Page last updated at 15:58 GMT, Friday, 26 September 2008 16:58 UK

Devolution? What devolution?

By Ed Lowther
BBC Parliament

Gordon Brown and his wife, Sarah
The PM used the word Britain 24 times in his speech, but devolution just once

The prime minister has set out a vision for the country at his party conference, a policy prescription that he says could help see in a "British century".

But is Gordon Brown promising more than he can deliver without the co-operation of the devolved assemblies?

The PM's conference speech reveals a reluctance to talk explicitly about the limits to Westminster's power that devolution imposes on some of the policy areas that top his list of priorities.


"I can announce today for those in our nation battling cancer from next year you will not pay prescription charges... in April a Labour Britain will become the first country in the whole world to offer free universal check ups for everyone over 40."

  • Since health policy is devolved, the Westminster government will only be able to introduce such measures in England. To do so throughout the United Kingdom, as Mr Brown's use of the words "our nation" and "Britain" may suggest, could only be accomplished with the consent of the devolved assemblies.


"I want Britain to take its place among the leading nations in pre-school services, and so I pledge here today in Manchester starting in over 30 communities, and then over 60, we will, stage by stage, extend free nursery places for two year olds."

  • Without a deal with the devolved assemblies, the communities that the PM invokes can only be in England, since education policy is also devolved.

"Every child should leave primary school able to read, write and count, any child who falls behind will not be left behind - but will now have a new guaranteed right to personal catch up tuition."

  • Similarly, the PM can only guarantee such a right for "every child" in England.


"New nuclear power, an unprecedented increase in renewables..."

  • The Westminster government is able to give the green light for new nuclear power stations and large wind farms in both England and Wales - but not in Scotland or Northern Ireland where planning decisions for such projects are taken independently.

"I want British companies and British workers to seize the opportunity and lead the world in the transformation to a low carbon economy..."

  • The PM no longer has the power to impose targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions on businesses based in Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland.

Social care

"Because child poverty demeans Britain, we have committed our party to tackle and to end it."

  • Child support and social security are not devolved in Scotland or Wales - but they are devolved in Northern Ireland.

Final tally

In all, the PM used the word Britain 24 times in his speech, but the words devolution, England, Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland, and United Kingdom crop up just once each.

The reference to devolution occurs in a list of New Labour's greatest triumphs - so perhaps it is odd that Mr Brown does not make more of this achievement.

Then again, with controversy continuing over the West Lothian question and given the PM's provenance from a constituency north of the border, perhaps it is not.

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