Interparliamentary relations and the future of devolution in the UK 1998-2018 podcast

Since the signing of the Good Friday Agreements in 1998, the devolution process in the United Kingdom has bestowed varying degrees of legislative power upon Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland.

This empowerment enables them to self-govern in crucial areas including education, health, transportation, and aspects of taxation. Within the intricate framework of the UK parliamentary system, the recent publication, Interparliamentary Relations and the Future of Devolution in the UK, offers a thorough examination of the roles of devolved legislatures in the nation. Today's discussion delves into the historical significance of the years spanning from 1998 to 2018, characterised by the advent of devolution in the UK and subsequent political upheavals such as Brexit and the COVID-19 pandemic. Professor Arnott offers insights into the evolving landscape of interparliamentary relations, illuminating the tensions and dynamics between the UK Government and the devolved nations.

The discussion also touches upon the implications of Brexit, the complexities of the English Votes for English Laws (EVEL) legislation, and potential avenues for future research in the realm of interparliamentary studies.

Join us as we navigate the intricate terrain of interparliamentary relations, exploring its implications for governance, accountability, and the future of the UK's constitutional landscape. 

Speaker profile

Margaret Arnott, Professor of Public Policy at the University of the West of Scotland, UK, is a distinguished scholar whose research focuses on the intricate dynamics of public policy, constitutional politics, territorial politics, and governance. Having served as a House of Commons Academic Fellow from 2016 to 2020, her work unearthed the overlooked domain of inter-parliamentary relations within the devolved UK, shedding light on its critical role in shaping political landscapes. Professor Arnott's significant contributions extend to her involvement in the Institute of Welsh Affairs research project, where she examined inter-parliamentary relations in the devolved UK between 1998-2020. Her recent publication, Interparliamentary Relations and the Future of Devolution in the UK 1998-2018: Unravelling Threads? published by Emerald Publishing, synthesises empirical insights gleaned from her extensive research endeavours. With a keen eye on the evolving dynamics of devolved legislatures in the UK, Professor Arnott's work underscores the fluidity and complexity inherent in inter-parliamentary relationships, shaping scholarly discourse and policy debates alike.

In this episode:

  • What constitutes a devolved parliament and how does it fit within the context of the UK Parliamentary System?
  • What role has Brexit and Covid played in the UK Parliamentary System?
  • What is the Law of 2015 known as EVEL and what did it reveal about the system?
  • What do experts say about UK Devolution?
  • What gaps remain in the literature on interparliamentary relations?

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Interparliamentary relations and the future of devolution in the UK 1998-2018 

Daniel Ridge (DR): Hi, my name is Daniel Ridge and I'm a commissioning editor at Emerald Publishing. Today I'm joined by Margaret Arnott, who's a Professor of Public Policy at the University of the West of Scotland in the UK. Professor Arnott's research interests and expertise include politics of public policy, constitutional politics, territorial politics, and governance. From 2016 to 2020, Professor Arnott served as a House of Commons academic fellow on UK territorial governance and the workings of devolution. One of the emergent findings of this research was that interparliamentary relations in the devolved UK was a neglected area of academic study. She also participated in another research project commissioned by the Institute of Welsh Affairs, the IWA, in 2019 on interparliamentary relations in the devolved UK between 1998 and 2020. For the IWA research project, interparliamentary relations are understood to mean the relationships and interactions between UK legislatures. That is the House of Parliament in Westminster, the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Parliament (formerly the National Assembly, Wales), and the Northern Ireland Assembly. Professor Arnott is the author of the recent book published by Emerald Publishing titled "Interparliamentary Relations and the Future of Devolution in the UK 1998 to 2018: Unraveling Threats." This book is largely based on empirical research drawn from two research projects by Professor Arnott on territorial governance in the devolved UK. The devolved legislatures in the UK are still relatively young political institutions. The premise of the book is that the relationships and interactions between any and all UK legislatures have not been static since 1998. Today, we're going to be discussing the UK parliamentary system, specifically devolution and interparliamentary relations.

Margaret Arnott (MA): It's a fascinating time to study the politics of political institutions and devolution. That ties into the governance of the United Kingdom. I suppose the starting point is that the United Kingdom is a multinational state. That's four nations comprising the United Kingdom. And each of those nations has different governing arrangements. We've got the UK Parliament. And alongside that, we've got three legislatures in other devolved nations of the UK: one in Scotland, Northern Ireland, and also Wales. And each of these legislatures has a different role, powers, and functions. But the key thing is that devolution in the UK retains the supremacy of the UK Parliament. So it still seems to be at the top of the hierarchy of political institutions in the UK. But practical politics presents a different situation where there are issues about legitimacy, accountability, and also divergence within the UK and between each of the national territories of the UK. So it's a fascinating area to look at. It's in a state of flux just now, I would say. We could perhaps talk about that as we go on, particularly to do with the insights of the officials and others on their take on the role of political institutions and legislators in the UK.

DR: Now, why did you begin in 1998, and why did you go through 2018? What do these dates represent for you?

MA: 1998 is the start of a new phase of devolution in the UK. And what it means is that many powers to make laws and deliver public services have been transferred to national-level legislatures in Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland. But it's more complex than that because each nation, each legislator, in different parts of the UK has different types and levels of decentralisation and power. So what you have is a constitutional model that's politically very complex. And it comes from not having a written constitution at the UK level. So there's no clear separation of powers between the UK Parliament, which is supreme, and the devolved decentralised legislators in each of the national territories of the UK. The added complication is that there's much less decentralisation within England as a nation. There are some examples of it in some city regions and also in London. But that is a different type of devolution. So you can't use the same description to set out the powers of each of the four legislators in the UK because they all are different. So that's a constitutional model. And there is no neat and tidy answer as well to thinking about how the relationships between the parliaments and between the political parties worked. And this was a highly contested period, particularly from 2016. So the devolution that was introduced in 1998 to each of the nations, Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland, had different historical roots. And that shaped the nature of decentralisation to each of those national territories. But having said that, the UK Parliament in Westminster and also Whitehall still has supremacy. But what does that mean, in legal terms, in political terms, in electoral terms, you can see it all becoming very contested, and different interpretations and different views on the relationships between each of the nations of the UK now was the first 20 years of devolution. And there were particular political movements, constitutional moments. And one which basically did lead to a war of highly contested debates was the UK membership of the European Union and the referendum that was held in 2016 across the UK on whether membership of the European Union for the UK would be retained. So there was a lot of constitutional tussles and political fallout from that. And we're still seeing the effects of that in the first 20 years of devolution and history matters to explain what devolution actually means because it's a term that's used in different ways to different relationships of each of the nations of the UK.

DR: Right. And then the other focus is interparliamentary relations in your book. So I'm wondering what that looks like and what you mean by that.

MA: I mean, that's a very kind of emerging area of research, which is almost just emerging now. And that's a consequence of the first 20 years of the devolved arrangements in the UK since 1998. We were a member of the European Union, so European law took supremacy over UK law. But after the 2016 referendum, that changed, and some of the powers which have been decentralised to Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland before the 2016 referendum, and were now rescinded that would now go to the UK Parliament instead or directly to the devolved legislatures. And that's what we're thinking about not just interparliamentary relations, but there was a lot of debate over and there still is at the moment in the last five years about intergovernmental relations because the UK is not a federal state to use this sort of academic term and one which is an asymmetrical devolution which really just means that the powers of each of the nations of the UK are uneven. And that goes back to history. Why does that happen? And it's a fascinating historical journey trying to weave through the nature of relationships really since the 18th century that fed into contemporary debates about devolution in the late 20th century.

DR: You just mentioned Brexit, and you explore how certain instances or policies have fueled tensions between the UK Government and the devolved nations. So obviously, Brexit is one of those, and the other is COVID. COVID created a lot of tension between the UK Government and the devolved nations. Can you talk a little bit about these tensions and what they mean to interparliamentary relations?

MA: Yeah, I mean, that's a subject for your question because what you're thinking about there is really the extent to which we're seeing a recentralisation of UK governance to focus more on the UK Parliament and UK Government. Whereas we're just saying for the first 20 years of evolution since 1998, there'd be more of a trend, arguably for decentralisation for autonomy and some sense is about political and policy leadership over certain functions like education, health, and some areas such as criminal justice. Crime is not devolved and facing stunts and wheels. So it's very uneven. But the recentralisation of UK governance post-Brexit is one of the areas which brings to the fore the relationships between national legislatures at Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland level, and the UK Parliament. And that brings us into the debates about which legislature is sovereign, who shares sovereignty. And it's the sharing of powers that has led me into thinking about questions about how legislators work together, how do they exchange knowledge, expertise, whether it was over the COVID pandemic, whether it's over societal challenges, but there's questions about how they link together and what are the mechanics of making that happen as well.

DR: So one of the most important and interesting aspects of your book is your inclusion of expert interviews. So you were able to speak to different people at different levels in government, coming at it from different angles. I was wondering what you could tell us about what these interviews reveal to you and what they say about the bigger picture of interparliamentary relations.

MA: One of the things that emerged quite soon after talking to key politicians and officials is the gap in knowledge and expertise on interparliamentary relations in the devolved UK. Now, from the interviews, if you're looking for a kind of headline interpretation of the findings, I would say it comes down to political culture. So you can set up the mechanics, almost off, whether it's a committee, to set up the links between the legislators. But if you do not share some common tenets of political culture, you're coming at it from different angles and different perspectives, whether you want, for instance, to be a member of the European Union or whether you want to be a member of the UN Convention of Human Rights. So all of that factors into debates about political culture. And until that has been tackled in each of the legislatures, to think about the cross-working, there will be not resistance, but it won't be on the political agenda. They won't be motivated to think, well, what do we do next to help the working across the UK between legislators to deal with shared powers, and the interdependency of each of the national territories in the UK? The expert and stakeholder interviews explored the ways in which I mean, it's called the scale of acceptability, and by that, I really mean the political culture. So you have to want to go into negotiations, go into discussions about the practicalities and the transparency of working together as legislators. One of the other interesting areas was that of knowledge exchange, isn't mentioned there and went on because during the Brexit process, which we between 2017 to 19, the UK Parliament had two chambers, the House of Commons, and the House of Lords, which is an awake tick chamber. But the House of Lords set up an informal Brexit Working Group, which included the component parts of the UK, though, the key thing about that was it was informal. There were kind of communicate statements after the meetings. But it was an informal working group. And now, as a different kind of nature thinking about it, yeah, it's not a federal system, and still kind of dependent on getting the political will of each of the chambers of the legislators in the UK to contribute and to take part in ongoing discussions. And the interviews also found that there was more about tints from some of the House of Commons officials and politicians to engage in interparliamentary working with the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly, no Welsh Parliament, and Northern Ireland Assembly was suspended during this period. So that was also a period of if you weren't How does Northern Ireland didn't put into this democratic process when the assembly is suspended. And it's basically the officials that are overseeing what with also the Northern Ireland Secretary of State and when.

DR: You talked about political culture within this system. I'm also wondering about regional and national culture. You talked about the asymmetrical relationship. And then I'm also just wondering about just the historical asymmetrical relationship between these different nations and how that plays into these relationships with the UK parliamentary system and within the interparliamentary systems.

MA: Yep, I can think of one kind of really good illustration of showing that the different histories, different trajectories, or the nature of the relationships within the UK, between each of the component parts, whether it's Northern Ireland, whether it's Scotland, Wales, England, and UK come from, and you're kind of thinking about the legal systems. And that obviously affects legislation directly. So there are three separate legal systems in the UK. There's the English and well, we ecosystem there suspiciously legal system, and then there's Northern Ireland as well. So you have to kind of weave your way through the legalities of introducing legislation in a different legal context. And you can see that basically the history or, for instance, Wales, and relationship with England, is a different type of Constitutional Union goes way before the joining of Scotland in 1707 in England or in fact, Northern Ireland with the 1920, government of Ireland giant. And so the criminal justice system is intertwined with English system for that reason in Wales, whereas Scotland, it's very different. Yeah, so a distinct legal system or a distinct criminal justice system. And that presents interesting challenges for trying to think about decentralisation and public policy. At a time when you're arguing well, has Brexit raised questions about decentralisation of powers, return wanes in the UK. And that's the kind of debate that's been fed into also the historical narrative of where we are just now you're seeing it with each kind of, yeah, we've got a UK General Election as well this year. And that'll be peered out differently in different territories of the UK. And they'll tie into different arguments about the relationships with the UK, Parliament, and the different electoral systems as well ties into them. So it's not just the legal system is different across the UK. We've got different forms of electoral systems for the Scottish Parliament elections use proportional representation additional member system, as does the Welsh Assembly, okay. And Northern Ireland uses a decoy system, another PR proportional representation. The UK General Elections use his first past the post, okay, so it's not a proportion electoral system. So you got, you don't have one discrete form of electoral competition because of that, because you get different nitrous systems, and all becomes much more complicated trying to work through Bucha regional identity, where's your national identity? Where's your state identity, which should be the UK identity? And what's driving the voting patterns? And you're seeing that played out in a different party system? across the UK?

DR: Well, I'm wondering what this means to average citizens. So a Welsh person or, you know, a Scottish person? Are they able to fully grasp the system? I mean, it seems very complicated and the way the voting works, I'm wondering if any of your research or any of your work can point to how they feel about these things?

MA: Yeah, I mean, that's almost in the next kind of stage of the research, because this is very much know what the politicians what they can have officials are saying about it. But when you come to think about your wares, essentially is about public trust, almost, for political institutions. And we do have some evidence here from various academic surveys. So if you were to ask the waitress, for instance, in Scotland, and during the UK in a survey, it was a Scottish Social Attitudes Survey. And they asked questions too cheap political institutions do you trust in terms of no hierarchy almost. And the Scottish Parliament tended to be the one with that's top, we trust that more so than the UK Government, UK Parliament. So that's, that's also in the mix. But again, there's very different kind of trajectories within Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland. So you can, the problem is how do you compare when you're thinking about trying to think about what are the public attitudes towards devotion? And there's interesting research in Wales, for instance, saying, Well, yeah, the first 20 years of devolution, you can do the kind of population actually fall through the complexity of who's responsible for what, and we've also not mentioned no local government on top of that, as well. So local government, again, has a different form of electoral systems to add to the mix. So it's, it's not an neat and tidy, almost kind of federal setup. It's, it's very kind of it typical, in many respects, because the nature of the union of the UK, each nation joined at different times and for different reasons. And the different terms within each union for Northern Ireland, for Wales, and Scotland as well. So that's, that adds to the complexity of understanding the constitutional levers almost. And how you can understand the functionality of what are the functions of the legislators, what are they doing? And does the population do the public trust? Do they think it's transparent? And transparency relationship is one that is going to be key in the future. I think there's more and more calls for relationships between governments internationally, and inter UK to be much more transparent. So that would enhance accountability. Alongside that, as well.

DR: Well, what did ask you about the role of political parties? I know that there's, that they're unique and different to each region. So wondering if there are some bigger takeaways we can take away from looking at the bigger picture of tendencies or their relationship with the parliamentary system?

MA: Yeah, yeah. I mean, there is that what you're kind of thinking about, it's a territorial representation of the political parties. And again, you have a kind of the history coming in to try and explain the different nature of party competition UK label and party competition at regional and national level, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. And each has their own kind of legacy issues to be dealing with constitutionally politically, but it UK level, the statewide parties, the Conservative Party, the Labour Party, Liberal Democrats, the Green Party, as well, all to varying degrees, how the degree of decentralisation to allow them to have a new key can the manifesto and then to adapt it to each of the regions and the nations. Now, there's kind of debates about you know, to what extent are the actual kind of autonomous, and making no decisions for Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland. And there's also the extent to which national identity rather than class rather than age, gender, is one of the main factors and explaining why you vote the way you do. And in particular, the relationship between devolution campaign to support at night 1990s was really to argue that there was a distinctive agenda, particularly in Scotland at the stage that did not support the Conservative government, the Thatcher government. And that weighed into an argument that we needed. In Scotland, it was said, a separate political institution that would be conservative with a small c to protect the civil society in Scotland to put constitutions and that light into that debate. Okay, so it was almost as if you wanted to retain elements of distinctiveness, and it was an argument well, we need decentralisation to do that. And it was a similar argument for Wales, Northern Ireland, obviously, the debate was different. It was to do with the Good Friday Agreement, and 1998. So again, that kind of flavor, the nature of devolution, there is a different kind of dimension to the National Assembly in how the parties work together, the Des Moines voting system, as well. So it's it is yeah, the informal relationships between each of the component parts of the UK is really what has been developing over the first 20 years of devolution. But Brexit was kind of shocked the system, Shawn. Yeah.

DR: I wanted to ask you a little bit more about Brexit, if you could say something more about that, because it is really a shock to the system. So I'm wondering how these individual parliamentary systems function in the bigger picture of the EU and on the world stage? Yeah, absolutely.

MA: I mean, the one of the kind of clear things was that the 1998 legislation for devolution for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, assumed UK continued membership of the EU. That mean, that award, the decentralised powers to each of the national areas and regions were in fight under the control of the remit of the European Union, whether it's got to do with ailments or social policy, the economy had to do with the European directives, and subsidiarity, which is part of the workings of the EU, that the worst level of government should actually deal with the implementation and administration of EU regulations meant that the Scottish devolved Parliament and the devolved Welsh Assembly, and for Northern Ireland as well, actually had direct, soft networks, if you like, because they had the levers of control. What Brexit did was, if you like, it removed those, because if you remove membership of the EU, and you say that we're not going to align to any of the EU directives, then we need to ask a question, well, what's going to hold the UK together? Because under the 1998, legislation, for devolution, membership of the EU, held the component parts of the UK together because it always flexibilities subsidiarity in that way, but that changed as we worked through the implication. So the UK referendum on EU membership and 2016 Because Northern Ireland, Scotland, both of these areas voted to retain membership of the EU and Wales and England did not know situations changed on what since 2016. But it gives you a flavor or kind of the arguments that do the different nations need a special arrangements post EU membership in Northern Ireland obviously has because of the Good Friday Agreement because of the different nature or constitutional power there on relationships with UK Government. It's what was complex before has become even more. It's kind of moved up a level almost.

DR: Yeah, well, I see how you know that these tensions arise and I'm wondering about actual dysfunction in the government. If there comes a point where there's just a crunch where things are not working. I'm thinking here, particularly the 2015 law known as EVIL, the English Votes for English Laws. If you could say something a little bit about that.

MA: Yeah, yeah. Here the political culture comes in to beginning to kind of use it as an illustration of a suppose a different tenor, or the debates across the political parties and between the devolved administrations and the UK Government. So in 2014, there was a referendum in Scotland, a referendum on whether Scotland should remain in the UK, or should leave the UK, and the vote in 2014 resulted in a decision well, we're retaining membership or with the UK. The day after the referendum, which was in September 2014. And David Cameron, the UK Prime Minister, gave a speech outside Downing Street, where he argued that after the void yesterday that the debate on devolution and the need for further decentralisation, had moved more so to the English context. And that reads questions. You said, well, England does not have a devolved legislator for the whole of England. So the wars, on the scrutiny of we will kind of drivers goes through the Westminster parliament, where, as the Scotland, Welsh, Northern Ireland MPs can input into English voice, but the English MPs can they input into northern Scottish devolve was the wealth devolve Warren's Northern Ireland. So English who is putting his horse was seen to be a response, a political response to, we need to address some of the issues about governments in England, by David Cameron, the UK Prime Minister on stage. Now, what they ended up with was a highly complex forms of statutes, procedures, to try and work through for EVIL. Actually, me and the workings of the UK Parliament. And there was a role for the speaker of the commons, to decide whether a wall applied only to England didn't kind of extend notice Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland, and in that case, they would kind of ensure that the Scottish MPs, Welsh MPs, Northern Ireland MPs would not be able to kind of vote on that. But it became highly complex because of what we're seeing and withdrawn about the interdependency of devolved powers, or retained reserve powers at UK level. And the spillover between the two is happens more often than not, there's something very few issues are discreetly just relate to one territory, whether it's whether one in the UK, and that can remain to basically, EVIL has been, it's been dropped, it exists normal. And because of the workability of it, it just, it wasn't working on the procedures of the parliament.

DR: So I view your book as sort of a foundational text into interparliamentary studies, you give a really great overview, you go into expert interviews to paint a picture of the current state, and then also the historical context of it. But I'm wondering if going forward, what sort of gaps you see in the study of interparliamentary relations and where you see future research going?
MA: Yeah, I think that what you're going to find is that because we're approaching UK General Election, there had been some debates about whether we'd see further reform to the House of Lords. And the House of wards might be reformed, to take on board more the kind of mechanics of devolution. So there could be a kind of second chamber to do scrutiny of wars, but it would have more voices from the component parts of the UK, whereas obviously, there was a debate about the membership on the House of Lords on it. Now, whether or not that will happen in the future. With the assuming, as the opinion polls say it's unlikely that we're going to see a conservative party being reelected. But you never know. But assuming it's not, then you would assume that there will be a kind of Some sort of debate about can interferometric observations be incorporated into wider constitutional reform agendas to do with the House of Lords to do with, as opposed to mechanics of also the political cultures of each of the nations? And also probably should to kind of mention, yeah, we're in Scotland, we've got, you know, the SNP, the Scottish National Party, which is pro independence. At the moment, I'm uneasy about talking about interparliamentary relations when it's still within the UK. And that's where the political culture comes in. So whether it's on the political agenda high up, post, the UK General Election, we can see Bombo See, as opposed flashpoints constitutionally, and I think it will increase, we're seeing this all of it already has happened to do with the UN Convention of Human Rights to do with other areas of Canada civil service involvement, and policies for independence for nations and regions within the UK. Can they use these resources, which ultimately, to basically question, the continuance of the UK, that's not going to go away. So whether there's political will, to address it, we'll wait and see after the general election, but I think it will be more kind of galvanised to do with kind of other reforms to do with the workings of the UK Parliament, and quitting the house of orbs. 

DR: Now from, from your perspective, from your own work, where do you see your research going? 

MA: I think what kinda kind of the political culture of the legislators and I think that ties in tissues of trust, which is to assume accountability, and what we'd like is kind of developing comparative work. Because what we don't have is a neat and tidy kind of comparison for the UK, as we said, because it's so a typical, but from we begin to think about relationship between legislators, then can take up other forums and European, also, with other kind of nations, within federal systems as well, thinking about how to practice how to score. And then we can actually feed into debates about how devolution might develop within reforming UK governance, is it still going to decentralise? Is it going to seek to devolve more powers, and that's going to be one of the important areas, it's going to be very common towards the end of this year, the start of next year, when we come out of the UK General Election, because then we're in there are not the devolved elections in 2026. In Scotland, and Wales, thinking about Yeah, how are we going to tackle reform to the way just devolved to legislators. And so that's another area where you can make see more of a kind of political will, to consider how to improve the relationships, particularly for UK, Wavell believe a party is trying to steer through this debate, as well. So yeah, it's very come. I think you might see continue fast points in the Constitution, before you see any substantial reorganisation to any of the political institutions in the UK. But I think that's rubbish wait and see for how many more referendums we have at UK level, and also within the devolved nations as well. Yeah, we've also got the potential for referendums in Northern Ireland, and I want to do with reunification of Ireland, which could fit into the debates in Scotland and Wales, about changing relationships between the UK Government as well. So yeah, yeah, it's not neat and tidy. 

DR: No, I was thinking just how complex all isn't. It's really a lot to wrap your mind around.

MA: But I would say you get a lot of it has to do with the tone of the political debate. And the other interesting thing, is it because there's no separation of powers? What role does the judiciary the courts have when you've got unwritten statutes about how different parts of the UK can can always and what together? And that comes to the point your point is parliamentary sovereignty mean? And how do people view it ties into trust as well as a political leadership

DR: Thank you for listening to today's episode. For more information about my guest, Margaret Arnott and a link to a book Interparliamentary Relations and the future of Devolution in the UK 1998 to 2018, Please visit our website. I'd like to thank my guest and the studio This is Distorted for their help with today's episode.