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Four nations and the historical context of the devolution question

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First Secretary of State and Leader of the House of Commons William Hague has outlined plans to give English MPs a 'decisive say' over 'measures that only affect England while maintaining the unity of Parliament as a whole.' Promoted by some as a long-awaited answer to the 'West Lothian question', the conundrum Hague is attempting to solve has far longer historical roots. It is not just to 1979 and Labour MP Tom Dalyell's lament as to the influence of Scottish, Welsh and Irish MPs on 'English politics' that we must look if we are to understand the machinations of the 'devolution revolution'. Moreover, the 'West Lothian question', like the 'Irish question' before it, impacts far beyond England's borders. It is vital that we consider the history of devolution in the United Kingdom from a four nations perspective.

In December 1885, the political establishment was ablaze with rumours that former Liberal Prime Minister William Gladstone intended to restore to Ireland the domestic parliament abolished under the 1800 Act of Union with Great Britain. The effect on the UK, and on 'England' in particular, was a key issue for Westminster politicians. In his diary, Lewis 'Lou Lou' Harcourt, son of and Principal Private Secretary to the ex-Home Secretary William Harcourt, concluded that the idea of dedicating a portion of the parliamentary session to 'English Business' was 'altogether impracticable'. He noted that:

a Govt. might be in a majority in the Imperial Parlt and in a minority in the English Parlt or vice versa and which decision is to be final and on which if either vote is a Govt to resign.

The reductio ad absurdum would be an Imperial Parliament and Government, with '4 other parliaments each separately elected and each with a ministry'. 130 years later, four-fifths of this derided arrangement have been implemented, albeit to varying degrees. The missing piece of the puzzle remains England, long conflated with the UK. Lou Lou may have considered his point well-made uponsight of a 21st century Conservative leader, who, while keen to christen himself 'Prime Minister of four nations in one United Kingdom', is willing to transfer still more powers to the devolved legislatures, to secure 'a united future'.

The seeming contradictions in David Cameron's rhetoric reflect the complexities of a system born of numerous Union settlements and resettlements. In the 1990s, a series of conferences explored the utility of 'four nations' approaches to the history of early-modern Britain. Those interested in constructing a 'British' history looked to the construction of Britain for their framework. Yet what of the history of state ‘deconstruction’ – perceived or otherwise?

The renewed, post-referendum focus on England championed by the Conservatives is an intriguing counterfoil to the accusations of earlier nationalists that England, through its in-built Commons majority, was capable of overriding the voices of the other nations. Yet, placing England at the centre, portraying her as acted upon, masks the fact that the devolution of powers to any part of the UK has consequences for all the others. Moreover, the disparate responses to Irish Home Rule indicate why the process of devolution has been so uneven. For instance, in the 1880s and 1890s, some Scottish nationalist MPs feared the exclusion of Irish MPs from Westminster would leave Scotland at the mercy of English votes. Yet many simultaneously baulked at the notion of Ireland having both a domestic legislature and a place in the UK Commons, as affording Ireland a 'finger in the Scottish pie' but denying reciprocal interference. Gladstone's Irish initiative prompted the creation of a Scottish Home Rule Association (SHRA), which called for a Scottish Parliament 'with full control over all purely Scotch questions and an executive government.' The modern Scottish Nationalist Party - like the Irish Parliamentary Party of the 1880s – have indicated they would use their position at Westminster as a bargaining tool, arguing that the more seats they have in the House of Commons, the more powers they will have at Holyrood.

Today's UK Government has introduced plans to make the Scottish Parliament 'one of the most powerful devolved administrations in the OECD.' Holyrood remains the only devolved parliament within the UK. Yet this does not mean that Wales and Northern Ireland, with their assemblies, are treated equally. Wales is to receive limited powers over individual income tax; Northern Ireland is offered corporate tax raising powers, to help it compete with the neighbouring Republic. At the same time as the SHRA was advocating a separate parliament for Scotland, their Welsh Liberal counterparts were striving for the recognition of what they saw as recognisably 'Welsh' grievances. These related primarily to religion, education and culture, and did not extend to the creation of a Welsh legislative body. Gladstone’s critics accused him of ignoring the province of 'Ulster' – from which present day Northern Ireland is drawn –  in his plans, and of riding roughshod over Unionists' pleas not to be 'handed over' to a parliament they alleged would oppress them. The Conservative leader, Lord Salisbury, claimed there existed ‘two nations’ in Ireland, while Joseph Chamberlain taunted Gladstone as to the impracticability of his scheme by suggesting he would have to ‘cut Ulster out’.

Toward the end of 2014, Northern Ireland’s parliament broke down over disagreements on power sharing. Political parties were forced to compromise on parades, while all groups agreed on more funding from Westminster, in the form of grants, not loans. Where is Northern Ireland’s place in a four nations framework? It remains a nation in flux. Irish Taoiseach Enda Kenny recently commented that the Scottish referendum, the subsequent debate about devolved powers and a possible referendum on the UK’s European Union membership all impact Northern Ireland and the Republic.

An ideal four nations history is less one of integration and more about interactions.  For instance, Scottish Labour leader Jim Murphy's recent claim that a UK mansion tax would fund NHS nurses north of the Tweed led to calls from London for greater fiscal responsibilities. In the 1890s, the London County Council campaigned for what it called 'full municipal powers', which it argued the Conservatives had denied the imperial capital, but granted to the English, Scottish and Welsh counties. A parallel attempt by Welsh Liberals to set up a 'National Council' of county councils to represent Wales was quashed, and the Conservatives spoke of the need to impose appropriate 'safeguards' in the event of 'local government' being given to Ireland.

It is vital that policy makers understand the historical precedents of present developments, and place them in their 'four nations' context. Equally, historians must consider the extent to which contemporary constitutional reforms prompt us to think differently: the simultaneous emergence of a contemporary four nations rhetoric and a renewed focus on the affairs of the nations within the UK suggest alternative methodologies are required to understand the past, and the present. The Four Nations History Network catalyses critical thinking about how we research and write the history of these islands, raising important questions about methodology and terminology. For instance, to what extent has 'British' meant 'English', and how far can such approaches encompass Ireland? Can there be a comprehensive four nations history or are nations too individual to facilitate such study?

Please note: Views expressed are those of the author.

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