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The Social Union after the Coalition: Devolution, Divergence and Convergence


In 2009, the UK government emphasised that it was ‘deeply committed’ to the maintenance of the state's social union, embodied in a single social security system. Five years later, the future of this social union appeared less certain than at any time since the 1920s. Dissatisfaction with the ‘welfare reform’ agenda of the coalition government was a driver of support for Scottish independence in the 2014 referendum campaign. Meanwhile, the Northern Ireland Assembly failed to pass legislation to mirror the Welfare Reform Act 2012, normally a formality due to the convention of parity in social security. Despite Westminster's subsequent extension of the 2012 reforms to the region, divergence in secondary legislation and practice remains likely. This article draws on the findings of qualitative interviews with politicians and civil servants in both regions during a period covering the conclusion of the Smith Commission's work on the future of Scottish devolution and the height of a political impasse over Northern Ireland's Welfare Reform Bill that threatened a constitutional crisis. It considers the extent to which steps towards divergence in the two devolved regions have altered the UK's social union and to which the two processes have influenced one another.

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Journal of Social Policy
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