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Quick Guide to UK Devolution

The following five short passages provide a brief summary of the process of devolution in the United Kingdom. The same five short passages are reproduced as a gap fill activity in our quiz corner. You may wish to do this either before or after reading this section.


Devolution is a major part of the Government's ambitious programme of constitutional reform. It has been described by the Prime Minister as "the biggest programme of change to democracy ever proposed". In a lecture to constitutional experts in December 1998, the Lord Chancellor - Lord Irvine - outlined the Government's programme. As well as devolution it includes: the creation of a city-wide authority for London; the strengthening of regional government in England; the reform of local government; the modernisation of the House of Lords; the reform of the House of Commons; commitment to a Freedom of Information Act; and the modernisation of the machinery of government.


During 1997 and 1998 referendums were held in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland on how those countries and regions should be governed. The people of Scotland and Wales were asked whether systems of devolved government should be established in their respective countries. Both referendums decided in favour of devolution. In Scotland, the referendum on 11 September 1997 produced a result in which over 70 per cent voted in favour of a Scottish Parliament (turnout 60 per cent). In Wales, the referendum held on 18 September 1997 produced a closer result, in which 50.3 per cent voted in favour of a Welsh Assembly (turnout 50 per cent). As a result, elections for a new Scottish Parliament and a new National Assembly for Wales were held on 6 May 1999 and devolved powers were formally transferred from the UK Government to the devolved administrations in Scotland and Wales on 1 July 1999. Elections for the Northern Ireland Assembly took place in June 1998, and the Executive took up its powers in December 1999 (although it was suspended on February 12, 2000, it has now been reinstated).


Even before devolution was proposed Scotland had considerable administrative autonomy. The Act of Union of 1707 guaranteed the independence of its legal, educational and church systems. But all political responsibility for Scotland resided in Westminster. The Secretary of State for Scotland, a United Kingdom Cabinet Minister, represented Scottish interests within the United Kingdom.

Following the September 1997 referendum, the Parliament in Westminster passed the Scotland Act 1998. The Act provides for the establishment of a Scottish Parliament and a Scottish Executive. The Parliament in Edinburgh is given responsibility for the full range of the Scottish Executive's existing powers, including health, education, training, local government, transport, social services, housing, economic development, the law and home affairs, the environment, agriculture, fisheries and forestry, sport and the arts.


The Government of Wales Act provides for the establishment of the National Assembly of Wales, to be located in Cardiff. The Assembly takes over almost all the Secretary of State's functions: the Welsh language, water, arts and heritage, industry, education and training, economic development, social services, agriculture and fisheries, environment, housing, health, highways, local government, town and country planning, and tourism. The UK Government retains responsibility for non-devolved areas of overall economic policy, such as defence and the armed forces, foreign policy (including EU matters), the justice system and prisons, police and fire services, broadcasting, and sport. The Assembly does not have tax-varying powers.


The Belfast ("Good Friday") Agreement of 1998 provided, amongst other elements, for the establishment of an elected Assembly in Northern Ireland, with both the Assembly and Executive chosen on a proportional basis, ensuring the participation of both communities. The Assembly and Executive will be able to exercise full legislative and executive authority in respect of those matters within the responsibility of the Northern Ireland Government Departments in Belfast. This will give the Assembly devolved powers over a number of areas ("transferred matters"): agriculture, the environment, education and training, employment, enterprise and investment, health, culture and the arts. The Northern Ireland Executive, headed by a First Minister and Deputy First Minister, will also have an economic policy unit.

(Source: "Spotlight Britain", an FCO Network Feature) Here you will find detailed papers on devolution in the UK.

Follow-up activities

Test Yourself

You can now try our devolution quizzes, including a gap-fill version of the short passages above.

Consequences of Devolution

You will find several articles in this issue exploring some of the implications of Devolution in the UK, including The Quiet Revolution, Looking for a New England, and Discovering a New Scotland.

Produced in Poland by British Council 2003. The United Kingdom's international organisation for educational opportunities and cultural relations. We are registered in England as a charity.