Is Devolution Keeping Britain Together or Driving It Apart?

According to Lord Robertson, Labour’s Shadow Scottish Secretary during the 1990s, introducing devolution would kill nationalism ‘stone dead’.  In contrast, his former backbench colleague, Tam Dalyell, argued it would prove to be a ‘slippery slope’ towards Scottish independence. With a referendum on Scottish independence due to be held in a year’s time, at the moment there would seem to be little doubt that, for good or ill, it is Tam Dalyell’s remark that has proved the more prescient.

But is this really the case? Does the experience of the last decade and a half suggest that introducing devolution makes it more difficult to keep a multi-national state like the United Kingdom together? Does such a step necessarily lead to developments in public opinion that make such an objective (if that is what you believe in) more difficult to achieve?

This is the question addressed in one of the chapters in the latest annual British Social Attitudes (BSA) report released today. The thirtieth in a series stretching back to 1983, this year’s report looks at how attitudes towards a wide range of topics, including sex and marriage, taxation and spending, and social class and politics, have evolved during the course of the last three decades. In examining the apparent impact of devolution of public attitudes, Paula Devine, Rachel Ormston and I not only look at long-term trends in identities and constitutional preferences in Scotland, but also at what has happened in Northern Ireland (where devolution has now finally been up and running for six years) and in England (where, London aside, devolution has been notable by its absence). Apart from BSA (which provides our evidence on trends in England), we also draw upon the findings of the Scottish Social Attitudes and Northern Ireland Life and Times surveys, all three of which are conducted in much the same manner.

Devolution has had some ‘successes’ as judged by the perspective of those who would like to retain the Union as currently constituted. In Northern Ireland support for reunification with the rest of Ireland, never much higher than a quarter, has slipped to 15% since the Assembly has been fully functioning. True, there also appears to have been something of a decline in the proportion who regard themselves as ‘British’, but this appears to have been accompanied by an increase in the proportion who acknowledge a ‘Northern Irish’ identity that seems to imply a rejection of the need to choose between being British or Irish at all. Meanwhile, although in Scotland devolution has afforded the SNP the opportunity to pursue independence, support for leaving the UK has in fact tended to be lower since the SNP have been power, falling from an average of 30% before 2007 to 26% since – perhaps because some people feel the SNP have shown that devolution can be used to defend Scotland’s interests effectively within the framework of the Union.

Yet it seems that devolution has given rise to new tensions too – primarily in England.  Although people in the UK’s largest component continue to show relatively little interest in wanting devolution for themselves, there appears to be less willingness than there was in the early days of devolution to accept the idea that Scotland should have its own relatively autonomous institutions within the framework of the Union while at the same time enjoying what some regard as a generous financial settlement. Support in England for Scottish devolution has fallen from 57% in 1999 to 43% now; on the one hand a quarter now think Scotland should leave the Union, while on the other almost as many feel that Scotland should not have any kind of Scottish Parliament at all.  Meanwhile, although it remains the case that only a minority feel that Scotland gets more than its fair share of public spending, the proportion that do feel that way has more than doubled from 21% in 2000 to 44% now.

It is, of course, all too easy to exaggerate just how much notice England takes of what is happening elsewhere in the UK. More than one on five say they simply just do not know whether Scotland gets more or less than its fair share of public spending or not. But we should not be surprised if, in the event of a No vote in the independence referendum, voters and politicians in England give a fair wind to the idea that the Scottish Parliament should have more responsibility for setting and raising its own taxes; they may well feel that the more that Scotland ‘pays its way’ the better. In this instance at least the lesson may be not that devolution has gone too far to meet the objectives of those who would like to keep the UK together, but rather that it has not gone far enough.

Avatar photo

About the author

John Curtice is Professor of Politics at Strathclyde University, Senior Research Fellow at ScotCen and at 'UK in a Changing Europe', and Chief Commentator on the What Scotland Thinks website.