The current system of devolution in the UK was introduced by the Blair Government in the late 1990s. It involved the creation of new legislative and executive institutions in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, and the conferral upon them of law-making and administrative powers. A key purpose of devolution is to enable parts of the country that possess distinct political and cultural identities to remain part of the Union without subjugating those individual identities. In this way, devolution aims to strengthen the Union by equipping it to accommodate diversity, a flexible structure being stronger than a brittle one. In Northern Ireland, devolution serves the further, and crucial, objective of fashioning a system of government capable of bridging community divisions. The technical operation of the different devolution schemes and the (significant) differences between them are important, but are beyond the scope of this post. Rather, its focus is on the general nature of devolution and on the broader insights it affords into the nature of the UK’s constitution.
One of the most striking features about the devolution system in the UK is its asymmetry. Scotland and Northern Ireland can enact legislation — including laws overriding those enacted by the UK Parliament in relation to Scotland and Northern Ireland respectively — on all matters save those that are reserved to the exclusive competence of the UK Parliament in Westminster. Wales has sparser powers, being permitted to enact legislation only in relation to specific matters. England has no devolved powers at all; since the devolution system does not extend to it, it relies upon the UK Parliament and the UK Government to enact its laws and administer it. Those institutions therefore serve dual functions, as the UK but also the de facto English legislature and executive.