What is devolution?

Devolution is when a national government gives up some of its powers to local authorities such as regional parliaments or county councils. Devolution allows these local authorities to set rules and regulations for things like how much income tax nearby residents pay or how much free healthcare they’re entitled to. But their powers are restricted to certain areas: they usually can’t declare war or strike international trade deals, for example. And the national government retains ultimate control - it can even choose to reverse devolution if it wants.

The UK is a good example of devolution. The national government in Westminster has devolved some of its powers to councils, such as setting council tax and organising rubbish collection. It has devolved some more of its powers to mayoralities, such as those in London and Greater Manchester, who have influence over things like transport policy. And it has given up even more of its powers to the parliaments of Wales, Northern Ireland and particularly Scotland. Scottish residents, for example, pay a different amount of income tax and are subject to slightly different laws for things like drug use.

Lots of people are fans of devolution. Their logic is that having local knowledge lets devolved government more effectively prioritise the things that matter most to their community, as well as come up with tailored solutions to local issues. Residents are also empowered by having easier access to their elected representatives and more sway over their elections. That may improve their sense of community and make them feel more connected to their area.

But devolution has disadvantages too. More money has to be spent on things like extra parliament buildings and additional government staff. And devolution can increase tensions and animosity between different areas of a country.

For example, some people complain that the current system is unfair because England is the only country in the UK that does not have a devolved government. (The reason for this is that England is the original coloniser of the other UK countries, so historically the UK government was more invested in improving England than the rest of the UK, making a separate English parliament seem moot).

These people’s criticism of devolution often centre around two areas. The first, known as the West Lothian Question, is that it’s not right for Welsh, Scottish and Northern Irish MPs to be able to vote on laws that will affect only England when English MPs can’t do the same back. The second is that the UK’s devolved countries get a greater share of the national budget (per person) than England does, despite the fact that England generates the most wealth. Some people think this is how the devolved countries of the UK fund perks that the English don’t get, such as Scotland’s free university tuition and prescriptions.

Devolution is often used (or recommended) as a solution when part of a country is agitating for complete independence. Becoming an independent country is a complicated, messy procedure that often causes a great deal of upheaval to businesses, jobs, the housing market and the economy in general. So the idea is that offering the area devolution instead will give them a simulation of independence without the costs.

But some people think the complete opposite: that devolution actually makes eventual independence more likely. The logic is that once devolution gives residents a taste of independence, they’ll want the whole thing, or that devolution equips local politicians with the experience they need to be able to successfully run the area independently, or that by increasing the sense of a divide between that area and the rest of the country it increases support for separation.