Boris Johnson, Prime Minister of the UK, has recently announced measures to ease the lockdown as a result of COVID-19. There has been criticism from across the UK about a ‘four-nations’ approach to easing the lockdown. What does the COVID-19 situation show about devolution, and what could differences in policy mean for easing the lockdown?
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What is devolution?
Devolution refers to the dispersal of power, but not sovereignty, within a political system. In the UK, devolution began in 1998 after three referenda established a Scottish Parliament, Welsh Assembly and Northern Irish Assembly. Devolution occurs due to many reasons, but mostly due to intense emotional connections to specific regions of the country. Devolution of many policy areas followed, including transport, the environment, education and most importantly at this time, health.
Devolution is a continual process as opposed to a one-off. There have been many Acts of Parliament to increase the power devolved to the institutions. As a result of the 2014 Scottish Referendum, more power was devolved to Scotland concerning welfare and taxation. It is essential to know that devolution is not the same in every part of the UK; the Scottish Parliament is the most powerful devolved Parliament in the world, but Wales and Northern Ireland lack the power that the Scottish Parliament possesses.
What impact has the lockdown had on devolution?
COVID-19 originated in the UK in January 2020 and has affected England quicker than the other countries. England has seen the most cases, and whilst Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have since seen cases rise on a similar ‘curve’, Boris Johnson announced lockdown measures for the whole UK. Quickly afterwards, the First Ministers of Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland took control of their constituent countries.
The First Ministers have every right to both implement rules established by the UK Government and Parliament in Westminster, but also the right to implement their own rules. A recent article on CapX discussed how devolution has not worked in the UK’s favour during this crisis, with the view that devolved leaders were changing their rules for the sake of it. Others believe that the leaders’ opinions reflect the development of the virus in the different parts of the UK, with England further along the curve than Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.
On 10th May 2020, Johnson’s announcement of easing the lockdown extended to English residents being able to exercise for an unlimited amount a day, and the ability to drive to go for a walk. Many were confused as they did not know if they could drive from England to Wales to exercise and vice-versa. This confusion highlights the complication surrounding each country being able to control its policy. Had a single policy been developed, there would be less confusion between the four nations and a more collective effort to fight the virus.
Edexcel: Evaluate the view that devolution in the UK has created more problems than it has solved. [30 marks]
AQA: ‘Devolution has gone too far in recent years, and power should return to Westminster.’ Analyse and evaluate this statement. [25 marks]