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In this lesson, you’ll learn what devolution is, why countries have devolved systems, and look at two examples. Finally, the lesson will briefly discuss two ideas about why devolution is on the rise.

What Is Devolution?

Violet is 19 years old, goes to community college, and still lives at home. She and her parents often fight about curfews, how often she cleans her room, and even her use of the air conditioning. Violet is tired of living by her parents’ rules because she has different needs and interests. Finally, they make a deal that she’ll respect the rules of the house, but she can do whatever she wants in her own room. She’s still a member of the household, but she can make more decisions for herself.

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This is the basic idea behind devolution.Appropriate analogy aside, devolution is a process in which a central government of a country grants powers to subnational governments (e.g. regional, state, or local governments). This process of decentralization distributes power to territories that want more authority over their own affairs.

The most famous example of devolution is in the United Kingdom, where Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland exercise authority over their own lands, but remain part of the U.K. Usually, the central government maintains power of things like national security and defense but allows devolved governments to do things like set up courts, make laws, and regulate education.

Devolution is very similar to federalism. In the U.S.

federalist system, state governments have the power to make their own laws and policies. The Federal government is still sovereign and maintains powers over foreign policy and defense, but each state can govern itself. The biggest difference between devolution and federalism is that federalism is guaranteed in the Constitution of the United States. In a devolved system, the granting of powers to subnational governments isn’t guaranteed in the constitution, and devolved powers may be temporary.

Identity and Theory

The formation of ethno-regional identity is at the heart of devolution.

Let’s look at it this way: a region may have different needs and interests than the rest of the nation and feel that the federal government isn’t serving or even hearing them. That region may request a devolved government to govern itself in a way that’s more relevant to its unique needs. Alternatively, a region may be populated by a particular ethnicity that has its own identity different than the dominant ethnic identity in the nation. That process might lead to calls for a devolved government.

These regions want the power to control their own affairs in a way that makes sense to them. This desire for greater autonomy can lead to protest, and even violence. In the U.K. and Spain, two of the most well-known devolved countries, separatist terrorist groups perpetrated acts of violence for decades. The central government may agree to devolution to ensure that a region remains part of the country but stops stirring up trouble.

However, devolution can strengthen these ethno-regional identities, and sometimes that can strengthen the desire for independence.

The U.K.

Let’s examine devolution in the U.K. It’s made up of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland and is governed by Parliament in London. But these countries didn’t always live in harmony and were independent nations at different points in history.In September 1997, Scotland and Wales held votes for greater autonomy from London. Winning the vote, a Scottish Parliament and Welsh National Assembly were established in those countries.

Meanwhile, tensions in Northern Ireland were running high. The desire for independence and disdain for England created a powder keg of violence and dissent. To ease this tension, the U.K. and Northern Ireland signed the 1998 Good Friday or Belfast Agreement.

This agreement established a devolved government in Northern Ireland.However, debates still rage over whether enough power was devolved in the U.K. In 2014, Scotland held a vote for full independence. Although it was defeated, the vote sent a clear message that Scotland wanted more autonomy from London.


Another example of devolution is Spain. Spain’s constitution establishes a state of autonomies for its diverse regions. The central government has granted devolved governments for these regions. Despite autonomy, independence movements are strong. Separatists from the Basque region have plagued Spain with violence for a long time. And if you travel to Barcelona, it’s more likely you’ll see the Catalonian flag than the Spanish flag waving from rooftops.

Catalonia routinely calls for full independence from Spain. Indeed, devolution hasn’t stifled the growth of these independent identities.

Lesson Summary

Like parents granting a teenage girl autonomy over her own bedroom, devolution is when a country chooses to transfer powers from the central government to subnational governments like state, local, and regional governments. Devolution is similar to federalism, except that the powers that are given to devolved governments are temporary and not guaranteed by the constitution.

Devolution is entangled with the formation of identity – and especially ethno-regional identity. The two most prominent examples of devolution are in the United Kingdom and Spain, both of which experienced protest and violence before granting devolution.


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