FALKIRK, Scotland — Devolution, which is not entirely unlike federalism, is a form of administrative decentralization. The Scottish Parliament (Holyrood) is a product of this decentralizing process, allowing Scotland greater autonomy from the U.K. Parliament at Westminster. While devolution has indeed imbued Scotland with the power to legislate on local-level matters (a wide range of public services), the U.K. Parliament retains the sole authority to legislate on reserved matters (foreign policy, defense and trade). It also possesses the overriding ability to legislate on any issue, be it devolved or reserved. However, the devolution convention means Westminster typically will not legislate on devolved matters without consent from the Scottish Parliament.
Legislative Provisions on Supporting/Debating Foreign Aid
2(1) of Scotland Act 1998 – a significant constitutional piece of legislation that prescribed for the foundation of a devolved Scottish Parliament – discusses the law of reserved matters: “An Act of the Scottish Parliament cannot modify, or confer power by subordinate legislation to modify, the law on reserved matters.” In sum, members of the Scottish Parliament (MSPs) cannot alter matters reserved for the supreme legislative body of the realm, the Parliament of the United Kingdom.
However, what does not logically follow from the act’s contents is the preclusion of Scottish politicians from debating and supporting causes that may fit under the reserved matters umbrella. For instance, a contentious issue in Scotland is the location of the Trident nuclear deterrent within the constituency of Argyll and Bute.
According to a BBC article, “[in a vote that took place in 2015]MSPs voted 96 to 17 in favor of a Scottish Government motion opposing Trident renewal.” While the vote is non-binding, it signaled to the U.K. parliament that despite devolution in Scotland, MSPs could debate/support reserved matters like their counterparts, as they had done with defense.
UK Foreign Aid Cuts and the Scottish Government’s Response
The increasing needs of people globally have spread foreign aid resources thinner than ever. Now, developing countries, like those in the Middle East, sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, which are sustaining multiple crises (the COVID-19 pandemic, inflation, other diseases and conflict), exacerbated by the war in Ukraine, face the prospect of starvation.
The Scottish government has responded negatively to the U.K. government’s £4 billion reduction in foreign aid in 2021, with Scotland’s international development minister, Jenny Gilruth, branding the move “deeply irresponsible.”
As a member of the world-leading inter-governmental forum, the G7, whose collective membership possesses “58% of the world’s net wealth,” the United Kingdom, due to its abandonment of the United Nations 0.7% of GNI foreign aid target amid multiple global crises, is now in a morally untenable position.
Devolution as a Pretext to Avoid Supporting Foreign Aid Initiatives
The active vocal opposition from the Scottish government against the U.K.’s reduced foreign aid expenditure makes it even more confounding when certain MSPs use devolution as a pretext to avoid supporting the likes of The Borgen Project’s Official Development Assistance (ODA) campaign.
For instance, when asked to support the aforementioned, an MSP responded with: “this [is outside devolution in Scotland and]relates to a reserved matter, which falls under the U.K. Parliament.” However, as the preceding evidence suggests, MSPs are entitled to debate/support causes (in this instance, foreign policy) related to devolved and reserved matters. Gathering political support across the U.K. is imperative to the success of foreign aid campaigns, regardless of whether the topic is in a politician’s immediate purview.
Nevertheless, despite devolution in Scotland and the occasional devolution-laden excuse from MSPs to avoid supporting reserved matters, the Scottish government remains committed to promoting the country as a sterling global citizen. In 2017, it established the Humanitarian Emergency Fund (HEF) — a £1 million per annum endowment to provide support to lessen “the threat to life and well-being” during global humanitarian crises. Indeed, even above the typical annual HEF allocation of £1 million, the government generously allocated an initial £4 million in February 2022 to assist Ukraine amid Russia’s invasion.
– Jonathan Main