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How devolution changed in Wales & Scotland between 1998 and 2015

Devolution has created different political systems in Scotland and Wales with different types of party government and different policies to England. 

As has been the experience in other European countries, such as Belgium and Spain, a measure of devolution has led to demands for further devolution and even independence.

Devolution changes in Scotland

The Scotland Act, 1998, created a Scottish Parliament at Holyrood. Members of the Scottish Parliament are elected every four years on a proportional system. This is called the Additional Member System.

73 MPs are elected for individual constituencies on the first past the post system. But, Scottish voters have a second vote for the remaining 56 MPs. This is to make the overall result more representative.  

It was expected to create coalition governments and that it would be impossible for the Scottish National Party (SNP) to win a majority in the new Parliament.

The Scottish Parliament also tried to develop a different style to Westminster, more open to interest groups and more consensual in its decision-making.

What was in the 1998 Scotland Act?

The Scotland Act reserved a range of areas that would be kept by Westminster. Any other areas, not included on that list, would be devolved to Scotland:-

  • Areas related to other countries, such as foreign policy, international development and trade, defence and immigration were reserved to Westminster.
  • Economic and monetary policy, energy, telecommunications, broadcasting, employment and some aspects of transport were reserved to Westminster.
  • Social security payments were reserved to Westminster.
  • Powers such as health, education, agriculture and fisheries, the justice system (given Scotland’s separate legal system), environmental policy, policing, social care and some aspects of transport were devolved to the Scotland.  Scottish Ministers run these and the Scottish Parliament can legislate on them.

The Seward Convention

An arrangement, called the Seward Convention, was created so that the Scottish Parliament had to agree if Westminster wanted to legislate on an area affecting Scotland.

The Scottish Parliament can also ask Westminster to legislate on an area for the whole UK as it has, for example, over tobacco advertising and the regulation of fireworks.

The Scottish Government & The Barnett Formula

A Scottish Executive renamed the Scottish Government in 2007, runs the devolved areas with a three years at a time funding from London.  

Money to Scotland is based on the Barnett Formula. This was developed in the 1970s when devolution first became an issue. It gives or apportions money based on population and then the same increase in spending that English Departments, who deal with the equivalent policies to the devolved areas, have carried out.

The devolved governments have no control over this. But it is argued that it is generous to Scotland. The formula takes no account of revenue raise by the Scottish Government. It takes no account of need, such as the proportion of older people or the extra cost of providing services in rural areas, in each of the parts of the UK.  During this time period, the Scottish Government never made use of its power to vary income tax.

Different policies have been carried out in Scotland. This includes an earlier ban on fox-hunting, getting rid of university fees and different ways of charging elderly people who are in care homes.

The rise of the Scottish National Party

In 2007 the SNP became the largest party. Until that point there had been a Labour and Liberal Democrat Coalition. In 2011, despite the difficulties under the electoral system the SNP won a majority of seats in the Scottish Parliament. 

Pressure for further devolution developed soon after the Scottish Parliament was created and railways were devolved in 2005. 

The Labour/Liberal Democrat administration set up the Calman Commission in 2007 to look at how devolution was working.  This was opposed by the SNP who rejected it as no alternative to independence. They criticised the Commission as only really considering minor changes to the status quo.  

The Commission said that full power for Scotland to raise its own taxes was incompatible with being part of the UK, that the Barnett formula should be replaced long term and that there could be a few extra areas that could be devolved. 

The Scotland Act, 2011, gave more power to vary income tax, power to borrow funds and devolved a few minor areas such as speed limits and the control of firearms.

The 2014 Scottish Independence Vote

Once in control of the Scottish Government, the SNP were determined to promote the idea of a referendum on independence. 

In 2012, Prime Minister David Cameron negotiated the Edinburgh Agreement. This favoured the SNP. It allowed only for or against independence to be on the ballot paper and not greater devolution, called Devo Max, as an alternative. It also allowed votes to be given to 16 and 17 year olds who were thought to favour independence.

During the referendum campaign in 2014, when an opinion poll suggested that the vote could be close, British party leaders went to Scotland and promised a version of Devo Max. 

54% of Scots voted No to independence but the British Government now had to implement this promise.

Interest in the campaign had energised Scottish politics to the benefit of the SNP who then won all but three Scottish constituencies in the general election.

The Smith Commission, set up to make proposals for further devolution in line with the party leaders’ promise, proposed complete control over income tax and also a proportion of VAT, control of some major areas of welfare benefits and the Work Programme, granting rail franchises to the public sector and licences for oil and gas.

The 1998 Government of Wales Act

The Government of Wales Act, 1998, created a weaker form of devolution than that in Scotland.

Wales received an Assembly rather than a Parliament and Wales could only control a list of areas devolved to the Welsh Parliament, rather than any not reserved by Westminster. 

In practice, the areas devolved  were similar to those in Scotland, excluding police and the justice system, but there was no power to legislate and Wales go to Westminster for this.

Welsh Ministers depended on committees of the Assembly rather than having a separate authority as a Welsh Government.

The voting system is the Additional Member System, as in Scotland, and this has led to Coalition and Minority Governments with Labour always in Government and in Coalition with the Liberal Democrats and Plaid Cymru at different times.

Pressure for Welsh Devolution

Although Wales voted only narrowly for devolution, the acceptance of the Assembly has led to demands for Welsh Devolution to be brought in line with that in Scotland.

Plaid Cymru, unlike the SNP, has not seen the push for independence as a priority and, instead, had been ready to work with other parties to secure a better devolution settlement. 

The Welsh Government set up the Richards Commission in 2002 to look at this. The 2006 Government of Wales Act made securing Welsh legislation easier and the means for a Welsh Government was created.

When Plaid Cymru joined the Labour Party in the Welsh Government in 2007 they made an agreement to hold a referendum on whether the Assembly should have full legislative competence in the devolved areas.

The 2011 referendum said Yes to this by a large majority and it was carried out by the Government of Wales Act, 2011.

The Coalition Government, containing the Liberal Democrats who have always been in favour of devolution, set up the Silk Commission.

This commission proposed further devolution with Welsh control of some areas of taxation and powers over areas including energy, water, transport and youth justice. The Wales Act, 2014 gave more financial powers to Wales.