The way Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland became part of the UK was very different and is now having a direct bearing on the way devolution is developing.
In Scotland the new Parliament that was established in 1999 took charge of a pre-existing array of civic institutions that had survived and flourished beyond the 1707 parliamentary union with England, including financial institutions, a system of administration in the form of the Scottish Office from the 1880s, and a highly developed press and media.
To a great extent, Scottish identity revolved around these institutions. They provided Scots with a civic, and because of that a unified sense of their nationality. Consequently, when the Scottish Parliament met in 1999 it was as though a keystone was placed in the arch of an already existing structure.
In Wales the position could not have been more different. Apart from a much shorter experience of separate administration, by the Welsh Office from 1964, the idea of a civic identity embracing the whole of Wales was foreign to the Welsh. Instead, their identity relied upon a much more diffuse and fractious sense of locality, language and culture.
This was one reason why, in contrast with the Scots, the idea of a National Assembly was so controversial and when it came, only narrowly achieved. Moreover, when it was established, far from completing an institutional structure, the Assembly had to set about building one. Before it could become the keystone it had, so to speak, to construct the arch.
After 300 years, has the Union reached its sell-by date? Certainly, one thing has become clear. After a decade of devolution, the status quo in Scotland as well as in Wales is not tenable. There have already been significant changes to the original 1999 ‘settlement’ in both countries, and further change is inevitable. In one way or another, both Wales and Scotland are on the move.
Despite the stuttering start and the recurring problems of the devolved administration in Northern Ireland, a return to the dark and violent days of the ‘Troubles’ also seems unlikely. But here, too, the present arrangements seem transient. Unionists are pushing for the Assembly to become more akin to a ‘normal’ democracy, while the nationalist/republican parties are still pursuing their goal of a united Ireland. The devolution of justice and police matters were only completed by the end of the first decade of the new millennium.
Following the Richard Commission and the All Wales Convention’s recommendations, Wales holds a referendum on 3 March 2011 to decide whether the National Assembly gains further legislative powers akin to those the Scottish Assembly was offered in 1979, with the prospect then of moving towards what was granted Scotland in 1999. In that eventuality the creation of a legal jurisdiction for Wales separate from England, as already applies in Scotland and Northern Ireland, looks inevitable.
Meanwhile, following the 2010 general election the Westminster Conservative Liberal Democrat coalition is committed to implementing the recommendations of the Calman Commission, giving the Scottish Parliament greater powers, including greater taxation powers.
A decisive influence on how devolution will develop in future will be the by far and away larger part of the United Kingdom, namely England. Partly under the influence of devolution, but also in relation to the reality of the United Kingdom’s role as a medium-sized state within the European Union, England is steadily becoming more self-consciously English. This can be seen both politically and culturally.
In political terms voting patterns, which have always diverged markedly from England in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales, continue to throw up strong differences. As a result there are growing demands at Westminster for England to have powers over its domestic concerns in the way devolution has allowed for the three Celtic parts of the UK. This could begin with ‘English votes for English laws’ within the House of Commons and evolve towards some kind of distinctive English Parliament.
The more such trends gather pace, the more the United Kingdom will move from its existing quasi-federal structure towards a more formalised federation. There are, of course, difficulties with establishing a federation in the United Kingdom since England would be such an overwhelmingly large component. It may be, therefore, that in the medium to longer term, perhaps somewhere towards the mid 21st Century, a confederal solution will be found to the United Kingdom’s constitutional dilemmas.
It is noteworthy that, despite their formal commitment to independence, this has been suggested at various times by both Plaid Cymru and the SNP. It is not impossible that the Republic of Ireland might be tempted to collaborate more closely with such an arrangement as well. In turn that might see some resolution to the current irreconcilable identities within Northern Ireland. The creation of the Council of the Isles, as part of the 1998 Belfast Agreement, may come to be seen as a first step on this road. Looking further ahead we might even see the emergence of something akin to Scandanavia’s Nordic Union within the British Isles, co-operating of course within the framework of the European Union.
Decisions at devolved, UK and European levels will further influence the course of constitutional change. Although sub-state regions have been acknowledged in the European constitutional process, they have not made it beyond the margins of recognition. A strong regional tier in European governance would support devolution, an increasingly intergovernmental EU could strengthen tendencies towards ‘Independence in Europe’.
Some have described devolution as “a process not an event”, others as “a journey with no known destination”. The more apocalyptic have likened it to “travelling on a motorway with no exits”. Given the character of English/British political culture, which is essentially pragmatic and disinclined to construct elaborate constitutional arrangements, least of all to write them down, developments in the near future are likely to be piecemeal and without any clear sense of direction. Certainly, this is what has most typified the contrasting devolution paths within the United Kingdom thus far.