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Volume 1: Union and Devolution 1997–2007

This is the first of a major two-volume work which provides an authoritative account of devolution in the UK since the initial settlement under New Labour in 1997.

This first volume meets the need for a comprehensive, UK-wide analysis of the formative years of devolution from the years 1997 to 2007, offering a rigorous and theoretically innovative re-examination of the period that traces territorial politics from initial settlements in Scotland and Wales and the Good Friday agreement in Northern Ireland to early maturity. Bradbury reviews the trajectory and influencing factors of devolution and its subsequent impacts, using a novel framework to set a significant new agenda for thinking and research on devolution.

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In turning to Northern Ireland one is immediately faced with the explicit nationalist/unionist community division and the political violence that seemingly made its politics very different from everywhere else. This meant that achieving peace as well as any sort of constitutional policy that could meet nationalist pressures for change while also being acceptable to unionists was a huge challenge. In such circumstances, Northern Ireland presented itself as an extreme case where no ideal solution acceptable to all was possible. In seeking to reappraise how the peace process and the 1998 Belfast Agreement were finally arrived at, unsurprisingly the chapter again focuses on the realist politics of how each side struggled to get as much of what they wanted as possible in trying to reach a settlement.

In conducting this reappraisal the chapter utilises the same analytical framework as previous chapters to reveal the key dynamics of change. First, the chapter places a focus on the nature of the territorial strain provided by Northern Ireland, examining the resources feeding nationalist pressures for change in Northern Ireland on the one hand and sustaining UK rule on the other. The chapter explores the idea that the 1980s and 1990s were quintessentially the era in which the resource model of weak periphery–weak centre relative to aspirations became evident to participants in the struggle. Secondly, the chapter throughout explores how recognition of such resource weaknesses and constraints as well as interests influenced nationalist and unionist political elite leadership, and the codes, strategies and goals that they each developed.

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This chapter will address how devolution was introduced in Scotland. Scotland has long had strong identity politics and, despite the negative outcome of the 1979 devolution referendum for reformers, there remained ambitions for constitutional change in the 1980s and 1990s. Nevertheless, there were rival cases for independence and devolved self-government, sceptical views on the nature of devolution and outright opposition to it. Consequently, we need to start from the assumption that there was no ideal stable long-term framework for introducing constitutional change acceptable to everyone. Instead, we should understand how devolution was introduced mainly through the prism of power politics, and that actors each sought to achieve their aims as best they could. This chapter duly discusses political contestation over how proposals for devolution were arrived at and seen through into government.

The chapter is shaped by the framework of analysis outlined in Chapter 3. Accordingly, it discusses the nature of the territorial strain that Scotland posed for the UK, and the political resources behind territorial change. It discusses the validity of the proposition that, even in Scotland, such resources were actually weak relative to reformers’ aspirations. Throughout, the chapter then addresses the movement for territorial change in Scotland and explores the proposition that in the context of power politics and resource deficiencies it adopted constrained aims and incorporated an instrumentalist approach to achieve them. Equally, the chapter considers how the British Labour leadership politically managed the emergence of devolution proposals, and explores the idea that in the context of similar relative resource deficiencies it adopted a code focused on achieving indirect central control.

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This chapter moves the focus to how devolution was introduced in Wales. Here too, there was contestation between arguments for independence, devolution and maintenance of the status quo in the years after 1979. For those seeking change, though, there were very strong doubts. The assumed resource model of weak periphery–weak centre relative to aspirations appeared even more appropriate in this case, as Wales has always been considered as having somewhat weaker popular support than Scotland for self-government. Hence, we may reasonably question not only whether it was possible to agree on an ideal solution for constitutional change, but – more so than in the case of Scotland – how a compelling case for change could be marshalled at all.

In seeking to reappraise the politics of devolution in Wales in these years, this chapter again focuses on the power politics of how devolution was progressed; the chapter also applies the same framework of analysis focused on understanding how, why and with what intentions devolution was introduced. Duly, it discusses the nature of the territorial strain that Wales posed for the UK and the political resources behind territorial change, considering the extent to which bottom-up pressures had strengthened or not. It considers the politics of elite leadership of constitutional change and the code, strategy and goals of peripheral assertion applied. In so doing, it explores the utility of the proposition that instrumental policy arguments and mechanisms were at the forefront of the case for change.

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All studies of territorial politics recognise the underlying importance of a cultural identity underpinning the construction and/or expression of territorial claims. It is simply that a strong vein of literature looks outside the assumption that there is a linear relationship between the expression of cultural identity and the political development of ideas of sovereignty and constitutional rights. Realist approaches recognise that there is an inherent politics to the development of group interests and the mobilisation of territorial support, whether it be for the development of states or sub-state territorial units (Rothschild, 1981). The rational and intentional behaviours of groups do not take over completely, but they are a significant dimension of how territorial interests are actually led and articulated, what strategies and forms of mobilisation are developed, and how the goals to be pursued are defined (Rothschild, 1981; Barreto, 2009).

Approaching analysis within these terms provides us with a fresh opportunity to understand how, why and with what implications devolution happened. It foregrounds analysis of political actors central to the development of devolution operating within specific institutional contexts, developing courses of action in accord with their interests but taking into account ‘the constraints and circumstances they face’ (Gamble, 1990:410). This approach privileges analysis of political elites seeking territorial outcomes in challenging contexts; the motivations of party elites focused on electoral success and political power; and government and bureaucratic elites focused on maintaining competent and effective government. It builds in assumptions that action is driven by power politics, where ideas are part of the currency of contestation, and asks questions about how such contestation is being steered, the nature of political management, and where the real sources of power lie.

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Any account of devolution in the UK since 1997 must start by providing some important preliminary contexts to analysis. This chapter is concerned with three. First, devolution across the UK was a hugely significant political event, which can only really be appreciated by placing it into historical context. Accordingly, section one fulfils the initial responsibility to briefly outline the historical background of the UK state, the nations that have composed it as a territorial union, and previous debates about self-government and devolution. Second, devolution has also stimulated considerable research, though so far there has been a neglect to summarise and critically appraise the literature. The focus in this book is on organising perspectives for understanding devolution as a whole. So section two offers a summary and appraisal of some key contributions which have helped to develop such overarching analysis. Cumulatively, the argument is made that they have developed what we can understand as a range of constitutional schools of analysis. They are particularly important for the fact that they have also produced what has become a set of conventional wisdoms. These are: first, the relative empowerment of the identity politics of the UK’s stateless nations which made devolution essential; second, the perceived inadequacy of the subsequent devolution settlements viewed from Scottish, Welsh, Northern Irish and English perspectives; and third, the perceived failure of UK governments to properly address the territorial reform of the state as a whole, intergovernmental relations, and the management of devolution.

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Acts of Parliament to establish the Scottish Parliament, National Assembly for Wales and Northern Ireland Assembly were all passed in 1998 under the Labour government led by Tony Blair. They provided for significant devolution of power in UK government. In the same year Regional Development Agencies (RDAs) were established as a new focus for English regional governance. Together they all raised questions about the territorial organisation of the state in central government. In the twenty or so years since then the territorial question in UK politics has scarcely slipped down the political agenda, leading to further territorial reforms in all parts of the UK and the ultimate challenge of the referendum on Scottish independence in 2014. The UK’s departure from the European Union, heralded by the referendum vote in 2016, has led to further debate, notably about the future of Northern Ireland and Scotland. Territorial politics and constitutional policy have become key dimensions of UK state development.

This book is the first of a two-volume study which seeks to provide a comprehensive analysis of this subject. It focuses on the period from 1997–2007, addressing the origins and introduction of the original devolution settlements, and the subsequent decade of their development until the end of the Blair governments in 2007. In these years the original devolution reforms followed extensive debate in the 1980s and 1990s, including in Northern Ireland a peace process and talks that led ultimately to the historic 1998 Belfast Agreement. Referenda in each of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland were held in 1997.

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In returning to focus on Scotland and Wales, this chapter will seek to address how devolution was implemented in the years between 1999 and 2007. It will reconsider the nature of the territorial strains in Scotland and Wales, the power politics of seeking to gain power and guide devolution in each country. It addresses the approaches of the devolved governments and the UK Labour governments in each case to ensure they achieved what they wanted. In Scotland, there was no further major constitutional legislation, although there were some transfers of additional powers. In Wales, there was another Government of Wales Act in 2006.

In examining these years, the chapter explores the extent to which the neo-Bulpittian propositions developed in Chapter 3 hold in the practice of devolution. The expectation is that rational and successful party elites in Scotland and Wales would have sought means to sustain the image of devolution making a difference, evolving, conveying the potential to continue to represent membership space convincingly. Equally, one might expect that the Blair governments, having intervened to shape the framework of devolved government between 1997 and 1999, would withdraw from direct management and seek to enjoy a relative centre autonomy. In Wales, there was an opportunity to ensure the constitutional process behind the 2006 Act was more successful in achieving support across the political class than had been the case with the Government of Wales Act 1998.

At the end of the period, in the second set of elections in 2007, the SNP emerged to form a minority government in Scotland; in Wales, Labour’s hold slipped and Plaid Cymru became a coalition partner.

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Thus far, this book has placed a focus entirely on territorial politics and constitutional policy as it affected each of the constituent nations and regions of the UK. The approach of central government to territorial management has been examined in each case as a key aspect of centre–periphery relations. This chapter will now place a principal focus on how the Blair governments developed the central state in the light of devolution. It explores the role of territorial pressures and constraints in thinking about adaptation at the centre; the availability of political resources in shaping approaches to reform; choices over the use of those resources; and the policy process adopted in making those choices. In so doing the chapter considers to what extent the evidence supports the proposition that following Bulpitt the Blair Governments sought to fashion an approach also to the development of the central state in the light of devolution that maintined a centre autonomy model of centre–periphery relations. The implication is that they sought this goal both to assist the successful embedding of devolution in ways amenable to the state as a whole, as well as maintaining effective UK government across all its priorities, not simply territorial management.

To address these issues and explore the validity of this thesis, section one examines the territorial politics contexts to how the Blair governments approached central state adaptation. Section two then addresses the approaches established by the Blair governments between 1997 and 1999 to articulating a vision of Britain after devolution, organising the making of law and the role of Parliament, intergovernmental relations, territorial finance, and approaches to future territorial constitutional reform.

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After the apparently historic achievement of the Belfast (or Good Friday) Agreement in 1998 came the reckoning of whether it could be put into practice. Efforts to implement devolution largely failed and led to a five-year period of suspension and direct UK rule. Finally, in 2007 devolution was re-established, after a new agreement at St Andrews in 2006, on the basis of a DUP–Sinn Fein led government. As Tony Blair (2010:178) put it: ‘whereas the agreement could be described as art – at least in concept – the implementation was more akin to heavy manufacturing’. This chapter reappraises these tortuous years in terms of the territorial strains that were still present in Northern Ireland, the resources available to the Republican/nationalist and Unionist party leaderships in Northern Ireland as well as to the Blair governments, and the political management approaches that they each pursued. It focuses on the political imperatives and constraints that determined the Northern Ireland Assembly’s journey between intermittent existence and suspension, and eventually led to the unlikely agreement between the leaders of the extreme representatives of Republicanism and Unionism.

In addressing these issues, the chapter is informed by the proposition that both sides in Northern Ireland still recognised their resource limitations in asserting their ideal outcomes in the short term. The SDLP and Sinn Fein still pursued power-sharing devolution in the short to medium term to realise their long-term objectives of Irish unity. This was principally to be achieved through electoral success and the cultivation of the North–South institutions under strand two of the Belfast Agreement to normalise Irish governance through instrumental arguments, shared policy development and functional spillovers.

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