More than 20 years of devolution have reshaped the UK’s devolved nations, and the union as a whole. While Scotland and Wales may have started from different places and different levels of commitment to devolved institutions, the last two decades have seen the devolved governments take on increasing importance in people’s everyday lives.
Through the Covid-19 crisis, citizens have looked ﬁrst to devolved leaders to protect their lives and livelihoods and invested greater trust in devolved governments than in the UK government at Westminster. Governments at Edinburgh and Cardiff have at times struck a different tone or direction to that of their counterparts in London while, for many, the hyper-local dimensions of this crisis have demonstrated the limits of rule from the center. For those consumed with leading the response to an ongoing crisis, May’s elections will still feel very far away. But they may yet mark a watershed moment as devolved institutions come of age in a moment that could entrench the primacy of devolved institutions in the minds of (more) voters across Scotland and Wales and set the constitutional and political trajectory of the next decade.
In both Wales and Scotland, 20 years of devolution has been characterised by the dominance of progressive parties at the ballot box and elections that have returned governments increasingly at odds with Westminster, with the perceived legitimacy of devolved institutions in Cardiff and Edinburgh steadily growing over the last two decades.1 The course of the last parliament has put these progressive credentials to the test, as new powers, including over income tax and – in Scotland – some beneﬁts, have come into play – and has laid the ground for new forms of policy divergence between Westminster and the devolved nations.
“In both Wales and Scotland, 20 years of devolution has been characterised by the dominance of progressive parties at the ballot box”
The Covid-19 pandemic has cast devolved administrations in a new light as the response to the crisis has been largely led by entirely devolved public health authorities, solidifying the primacy of the devolved institutions in many peoples’ everyday lives. Polling from September 2020 found that 77 per cent of respondents in Scotland thought Nicola Sturgeon and the Scottish government had handled the Covid crisis well, compared to just 17 per cent when asked the same question of Boris Johnson and the UK government.2 In Wales, polling indicates the same pattern, with 70 per cent of respondents in Wales saying the Welsh Government is handling the Covid-19 crisis well compared to 37 per cent who say the same of the UK government.3
Repeating a familiar feature of devolution over the past two decades, tensions have arisen throughout the crisis in the realm of economic policy. Here, the limits of devolved competencies have been illuminated. While governments in Scotland and Wales have led the public health response to Covid-19, powers over the economic response – for both immediate support for workers and businesses, and borrowing to support a ﬁscal stimulus that might kick-start economic recovery – are overwhelmingly reserved to Westminster, and used at the discretion of the UK Treasury. As devolved administrations in Scotland, Wales and the newer combined authorities in the north of England have chosen or been advised to enter localised lockdowns, the economic support package offered across the UK has been insufﬁcient.
“As the spread of the virus has accelerated in different nations and regions of the UK, devolved governments have at points lacked the means to design their own policy response”
Differing approaches to handling the pandemic, at least in terms of communication, and increasingly in terms of policy aspiration, have led politicians and voters to question the competence of the UK government and raised concerns over its priorities. While Boris Johnson has tried to insist the Covid-19 crisis has demonstrated the ‘sheer might’ of the UK, support for independence in Scotland and Wales is rising.4 Instead of being an advert for the union, failure to develop formal and effective processes to support inter-governmental relations has meant the four-nations crisis response has been characterised by poor communication from the centre and rising tensions. Reﬂecting on the future of the union in the New Statesman, Gordon Brown offered something of a mea culpa: “not enough thought was given to the mechanisms for cooperation when devolution was implemented.”5
At points, these tensions have boiled over as governments at Holyrood and Cardiff Bay have grown impatient with the additional layers of uncertainty introduced by the disruption of UK ﬁscal events upon which devolved governments’ spending envelopes are based. As the spread of the virus has accelerated in different nations and regions of the UK, devolved governments have at points lacked the means to design their own policy response. Here, he limits of the current ﬁscal frameworks in place in Scotland in Wales – not least with regards to borrowing powers – have come into sharp focus.
As we look ahead to 2021, the run-up to the May elections, and the political course they set, will be critically important to Scotland and Wales’ futures. As with crises of this magnitude before, the economic and social settlement that emerges on the other side of this crisis is likely to endure for decades to come.
In Scotland, high-level commitments to a wellbeing economy will be tested over the course of the next parliament as the recovery from Covid-19 begins. After ﬁve years of an economic strategy focussed on delivering inclusive growth – that is, growth that “combines increased prosperity with greater equality, creates opportunities for all, and distributes the beneﬁts of increased prosperity fairly” – with fair work a key element within this, change on the ground is still in its infancy.6 Transitioning to a new economic model takes time, no doubt, but whether warm words are translated into shifting outcomes will be the litmus test for Scotland’s economic policy approach in the turbulent years ahead, particularly given the likely temptation to prioritise an ‘any growth’ or ‘any jobs’ strategy while in the post-Covid-19 economic doldrums. In the coming months, progressives will need to be focused on articulating the immediate policy and spending priorities that can begin to realise the vision of an economic model that puts people and planet ﬁrst. This is likely to play out against the backdrop of an independence debate that increases in volume.
“Progressives in both parliaments must now double down on these commitments to bridge the gap between rhetoric and reality”
In Wales, potentially transformative agendas are also stuck in the starting blocks. Aspirations to re-prioritise the foundational economy – the basic services and products people rely on “to keep us safe, sound and civilized”7 – have given rise to 51 pilot projects currently being funded across Wales. While these are encouraging ﬁrst steps, a reorientation of Wales’ economic priorities within current powers will require concerted efforts to learn from these pilots and embed bolder action across government. These ambitions will similarly be tested by mounting pressure on budgets and the spectre of rising unemployment.
Progressives in both parliaments must now double down on these commitments to bridge the gap between rhetoric and reality. This issue offers reﬂections on how more than 20 years of devolution has shaped politics and policy in Scotland and Wales, and asks where next for progressives over the next ﬁve years and beyond. We also consider some key lessons from devolution – or lack of it – in England for the ongoing response to Covid-19.
As John Curtice writes, after 14 years of government in Scotland, evaluations of the SNP’s long-term record may matter little in determining how voters cast their ballot come May. Instead, assessments of how well the Scottish government has handled the Covid-19 pandemic, and constitutional preferences, are likely to shape decisions at the ballot box. As Curtice reminds us, evaluations of Nicola Sturgeon’s government’s handling of Covid-19 may well extend not just to judging the competence of the SNP, but to Scotland’s ability to govern itself: already, evidence suggests perceptions of the Scottish government’s handling of Covid-19 have affected voters’ views on independence.
Richard Wyn Jones and Jac Larner lay out lessons for progressives from 20 years of devolution in Wales. They reﬂect on the difﬁcult limits of Welsh legislative powers, and the nature of progressive victories so far: from bus passes to free prescriptions, these have perhaps not always amounted to transformative acts of political imagination. The bulk of progress made by devolved institutions, they suggest, has been in blocking disastrous initiatives pursued by the UK government in England. Tracing the transition of devolved institutions from bodies with minimal powers to powerful actors in Welsh life, they explore the implications of shifting political identities, and the challenges that stand in the way of visions for a greener, fairer Wales.
Ailsa Henderson and Daniel Wincott reﬂect on the impact of Covid-19 and Brexit on the union, arguing that our current crises have both exposed long-standing constitutional challenges and created new ones. They turn particularly to the UK government’s Internal Market Bill which has, together with Brexit, taken relations between the UK government and its counterparts in Scotland and Wales to their lowest ebb by threatening the foundations of the devolved settlement.
Karel Williams and John Laws of the Foundational Economy Collective uncover the lessons for devolved governments of the disastrous consequences of the top-down pursuit of marketisation of England’s NHS. In light of the Covid-19 crisis, they make the case that devolving decision- making capacity in England – as in the devolved nations – is as critically important as increasing funding.
Denisha Killoh, Gemma Bone Dodds and Sarah Deas of the Wellbeing Economy Alliance set out a vision for how strengthening our democratic representation and democratising our economy can start Scotland off on a path towards a wellbeing economy. They argue that while policies continue to be made by those with a limited range of experience, they will continue to miss the mark – and that there is transformative potential in sharing power more broadly.
“at May’s election, soundbites will not be sufﬁcient to meet the challenges of meeting Scotland’s child poverty targets”
Josh Miles explores the wins of devolution – from rising employment rates in Wales, and the growth of microbusinesses – alongside the structural challenges facing Wales’ economy. He assesses the factors that have held back economic policy thinking in Wales, and points to the potentially transformative ideas that could shape the next parliament: from the creation of new democratic institutions such as the Development Bank of Wales, to new ambitions for the foundational economy movement.
Emma Congreve looks at the outlook for economic inequality in Scotland over the next parliamentary term. Arguing that crises and inequality are mutually reinforcing, she lays out the risk of inaction, making clear that, at May’s election, soundbites will not be sufﬁcient to meet the challenges of meeting Scotland’s child poverty targets, or of gathering the political will to repeat the seismic policy shifts that have been rapidly realised during the Covid crisis.
Sarah Kyambi assesses the challenges for immigration policy in Scotland over the next parliament: from the ongoing challenges of mitigating hostile environment policies, to the structural threat that centralised immigration policymaking might pose to Scotland’s workforce. She reminds us that “divergence needs dialogue” – a message that travels across policy domains and geographies in a devolved UK.
Kirstein Rummery reﬂects on over 20 years of Scottish government approaches to social justice, casting our minds back to the promise made by Donald Dewar, on the eve of devolution, that Scotland “could be a beacon for progressive opinion, addressing policy challenges which reﬂect the universal values of fairness”, as he underlined the ﬁrst parliament’s ambitions to tackle poverty and promote social justice. Two decades later, devolved government has much to be proud of: from pioneering public health approaches to new approaches to tackling major policy challenges. This is best exempliﬁed by Scotland’s Independent Care Review, which reimagined how government could engage citizens with direct experience of the challenges it sought to tackle, and on what terms.
Talat Yaqoob considers how policymaking in Scotland can do better by those furthest away from power and opportunity, arguing for new democratic mechanisms, including a citizens’ second chamber, that could deliver greater accountability and support better outcomes. Both Yaqoob and Rummery underline the persistent challenge of undervaluing care work – and both make the case for investing in a National Social Care Service, and for reimagining the state’s role in supporting basic ﬁnancial security for all.
Adam Ballard, a school climate striker, leaves us with his priorities for the next parliament. As we look ahead to COP2021 in Glasgow, his piece reminds us not just of the scale of our climate crisis, but of its mobilising energy. “Most of all, it’s the uncertainty,” Adam writes – reminding us of the unparalleled urgency of our climate and nature emergency, and the unacceptable gamble of political failure, from the perspective of those who stand to inherit whatever Scotland this next parliament leaves behind.
The Editors - Rachel Statham, Chris Thomas, Josh Emden and Shreya Nanda
1. As evidenced by Curtice, Wyn Jones and Larner in this issue.
2. As cited in the Curtice article in this issue.
4. Boris Johnson cited in Brooks L (2020) ‘Boris Johnson praises “sheer might” of UK as he heads to Scotland’, Guardian, webpage. https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2020/jul/23/boris-johnson-praises-sheer-might-of-uk-as-he-is-set-to-visit-scotland
Nation Cymru (2020) ‘10% increase in support for Welsh independence in a year, YouGov poll ﬁnds’, webpage. https://nation.cymru/news/10-increase-for-welsh-independence-support-in-a-year-yougov-poll-ﬁnds/
Politico (2020) ‘Support for Scottish independence at highest ever level: poll’, webpage. https://www.politico.eu/article/support-for-scotland-independence-uk-at-highest-ever-level-poll/
5. Gordon Brown (2020) ‘How to Save the United Kingdom’, New Statesman. https://www.newstatesman.com/politics/uk/2020/11/how-save-united-kingdom
6. Scottish Government (2015) ‘Scotland’s Economic Strategy’, Scottish Government. https://www.gov.scot/publications/scotlands-economic-strategy/
7. Welsh Government (2020) ‘The Foundational Economy’, Welsh Government. https://gov.wales/foundational-economy
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