The future of devolution since the referendum

Written evidence from Unlock Democracy

About Unlock Democracy

Unlock Democracy is the UK’s leading campaign for democratic reform. Established in 2007 following the merger of Charter 88 and the New Politics Network, we campaign for a vibrant, inclusive democracy that puts power in the hands of the people.


●    The future of devolution must be decided by voters, not behind closed doors by politicians 
●    The next step for devolution should be a constitutional convention led by the public
●    Any constitutional convention should have equal representation for the countries that make up the UK
●    The “vow” timetable for devolution to Scotland is grossly unrealistic, but politicians can agree the form of a constitutional convention before the next election
●    Devolution to England - in the form of an English Parliament or English votes for English laws - should not be seen as a substitute for devolution within England

Should England, Wales and Northern Ireland be offered the level of devolution that has been discussed in relation to Scotland? 

Should England, Wales and Northern Ireland be offered the level of devolution that has been discussed in relation to Scotland?


    1.        While the Scottish referendum campaign has clearly opened the door to devolve more powers from Westminster, devolution should not be a one size fits all solution. The advantage of variable devolution is that it can respond to demand for different levels of powers in different areas. Devolution has always proceeded at different paces in different areas of the UK, and what is appropriate in Scotland is not necessarily appropriate elsewhere. The key is that where there is significant demand for powers to be devolved, there should be a mechanism for negotiating the transfer of powers which allows the public to express their view.


    2.        In principle, devolution should be available in all parts of the UK. However, devolution to England is complicated by its dominant position in the UK, with 85% of the population and 533 of the 650 MPs at Westminster. A devolved government in England on the same model as Scotland would rival Westminster, potentially reasserting the dominant influence in the UK that motivated devolution to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland in the first place.


If so, what should be the next stages to take forward devolution in a) Scotland, b) Wales, c) Northern Ireland, d) England?


    3.        There are many competing proposals for devolution in different parts of the UK. Scottish parties have submitted proposals to the Smith Commission, Welsh and Northern Irish parties have developed proposals for enhanced fiscal devolution. In England, proposals for devolution have taken two distinct paths, focusing on devolution to England as a constituent part of the UK, and on devolution within England to regions and local communities. Unlock Democracy recently published a pamphlet[1] outlining a new approach to devolution in England, which would create a menu of powers for local communities to “draw down” from central government, rather than central government bestowing them on regions themselves.


    4.        There is no shortage of proposals, but so far the decisions have been left in the hands of politicians. While Scottish voters have had a referendum on independence, the wider UK public has yet to have a say on the future of devolution. The next step for devolution should be to set up a constitutional convention, led by the public, to consider the distribution of power between the component parts of the UK, and within those component parts. This is the only way of making decisions about the future of devolution that will command legitimacy. The convention should have a defined remit, taking existing proposals for changes in devolution as a basis for discussion. While the convention should be free to examine other options for resolving the issues surrounding devolution - such as reforming the House of Lords on an elected regional basis - it should not aim to address a shopping list of constitutional issues demanded by campaigners.


    5.        The recent Irish constitutional convention, which ran from 2012-14, provides a useful model. The convention included a two-thirds majority of ordinary citizens selected to be representative of the population as a whole, with the remainder made up from politicians nominated by their parties in proportion to their party’s representation in the legislature. The Irish convention was successful at fostering a deliberative environment to develop proposals for constitutional reform and achieving buy-in from political parties.

6.    However, the dominance of England in the UK again complicates the composition of such a convention. If members of the convention were selected to  achieve a membership proportional to the population of the different countries of the UK, the convention would be largely an English affair. We believe that the convention should include equal representation for each country of the UK. A constitutional convention will provide a more fertile environment for deliberation on the future of devolution than zero-sum negotiations between governments of different political stripes.  


To what extent is the Government’s timetable for considering the future of devolution realistic?


    7.        The arbitrary timetable for the “vow” to Scotland agreed in the heat of the referendum campaign means that complex decisions about the future of devolution will be examined in extreme haste. The timetable set by the government would be unrealistic even if the decision were one that only involved ministers and civil servants. It was determined purely by party political calculation and leaves the public no meaningful opportunity to contribute to the process. The impact the restrictive timetable will have on the decision-making process is already clear. The Smith Devolution Commission has invited the public to send in their individual views on the future of Scottish devolution, but they only have a window of 28 days to contribute[1]. This process does not meet even the government’s own guidelines for consultations, which recommend significantly longer periods of consultation for more complex issues.[2] After the consultation process, the Commission itself then has just one month to produce proposals. This is simply not enough.


    8.        Opening up the decision-making process on the future of devolution will be impossible within the timetable agreed in the “vow”. However, the first steps can be agreed before the general election. While a constitutional convention led by the public would necessarily be a lengthier process, the form of the convention could be agreed within the existing timetable. It is essential that the convention be given sufficient time to deliberate but involving the public in the process does not mean “kicking the issue into the long grass”. Putting into place an inclusive decision-making process before the next election would be more faithful to the vow timetable than producing rushed proposals without widespread public support, which may easily be rewritten by an incoming government.


[1] Submissions from the public were invited on October 3; guidelines for submissions were published on October 10; the deadline for submission is October 31.