Devolution and Federalism

Devolution and federalism differ in the scope of the powers which are exercised by the central government in coordinating the regions.

Ethnic groups, and culturally separate nations desiring autonomy, can form a foundation for separatist pressures.  The degree of autonomy offered can vary considerably.  A very useful article by Joanna George explains the difference between UK devolution and American federalism:

●  “Firstly, unlike the USA which has a written (codified) constitution, the UK has an uncodified constitution. This means that we do not have a single written document providing rules on what the UK Parliament can and cannot do, although the judiciary does provide a vital check on its power to prevent constitutional imbalance.  …the UK Parliament still retains a legally unlimited power to legislate on all matters for all nations within the UK. In contrast, the division of power in a federal system is legally defined, secured, and protected in a constitution.”

●  “Secondly, in a federal system each level of government has equal autonomy over allocated policy areas. This does not apply under UK devolution and has indeed been a source of tension among the devolved governments.  … Serious consideration would also be required to address English governance which has distinctly different challenges to the other UK nations as it lacks a Parliament/Assembly.”

●  “Devolution is a top-down system where power is ‘devolved’ from the Westminster Parliament to the devolved governments at its own discretion. In contrast, federalism is based on a partnership of nations willing to pool their sovereignty together for the benefit of the national interest.”

Devolution can be a useful safety valve, which might increase the acceptability and responsiveness of governance for distinct cultural groups.  Regions can be granted autonomy in some decisions, whilst other functions of governance remain under central control.  The British system relies upon governments complying with “the Sewel convention. This provides that the UK Parliament will not normally legislate on devolved matters without the consent of the devolved governments”.  Sadly, this was blatantly disregarded when Britain called a referendum about its membership of the EU: Britain left the EU in a ‘Brexit’ despite Scotland and Northern Ireland having voted against leaving.

There are some aspects of governance which are particularly relevant to preserving cultural identity: for example, autonomy in the teaching of languages and history.  Devolution has worked well in practice where there is a clear association between a cultural group and a particular geographic region.

A big difference between devolution and federalism is that in a federal model, like that of the USA, separate States have their own legislatures and governors – with a much more limited role for the federal government.  The question of balance between the individual States and the federal government was carefully considered when the US Constitution was approved, as described in a series of letters by the founding fathers: The Federalist Papers. The Constitution was designed to distribute power, in the name of freedom and localisation, but it has shifted somewhat over time.  It wasn’t primarily driven by different cultural identities, but the comparative stability of that structure can suggest that it could also be used to divide a country along ethnic lines.

Michael Keating described the history of Spain’s “Minority Nations”, and the way in which their governance is evolving within the framework of Spain and Europe, in his paper: The Minority Nations of Spain and European Integration.  A new framework for autonomy?  The Catalonian autonomy is an example of devolution to re-establish an older identity which pre-dated the unification of Spain. At the time of writing, separatist pressures remain unresolved as the separatist’s leader went into exile – being described by the Economist as The man who wasn’t there.

Historic boundaries can cross into other countries.  For example the Basque region overlaps both France and Spain, and there are Kurds in Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran.   Unification of the Basques or the Kurds across international borders would be very difficult to achieve in practice; granting them more autonomy within one country would put pressure on the neighbouring countries to do the same.



This page is intended to form part of Edition 4 of the Patterns of Power series of books.  An archived copy of it is held at https://www.patternsofpower.org/edition04/6632.htm.