“The Labour Party is the party of devolution. ” Is this a reasonable statement to make? Devolution is defined as “the transfer of power to a lower level, especially by central government to local or regional administrations” (oxforddictionaries. com). It can also be defined as “the transfer of power from a superior sovereign to a subordinate parliament or assembly. ” (Tonge 2010). Within a devolved state, the sovereign power retains the technical power to suspend the devolved government. Since Labour came into power in 1997 under Tony Blair, power has been devolved from Westminster to Scotland, Wales as well as Northern Ireland.
Devolved government was created in both Scotland and Wales after majority referenda in the respective countries; however the majority in Wales was notably miniscule. A year later, the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly were set up and after the Good Friday Agreement also in the year 1998, a Northern Ireland Assembly was actualised. Although there were plans for England to become devolved, these were shunned after a comprehensive “No” vote on a referendum for a North East assembly with a resounding 78% to 22% victory (news. bc. co. uk/1/hi/uk_politics/3984387. stm). All of the aforementioned cases of devolution were carried out under a Labour government which looking at these facts alone strongly suggests that Labour is indeed, the party of devolution. Nevertheless it would be extremely naive to neglect the other parties and events in the writing of this essay. This essay is going to examine The Labour party of the 1970s and their views towards devolution under the likes of Wilson and Callaghan.
The essay will also consider devolution under New Labour, devolution widely being regarded as one of Tony Blair’s biggest triumphs during his 10 year tenure as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. Not only will this paper consider Labour as the party of devolution, it will also examine the Conservative party as a party of devolution looking closely as the manifestos of Ted Heath and the impact that Margaret Thatcher’s appointment as leader of the Conservative party had on devolution within the United Kingdom.
Furthermore it is important to regard the Liberal Democrats as a party of devolution. Finally it will look at whether regional devolution has a future within the UK or if the referenda on the North East Assembly was the final straw making the notion of “a party of devolution” redundant. Firstly, the Labour party of the 1970s and 1980s. Prior to the 80s, the Labour party did not have a lot to say on devolution. It was only the rise of support for nationalism and nationalist parties that prompted the Labour party to reconsider its stance on regional devolution. The Labour party had traditionally been seen as being in favour of centralised political authority, with Westminster the location for that authority” (Deacon and Sandry, 2007). This quote from Deacon and Sandry’s “Devolution in the United Kingdom” gives an overview of what the Labour parties “traditional” stance on the idea of devolved power has been and this certainly suggests that the Labour party is a party of devolution. In recent times the Labour party has been on the side of devolution apart from a clash of views which split the party in the 1979 devolution referendum.
However before this referendum in the Labour party’s 1974 election manifesto, devolution did not get so much as a look in, suggesting that perhaps Labour were not the party of devolution. Nevertheless two days prior to the general election being announced, a union block vote caused an agreement on the policy of devolution. Three weeks before the 1974 general election a white paper was produced thus Labour was therefore committed to devolution. After the party split on the 1979 devolution referendum, future Labour leader Neil Kinnock, as well as several other big Labour voices campaigned against the idea of devolution.
Be that as it may, during the 1980s the Labour party as a whole became more pro-devolution. Many people would think that due to the more right-wing nature of the Conservative party then they would be less in favour of devolution. Indeed, from the middle of the 1970s to the latter years of the 20th century the Tories were utterly against political devolution in the United Kingdom outside of Northern Ireland. In the 1970s under the leadership of Ted Heath the party did indeed commit to devolution in their 1970 party election manifesto, nevertheless in the next general election in 1974, devolution was not mentioned at all.
The election of Margaret Thatcher as leader of the conservative party did not help the case for devolution as she was notoriously hostile towards the idea. “The Union is inevitably dominated by England by reason of its greater population. The Scots being an historic nation with a proud past will inevitably resent some expressions of this fact from time to time” (Thatcher, 1993). Before the referendum in 1997, former Prime Minister John Major said “Devolution would hurt business. It would hurt people. It would take power away from individuals and mean higher taxes for Scots.
It would eventually lead to the break-up of the United Kingdom. ” (bbc. co. uk/news/special/politics97/devolution/scotland/news/300897MAJ. shtml) Despite the fact that the Conservatives were no longer in power when this column in “The Times” was written, it was a sentiment shared by many members of the Conservative party at the time. Nevertheless after both referendums turned out “Yes” votes in favour of devolved parliament in Scotland and Wales and the Conservative party committed themselves to making sure that devolution work in Scotland and Wales as well as the Northern Irish assembly.
It is often argued nowadays that some Conservatives enthusiasm for devolution is now greater than that of the Labour party (Deacon and Sandry, 2007). Thus suggesting that perhaps Labour are no longer “the party of devolution”. The party has pushed to increased powers for the Scottish parliament on taxation and several conservative members of the Welsh Assembly are keen for the actualization of a law making parliament. Nonetheless, the core of the Conservatives are still extremely aligned to scepticism when it comes to devolution.