Wales politics

What has happened to devolution in the UK since 1999?

As voters prepare to decide whether the Welsh assembly should receive more law-making powers, BBC Wales political reporter Daniel Davies looks at the state of devolution around the UK.

Few events unite Wales like the Six Nations. Whether celebrating victories or mourning defeats, the Welsh seldom seem to share a common purpose like they do during the annual rugby tournament.

It is unlikely the referendum will recreate the euphoria of a grand slam - even if the man leading the Yes campaign is the boss of the Welsh Rugby Union - but the opposing camps would do well to aim for creating a similar sense of national unity.

Wales win 2005 Grand Slam
Will Yes or No campaigners be celebrating when the referendum result is on announced on 4 March?

No campaigners hope voters will unite to resist what they claim is another slide on a slippery slope towards independence.

For Yes campaigners, it is a chance for Wales to prove it can govern itself as well as Scotland.

While Welsh voters grapple with how to vote, rugby fans heading to Murrayfield next week will arrive in a country where the debate about the direction of devolution has reached new terrain.

Despite never using its ability to vary income tax by 3p in the pound, the Scottish parliament would receive more responsibility for borrowing and taxation under proposals going through Westminster.

The UK government says the Scotland Bill is a major transfer of fiscal powers to Edinburgh, but it is opposed by the nationalist SNP for not going far enough.

Arising from the Calman Commission review of devolution, the Bill would cut Scotland's block grant and allow Holyrood to make up the shortfall through income tax and borrowing.

In Northern Ireland too, the next flashpoint could be about money. Northern Ireland's devolved administration, like in Wales and in Scotland, decides how to spend the money it receives from Westminster.

Local business leaders look enviously over the border at the Republic of Ireland's lower corporation tax rates. The secretary of state is considering whether the north should also be able to lower its rate.

Similar debates about public funding are taking place in Wales, with the assembly government pushing for reform of the Treasury formula that sets the devolved budgets.

But the vote on 3 March is about one thing and one thing only - part four of the 2006 Government of Wales Act.

You'll be forgiven if the terminology doesn't whet the appetite. Put simply, voting Yes would increase the assembly's law-making control over policy areas, such as schools and health. And nothing else.

Whatever the outcome, the assembly would not be able to deal in matters that are reserved by Westminster. AMs would not be able to take charge of law and order, levy taxes nor gain new borrowing powers.

In the first decade of devolution - a decade of rising public spending and economic stability - the big question for Welsh devolution was not about money, but law-making powers.

The Scottish parliament and Northern Ireland assembly already have those primary legislative powers. For example, Scotland was able to ban smoking in public before Wales, despite the assembly voting for a ban first.

What's more, the powers devolved to Edinburgh and Belfast cover a wider area. Last year, powers over policing and justice were transferred to Northern Ireland after a 38-year gap in what was called the final piece of the devolution jigsaw.

Whatever the result declared on Friday 4 March, devolution has not stood still in Wales since AMs arrived at their desks in 1999.

Cardiff Bay has acquired powers from parliament in all sorts of areas. The process moved up a gear in 2007 thanks to a system that lets the assembly request powers in specific fields, though the success of that system is disputed by the opposing sides in the referendum.

When he published the Bill to boost the assembly's powers in 2005, the then Welsh Secretary Peter Hain said he hoped it would "settle for a generation - if not more" Wales' "constitutional obsession" with the powers and status of the assembly.

Alan Trench, a constitutional expert at University College London, said: "Generations have got very, very short in the history of devolution."

Both the current and previous UK government's were "muddling along" with devolution in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, he said.

"They don't have an overall strategy that's very clear and they're responding on a case-by-case, country-by-country basis."

There are separate debates about where Wales goes next in Wales. In their One-Wales coalition agreement, Labour and Plaid Cymru promised to consider the potential for devolving the criminal justice system. And the Holtham Commission into public funding for Wales recommended the assembly government have the power to vary income taxes.

You might think that such questions show Wales' growing maturity. Or that they are another slide along that slippery slope towards fragmenting the UK.

Anyone who follows Welsh politics will be familiar with former Welsh Secretary Ron Davies' remark that devolution is a process, not an event.

Like all good cliches, it is proving itself true.

Wherever you go in the UK, after more than a decade, the devolution process shows no sign of slowing.