Formal devolution was introduced in the UK as part of a sea change of constitutional reform following the Labour government general election win in 1997. Devolution was established in Scotland and Wales and re-established in Northern Ireland on an asymmetrical basis with different executive and legislative powers devolved to each. Since then several reforms and amendments have seen devolution strengthened in all three devolved areas of the UK. Proposed reforms following the 2015 general election will see another wave of devolution to nations and regions in the UK beyond that seen in 1997.
Even though separate devolution plans are moving at pace for different parts of the UK there are currently no plans for a federal United Kingdom. However, following a rejection of independence in Scotland in 2014 and proposals for further devolution in the Scotland Bill 2015 there are very strong federal elements entering the UK Constitution. This would be a significant development from the tradition of Parliamentary Sovereignty which dates back to at least the Glorious Revolution of 1688. As this article will illustrate, the change has been incremental and it is suggested that the effect of this change is a gradual move towards federalism. In particular, statutory provisions in the Scotland Bill, such as recognising the Scottish Parliament ‘as a permanent’ part of UK constitutional arrangements, are alien to the traditional concept of Parliamentary Sovereignty and imply a move towards a much more federal and permanent constitutional relationship. This article will discuss the essential characteristics of a federal state, such as the formal division of powers, and a supreme and entrenched constitution and consider whether these are emerging, or are indeed already present, in the UK. It will focus in particular on Scotland and emerging issues in England but will also consider the reforms to date in the other nations and regions of the UK.