one part of Ireland which had not sought devolution. The Unionist majority in the North wanted nothing more than to remain part of the United Kingdom on the same basis as England, Wales and Scotland. It accepted devolution, in the words of Sir James Craig, the first Prime Minister, as 'a final settlement and supreme sacrifice in the interests of peace, although not asked for by her representatives'.

Thus the experience of Northern Ireland between 1921 and 1972, when it had devolved government, evades the crucial issue of whether it is possible to devolve power to just one part of a country in an otherwise unitary state.

CONTAINING NATIONALISM

Devolution is normally undertaken to contain ethnic nationalism; the pressures which it is designed to meet are centrifugal. In Northern Ireland, however, the pressures were centripetal. The majority in the province sought not to break away from the United Kingdom, but, on the contrary, to make sure that the links were unbreakable.

The withdrawal of the twenty-six counties from British rule ended consideration of devolution in Parliament for many years. Britain seemed a homogeneous state which could be ruled, without difficulty, from Westminster. Northern Ireland was forgotten until the troubles in 1968 forced a reappraisal of the constitutional position of the province, a reappraisal which has still not been completed.

BACK ON THE AGENDA

Devolution became an issue again, however, in the 1970s, primarily because of the rise of the Scottish National Party. …

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