Spain's model of "asymmetrical devolution" may not be very encouraging for those who want devolution to come to a rest.by John Lloyd / June 20, 1999 / Leave a comment
Published in June 1999 issue of Prospect Magazine
Let the leap-frogging begin. Following the Scots and Welsh elections, Britain joins the list of states with vigorous regional competition for status and resources. In the end, perhaps this is no bad thing; but present experience indicates that these competitions are difficult to manage, and can be bitter.
Spain is often approvingly cited by supporters of Britain’s famously “asymmetrical” devolution-Scotland gets a parliament, Wales and Northern Ireland get mere assemblies, and England gets nothing. Lopsidedness works in Spain, they say, why not here, too? No need for logical blueprints, let us wallow in the messiness of what history has bequeathed to us.
The trouble is that Spain also provides succour to the other camp: those who warned that asymmetry would not work. For Spain is now home to the purest form of regional competition in Europe, with the status and privileges of the regions in constant flux. When a privilege is granted or a concession made to, say, Catalonia, then all want it; when all have it, Catalonia wants to preserve its differential. It is a state of affairs familiar to any trade unionist or industrial relations manager, whose experience stretches back to the wage deals of the 1970s.
There had to be different strokes for the different British folks; but differences will become an issue. When Wales gets its assembly and Scotland its parliament, they will no longer compete over national sentiment-on which, in any case, Wales seemed happy enough to lose to Scotland-but over what concessions can be secured from London. Plaid Cymru, now with the subtitle “The Party of Wales” for those frightened by the Welsh language, has ceased to be an overtly nationalist party. In turning itself into a political force throughout Wales, it will gradually become a leftish regional party that claims it can get more out of London than Labour, hog-tied as the latter is to the Treasury line. This strategy, which the SNP shows signs of imitating as nationalist sentiment in Scotland seems to ebb, is arguably worse than a frank expression of nationalism.