Remaking the Union: Devolution and British Politics in the 1990s. – Review

Remaking the Union: Devolution and British Politics in the 1990s. – Review – book review

Susan D. Pennybacker

Remaking the Union: Devolution and British Politics in the 1990s. Edited by Howard Elcock and Michael Keating. (London and Portland, Oreg.: Frank Cass, 1998, Pp. 231. $45.00.)

What will Tony Blair’s devolution policies mean for Britain and the New Europe? This question fuels the ten essays collected in this book, published before the convening of the new Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly, which are presently testing their propositions. At this writing, Ken Livingstone’s victory in the London Mayoral race and New Labor’s controversial asylums policy are placing further, and perhaps unanticipated, strains on the bounds of devolutionist prerogative in both party-political and legislative terms. Though historians may find the political scientists’ work in this volume rather anticlimactic given these recent events, the data and intelligence assembled here still bear attention; this is a reasoned debate about the past history of notions of local identity and self-government, disciplined by the very absence of knowledge of more recent outcomes. The essays by both editors, as well as Lindsay Paterson’s on Scottish home rule and Jonathan Bradbury’s on Wales, are particularly well done. Each introduces a lively perspective on the historical and political complexities confronting this latest era of devolution: what do Scotland, England, and Wales have to gain and to lose from change? Will they suffer from the loss of advantages that accrue from the assimilation of distinct cultural identities, fiscal dependence, tax supports, and centralist social policy directives? How much do they stand to benefit from democratic self-government, European connections, regional planning, and the “renewal of civil society” (65)? These issues dominate the essays and overlap with questions posed by Graham Leicester on Europe; David Heald, Neal Geaughan, and Colin Robb on Scotland; James Mitchell and Peter Lynch on Scottish business; Alice Brown on gender demands raised in the Scottish context; Jonathan Snicker on Welsh autonomy; and John Mawson on English regionalism.

Historical allegiances, either to a unitary British state or to a balanced constitution, pre-figured the current restructuring. Scotland has enjoyed a negotiated status and must be careful to preserve its advantages while discarding its liabilities. Europe offers some relevant models for Britain, including the federal designs of Germany and Belgium, the newly organized regional units of the Eastern European states, and the compromises with significant national minorities effected in both Bohemia and Catalonia. But, the fiscal requirement of “needs equalization” poses a restraint on autonomy manifest in the problem of the recognition of economic differences, which are so blatant in the U.K. cases (4). How much ought the welfare state be dismantled? How much privatization should occur in concert with devolution, itself receiving little enthusiasm from, e.g., Scots business interests? Will the new legislative bodies achieve social freedom from “elements of the male `pub culture’,” and would territorial and minority representation, indeed proportional representation, protect old identity groupings in new and `threatening’ ways (107)? Finally, whither Ireland, whose asymmetrical status so disrupts the other models that it occupies a residual status in this discourse? Perhaps the most sober answer to many such questions comes from Michael Keating: “a settlement must be negotiated and not imposed” (206). This volume provides a useful guide for those who observe and judge the very urgent process of exploring this strategic option, with all the creative disruption that it will doubtlessly entail if it is pursued.

Susan D. Pennybacker

Trinity College, Hartford, Connecticut

COPYRIGHT 2001 Phi Alpha Theta, History Honor Society, Inc.

COPYRIGHT 2001 Gale Group