What are the arguments for and against devolution?
Devolution makes it possible for decisions to be taken at a more appropriate level, for example, the problems of agriculture are different in Scotland to England and the economic problems of the Welsh Valleys are special to that area. In Northern Ireland, a balancing of the needs of the two communities is a particular issue. It is unlikely that Ministers and civil servants in London have as good a knowledge and understanding of issues as local politicians. Devolution has allowed the creation of offices in Brussels by the Scottish, Welsh and Norther Irish Governments so that they can give their views directly to the EU. There were separate Government Offices in Scotland and Wales before 1997 but the creation of separate Parliaments makes decision-making more democratic.
Devolution allows the cultural identity and national feeling in each part of the UK to find expression. Scotland has a different legal system, a different established church and a different education system to England, Since the 1970s there has been a growth in Scottish national identity and interest in Scottish history. The Welsh language is very important to many people in Wales, especially in the rural west of the country, and there have for long been demands for equal status for the Welsh and English languages in education, road signs, official documents and so on.
Devolution has led to a different sort of politics with more involvement of interest groups and less partisan political debate. Decision-making has been more dependent on consensus. In Northern Ireland the new system forced cooperation between the two communities.
Devolution allows for different policies to develop in different parties of the UK and for innovations to occur. For example, Scotland has introduced proportional representation into local government elections, made prescriptions for medicines free and merged fire and police services.
Devolution has created a system which can gradually evolve. Wales has now the ability to legislate that it did not have originally and extra policy areas have been devolved over time. Scotland is about to gain greater control over taxation and welfare policy.
Although it is difficult to say that devolution is more expensive overall, as some services may be delivered more efficiently, there are clearly some extra costs. New Parliaments have been built in Edinburgh and Cardiff and there is an extra cost in running these and in having an extra set of politicians. There may be duplication between Whitehall and the devolved administrations in areas where responsibility is not clear cut .
Conflict can develop between the Devolved Governments and the UK Government, especially if the Scottish and Welsh Governments are run by a different party or parties to the UK Government. Arguments have developed over the Barnett formula, which was created in the 1970s, to decide how much Scotland and Wales would get from UK wide taxation.
Devolution is not the same as Federalism. In Federal countries the respective powers of national and regional governments are defined in the Constitution and either side can go to a Constitutional Court to decide issues over which there is disagreement. The UK Supreme Court can only interpret the devolution legislation passed by Westminster. The West Lothian question, which asks why Scottish and Welsh MPs can vote on English legislation at Westminster when English MPs cannot vote on Scottish and Welsh issues, has no obvious answer under devolution.
Devolution is an unstable system. The Scottish and Welsh Government and Parliament have been unhappy with the limits on their powers and have wanted more devolution. Westminster can easily be seen as a predominantly English Parliament and not interested in Scottish or Welsh problems, leading to demands for independence.
There is a variation in services in different parts of the country. English students pay tuition fees while Scottish students do not. Many personal services delivered at home for those over 65 are free in Scotland but not in England.