Devolved governments and powers explained

The SNP and Plaid Cymru are standing for election to Westminster, but only compete in Scotland and Wales.

The names of the parties on ballot papers for the General Election will differ significantly between the home nations. But while the likes of the Scottish National Party and Plaid Cymru only compete for votes in their own countries, their manifestos make pledges on issues which are managed by the government in Westminster.

But since the late 1990s, many powers have been handed to the devolved governments, meaning that – particularly outside of England – voters are deciding between manifestos which cover issues which may not be decided for them in this general election.

The parties

The Scottish National Party were, prior to the dissolution of Parliament ahead of the General Election, the third biggest party in Westminster.

In 2019, they won 48 of the 59 seats available in Scotland. By the end of the parliament, through three defections, a by-election and a suspension, this had fallen to 43 MPs.

They are also the largest party in the Scottish Parliament, where they hold 63 of the 129 seats, just short of a majority. Until recently, they led in a power-sharing agreement with Scottish Greens; then-SNP leader Humza Yousuf dissolved this agreement in 2024, leading to his resignation. He was replaced by John Swinney, both as party leader and First Minister of Scotland. Despite being the face of the SNP campaign for the General Election, Mr Swinney is not up for election this year.

The SNP are represented in the House of Commons by Westminster leader Stephen Flynn.

Plaid Cymru is a Welsh nationalist party, with three of the 40 Welsh MPs in Westminster at the time of dissolution. Labour held 21 of 40 Westminster seats in Wales, and are the largest party in the Senedd (Welsh Parliament), with half the 60 Members of the Senedd (MSs).

Their representation in Westminster has been led by Liz Saville Roberts since 2017, who was the MP for Dwyfor Meirionnydd, but party leader Rhun ap Iorwerth has been their most prominent representative during the campaign. As with Mr Swinney, Mr ap Iorwerth is not standing for election as an MP, he is an MS.

The situation in Northern Ireland, where the big Westminster parties have traditionally been less powerful, is different. There, the Democratic Unionist Party and Sinn Féin held seven each of the 18 seats (following Jeffrey Donaldson’s resignation from the DUP).

Sinn Fein MPs do not take their seats in Westminster.

The Parliaments (and Assembly)

The Scottish Parliament, commonly known as Holyrood, was established in 1999 following a 74% yes vote in the 1997 Scottish devolution referendum. Labour returned the most Members of the Scottish Parliament (MSPs) in the first two elections, and the SNP have been the largest party in the four elections since.

MSPs can also be MPs, though it unusual – prior to the dissolution of parliament, Scottish Conservatives leader Douglas Ross was the only representative in this position, as the MP for Moray and MSP for Highlands and Islands.

MSs, meanwhile, cannot be MPs, since the passing of the Wales Act 2014. They sit in the Welsh Parliament, or Senedd Cymru in Welsh, which was also established in 1999, following the Welsh devolution referendum in 1997, won with just 50.3% of the vote.

The Northern Ireland Assembly, commonly known as Stormont, was also established in 1999, following the Good Friday Agreement. It is managed under a power-sharing agreement, in which the First and Deputy First Ministers, one unionist and one nationalist, have equal powers, and one cannot be in position without the other.

The cabinet is also made up of unionist and nationalist parties, with the proportion based on the number of seats a party wins in the election.

Sinn Féin are the largest party, following an election in 2022 – however, Stormont did not sit for 24 months to February this year, following the DUP’s decision to withdraw support over post-Brexit trade agreements.

The powers

Many of the current rules around devolution started to be formed in the late 1990s, following Labour’s landslide election win in 1997.

Under the agreements, a number of areas of government are not devolved to any of the nations in the UK: defence, foreign affairs, immigration, trade policy, constitution and broadcasting.

This means that when, for example, the SNP include policies on immigration in their manifesto, they are campaigning on an issue they could not fully control following the General Election (as they do not stand in enough seats to form a UK government, though they could influence policy if they were part of a coalition). Instead, they say: “Scotland should have full powers over immigration.”

Equally, the first pledge in their manifesto is to “deliver independence” for Scotland from the UK. They are not in a position to mandate this, as only the UK Government can legislate for a Scottish independence referendum, as it did in 2014.

Many other areas are devolved to national governments. These include health and social care; education and training; local government; agriculture, forestry and fisheries; transport; some taxation; and sports and the arts.

Justice and policing, and some social security areas, are devolved in Scotland and Northern Ireland, but not in Wales. The legal system in Scotland and Northern Ireland has never been unified with the English legal system, which also covers Wales.

The majority of funding for the devolved governments comes from the UK Government under the Barnett formula, which governs the amount of money sent to the other nations, relative to how much is spent on the same areas of government in England.


UK Parliament – MPs and Lords, State of the Parties (archived May 28, 2024)

UK Parliament – MPs and Lords, Neale Hanvey (archived)

UK Parliament – MPs and Lords, Kenny MacAskill (archived)

UK Parliament – MPs and Lords, Dr Lisa Cameron (archived)

BBC – MP Angus MacNeil expelled by SNP after chief whip row

South Lanarkshire Council – Rutherglen and Hamilton West By-election results (archived)

BBC – SNP’s power-sharing deal with the Scottish Greens collapses

Scottish Government – Humza Yousaf steps down as First Minister (archived)

SNP – John Swinney (archived)

Scottish Government – Biography: John Swinney (archived)

SNP – The real opposition: meet your new SNP Westminster Frontbench (archived)

BBC – Liz Saville Roberts new Plaid Cymru leader in Commons

Plaid Cymru – Rhun ap Iorwerth (archived)

Welsh Parliament – Find a Member of the Senedd (archived)

UK Parliament – MPs and Lords, Wales (archived March 20, 2024)

UK Parliament – MPs and Lords, Northern Ireland (archived March 30, 2024)

BBC – Jeffrey Donaldson: DUP leader resigns after rape charge

The Scottish Parliament – About the Scottish Parliament, The path to devolution (archived)

The Scottish Parliament – About the Scottish Parliament, The Scottish Parliament re-established (archived)

The Scottish Parliament – 1999 Election Results (archived)

The Scottish Parliament – 2003 Election Results (archived)

The Scottish Parliament – 2007 Election Results (archived)

The Scottish Parliament – 2011 Election Results (archived)

The Scottish Parliament – 2016 Election Results (archived)

The Scottish Parliament – 2021 Election Results (archived)

The Scottish Parliament – MSPs with dual mandates (archived)

legislation.gov.uk – Wales Act 2014 (archived)

Welsh Parliament – History of devolution (archived)

Northern Ireland Assembly – Evolution of Devolution (archived)

House of Commons Library – Northern Ireland Assembly Elections: 2022 (archived)

BBC – NI’s government has returned Stormont – what you need to know

Civil Service – Devolution: Factsheet (archived)

The SNP – manifesto (archived)

Supreme Court judgment on Scottish independence referendum (archived)

House of Commons Library – The Barnett formula and fiscal devolution (archived)

Election Check 24

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