In 1997 Tony Blair won a landslide victory with a 179-seat majority and therefore a huge mandate to shake up the political sphere of this country. ‘New Labour’ sought to reform the constitution to modernise and democratise the government and so devolution was finally going to be put into play. Fast forward 20 years and, arguably only through a global pandemic, can one finally see the positives of this policy.
Although the virus is potentially the most dangerous issue of the decade, it is not uniform and consistent throughout the United Kingdom; London recorded some staggering 2304 deaths in its peak week. Meanwhile in Wales, although still awful, a significantly lower count of 508 deaths were tallied during its peak week. Surely then, it makes complete sense for the UK to have different ‘lockdown’ rules, regulations and policies depending on which nation you live in?
Rules on exercising, face coverings, and meeting friends or family have been different depending on if you live in England, Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland. Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland’s first minster, has taken a more ‘hard line’ approach by encouraging people to wear appropriate face coverings and urging people to remain at home, whilst Northern Ireland’s Arlene Foster has been more relaxed by allowing you to meet more than one person at a time. So, although this may be annoying if you live on the border, it does seem like a rational and pragmatic approach that wouldn’t be possible without devolution in the UK.
Some have argued that this undermines Boris Johnson’s authority as prime minister and, although there is an argument for that, one can easily rationalise this issue. Mark Drakeford, the First Minister of Wales, and Arlene Foster, the First Minister of Northern Ireland, have democratic legitimacy within their respective nations and is it their duty to look after their individual countries- not the entirety of the UK. So, whilst a general consensus is important, their mandates ensure they have the utmost control during this pandemic. Johnson’s authority is, and should be, of lesser significance in these nations.
Obviously, the UK remains a unitary state, as opposed to a federal state like the USA. Yet due to devolution, each nation within the UK can follow slightly different rules and has a greater sense of autonomy from the central government in Westminster. Regarding the coronavirus, this is a huge advantage; why should somebody living in the North of Scotland in the Shetland Islands, where there are no cases of the virus, have to comply with the same rules as somebody in the centre of London were the virus has been rampant? Although the devolution is asymmetrical, meaning each nation has variations in the power and autonomy they posses, it is justifiable for rules to differ throughout the UK to be compatible with the pandemic’s severity in certain areas.
Could this pandemic force parliament to reassess the nature of devolution?
In truth, devolution has been criticised for weakening the unity within the UK, but I think we can all agree that during this pandemic a regional and local response has been key to keep the ‘R’ down and protect those most vulnerable. Devolution hasn’t made lockdown simpler, but it has made it safer and more logical.
At least for that, we can appreciate Tony Blair’s contribution to the constitution.
Devolution: the pragmatic approach.