Last week in Liverpool, the Labour Party endorsed a major restructuring of its Scottish organisation to reflect the political changes of devolution. This week at the Conservative Conference, with attention cast on the UK’s relationship with the European Union, some commentators have suggested that a reassessment of EU membership would also provide an excellent opportunity to address UK federalism and the West Lothian Question once and for all.
With the impact of devolution still being felt almost thirteen years after the Scotland, Northern Ireland and Government of Wales Acts were passed, what do MPs really think of devolution?
A poll of MPs conducted immediately before the devolved elections earlier this year showed widespread positivity towards devolution in the House. Indeed, a majority of Members described devolution in each of the three Celtic regions as either a ‘reasonable’ or an ‘unqualified success’.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, devolution in Northern Ireland was most likely to be viewed as a success (69%), with many Members highlighting the contribution that ‘enforced power-sharing’ in the Northern Ireland Assembly has made to peace, stability and to ‘stopping violence and sectarian division’ in the region. Just 9% of MPs believe Northern Irish devolution to have been failure.
MPs’ views on Welsh devolution are more neutral. Although half of MPs (52%) consider Welsh devolution to have been a success, almost a third view it as ‘neither a success nor a failure’ (31%). A number of Members believe that ‘the Assembly has not been able to distinguish itself so clearly’. Nevertheless, others comment that devolution of the principality has succeeded in ‘bringing Wales higher up the political agenda’ and that the effects of further devolution following the referendum this year are yet to be seen.
However, Scottish devolution proves to be most contentious among the House. Although devolution in Scotland is broadly considered a success by 59% of MPs, the transferral of powers to Edinburgh is also most likely to be seen as a failure compared with Wales and Northern Ireland. One in five MPs believe that the process of devolution in Scotland has either been ‘a failure’ or ‘an unmitigated disaster’ (20%). Despite the majority of comments centring around ‘the development of a national identity’, ‘quality politicos’, as well as ‘useful’ laws and policies that ‘English people envy’, there are widespread concerns. Many MPs consider devolution to have been instrumental in increasing nationalism and fear the eventual ‘break-up of the Union’.
Analysing MPs’ responses by political party reveals that while broad consensus exists among Labour and Liberal Democrat Members regarding the success of devolution in each of the three regions, Conservative MPs are split.
Debates surrounding the West Lothian Question and the state of the Union rumble on, but perhaps more pressing in the current economic climate are the concerns regarding the cost of devolution and the suitability of the Barnett Formula. With budget cuts across public services, some MPs fear growing resentment between England and the devolved regions (on issues of tuition fees and prescription drugs for example).
Although the devolution of powers to Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast is viewed as a positive achievement by most MPs, the policy continues to evolve and impact upon current agenda. With a referendum on Scottish independence looming, counterintuitively perhaps, the issue of devolution looks set to move up the political agenda rather than down. Ed Miliband may therefore wish to brush up on the names of Scottish Labour leadership candidates in preparation...
Methodology: ComRes surveyed 151 MPs on the ComRes MPs Panel between 9th March 4th April 2011 by online and paper self-completion questionnaire. Data was weighted to be representative of the House. ComRes is a member of the British Polling Council and abides by its rules.
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