Rubik cube

Asymmetries in UK devolution: the logical consequence of bilateral negotiations

Published: 22 April 2015

The processes of devolution within the UK has taken place at different speeds and in response to varying demands. However, explains Bettina Petersohn, such an approach inevitably leads to asymmetric outcomes.

After the Scottish Independence Referendum, attention has shifted towards England. The questions of how to deal with the asymmetric nature of devolution – individual solutions in different places - and the absence of a legislature for England have re-entered the debate about further constitutional change. Suggestions have included city-deals for metropolitan areas and changes to the decision-making procedures of the House of Commons (so called EVEL). Similar to previous devolution rounds, city-deals will be negotiated on a one-by-one (bilateral) basis. Instead of reducing asymmetries, these kind of deals will only increase the differences in power that local or devolved governments can exercise.

Comparative research on constitutional reform show that the way a negotiation process is organised matters in terms of how similarly or differently powers are distributed across the entities in question. Reforms that are negotiated between governing and opposition parties at the centre, for example, lead to equal treatment of entities – meaning that every territory is granted roughly the same powers and autonomy. The reforms leading to federalisation in Belgium are examples of those kind of negotiations. Even though Flemish and Francophone parties had quite distinct interests (decentralisation of education and culture vs. decentralisation of economic policies), the necessity to form a consensus between them led to rather symmetric powers for the two large communities (Flemish and Francophone) as well as of the two large regions (Flanders and Wallonia).

A second option for keeping powers rather similar, is to include representatives of all territories in multilateral negotiations. Substantial reforms to Canada's federal system require the consent of the majority - or in some cases all – provinces. Historically, premiers were invovled in so-called First Ministers Conferences, and since 1982, a positive vote in provincial legislative assemblies is required for a reform to pass. The 1982 multilateral negotiation process produced an outcome that saw each province getting the same powers despite Quebec's distinct character (being the only province with a majority francophone population and a civil law tradition) and demands for special recognition and for different powers in comparison to the other provinces. However, other negotiations using this approach ended without agreement due to the diversity of issues and demands raised by the premiers and the federal government.

In contrast, bilateral negotiations have been the source of asymmetries between different parts of the UK and also in Spain. Differences, respectively, in demands from Scotland or Wales, and from Catalonia or the Basque Country, were translated into different agreements due to bilateral negotiations between the centre and representatives of the regions after devolution in 1999 or decentralisation in Spain after 1978. Scotland has taken the lead regarding the extent of devolved legislative and now fiscal powers with Wales only gradually catching up and England not participating in any devolution scheme at all.

One does not need to suggest a grand constitutional design, in which every part of the UK has to have exactly the same powers in order to reduce the high level of asymmetries in the current scheme. Nevertheless, if a reduction of asymmetries between the four parts of the UK is the goal, a different approach to the negotiation process is required. For example, bringing representatives of all four parts to the table and identifying shared interests for either central control or devolved control over certain policy areas. Or, as happened in Spain in 1992, a decentralisation reform agreed by the two main parties at the centre (PP and PSOE) in order to establish greater symmetry in levels of power across the autonomous communities. Staying on the pathway of bilateral negotiations – now including rather secretly negotiated deals with metropolitan cities – will only increase asymmetries of power arrangements for different parts of the Union.

Read the full article in the Spring 2015 issue of Publius: Negotiating territorial change in multinational states: Party preferences, negotiating power and the role of the negotiation mode

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