Monthly Archives: May 2009

MSP Expenses

The Scottish Parliament and its MSPs are in a tricky position following the ongoing expenses scandal in Westminster. On the one hand, it is insulated to some extent from major criticism because it has already reformed its rules following concerns about the transparency of MSP expenses (in 2005, by publishing MSP expenses in detail and exploring how to allow the public to view MSP expenses online) and the ability of MSPs to profit from the sales of their second homes (in 2008, by voting to effectively make MSPs rent instead of buy).[1] Therefore, much has been made about the ability of Westminster to learn from Holyrood.[2] This may include reference to the statement expressed in the Langlands Review that allowances are there to reimburse expenses (accompanied by receipts) rather than augment salaries (in the light of Harry Cohen MP’s claims that the Thatcher government recommended using allowances rather than raising MP salaries) (see also 3.5).[3] The new rules on transparency also appeared to produce a fall in overall expense claims.[4] On the other hand, there is still the potential for guilt by association, and there is still a significant spotlight on the expense claims of MSPs.[5] It would not be a huge surprise to see the Scottish Parliament plans to phase out (owned) second homes accelerated (they were originally to be phased out by 2011).[6] The issue has certainly eclipsed earlier calls for Salmond to quit as an MP and stories which bemoan his lack of time spent in Westminster.[7] It also puts previous Scottish Parliament scandals in perspective – the SNP’s Minister for Parliamentary Business Bruce Crawford suggested recently[8] that former First Minster Henry McLeish was harshly treated before his resignation (but would not make the same statement about Wendy Alexander).

[1] See Scottish Parliament ‘Members Expenses Scheme’; M. Earle (2009) Parliamentary Pay and Expenses 20007-08 and Pay and Expense Rates 2008-09, SPICE briefing 09/6; Scotland Devolution Monitoring Report January 2006, 2.3, p20 and September 2008, 2.3, pp.16-17 ; BBC News 13.12.05 ‘MSP expenses published in detail’,;;
[2] BBC 28.4.09 ‘MPs ‘should back’ MSP claim rules’;
I. Swanson 30.4.09 ‘Ian Swanson: Use Holyrood as expenses model’ The Scotsman; I. Swanson 28.10.08 ‘MSPs Look on With Envy at MPs Expenses’, Edinburgh Evening News, p.11; although see also J. Hjul 5.4.09 ‘Holyrood’s snouts are no shorter than Westminster’s’, The Sunday Times
[3] Scottish Parliament (2008) Independent Review of Parliamentary Allowances (the Langlands Review); G. Cordon 29.3.09 ‘MP says £300,000 claim for home is ‘part of salary’’, Scotland on Sunday
[4] T. Gordon 6.10.06 ‘MSPs’ expenses fall from GBP1.8m to GBP227,000 in wake of scandals’ The Herald
[6] P. Hutcheon and T. Gordon 18.5.09 ‘Hand back any profits on second homes, urges MSP’, The Herald; I. MacWhirter 17.5.09 ‘It’s payback time’ The Herald
[7] H. MacDonell 17.2.09 ‘Tories tell Salmond to quit as MP over ‘poor’ Westminster record’, The Scotsman ; S. Paterson 17.2.09 ‘Salmond should quit as an MP, says Scots Tory leader’ The Herald; The Scotsman 28.4.09 ‘Salmond hits out at ‘Thatcher-style cuts’ ‘ ; T. Crichton 28.4.09 ‘Salmond takes ‘cuts’ fight to the heart of Westminster’ The Herald
[8] BBC Radio Scotland 15.5.09 ‘Riddoch Questions’, recorded at ‘Ten Years of the Scottish Parliament’ conference, 12 May, Edinburgh – an event to mark the publication of C. Jeffery and J. Mitchell (eds.) The Scottish Parliament, 1999-2009: The First Decade (Edinburgh: Luath Press). Note also the claim by Iain Gray that the Scottish Government is undermining Labour’s shadow legislative programme.

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Here are some weblinks that I have recommended to my students in the past. Please let me know if any become out of date or any sensible additions.

Web sites
I strongly recommend searching for articles regularly in
For news go to lexis-nexis which is a way to search all the UK newspapers (log-in via Athens) or for a source of focussed news.
An incredibly useful site is: . This provides a number of reports which are free to download. It also replicates the State of the Nations series in its Nations and Regions section. For my humble contribution to the monitors, go straight to:
There is a wealth of reports and information in the ESRC site:
Another incredibly useful site is: . This is a constantly updated bibliography relating to devolution. It is also worth looking to see if the Scottish Parliamentary Information Centre (SPICE) has examined an issue:
There is also a one-stop-shop for surveys:
Scottish Social Attitudes:
The Scottish Parliament’s site is at:
The Scottish Government website can be found at:
The Scotland Office:
For a list of Concordats between the Scottish Executive and UK Government:
For a Lords discussion of devolution see:
For a Lords discussion of Westminster legislation following devolution, see appendix 1 of this report:

Other sites of interest: (Think tank); (Scottish Constitutional Convention); has some useful information (although remember that many sites are fairly partisan); has some useful publications; The House of Commons briefings on devolution:

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Intergovernmental Relations in Scotland Before and After the SNP

This is a paper I gave to colleagues on the subject of IGR. I’ll post a revision in September.

ESRC Seminar Series, Session 1 ‘Reforming Intergovernmental Relations in a Context of Party Political Incongruence?’ Exeter, 12-13 February 2009

Intergovernmental Relations in Scotland Before and After the SNP

Paul Cairney

Department of Politics and International Relations, University of Aberdeen, AB243QY

The New Political Context
In Scotland, the election of the Scottish National Party (SNP) provided the potential for profound changes in IGR. From 1999-2003 and 2003-7, Scottish Labour and the Scottish Liberal Democrats formed a coalition (the Scottish Executive) which commanded the majority of MSPs in the Scottish Parliament.[1] In each parliamentary session (of four years) the parties produced a ‘partnership agreement’ setting out in detail their legislative and policy plans. While, in terms of their policy aims, the Liberal Democrats may have done disproportionately well out of the agreement, Labour was the senior partner in both sessions (McGarvey and Cairney, 2008: 121; Roddin, 2004). To a large extent, this allowed relations to develop between the UK and Scottish executives as if there was a shared party in government. The partnership agreement also allowed the UK, to a large extent, to see what was coming. This was consistent with the overall ‘no surprises’ approach between the UK and Scottish executives. Public disputes were rare and the mechanisms for IGR were largely informal and uncontroversial. In 2007, Labour was replaced by the SNP as the party with most seats in the Scottish Parliament. After a brief flirtation with the Liberal Democrats (and the two Scottish Green MSPs necessary to form a parliamentary majority), the SNP formed a minority administration and promptly changed its name to the Scottish Government. While for observers in Wales the shift to the term ‘government’ may seem innocuous (the term ‘Welsh Assembly Government’ was originally used to differentiate the National Assembly from its executive), in Scotland it marked a symbolic statement of intent for a new, nationalist party in government.

At the same time, developments in UK politics spilled over into the UK-Scottish relationship. The ascension of a Scot, Gordon Brown, from Chancellor of the Exchequer to Prime Minister (combined with the perception of a high number of Scottish senior Labour figures in government[2]) brought to the fore an agenda on Scottish ‘advantage’ (McGarvey and Cairney, 2008: 165). Although these issues have yet to reach a crisis point (at least in terms of a concentration of public attention), the election of the SNP combined with the rise of Brown in 2007 focused UK media and (particularly Conservative) party attention on issues such as the representation of Scotland at Westminster (the reduction from 2005 of Scottish MPs from 72 to 59 only remedied Scotland’s over-representation), the West Lothian question[3] and, most importantly, public expenditure (with the SNP leader Alex Salmond happy to reply that the solution to each problem was Scottish and English independence). Since a reform of territorial finance did not take place in tandem with devolution, the issue of a higher per capita rate of public expenditure in Scotland than in England (which was never solved by the ‘Barnett formula’)[4] has produced periodic bursts of media and public attention and therefore a growing perception within government that it should address the UK government’s treatment of Scotland. This perception is fuelled by Gordon Brown’s need to project the image of a British rather than Scottish Prime Minister (leading, for example, to the current unfortunate furore over ‘British jobs for British workers’). Such problems have been solved in the short term by creating the Commission on Scottish Devolution (led by Professor Kenneth Calman) and inviting it to consider the future of Scottish public expenditure as part of its remit. There has also been a shift of UK media and public attention towards bigger issues such as the economic crisis (albeit with the occasional comment by MPs representing English constituencies that Scotland is better placed to spend its way out of problems). However, there is a growing sense, at least among academic circles, that the dog will bark eventually (see for example, McLean 2008).

The Potential for Shifting Relationships
From 1999-2007 the IGR strategy in Scotland was clear: discussions were conducted informally and almost entirely through executives. Although other mechanisms for negotiation and dispute resolution existed, these were used rarely. The role of the courts was minimal. There were no references of Scottish bills to judicial review, since this was treated as a last resort and the Scottish Executive was more likely to ‘remove offending sections’ than face delay (Page, 2005). The role of Holyrood-Westminster relations was limited[5], and the Scottish Parliament was restricted to the passing of ‘Sewel’ motions giving consent for the Westminster Parliament (and in effect the UK Government) to pass legislation in devolved policy areas (Cairney, 2006; Cairney and Keating, 2004). There was a clear bias towards informality between executives. Although a Memorandum of Understanding was produced to guide the conduct of executives, and individual concordats to guide the cooperation between departments, the day-to-day business was conducted through civil servants in the executives without a religious reference to them (and they were updated rarely). As Horgan (2004: 122) suggests, there was an ‘informal flavour’ to formal concordats since – as in Canada and Australia – these are not legally binding. Rather, they represent a, ‘statement of political intent . . . binding in honour only’ (Cm 5240, 2001: 5). The Memorandum’s main function is to promote good communication between executives, particularly when one knows that forthcoming policies will affect the other. This emphasis is furthered in the individual concordats which devote most of their discussions to reiterating the need for communication, confidentiality and forward notice (or the ‘no surprises’ approach). For the civil servants that produced them they represented ‘commonsense’ with little need to refer to them (Sir Muir Russell, former Permanent Secretary, Scottish Office and Scottish Executive, in Commission on Scottish Devolution, 2008a: 2; see also Jack McConnell, former First Minister, Commission on Scottish Devolution, 2008b: 13).

Although the Joint Ministerial Committee (JMC) was designed to allow the UK government to call a meeting with the devolved governments to discuss issues of working arrangements, the impact of devolved policy on reserved areas and vice versa, share experience and consider disputes, it met infrequently (Trench, 2004).[6] The JMC is a consultative rather than an executive body, with issues to be referred to it on the rare occasions that discussions between executives break down. Such was the bias against taking issues to the JMC that its members found little to discuss (Jack McConnell, Commission on Scottish Devolution, 2008b: 12; Jim Wallace, former Deputy First Minister, Commission on Scottish Devolution, 2008c: 9). Instead, bilateral working relationships were encouraged between government departments, while matters of high concern were discussed through political parties (and Scottish and UK Labour ministers in particular). The existence of coalition in government in Scotland complicated matters to some extent, and the most high profile instance in which an issue ‘broke free’ from the quiet world of IGR related to a policy (free personal care for older people) related closely to Liberal Democrat aims. Yet, there was no systematic pattern of disputes and little demand for high profile resolution.

The election of the SNP provided the potential for profound changes in IGR. Before its election success in 2007, the SNP made very clear in public that it would not continue with the existing arrangements (McGarvey and Cairney, 2008). There would be far less scope for informal discussions between ministers, particularly since SNP leader Alex Salmond was openly critical of then Prime Minister Tony Blair (while Blair did not congratulate Salmond on his election as First Minister).[7] The SNP would push for an independent civil service (along the lines of Northern Ireland) enjoying a more formal relationship with Whitehall departments. There would be little encouragement for the UK Government to propose Sewel motions when the Scottish Parliament could legislate itself. There would be calls for a reinstatement of regular meetings of the JMC, as a way to establish relations between the administrations and to signal that Scotland was an equal partner. The Scottish Government would also (perhaps) challenge and push the existing devolution settlement to its limits, with some issues (such as nuclear power) signalled as ‘lines in the sand’. Certainly, it would not take the same attitude to high profile disputes, since a key long-term electoral aim is to demonstrate that the SNP is ‘sticking up for Scotland’s interests’ (by, for example, pushing for the return of ‘Scotland’s money’ for free personal care). Yet, as if to thwart the hopes by the Sun newspaper, this potential for an explosive new era of IGR has not yet been realised. [8] There has also been little movement towards formalisation, with the (plenary) JMC meeting only once since 2007 (Trench, 2008a; 2009).

The aim of following sections is to explore these issues by asking two questions: why were formal mechanisms used so rarely from 1999-2007, and what factors have produced muted rather than problematic IGR since 2007? To answer the former, members of the former Scottish Executive may link the smooth running of IGR to the successful pursuit of personal relationships, informality and bi-lateral discussions (suggesting perhaps that the intergovernmental framework is not in need of fundamental reform). However, we also have more ‘negative’ reasons which are also worth exploring: the Scottish Executive did its best to avoid conflict by limiting its aims and anticipating the reactions in Whitehall (particularly under the premiership of Jack McConnell); in most high profile cases, the Scottish Executive knew that it would not succeed through formal IGR mechanisms, or it knew that it would benefit more by not pursuing the issues; and, the Scottish Executive benefited (when subject to minimal interference) or suffered (when trying to influence, for example, UK policy in the EU) from Whitehall neglect, or the ‘disengagement from devolution’ of its ministers and civil servants. In each case, the explanation comes from an analysis of power relations rather than the adequacy of IGR mechanisms.

Although it is too early to produce a long-term picture to answer the latter, initial impressions suggest three main factors. First, the logic to informality and humdrum day-to-day relationships is strong. Indeed, the logic of the ‘British Policy Style’ may be as relevant as lessons from other political systems. Second, while there have been high profile disputes, these often appear to revolve around IPR (inter-party relations) rather than IGR. As such, the complication of minority government is that many potential intergovernmental issues are played out within Scotland. Although there may be more motivation, there is less room to create policy space through boundary-pushing legislation because the relevant bills do not command parliamentary support. This may skew instances of IGR towards matters in which the SNP Government seeks to obstruct rather than innovate (although, again, we may be talking about high profile exceptions, such as nuclear power plant planning permission, rather than a general picture). Finally, no major decision on constitutional change has been taken since 2007. Although the Scottish and UK governments have begun separate consultations, and there have been whispers about the UK government calling for a referendum on independence to ‘call the SNP’s bluff’, it is unlikely that matter will come to a head before 2010. Therefore, the big constitutional debates have yet to take place between governments.

Why were formal mechanisms so rarely used from 1999-2007? Was this appropriate?
McGarvey and Cairney (2008: 167) characterise the reasons for a lack of formal IGR as ‘positive’ and ‘negative’. Positive in this sense refers to explanations which suit both parties, such as when the civil service acts a useful conduit between government departments, there is a close relationship between a shared party of government, and when the use of the Barnett formula minimises the likelihood of public disagreement (Keating, 2005: 122–123). Yet, clearly, the reasons may be more positive for the executives involved rather than those they represent and are accountable to.

For example, there has been considerable criticism of the maintenance of the Barnett formula to determine changes to devolved public expenditure. 4 Much debate revolves around what the Barnett formula was designed to do (see McGarvey and Cairney, 2008: 180-8; Keating, 2005). One suggestion is based on incrementalism: the formula represented an interim measure devised in the run up to political devolution in 1979 (on the basis of previous measures associated with the Goschen formula). The plan was then to negotiate a new system, based on a needs assessment study commissioned by the Treasury, with the new Scottish Assembly. When devolution did not materialise, this plan was dropped and Barnett remained. A further suggestion is that the formula was devised to satisfy two camps – the initial maintenance of Scotland’s higher settlement would satisfy the Scottish Office (a UK government department), while the formula to calculate marginal changes to expenditure on the basis of Scotland’s proportion of the UK population rather than its proportion of UK funding would satisfy calls to reduce Scotland’s advantage in the long run. There is disagreement on the latter point. While a strict and accurate application of the formula suggests that it would reduce per capita spending levels in Scotland to a level similar to England, Midwinter (2004a; 2004b) argues that this was never the stated aim (and it did not happen). A more likely aim was to prevent any further advantage to Scotland and then bring Scotland’s per capita spending closer to the figure identified in the Treasury’s needs assessment. Yet, the latter (Barnett ‘squeeze’) does not appear to have happened either (Schmueker and Adams, 2005; although there is some evidence of a convergence of spending in some policy areas – Keating, 2005: 145).

For our purposes, the most relevant reason to maintain Barnett is that it represented for the Treasury a way to avoid spending a disproportionate amount of time on protracted annual budget negotiations for sums that were small when compared to its overall commitments. A key tenet of the policy communities literature is that policy issues are portrayed as dull affairs to limit public interest and participation. If an issue can be successfully presented as a ‘technical’ issue for experts (for a problem which has largely been solved), power can be exercised behind the scenes by a small number of participants (Baumgartner and Jones, 1993; Jordan and Maloney, 1997). In this sense the Barnett formula represents a successful attempt by decision-makers in Scotland and the UK to keep the big and potentially most contentious questions of funding off the political agenda. Barnett ‘solved’ the problem of Scottish advantage without provoking the type of reaction that would fuel calls for constitutional change (this was certainly a requirement in the run-up to the 1979 referendum). The annual budget rounds then became almost automatic, with the only scope for negotiation around the ‘technical’ issue of Barnett consequentials.[9] As a result, each side has tended to avoid reforms since a very clear sense of winning and losing would result from any deviation from the status quo. This was helped considerably during the 1999-2007 period by significant rises in UK and Scottish public expenditure. The types of disagreements on the adequacy of the funding settlement that we are now witnessing between the UK and Scottish Governments did not arise. These factors help explain why fundamental issues of territorial finance only tended to arise when linked – in the eyes of actors and venues which are not normally involved – to other events such as the election of a nationalist party just before the rise of a Scottish Prime Minister.

The extensive use of Sewel motions was also criticised, particularly during the 2003-7 session of the Scottish Parliament.[10] The procedure was created in anticipation of a small number of instances in which the UK government would legislate in devolved areas. The Memorandum of Understanding makes clear that Westminster retains the authority to legislate across the UK, but the Government will follow the convention to, ‘not normally legislate with regard to devolved matters except with the agreement of the devolved legislature’ (UK Government et al., 2001: 8). The Sewel motion is therefore passed in the Scottish Parliament to formally express this agreement. For the UK and Scottish executives the Sewel motion became a convenient process in which to minimise the need for lengthy negotiations to coordinate separate legislation when the boundaries between reserved and devolved responsibilities were unclear and/ or when a UK approach was necessary to maintain consistency of standards (and when the issues formed a small part of a much larger bill). Instead, the UK government legislated on Scotland’s behalf and, when appropriate, devolved the day-to-day responsibility for policy to Scottish ministers (executive devolution is the power to implement and shape public policy which has been routinely given to Scottish ministers by the UK government before and after 1999; it does not represent a transfer of powers to the Scottish Parliament). In many cases, the issues were innocuous (referring, for example, to the pension arrangements for international emergency service workers) and/ or commanded cross-party support (the Compensation Bill to make compensation claims for asbestosis was passed for expediency). Yet, there were also instances of political cowardice (with the Scottish Executive apparently keen to remove issues such as civil partnerships to another venue), reinforcing opposition party claims that Westminster was taking back the powers granted following devolution, that Scottish ministers were dodging their responsibilities, that the Scottish Parliament was marginalised from issues of IGR and that, therefore, formal contact on Westminster legislation affecting Scotland should involve a relationship between legislatures as well as executives (Winetrobe, 2005; Page and Batey, 2002).

The overall lack of formality in IGR was also criticised by the House of Lords Select Committee on the Constitution (2002). Since most contact between ministers and parties was by email, telephone or ‘quick words when people meet socially’ it was not recorded in the same way as formal minuted meetings. The report suggests that such informality depends on the ‘fundamental goodwill of each administration toward the others’. However, if the importance of the JMC was not made clear from the start, this may store up problems when Scotland and the UK do not share the same party of government (or at least, as Jack McConnell discusses, when those in key posts no longer know each other – Commission on Scottish Devolution, 2008b: 14). Giving the example of the foot-and-mouth disease crisis in 2001, it argues that formal IGR mechanisms have not worked well when called upon so far and that informal means cannot be relied upon in the future: ‘Devolved administrations may be more conscious of their distinct interests in future, or less willing to help the UK Government resolve its own problems . . . we wish to ensure that good and effective relations between governments can continue even if the present level of goodwill should decline’.

In such scenarios, the civil service may be seen as a saving grace; as a way to ensure that longer term relationships are maintained. Yet, the evidence for this is less impressive over time. To some extent a faith in the central role of the civil service was based on issues not related directly to IGR. For example, the need for mobility between Edinburgh and London was ‘a decisive argument in the decision to keep a unified civil service (Keating and Cairney, 2006: 53). Not only was this mobility exaggerated (70% of senior civil servants in Scotland have not enjoyed a spell working in a Whitehall department – 2006: 55), but also its effect on the socialisation of civil servants going back to Scotland is unclear. Perhaps some evidence can be found in the idea of a Whitehall club in which civil servants in Scotland appreciated being invited to meetings or feared being excluded from them: ‘the Permanent Secretary and other staff made a point of travelling to London to occupy visibly the place that was left on offer at meetings of their Whitehall counterparts’ (Parry and Jones, 2000: 63).[11] Yet, this desire to contribute to UK policy and maintain (or, more likely over time, build) personal networks has been undermined by significant Whitehall ignorance of political differences in Scotland[12] and a decreasing willingness among civil servants to trade-off time spent in the UK for time lost developing policy in Scotland. This is particularly the case in departments such as health and education where policy divergence suggests that the UK and Scottish agendas are unlikely to converge. The evidence from the Scottish Government’s Permanent
Secretary John Elvidge suggests that the informal contacts between civil servants in Scotland and England had already diminished before the SNP took office. Although the SNP’s handling of a high profile disagreement on foot-and-mouth compensation in 2007 was said to have undermined the UK government’s willingness to engage informally through the civil service network, this would be, ‘breaking quite a slender thread’ (see McGarvey and Cairney, 2008: 131).

Such issues of secrecy, marginalisation and agenda-setting to be found in the ‘positive’ reasons for informal IGR combine with problems associated with ‘negative’ reasons based on an asymmetry of power. The UK is asymmetrical in two senses – first because devolution was extended to a relatively small share of the population, with Scotland (8.6%), Wales (4.9%) and Northern Ireland (2.9%) accounting for 16.4%; and, second, because the balance of power is tipped towards UK policy departments dealing predominantly with the English population. As Keating (2005: 120) suggests, the centre is faced with a small set of devolved governments which do not match the powers of federated or devolved authorities in other countries such as Germany, Spain, Belgium or Canada. Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are not part of a collection of powerful regions and the UK does not have a ‘supreme constitution’ guaranteeing a level of autonomy for devolved governments (Watts, 2007).

This has two main effects. First, the devolved governments do not have a mechanism with which to oblige the UK government to engage and consult and there has been a tendency for UK ministers to disengage from the IGR process. The lack of JMC meetings during a Labour-led Government was: ‘a clear indicator that devolution is no longer a prime concern of the Prime Minister and other politicians’ (Trench, 2004: 515–6). Moreover, civil servants in Whitehall often forget about Scotland and neglect to consult, then make statements on UK policy without a Scottish qualification or opt-out (Keating, 2005: 125; McGarvey and Cairney, 2008: 167). These issues were discussed briefly in the public domain following a leaked report from the Scottish Executive’s EU office (Aron, 2006; SNP, 2006). The main finding is that, although the best way for the Scottish Executive to influence Europe is through Whitehall, its success varies. Any success depends on a disproportionate amount of work by Scottish officials, since Whitehall departments often ignore or forget to consult their Scottish counterparts. In some cases, Whitehall departments have deliberately excluded their Scottish counterparts from the process, while in most cases the problem is that the Executive is not consulted at a stage early enough to influence the direction of policy. Direct Scottish Executive contact with EU institutions (the Commission, Parliament and Council of Ministers) is also limited and often discouraged by Whitehall departments. There is also a feeling that, since devolution, ministers have lost some of their clout and there is now no equivalent to the single Scottish Secretary being the figurehead for Scotland and banging the drum in Cabinet.

Second, when the two executives do interact, Scottish actors are reluctant to challenge the authority of the UK. For example, Page and Batey (2002: 513) suggest that the UK government drove the agenda for policy coordination. Most Sewel motions came from UK departments after the legislative slot had been secured, with Scottish ministers ‘effectively forced to agree to Westminster legislation in the devolved areas’ given the uncertainty over devolved government powers and the prospect of the UK government referring the issue to the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council (Page, 2002). Further, in high profile issues of disputes – such as free personal care for older people and Hepatitis C compensation – the Scottish Executive has been reluctant to ‘rock the boat’ and instead accepted UK ‘victories’ to maintain its good relationship with Whitehall (Trench, 2004).

The one-sided effect of asymmetry may be overplayed in the literature because: the imbalance of the Sewel relationship may be exaggerated (since the process conferred significant benefits on the Scottish Executive); a focus on a very small number of disputes exaggerates their overall importance; the Scottish Executive benefited in other ways (particularly financial) by not pursuing the free personal care issue; and, UK neglect allows considerable Scottish ministerial discretion and the ability to ‘create policy space’ by reframing policy issues as a way to ‘shift venues’ and justify legislating in reserved areas (although this was used rarely) (Cairney, 2006; 2007; McGarvey and Cairney, 2008). Yet, even if we could demonstrate that the Scottish Executive ‘punched above its weight’, it is more difficult to argue that this justifies a type of IGR in which the executives involved have more to gain from the relationship than those they represent and are accountable to.

2007: what factors produced muted rather than problematic IGR?
The irony may be that one of the reasons the SNP did not spark off a new explosive era of IGR is that the Scottish Government frequently has almost as much to gain from the same kinds of relationships fostered by the Scottish Executive (keen, in Alex Salmond’s words, not to be seen arguing with its big brother – see McGarvey and Cairney, 2008: 162). In many cases the ‘logic’ of informal IGR has direct parallels to the ‘logic of consultation’ between interest groups and government. As Jordan and Maloney (1997) argue, the policy community-like relationships between groups and government are pervasive as a ‘consequence of policy making requirements’. Governments and groups trade access and influence for information and advice; this ‘logic of policymaking … acts as a drive towards … stable, regulated predictable relations’. The logic of ‘bureaucratic accommodation’ refers to the benefits of reaching a consensus (or at least practical understanding) with interest groups rather than imposing decisions. Although a ‘majoritarian’ system associated with ‘top-down’ policymaking, the UK shares a common style with a range of political systems, based on the need of civil servants to gather information from interest groups and legitimise decisions through consultation. This need is strong since it encourages group ownership of policy and maximises governmental knowledge of possible problems. Further, the size of the state and scope for ‘overload’ necessitates breaking policy down into more manageable sectors and sub-sectors that are less subject to top-down control (see Cairney, 2008a). Even during periods of political conflict, this logic ‘tends to reassert itself and policy community-type features can emerge in the context of the conflict. On many occasions the resolution of high profile controversies requires disaggregation into a series of less contentious manageable facets that are processable within policy community arrangements’ (Jordan and Maloney, 1997).

The lesson to be drawn from such relationships is that few governments are willing or able to bear the cost of continuous top-down policymaking, even if their political structures appear to give them a particular advantage in this regard. Therefore, first, a top-down approach to IGR is no more likely than a top-down approach to consultation. Second, although there may be instances of high profile disagreements, there is a tendency for this charged atmosphere to give way to a more humdrum, day-to-day relationship as different actors work through the details. In this context, our research question refers to the extent to which the SNP Government would accept the relationship in the same way as its predecessor. Again, we can draw parallels with the decisions by interest groups to engage in insider or outsider strategies. Treated as a radical group, the SNP leadership’s motives may revolve, ‘around one central point: how many recruits will this bring into the organization?’ (Alinsky, 1971: 113, cited by Jordan in correspondence). Specifically, ministers may be driven by the pay-offs associated with standing up for Scotland’s interests and engaging in (and publicising) disputes even if there is no hope of winning them. Indeed, the link between actions and recruitment may be stronger for parties.

Yet, the experience to date suggests that the SNP has been willing to adopt an insider strategy which tends to include an acceptance of the ‘rules of the game’, or a willingness to engage in self-regulating activities (the value of which the party rank-and-file may not appreciate) in the short term to allow it to benefit in the long-term. The best example to date may be the SNP’s attitude to negotiations with the UK over EU policy formulation. As Johnston (2007) argues, Scottish ministers have not only pushed for the extended use of the JMC Europe (still the only JMC to meet on a regular basis), but have also agreed to uphold a principle that they criticised in opposition: ‘the devolved administrations are involved in the formulation of the United Kingdom line but on the basis that they may not disclose to anyone – including their own legislature or assembly – what disagreements they have had with the UK Government over the formulation of that line.’ This has led to the rather shameless defence of the process by Linda Fabiani as (until February 2009) Minister for Europe, External Affairs and Culture, when in her former guise as convenor of the Scottish Parliament’s European and External Relations committee she was one of its harshest critics.[13] Further, Scottish Justice Minister Kenny MacAskill is now keen to promote the idea of piloting an airgun licensing scheme in Scotland as part of an overall UK strategy (and members of the Scottish Government’s political and civil service staff are engaged in UK discussions on a fairly pragmatic basis). This is a far cry from the SNP stance in opposition, critical of Jack McConnell’s attempts to influence the UK informally and promising to lobby for Scottish control of the issue (Cairney, 2008b; McGarvey and Cairney, 2008: 163). These examples supplement the more ad hoc and pragmatic links between executives during crises (such as the terrorist attack on Glasgow airport, the moves to address a fuel crisis caused by strikes at the BP Grangemouth oil refinery and coordination of responses to tackle the foot-and-mouth outbreak in England – Trench, 2007).

Similarly, the early experience of Sewel motions suggests that there is a logic to the expediency and convenience that the process offers for fairly innocuous policy issues, or for a legislative process which results in more executive devolution. Since May 2007, the SNP Government has approved proportionally fewer (10 in 22 months) and has sought, when possible, to promote Scottish parliamentary measures instead. However, we have not witnessed the type of sea change we might have expected from a party which, in opposition, presented principled stances against the process. Indeed, Labour MSP George Foulkes could not resist highlighting the SNP’s use of Sewel motions as a result: ‘It is an interesting paradox that there have been more bills at Westminster affecting Scotland in the current session than there are bills here’ (Scottish Parliament Official Report, 20.2.08 c.6129). Similarly, Johann Lamont (Labour) was keen to remind Parliament about the SNP’s opposition to the use of Sewel motions when in opposition: ‘On numerous occasions in the past, SNP members voted against entirely rational and logical LCMs on the basis that it was a point of principle for them to do so’ (Scottish Parliament Official Report 20.2.08 c. 7140). Similar party-political points about the SNP handing powers back to Westminster (a classic argument used by the SNP when in opposition) prompted Communities and Sport Minister Stewart Maxwell to make a remark which could have been said by any Labour/Liberal Democrat minister from 1999-2007:

It is suggested that the LCM impacts on the Scottish Parliament’s legislative competence or is tantamount to our handing back powers to Westminster. Let me be clear: only through changes to the reservations in the Scotland Act 1998 can powers be handed back to Westminster or the legislative competence of our Parliament altered. Individual motions, such as the one that we are discussing, represent no more than a one-off agreement by the Scottish Parliament for Westminster to legislate on our behalf on a specific aspect of a devolved matter (Scottish Parliament Official Report 19.3.08 c.7106-7).

The third aspect of muted IGR results from minority government: many potential intergovernmental issues are played out within Scotland without necessarily reaching a decision-making point at the UK level. For example, although the SNP Government may relish a debate with the UK government over its plans for a local income tax to replace the council tax (as with the issue of free personal care, the policy change will trigger a loss of UK social security benefits to Scottish residents without the prospect of a sympathetic response from the UK government), it does not have enough MSPs or opposition party support to pass the legislation in its current form. Similarly, although the Scottish Government was highly critical of its budget settlement in 2007, the Treasury’s response was rather muted (merely suggesting, in response, that a prudent government could work with a settlement representing more than double the amount given to the first Scottish Executive). Much of this debate was played out in the Scottish Parliament as Scottish ministers attempted to deflect opposition criticism and justify the incomplete delivery of manifesto commitments (such as the abolition of student debt). Although it may be a cliché to refer to Putnam’s (1988) model of two-level games, there is a clear sense in which the Scottish Government has at least one eye on its domestic audience when reacting to decisions made in the UK (or in which the UK government can use its position to help Scottish Labour[14]).

The lack of a Scottish Government ability to innovate (with legislation) has the potential to cause an imbalance of conflict towards instances in which the Scottish Government can obstruct UK policies. The main example for the future is likely to be nuclear power. While the issue of energy is a reserved matter, the Scottish Government has final responsibility for planning decisions and has signalled a willingness to refuse planning permission for any new nuclear power plant. Yet, the boundaries between devolved and reserved in this area have never been tested, and the Scottish Government’s power has never been established. Indeed, the line by the previous Scottish Executive was that it could make decisions on nuclear power under the executive devolution granted by the UK government (Cairney, 2006: 441). In either case it is likely that, if the governments come to blows, the ‘purpose test’ will be applied by the UK government to establish the primary aim of policy. The test suggests that the UK government has the responsibility. Yet, it is still possible to envisage two rather different but realistic scenarios, each based on the willingness of the UK government to assert its authority. The first is that it will amend the Scotland Act 1998 to clarify its responsibilities (perhaps as a response to a Calman Commission recommendation), rather than engage in a more uncertain court-based process which takes the matter out of its own hands. The second is that the matter becomes a commercial rather than governmental decision, with companies such as EDF deciding to pursue new nuclear plant production only in England (at least until the next Scottish election). Following the UK government’s apparent decision (in its White Paper) to accept the Scottish veto, the latter currently seems the most likely (Trench, 2008b).

Finally, IGR has been rather muted because the fundamental bone of contention between the SNP and Labour governments – constitutional change – has not yet come to a head. Instead, the SNP has initiated a ‘national conversation’ with the Scottish population, in part as a means to keep the issue on the national agenda but put off a decision until the SNP’s preferred 2010 referendum. Further, again, most debates about the referendum process itself are likely to be played out in the Scottish Parliament, with the SNP needing the support of at least two other parties to pass a referendum bill. Although the process took on a Scottish-UK dimension when Gordon Brown failed to support former Scottish Labour leader Wendy Alexander’s attempt to ‘call the SNP’s bluff’ and push for an early referendum on independence, this became primarily an internal party, rather than intergovernmental, matter. Meanwhile, the UK government is supporting the Commission on Scottish Devolution led by Professor Kenneth Calman. The Calman Commission is a curious body ostensibly serving the interests of two clients: the Labour, Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties in Scotland[15] (who passed a motion in the Scottish Parliament supporting its set-up) and the UK government. While its membership is from the great and good in Scotland, it is serviced by UK government departments (see Jeffery, 2009).

Until fairly recently both processes have given the impression of a need to kill time without any particular interaction with each other. The Calman Commission has no remit to discuss independence. Further, although in its first (interim) report it raises the issue of nuclear power, there are no firm conclusions (perhaps in part because Scottish Labour MPs and MSPs do not yet agree on the issue), while most of the other issues are discussed in terms of the prospect of further devolution (which, if the transfer of the Scottish rail network is a guide, would have a fairly technical IGR dimension). There may be some change to the SNP’s attitude to Calman following its deal with the Liberal Democrats to pass the annual budget (Scottish Liberal Democrats, 2009). Yet, a submission by the Scottish Government calling for greater borrowing powers to an ad hoc body serviced by the UK government is a far cry from a serious intergovernmental relationship.

Conclusion: What does this tell us about the need to reform IGR?
The lessons from 1999-2007 are that informal IGR and the automatic continuation of the Barnett formula excludes most participants, while the Sewel process marginalises parliaments. There was an overall lack of transparency and accountability for what is already a fairly secret area of government. The civil service relationship was also not as strong as widely imagined. This suggests that the Scottish-UK relationship was ill equipped for a major crisis or a change of party in government. The arrangements may also have contributed to the effect of an asymmetry of power between UK and devolved executives, with the latter unable to fall back on (or unwilling to invoke) formal mechanisms when informal channels broke down. However, this is by no means clear and it prompts us to consider just how much we could reasonably expect the Scottish Executive to benefit from its relationship with the UK. From the standpoint of an equivalent English region, Scotland may seem like it is punching above its weight and benefiting from side deals even when it appears to lose disputes.

As is the case with most reactive or incremental (rather than anticipatory) governments, the system of IGR has not shown signs of change until a change of circumstances. Thus, the election of the SNP has forced the issue of IGR higher on the political agenda, raising the prospect of an independent civil service (or at least a civil service which is increasingly operating in relative isolation) and, by the very nature of the new relationship, necessitating a higher degree of formality and planning between elected representatives of governments. Yet, the effect has largely been piecemeal, with high profile SNP calls for the reinstatement (or merely ‘instatement’) of the value of the JMC meetings having, at best, an uncertain effect. The UK Labour party has largely maintained its links in Scotland through Scottish Labour and it clearly takes more than SNP criticism to change its attitude to formal mechanisms. Whitehall departments have also shown a continuing ability to forget to consult the Scottish Government (Trench, 2008b: 56). Therefore, informal, ad hoc and often unreliable relationships between ministers and civil servants in each executive are still the norm.

While the need for an overall review of IGR arrangements seems appropriate, the underlying assumption is often that we can separate the technical from the political (or, perhaps as academics, rise above the latter). Yet, it is difficult to gauge how possible and effective this would ever be. There are clear parallels with financial frameworks. For example, as the Calman Commission has so far suggested, any change to Scotland’s funding system will be a political rather than a technical decision because the value of each choice depends on the weights we place on a range of often conflicting requirements (such as the value of territorial fiscal autonomy versus the scope for redistribution). Similarly, the history of Barnett represents a classic example of the need to avoid an approach based on the assumption of ‘comprehensive rationality’. The Treasury needs assessment experience shows us that need is largely a political concept, with the measures and weights used unlikely to gather cross-party of cross-government support. While most may agree that Scotland enjoys and advantage over and above its ‘need’ for higher public expenditure, there has yet to be a process that will ensure satisfactory outcomes for all concerned.

With IGR, the lesson of incrementalism (in both a descriptive and prescriptive sense) is that with any change there will be winners and losers. As Keating suggests, moves to coordinate policy at the UK level may provoke a sense of British citizenship at the expense of Scottish, moves to address the spillover effects of one territory on another will restrict the autonomy of that territory, while the use of the JMC will lead to a potentially disproportionate power for the devolved territories or unilateral decision-making by the UK government. Further, even if formal intergovernmental mechanisms become more of a regular feature, we may still find that policymakers are reluctant to engage and, instead, find other arenas in which to resolve issues. Perhaps ironically, a more serious driver for engagement may come from the election of a Conservative government in the UK (on the back of English votes and minimal Scottish representation). The policy communities literature has long demonstrated that the need to appear legitimate in the eyes of those they govern is a strong driver for unelected decision makers. Recent remarks by David Cameron (2009) suggest that the advent of a new ‘democratic deficit’ may drive the UK government to engage more than a Labour government which still feels it has considerable legitimacy in Scotland.

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Annex 1. Examples of Issues over Reserved/ Devolved Boundaries 1999-2008
Issue and boundary
Ban on Smoking in Public Places – public health/ health and safety
The Scottish Executive legislation contradicted a concordat with the Health and Safety Executive, while regulations infringed on employment law
The measures were supported by the UK’s Department of Health, while the Scottish Executive presented public health during the ‘purpose test’
Hepatitis C – the NHS/ compensation for injury and illness
The Scottish Executive’s plans for a compensation scheme for NHS patients infected by blood transfusions infringed on
The Scottish decision was delayed until a UK-wide scheme was introduced
International Aid – reserved, but with potential for executive decvolution
Scottish Executive aid work in Malawi presented as an extension of UK policy aims
The UK government supported the Scottish initiatives
Asylum Seeking, Detention, Dawn Raids – asylum policy is reserved (with some doubt about the health and education of refugees detained in Scotland); devolved police forces implementing reserved policy
Civil society protests put pressure on the Scottish Executive to become involved in direct Home Office/ local authority relationships
Attempts by the Scottish Government to secure
a ‘protocol’ on minimum standards of welfare and police conduct during
this process had uncertain success. A UK decision to reform detention policy is imminent.
Free Personal Care – local authority provision of care/ social security benefits
Scottish Executive funding of personal care removes entitlement to UK Attendance Allowance benefit
A classic fudge. Scottish ministers dropped their claim, apparently in exchange for favourable interest charges on loans for council housing.
Student Fees – higher education/ revenue collection
The Cubie report recommended fee repayment of reduced fees only when a graduate reached a £25000 per annum wage, but the threshold for repayments of loans (administered by the Inland Revenue) is set by the UK government.
The Scottish Executive accepted the UK threshold, which was then raised from £10000 to £15000 when tuition fees were introduced in England. The Scottish Government has now abolished student fees in Scotland.
Nuclear Power – planning/ energy
The Scottish Government has threatened to refuse planning permission to new nuclear power stations in Scotland.
No resolution.
Gun Crime – reserved
Both Scottish Executive and Scottish Government have requested different measures in Scotland.
No resolution.
Trident – reserved
The Scottish Parliament passed a motion in 2007 to object to the stationing of Trident missile bases in Scotland.
No resolution.
Following the Scottish Parliament 2007 elections fiasco, the Scottish Government called for responsibility to be transferred to the Scottish Parliament.
This has so far been rejected by the UK government.

[1] 1999 result: Labour 56, SNP 35, Conservative 18, Liberal Democrat 17, Other 3
2003 result: Labour 50, SNP 27, Conservative 18, Liberal Democrat 17, Other 17
2007 result: SNP 47, Labour 46, Conservative 17, Liberal Democrat 16, Other 3 (Green 2, Margo MacDonald 1). The Conservatives were reduced to 16 when Alex Fergusson was appointed as Presiding Officer
[2] Including Alistair Darling as the new Chancellor. Part of the reason for Scottish seniority in the Parliamentary Labour Party ranks is that, when Labour suffered large electoral defeats in the 1980s their level of Scottish electoral success remained high.
[3] Scottish MPs can no longer vote on devolved issues such as health and education policy in Scotland. However, they can still vote on those same issues affecting England (i.e. out-with their own constituency and country), while English MPs cannot return the favour since these issues are devolved to the Scottish Parliament.
[4] Named after Joel Barnett MP, Chief Secretary to the Treasury from 1974–79 (i.e. around the time the formula was introduced). It covers most of the Scottish budget and approximately 60% of public expenditure in Scotland (the rest is spent directly by Whitehall departments). The system is based on an initial funding settlement supplemented by the Barnett formula which adjusts the Scottish settlement in line with changes to the English budget. While the former re-established Scotland’s higher per capita spending, the latter is based on Scotland’s share of the UK population rather than the UK budget.
[5] The profile of Scottish MPs has also been limited with, for example, fewer Labour MPs as willing as their Welsh counterparts to become involved publicly in debates over Scotland’s constitutional future.
[6] Although some related committees, particularly on Europe, met more frequently.
[7] Salmond’s stance began almost immediately following the SNP’s election, with Salmond criticising Blair for (allegedly) negotiating with Libya over the release of the Lockerbie bomber. Although Salmond has less criticism for Brown, the pair does not meet regularly. See H. MacDonell 6.2.08 ‘Crisis – but First Minister and Brown haven’t met for a year’ The Scotsman–
[8] In the summer of 2007 the Scottish edition of the Sun ran a feature outlining a range of potential disputes (including nuclear power, defence, the local income tax and free personal care) alongside Alex Salmond and an explosion in the background.
[9] Barnett consequentials are sums received (or lost) from the UK government when levels of spending in England change. The size of the consequentials are based on three estimates: Scotland’s share of the UK population; the change in levels of spending of Whitehall departments; and the level of comparability in specific programmes (if an issue such as health is fully devolved then it is 100% comparable). There is considerable room for negotiation on the level of devolution in some areas (such as transport, trade and industry) and hence the level of comparability.
[10] 79 motions passed from 1999–2007 (compared to 103 Executive bills). From 1999–2003, 20 of 41 (49%) were opposed by the SNP, rising to 25 of 38 (66%) from 2003–07 opposed by SNP, Green and/ or SSP MSPs.
[11] See also Sir Muir Russell (Commission on Scottish Devolution, 2008a: 7): “They [at the Permanent Secretary meetings in London] made us feel we were still part of a team, that colleagues in Whitehall departments had some responsibility for what we did. It was a network to raise issues. It meant that they cared and were interested. I always felt very much a part of it, not patronised and not eased out; taken seriously. It probably helped that I’d been doing that sort of thing for a long time anyway”.
[12] As Russell demonstrates with the example of Universities UK (Commission on Scottish Devolution, 2008a: 3), this sense of London-centric UK disengagement from devolution is also felt by devolved arms of UK groups (see also Keating, 2005).
[13] Bringing to mind an episode of Yes Minister in which Hacker attempts to reject a petition he began as an MP in opposition.
[14] Although with IGR we often have to rely on anecdotal evidence, such as the story that Secretary of State Jim Murphy encouraged foreign office minister Lord Malloch-Brown not to take Linda Fabiani’s call in relation to the Mumbai massacre, in part as a way to put pressure on the SNP in the Scottish Parliament –
[15] Which enjoy different relationships with their respective parties. The leader of each Scottish party leads the Scottish parliamentary party. However, while the Liberal Democrat Party is federal and the Scottish leader controls (as far as is practical) the Scottish party, the Scottish branches of the Labour and Conservative parties enjoy less overall freedom. The UK Labour party (or at least its leadership) has also shown a willingness to become involved in the decisions and conduct of the Scottish leader. Recent practical examples in opposition include the apparent ban on Conservative MSPs from making a formal contribution to the Calman Commisison (for fear of embarrassing Conservative leader David Cameron, or tying his hands when elected Prime Minister) and the fall-out from Gordon Brown’s non-support of Wendy Alexander’s attempt to ‘call the SNP’s bluff’ and push for an early referendum on independence.

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The Scottish National Party and Minority Government in Scotland

This is a paper that I presented to the Study of Parliament Group in 2009. The next draft will see Professor David Arter and I extend the comparisons to Nordic countries.

Paul Cairney, University of Aberdeen
Study of Parliament Group 22 April 2009

The Scottish National Party and Minority Government in Scotland

The formation of a minority SNP government produced the potential for a radically different form of politics in Scotland. This paper explores the difference that minority government makes. First, it examines the extent to which minority government moves Scottish politics even further from the Westminster traditions that the ‘architects of devolution’ sought to depart from. Second, it examines the extent to which it moves Scotland towards a governing style most likely to be found in the Scandinavian democracies[i]. It suggests that the first eight years of devolution were marked by a form of majoritarian government that would not seem out of place in the UK. This, combined with the inheritance of a partisan, government-versus-opposition, culture from Westminster suggests that ‘new Scottish Politics’ did not depart from ‘Old Westminster’ in the way that many expected. Therefore, the advent of minority government was accompanied by renewed calls for new politics in the spirit originally envisaged, and by renewed interest in comparisons with countries displaying a longer tradition of minority government. The early evidence suggests that the SNP was initially reluctant to enter minority government and has, as far as possible, disengaged from the Scottish Parliament. Most opposition parties have also failed to come to terms with their new role. Yet, the set-up has proved surprisingly stable and minority government has the potential to become the norm in Scottish politics.

New Party, New Politics?
The formation of a minority SNP government in 2007 produced the potential for a radically different form of politics in Scotland. Yet, this statement may seem ironic to the ‘architects of devolution’ because ‘new politics’ was supposed to begin in 1999! The use of (mixed member) proportional representation for Scottish Parliament elections suggests that no party will gain overall control. Yet, devolution initially produced the closest thing to majoritarian government: two four-year parliamentary sessions of coalition government formed by the largest party, Scottish Labour, and its junior partner, the Scottish Liberal Democrats. In 1999, Labour won 56 seats and the Liberal Democrats 17, producing a majority of 73 (57%) of 129 seats (minus one seat held by Liberal Democrat Presiding Officer David Steel). This was followed in 2003 by a reduced but still significant majority of 67 (52%) produced by Labour’s 50 and the Liberal Democrats’ 17 (the Presiding Officer role was taken on by the SNP’s George Reid). Crucially, the Scottish Executive[ii] coalition also commanded a majority in every Scottish Parliament committee. This control of the parliamentary arithmetic, combined with a strong and successful party whip (particularly within Labour), produced a form of majoritarian government that would not seem out of place in the UK.

In 2007 the potential for coalition was not as straightforward. The SNP won 47 seats (from 27 in 2003 and 35 in 1999) compared to Labour’s 46 but, given the nature of the overall result (the Conservatives won 17, Liberal Democrats 16, Green 2 and Margo MacDonald 1) it could not form a majority coalition with one other party. Although there was some scope for cooperation between the SNP and the Greens (based on the same attitude to Scottish independence and an SNP commitment to certain environmental issues), its potential links to the other parties were problematic. Formal coalition between the SNP and Liberal Democrats proved impossible when the latter insisted that the former drop its plans for an independence referendum as a condition of coalition. Further, a (formal) coalition with the Conservatives would be politically damaging in the short term (the Conservatives are still tainted by 18 years of unpopular government in Scotland from 1979-97; the SNP is to a large extent a left-wing social democratic party) and the long term (if the Conservatives win the UK general election in 2010, the SNP may campaign for independence by highlighting the re-emergence of a ‘democratic deficit’ in Scotland).

Therefore, the key point to note is that the SNP was initially reluctant, but effectively obliged, to go it alone and form a single party minority. This suggests that the renewed rhetoric on the scope for ‘new politics’ that minority government affords was only spoken loudly after the options for coalition had been exhausted and rejected. The SNP subsequently made a ‘virtue out of necessity’ (Mitchell, 2008: 79) but was uncertain about its ability to make legislative progress (or at least present an image of governing competence) and was not confident about its ability, or the ability of any minority government, to stay in office for the four-year period. This reflects two main factors.

First, it supports a strong ‘conventional view’ of minority government that ‘associates it with instability, inefficiency, incoherence and a lack of accountability’ (Mitchell, 2008: 73; in Scotland there is also the occasional charge, regarding the SNP’s independence agenda, that minority government is unrepresentative – McIver and Gay, 2008). This is particularly true in the UK with very limited, unhappy experience of minority Westminster government in the late 1970s. For Mitchell (2008: 74) this suggests that the perception is ‘historically bounded’ because minority government coincided with a traumatic period of Labour rule. Yet, there is also more recent and less traumatic experience of minority government in Wales in 2005 following the withdrawal of Labour’s Peter Law – for both health (Law was diagnosed with brain tumour) and political reasons (Law objected to all-women shortlists) – that reduced Labour’s number from 30 to 29 of 60 AMs (Seaton and Osmond, 2005: 8-9). This experience also accentuated the negative picture of minority government, producing a willingness in the opposition parties to ‘cooperate in wounding Labour’ by delaying the Assembly budget for months (Wyn Jones and Scully, 2006) and overturning Welsh Assembly Government policy on tuition fees (Cairney, 2009a) rather than to cooperate in a positive way. The picture of instability caused by inevitable partisanship continued following the election results in 2007 and a process of ‘disarray’ (Mulholland, 2007) before Labour chose to form a historic coalition majority with Plaid Cymru rather than go it alone (although it was sold in many quarters as a bold move to provide further policy distance from New Labour in London). The common factor in both cases is that minority government resulted from events outside of the government’s control and the main parties have striven to avoid the possibility ever since. No government in the UK or devolved territories has gone down this route through choice.[iii]

Second, there is a strong, longstanding culture or set of assumptions held by most parties in Scotland in favour of the value that a majority provides. Minority equates with instability not opportunity; potential opposition and disarray, not opportunities for new politics. Although the ideas associated with a new style of politics and policymaking (that would arguably make minority government desirable as well as possible) were in good currency before devolution, they were rejected in 1999 by a Labour party more likely to favour stability as a basis for its legislative programme, and accepted very reluctantly by a Scottish National Party with little room for manoeuvre. In this light, the two years of minority government have been marked not only by calls (eventually) for the return of new politics, but also by the remarkable turnaround of the image of minority government in Scotland with or without the new politics in evidence (for an ‘insider view’ on this development, see Harvie, 2008).

New Politics Revisited
‘New politics’ became a ‘rallying call for the architects of devolution’ and, as such, a lens through which most evaluations of Scottish political success have been measured ever since (McGarvey and Cairney, 2008: 14). It was promoted for two main reasons. First, it became linked to the unsuccessful referendum on Scottish devolution in 1979 followed by a long spell of Conservative government which increased attention to the ‘democratic deficit’ (in which Scotland voted for one party of government, Labour, but received another). The new campaign for devolution took shape following the set-up of the Scottish Constitutional Convention (SCC) – a collection of political parties (primarily Labour, Liberal Democrat and Green), the Scottish Trade Union Congress, Scottish Council for Voluntary Organizations, religious leaders, local authorities and civic organizations – in 1989 (2008: 34). The SCC sought to reinvigorate elite, media and popular support for devolution by addressing the concerns associated with previous devolution proposals and articulating a new vision of Scottish politics based on narratives of its past. This rhetoric became inextricably linked to dissatisfaction with the democratic deficit and a feeling that devolution could have saved Scotland from the worst excesses of Thatcherism (McCrone and Lewis, 1999: 17). Indeed, the SCC vision was developed at the same time that many of its participants were acting as the unelected opposition to Conservative government rule. Thus, the remote, top-down and unitary UK state was contrasted with a vision of consensus for Scotland based on a narrative of Scotland’s political tradition and longstanding propensity for the diffusion of power, combined with popular and civic participation in politics (Cairney, Halpin and Jordan, 2009). The SCC (1990; 1995) articulated hopes for: ‘participatory democracy in which the Scottish population would seek to influence decisions made in Scotland directly rather than through a ballot box which seemed so remote; pluralist democracy, in which interest and social groups would seek to counter policies ‘unsuitable’ for Scotland at all levels of implementation; and deliberative democracy, in which a separate level of debate about the direction of UK policies implemented in Scotland could take place’ (McGarvey and Cairney, 2008: 244).

Second, it followed a perceived crisis of popular disenchantment with politics, producing the potential for a Scottish Parliament to be seen as yet-another layer of bureaucracy or source of yet-another pool of self-serving politicians with no meaningful link to, or care for, their populations. In both cases, the devolution agenda embodied hopes for a new style of politics far removed from ‘Old Westminster’ as the main source of discredited policymaking. While some attention was paid by the architects of devolution to the ‘consensus democracies’ (and Nordic politics in general), most was devoted to making sure that old politics was left behind.

New politics was therefore based on a range of perceived defects of the UK system, including, primarily, an electoral system that exaggerates government majorities, excludes small parties, concentrates power within government rather than Parliament and its committees, contributes to parliamentary ‘overload’ and encourages adversarialism between government and opposition (2008: 12-3). This concentration of power and ‘winner takes all’ attitude may also extend to the government’s top-down relationship with interest groups (more likely to compete rather than cooperate with each other) and its remoteness from the population that it is supposed to represent (at least according to the new politics rhetoric; see also Lijphart, 1999 and Cairney, 2008a). Thus, new politics referred in part to the selection of a proportional electoral system and all that this produces, including the strong likelihood of coalition, the need for parties to bargain and cooperate and, hopefully, a consequent reduction in partisanship and rise in consensual forms of politics.

To foster a sense of ‘power sharing’ between government, parliament and the public, the parliament was not only set up as a hub for popular participation (including a new public petitions process) but also vested with an unusual range of powers (when compared to other West European legislatures). In particular, while the Consultative Steering Group (a cross-party group with members drawn from the SCC, established by the UK Labour Government and charged with producing the standing orders of the Scottish Parliament) recognised the ‘need for the Executive to govern’, or produce most legislation and make most expenditure decisions, it also envisaged a much stronger parliamentary role (Scottish Office, 1998; McGarvey and Cairney, 2008: 90). It recommended: the fusion of Westminster’s standing and select committee functions, to enable members scrutinising legislation to develop subject based expertise; the ability of select committees to call witnesses and oblige ministers and civil servants to attend; and, the ability to hold agenda-setting inquiries and to initiate legislation if dissatisfied with the government response. Crucially, the select committees were also charged with performing two new roles to ‘front-load’ the legislative process and make up for the fact that, in the absence of the House of Lords, there would be no revising chamber. First, they would have a formal pre-legislative role, charged with making sure that the government consults adequately with its population before presenting legislation to parliament (McGarvey and Cairney, 2008: 91; 104). Second, they would consider both the principles of legislation and specific amendments to bills before they were discussed in plenary.

A feature of the literature on Scottish devolution (see McGarvey and Cairney, 2008; 14-6) has been widespread criticism of the idea of new politics, at least as presented by its most vocal proponents (perhaps suggesting that new politics has become something of a caricature or strawman for these criticisms). It has been described variously as naively optimistic (often with contradictory aims), based on a caricature of UK politics and presenting a misleading rhetoric regarding terms such as ‘consensus’, ‘inclusion’ and ‘civil society’. This produces unrealistic expectations and therefore a skewed lens through which to view the success of new Scottish political practices (Jordan and Stevenson, 2000). The Scottish Parliament also maintained a series of Westminster features despite using it as a ‘negative template’. Critics note that much of the reason for consensual political practices in Scotland in the 1990s were lost when a Conservative government, representing the common enemy and driving force of most collective action, ceased to exist and the referendum on devolution was successful. The role of competitive parties returned to fill the void.

Coalition Government from 1999-2007
The first eight years of devolution proved that new powers and institutions were not effective on their own. Rather, the implementation of new politics also required a cultural change among MSPs and political parties (Cairney, 2006). To a large extent, we know this now because no profound cultural change took place. Rather, we witnessed a curious mix of institutions based in part on the consensual democracies operated by politicians in the Westminster tradition (note that 15 of 129 MSPs in 1999 had previously been MPs – Keating and Cairney, 2006: 52). Although the parties betrayed a limited degree of ideological polarisation, they reproduced a form of government-versus-opposition politics that Westminster parties would be proud of. In particular, the Labour-SNP relationship in the Scottish Parliament reflected a ‘reactionary mentality’ in which ‘some Labour MPs were so paranoid about the Nationalists that any idea emanating from the SNP was immediately rejected because of its source’ (Dennis Canavan MSP in Arter, 2004: 83).[iv] Similarly, the opposition parties were quick to exploit government weaknesses on issues such as ‘Lobbygate’ (when Labour ministers were linked to the ‘cash for access’ row), the cost of the Scottish Parliament building, and Scottish Executive coalition tensions regarding flagship policies such as free personal care and the abolition of student fees (McGarvey and Cairney, 2008: 40; 122; 205; 242).

The Scottish Parliament was primarily driven by parties rather than ‘independent-minded MSPs’ (Mitchell, 2008: 77). Most importantly, the coalition formed between Labour and the Liberal Democrats, while providing “superficial evidence of ‘new politics’” arguably ‘marked the end of the possibility’ of the more meaningful political style envisaged by its architects: ‘a minority single-party Labour cabinet obliged to work in the Scandinavian manner with the opposition parties to get legislation through, would have vested parliament with significant policy influence and constituted ‘new politics’ in a real sense’ (Arter, 2004: 83). Instead, the parties formed a governing majority. This gave Labour the sense of control that they feared would be lost if they were forced to cooperate on a regular basis with the SNP: ‘We have to have a settled programme rather than a programme where we could be ambushed every time’ (Maureen Macmillan, Labour MSP, in Arter, 2004: 83).

The effect of the strong party role was dramatic. The coalition controlled the voting process in both committees and plenary, with Labour demonstrating a particularly strong whip in both parliamentary sessions – caused in part because their MSPs were screened rigorously before their selection (McGarvey and Cairney, 2008: 85; Mitchell, 2008; 77) and because Labour ministers held regular meetings with Labour MSPs before any committee meeting in which a significant vote or decision was likely to take place (although this can occasionally be used to exert committee power – see Cairney, 2007a: 79). There were similalry few instances of Liberal Democrat dissent (and none which threatened the coalition’s Partnership Agreement overall). The parties were also able to dictate which of their members became convenors of committees (although the numbers of convenors are allocated proportionately) and even which MSPs sat on particular committees. As a result, the independent role of committees was undermined as MSPs were subject to committee appointment and then whipped, while committee turnover was too high too allow a meaningful level of MSP subject expertise (McGarvey and Cairney, 2008: 99; Scottish Council Foundation, 2002; Arter, 2003: 31–2). Further, the Scottish Executive presided over a punishing legislative schedule, producing 103 (of 128) bills over 8 years and contributing to a sense in which committees became part of a ‘legislative sausage machine’ rather than powerful bodies able to set the agenda through the inquiry process (Arter, 2002: 105). While there is some evidence of parliamentary influence during the scrutiny of government legislation (Shephard and Cairney, 2005; Cairney, 2006), the Scottish Executive produced and amended the majority of bills (McGarvey and Cairney, 2008: 106).

Overall, the Scottish Parliament and its committees enjoyed neither the resources with which to scrutinise government policy effectively nor the stability or independence necessary to assert their new powers. Further, although members and committees have the ability to initiate legislation, the same rules apply: members are constrained by party affiliation and limited resources, while committees rarely find the time or inclination to legislate. Therefore, after a honeymoon period in the first parliamentary session, the Scottish Parliament produced a level of non-executive legislation comparable in number and scope with Westminster (McGarvey and Cairney, 2008: 103). In short, ‘while the Scottish Parliament’s powers are extensive in comparison to most West European legislatures, it is much more difficult to demonstrate the effects of their powers in relation to the Government in the first two parliamentary sessions’ (2008: 108). The evidence of new politics and the effects of the new institutions were thin on the ground (at least in the context of initial expectations).

Minority Government Since 2007
Therefore, it is understandable that May 2007 was seen by many as a new beginning. However, while newly-elected Presiding Officer Alex Fergusson used his acceptance speech to call for the return of new politics (Scottish Parliament Official Report 14.5.07 col. 13), most commentators did not know what to expect. In broad terms, many of the omens did not look good: there is still a culture of government-versus-opposition and minority government was a necessity rather than a choice. In other words, Scottish politics lacks a factor key to minority government success: a feeling that it is a desirable way to engage in politics, or at least the norm. On the other hand, it is striking how quickly minority government has become the norm in Scotland in the sense that, while the SNP Government is challenged regularly on its governing record, its right to govern is not. There are similar contradictions throughout party politics. Although the SNP rarely voted against Labour policies when in opposition, it was generally critical of them (Mitchell, 2008: 76). Although the new and outgoing First Minsters, Alex Salmond and Jack McConnell, both made positive noises about their new relationship (SPOR 16.5.07 cols. 32-7), it is difficult to ignore the bruising tone of Labour’s election campaign followed by its shock and then apparent unwillingness to accept defeat (Cairney, 2009b).

There is also no accepted way for the parties to gauge the success or failure of the new arrangements. Most importantly, there was a widespread sense from 1999-2007 that too much legislation had been produced and that a new government should slow down (Mitchell, in correspondence; Cairney, 2007b: 83; 2007c: 24). In particular, a feature of the ‘legacy’ reports produced by committees in 2007 was that they were unable to perform their scrutiny and inquiry functions properly because there was too much legislation to consider (McGarvey and Cairney, 2008: 102). This combined with the need for cooperation with other parties before legislation can be passed – or the need to drop some policy plans because they will not be passed – suggested that significantly fewer bills would pass through the Scottish Parliament from 2007 (the SNP also modified its ‘1st 100 days’ commitments considerably). Yet, while this is a welcome development, there is also considerable feeling that the pendulum has swung too far in the opposite direction. Legislative diarrhoea has been replaced by constipation.

Some of this criticism can be explained away by party politics, particularly when voiced by members of the former Scottish Executive parties. For example, the SNP’s first legislative programme was dubbed by opposition parties as ‘legislation lite’ (Cairney, 2007b: 83), while Labour’s business manager, Michael McMahon, recently labelled Alex Salmond as a ‘work-shy First Minister leading a group of idle ministers’ because the Scottish Government had passed seven pieces of legislation in two years (Peterkin, 2009).[v] Such opposition criticism may also seem rich given that few committees have used their newly-granted time effectively, while others have merely exploited the chance to make party political points with short, headline grabbing, inquiries (Cairney, 2008b: 16 discusses Donald Trump; see also 2008c: 17-18; 2008d: 20-1). Yet, not all criticism can be dismissed so easily. In particular, if the strategy of the SNP Government has been to distance itself as far as possible from the Scottish Parliament and pursue its policy aims without recourse to legislation (Cairney, 2007b: 83) then MSPs may have more justification to be concerned.

The ability of the SNP to pursue policy distance from Parliament reflects the consistent imbalance of power regardless of the type of government and party balance. Most of the conditions associated with majority government still apply. Small committee size and MSP turnover still undermine the abilities of committees to scrutinize government policy and the huge gulf in resources remains (Cairney, 2008b: 17). Further, many policy aims (on intergovernmental relations, the civil service, capital finance projects, public service targets) can be pursued without using legislation, while others can be pursued using the legislation that exists. This fact alone may not be enough to provoke opposition parties to ‘go nuclear’ and cooperate to undermine the government. Rather, greater concern has been expressed that the government has deliberately sought to subvert the role of Parliament by ignoring its wishes when expressed through non-binding parliamentary motions (Davidson, 2008). The first such event followed the motion passed by the opposition parties in favour of continued funding for the Edinburgh Airport Rail Link and Edinburgh tram project. Both John Swinney and Alex Salmond were then accused on bending the will of Parliament, with Swinney citing irresolvable problems in EARL and Salmond quoting Donald Dewar to suggest that he was not bound by parliamentary motions (Cairney, 2007c; 22; Mitchell, 2008: 80).

However, SNP whips and business managers have also sought to avoid similar confrontations by negotiating the wording of motions with their counterparts in other parties (Cairney, 2008c: 18; 2009c: 35-6) and acting on many motions (Cairney, 2008b: 21), particularly when deciding to drop plans for a flagship bill introducing a local income tax.[vi] There is also some recent evidence from alcohol policy to suggest that the Scottish Parliament is able to oblige the SNP government to use parliamentary procedures when it would be inappropriate not to do so (Maddox, 2009a). The committees are also increasingly able to find areas of common interest (Cairney, 2008d: 21; 2009c: 37-8). Overall, the more recent experience suggests that many teething troubles have healed. While there is clearly still a culture of partisanship in parliament, this is often restricted to the theatre of First Minister’s Questions and often relates more to governing style rather than minority government per se (see Cairney, 2009c: 30 for the issue of ministers misleading MSPs).

The most significant test so far has been the annual budget bill process, which has perhaps shown the best and worst aspects of minority government. First, the process is more significant than under coalition government when it was rather routine. Yet, there are still similarities: only government ministers may amend the bill, while committees still tend to focus on limited aspects of the budget (reflecting a lack of information and resources with which to conduct effective scrutiny). Second, there have clearly been concessions, although their overall importance is debatable (they do not contradict SNP policy but do force it to make choices; they may represent less than 1% of the overall budget, but the SNP government also has minimal control of the budget beyond the margins). In the first budget, the Conservatives secured a greater commitment to funding new police officers and revisit drugs policy, Margo MacDonald secured special funding status for Edinburgh and the Greens secured a commitment to carbon assessments of spending plans (Cairney, 2008c: 16). In the second, the Conservatives secured a reduction in business rates, Labour secured funding for modern apprenticeships and the Liberal Democrats secured a vague commitment for the SNP to involve Parliament more in budget planning and engage with the Calman Commission on fiscal autonomy (the Greens lost a larger commitment to fund home insulation when their votes were no longer required). Third, most parties have yet to take a consistent negotiating positions. The Conservative party has been the only consistent actor, seeking concessions in exchange for support; the Greens surprised many by voting against the second bill despite securing concessions; and the Liberal Democrats have opposed the bill in both years, only to support the second bill when revised marginally. Labour has been the most confused, abstaining in year one for fear of causing the bill to fall (causing hilarity rather than relief on the SNP front benches), then opposing in year two (on the assumption that the SNP had secured Green support) and contributing unwittingly to the bill’s failure. A similar example of Labour and Liberal Democrat bafflement and miscalculation regarding the effects of its negative role can be found in the failure of the Creative Scotland Bill (Cairney, 2008d: 15).

Finally, the failure of the second budget bill did not deserve the incredible amount of Scottish and UK attention it attracted. Rather, the process eventually showed that the parties could work together very effectively when faced with an apparent crisis, and a new bill (almost identical to the defeated one) was passed the following week. The budget crisis showed that there is little appetite among the opposition parties for an impromptu election, particularly while Alex Salmond remains popular. It is also the most significant example of SNP-Labour cooperation (perhaps to be repeated with alcohol policy – Maddox, 2009b) which may prove crucial to the long term success of minority government (but see also Nelson’s 2009 alternative take on the implications of Scottish budget problems for Westminster).

Lessons From Elsewhere: A Preliminary Assessment
As Mitchell (2008: 81) suggests, there are lessons to be learned from the Danish case. Minority government was initially ineffective after an ‘earthquake’ election in 1973 which not only granted new representation to three parties and re-established two more, but also produced a fragmented and polarised party system (Green-Pedersen, 2001: 57-8). Attempts to form a majority coalition from the non-socialist parties failed, allowing the Danish Social Democrats the chance to form a minority government. This proved ineffective in the short-term because the Social Democrats were the big losers of the 1973 election and did not adapt well to the need for significant concessions required to make effective agreements with other parties. Minority government via the non-socialist bloc in 1980s also fared badly at times, in part because its economic policies were opposed by the Social Democrats and, effectively, there were no other parties to negotiate with (2001: 59). However, from 1994 (following a year of majority coalition government), the Social Democrats began a period of successful coalition minority government, because: (a) it had adjusted to its new role; and (b) it could now negotiate with three different parties to produce different policies, who (c) had more incentive to cooperate than bring the government down (because the alternative for left-wing parties was non-socialist minority government); and (d) could engage in cooperation without undermining their electoral profile (2001: 64-5). Most parties have recognised that minority government is the long-term norm and have adapted accordingly: the ruling minority by making concessions to many parties, and formerly extreme parties adapting to their new policy-influencing rather than oppositional roles.

While this adaptation took over twenty years to materialise in Denmark, there are several reasons to think it could happen quicker in Scotland. First, in contrast to the polarisation of parties in Denmark, the Scottish party system is better characterised, in Sartori’s terms, as a form of ‘moderate pluralism’ (Bennie and Clark, 2003). There are no far right parties, while the far-left Scottish Socialist Party has never enjoyed enough representation to sway a parliamentary vote. Second, there may be fewer fundamental issues to polarise party opinion. Although the issue of independence sets the SNP apart from the three other major parties, the sub-national Scottish Parliament is not responsible for the big economic questions (fiscal and monetary policy; redistribution and benefits), or many other big issues that could produce significant conflict (such as defence policy). Third, the biggest loser, Labour, has had time to prepare and adjust to its new position through eight years of coalition majority government. Although it has yet to find a clear role in opposition (in part because of its complex ties to a UK Labour government), it appears more open to the prospect of its own period of minority government (particularly if Labour loses the UK election in 2010). Finally, the Conservatives (with no real prospect of forming a government) and, to a lesser extent, the Liberal Democrats (keen to ‘rediscover themselves’) appear increasingly comfortable with the idea of influence in opposition. In short, minority government could quickly become the norm in Scottish politics and Scottish parties could adapt relatively easily.[vii]

New politics is in some senses a heavy chain around the neck of Scottish politics, producing unrealistic expectations and therefore skewed evaluations of the success of new political practices. In the absence of such expectations, this paper may have come to different conclusions about the first eight years of coalition government which provided some examples of new parliamentary influence, the ability of committees to be ‘businesslike’ and the ability of Scottish Executive ministers to negotiate and compromise rather than dominate Parliament. Similarly, we should be careful not to judge the early experience of minority government too harshly. Although ‘new politics’ as originally envisaged has not materialised (again), the arrangements have so far proved to be relatively stable, while the SNP has demonstrated an impressive degree of policy coherence and governing competence. Minority government is likely to last for at least the full parliamentary term, while there is a significant chance that it may become the norm.

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[i] This is a very first, short, draft. A larger revised paper (with Professor David Arter) will consider in more detail the extent of learning from the ‘consensual democracies’, the experience of coalition government in other countries and the various styles of minority government that the SNP and its opposition could adopt if they learned from other countries.
[ii] In 2007 the SNP chose the term ‘Scottish Government’ to describe its administration. From 1999-2007, and despite the best efforts of former First Minister Henry McLeish, it was the Scottish Executive. The Scotland Act 1998 refers to the ‘Scottish Administration’. The former UK Government department in Scotland was called the Scottish Office, while the current body which acts as an intermediary between the Scottish Government and UK Government is the Scotland Office.
[iii] Although note that the norm of coalition government, or power-sharing, in the Northern Ireland Assembly is not strictly comparable.
[iv] There is also some suspicion that Labour pursued PR in the Scottish Parliament to ensure that the SNP never achieved a majority.
[v] Including one of the two budget bills passed. Two bills – abolishing bridge tolls and the graduate endowment – came from the SNP manifesto, three were inherited – preparing for the commonwealth games, reforming the judiciary and courts, reforming public health law – and one, on asbestos-related compensation, arose unexpectedly following a House of Lords ruling. The Creative Scotland bill was rejected by the Scottish Parliament, perhaps by accident. There have also been two members’ bills (disabled parking, tartan) and one committee bill (parliamentary pensions).
[vi] Note that this policy, while popular, also met opposition from interest groups and UK government which refused to modify the rules on council tax benefit (amounting to £4-500m) to accommodate the new policy.
[vii] In these terms, the prospects look less clear in the UK. There is no history of effective minority government, no period of adjustment, a marginal role for third parties and a full range of policy issues with which to contest. The House of Lords relationship is an added complication.

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Journal Article Abstracts

This is a list of my academic journal article abstracts, with links to the full text. If you have any difficulty accessing them, please email

The role of ideas in policy transfer: the case of UK smoking bans since devolution
Journal of European Public Policy 16:3 April 2009: 471–488
This article explores the relationship between ideas and interests in policy change by examining tobacco control in each country of the United Kingdom (UK). In all four, the moves towards further prohibition reflected international trends, with evidence of policy transfer and the virus-like spread of ideas which has shifted the way that tobacco is framed. However, there are notable differences in the development of policy in each territory. This reinforces conceptions of transfer in which the importation of policy is mediated by political systems. Differences in policy conditions, institutions and ‘windows of opportunity’ mean that our conclusions on the role and influence of interest groups, institutions and agenda-setting vary by territory, even within a member state. This suggests that a focus on an ‘idea whose time has come’ should be supplemented by careful analysis of the political context in which the idea was articulated and accepted.

The ‘British Policy Style’ and Mental Health: Beyond the Headlines
Forthcoming in Journal of Social Policy, 2009
Recent Mental Health Acts provide evidence of diverging UK1 and Scottish government policy styles. The UK legislative process lasted almost ten years following attempts by ministers to impose decisions and an unprecedented level of sustained opposition from interest groups. In contrast, the consultation process in Scotland was consensual, producing high levels of stakeholder ‘ownership’. This article considers two narratives on the generalisability of this experience. The first suggests that it confirms a ‘majoritarian’ British policy style, based on the centralisation of power afforded by a first-past-the-post electoral system (Lijphart, 1999). Diverging styles are likely because widespread hopes for consensus politics in the devolved territories have been underpinned by proportional representation. The second suggests that most policy-making is consensual, based on the diffusion of power across policy sectors and the ‘logic of consultation’ between governments and interest groups (Jordan and Richardson, 1982). The legislative process deviated temporarily from the ‘normal’ British policy style which is more apparent when we consider mental health policy as a whole. Overall, the evidence points to more than one picture of British styles; it suggests that broad conclusions on ‘majoritarian’ systems must be qualified by detailed empirical investigation.

Forthcoming in Public Policy and Administration, 2009
This article has two aims: to qualify the UK government’s ‘problem’ of governance in a comparison with Scotland and Wales, and to use implementation studies (the ancestors of the new governance literature) to explore policy developments since devolution in Britain. It presents a puzzling finding from extensive interview research: that while we may expect UK government policy to suffer a bigger ‘implementation gap’ based on distinctive governance problems (such as greater service delivery fragmentation and the unintended consequences of top-down policy styles), pressure participants in Scotland and Wales are more likely to report implementation failures. Using a ‘top-down’ framework, it explores three main explanations for this finding: that the size of the implementation gap in England is exaggerated by a focus on particular governance problems; that pressure participant dissatisfaction follows unrealistic expectations in the devolved territories; and that the UK government undermines devolved policy implementation, by retaining control of key policy instruments and setting the agenda on measures of implementation success.

Federalism and Multilevel Governance in Tobacco Policy: The European Union,
United Kingdom, and Devolved Institutions
Bossman Asare, Paul Cairney and Donley T. Studlar

Journal of Public Policy, 29, 1, 79-102, 2009 Most studies of tobacco (control) policy focus on the central level of individual countries. Yet within the member states of the European Union, three levels of government have responsibilities for tobacco control: (1) the EU since 1985; (2) the central governments of member states; and (3) the provinces or devolved level of government. This article examines the role of each in the formation of tobacco policy in the United Kingdom. It compares the theory of regulatory federalism with multilevel governance as explanations for tobacco regulatory policy within the EU. While executive-legislative fusion in the United Kingdom leads to the practice of discretionary federalism, the EU provides mixed support for the theory of regulatory federalism. There is significant policy innovation in the UK and its devolved territories as well as limited policy authority for tobacco control in the EU. Overall, multi-level governance (MLG) may be a superior, albeit incomplete, explanation of tobacco control within the EU and the UK.

Territorial policy communities and devolution in the UK
Michael Keating, Paul Cairney and Eve Hepburn
Cambridge Journal of Regions, Economy and Society 2, 1, 51-66, 2009
Devolution in the UK forms part of a wider process of spatial rescaling across Europe. Little work has been done on its effect on interest articulation. The literature on policy communities treats them as sectoral in scope. We propose the concept of ‘territorial policy communities’ to designate territorially bounded constellations of actors within and across policy sectors, emerging in response to the rescaling of government. Devolution may leave existing systems of interest articulation unchanged, leaving ‘regions without regionalism’; it may confine some groups within territorial boundaries while allowing others the freedom to choose’ between levels of government; or it might promote a general territorialization of interest representation and the emergence of territorial policy communities. The UK’s four models of devolution help test the effects of stronger and weaker forms of devolution on the territorialization of groups.

Has Devolution Changed the ‘British Policy Style’?
British Politics, 3, 3, 350-72, 2008
The term ‘policy style’ simply means the way that governments make and implement policy. Yet, the term ‘British policy style’ may be confusing since it has the potential to relate to British exceptionalism or European convergence. Lijphart’s important contribution identifies the former. It sets up a simple distinction between policy styles in majoritarian and consensual democracies and portrays British policy-making as top down and different from a consensual European approach. In contrast, Richardson identifies a common ‘European policy style’. This suggests that although the political structures of each country vary, they share a ‘standard operating procedure’ based on two factors — an incremental approach to policy and an attempt to reach a consensus with interest groups rather than impose decisions. This article extends these arguments to British politics since devolution. It questions the assumption that policy styles are diverging within Britain. Although consultation in the devolved territories may appear to be more consensual, they are often contrasted with a caricature of the UK process based on
atypical examples of top-down policy-making.While there may be a different ‘feel’ to participation in Scotland and Wales, a similar logic of consultation and bureaucratic accommodation exists in the UK. This suggests that, although devolution has made a difference, a British (or European) policy style can still be identified.

A ‘Multiple Lenses’ Approach to Policy Change: The Case of Tobacco Policy in the UK
British Politics (2007) 2, 1, 45–68
This article examines a period of rapid policy change following decades of stability in UK tobacco. It seeks to account for such a long period of policy stability, to analyse and qualify the extent of change, and to explain change using a ‘multiple lenses’ approach. It compares the explanatory value of policy network models such as punctuated equilibrium and the advocacy coalition framework, with models stressing change from ‘above and below’ such as multi-level governance and policy transfer. A key finding is that the value of these models varies according to the narrative of policy change that we select. The article challenges researchers to be careful about assuming the nature of policy change before embarking on explanation. While the findings of the case study may vary with other policy areas in British politics, the call for clarity and lessons from multiple approaches are widely applicable.

Using Devolution to Set the Agenda? Venue shift and the smoking ban in Scotland
British Journal of Politics and International Relations, 9,1, 73-89, 2007

This article examines the changing agendas on smoking-related issues in Scotland. It charts the methods that groups, governments and MSPs use to frame and pursue or suppress discussion of the prohibition of smoking in public places. The article presents two narratives—one which stresses ‘new politics’ and the ability of groups to influence policy through Scottish Parliamentary procedures, and another which stresses Scottish Executive ‘business as usual’ and presents smoking legislation as a logical progression from early ministerial commitments. A combination of narratives suggests that tobacco legislation in Scotland was by no means part of an inevitable international trend towards prohibition and this article traces the precise conditions or ‘policy windows’ in which decisions take place. The discussion highlights the often unsettled nature of the devolution settlement and the ability of Scottish issues to influence UK agendas.

The Professionalisation of MPs: Refining the ‘Politics-Facilitating’ Explanation
Parliamentary Affairs, 60, 2, 212-33, 2007 PDF
The term ‘politics-facilitating occupation’ is used widely but loosely in the MP recruitment literature. Comparative evidence suggests that this term has a different meaning according to the country, parliament and time period in which it is evoked. Most discussions do not fully explore party differences or distinguish between brokerage and instrumental occupations (used as a means to an elected end). This study analyses differing conceptions of politics-facilitating occupations and assesses their value in tracking change over time in the UK. It then explores innovative ways to identify the importance of the instrumental category. A sole focus on formative occupation oversimplifies the data while the analysis of multiple occupations combined with occupation immediately before election highlights a significance not identified in the literature. While previous studies have highlighted occupations as ‘stepping stones’ to elected office, this is the first to quantify their significance fully.

The Analysis of Scottish Parliament Committees: Beyond Capacity and Structure in Comparing West European Legislatures
European Journal of Political Research, 45, 2, 181-208, 2006
The Scottish Parliament was set up in the hope that strong committees would foster consensus, with an emphasis on reducing partisanship and adopting a pragmatic approach to the detailed study of draft legislation. However, few empirical studies exist that assess the value of the committee process. This flaw is common within the West European literature. The comparative literature on legislative influence is lacking in detailed empirical studies (in part because of the dominant assumption within the literature that parliaments are peripheral to the policy process). Most studies provide impressionistic discussions of the capacities of committees and the constraints to their effectiveness. They do not follow this through with an analysis of committee ‘outputs’. This study of the amendments process in the Scottish Parliament addresses the gap. It uses data from a four-year study of legislative amendments to develop indicators of parliamentary outputs. While the results confirm that the committee system operates at the heart of the ‘new politics’ in Scotland, further such individual country studies are necessary to supplement much broader comparative analyses.

Venue Shift Following Devolution: When Reserved Meets Devolved in Scotland
Regional and Federal Studies, 16, 4, 429-45, 2006
This article examines the means used to address blurred or shifting boundaries between reserved UK and devolved Scottish policy. It outlines the main issues of multi-level governance and intergovernmental relations in Scotland and the initial problems faced in identifying responsibility for policy action. While it suggests that legislative ambiguities are now mainly resolved with the use of ‘Sewel motions’, it highlights cases of Scottish action in reserved areas, including the example of smoking policy in which the Scottish Executive appears to ‘commandeer’ a previously reserved issue. However, most examples of new Scottish influence suggest the need for UK support or minimal UK interest.

A New Elite? Politicians and Civil Servants in Scotland after Devolution
Michael Keating and Paul Cairney
Parliamentary Affairs, 59, 1, 43-59
One aim of devolution in Scotland was to create a political class more representative of the country as a whole. In practice devolution has accelerated trends towards a professional background in Scottish representatives. There has been a significant increase in representativeness by gender; but not by social or occupational background. A professional Scottish political class is in the making. Devolution has not had a significant effect on the civil service in Scotland. Mobility between Edinburgh and London and between the public and private sectors was always low and Scottish civil servants tended to be less likely to gain a private or Oxbridge education. The Scottish Parliament gains in gender representation are not mirrored within the civil service.

The Impact of the Scottish Parliament in Amending Executive Legislation
Mark Shephard and Paul Cairney
Political Studies, 53, 2, 303-19, 2005
This paper provides the first systematic attempt to investigate the legislative impact of the
Scottish Parliament on Executive legislation, by analysing the fate of all amendments to Executive bills from the Parliament’s first session (1999–2003). Initial findings on the success of bill amendments show that the balance of power inclines strongly in favour of ministers. However, when we account for the type of amendment and initial authorship we find evidence that the Parliament (both coalition and opposition MSPs) actually makes more of an impact, particularly in terms of the level of success of substantive amendments to Executive bills. Our findings have implications for much of the current literature that is sceptical of the existence of power sharing between the Executive and the Parliament and within the Parliament.


Sewel Motions in the Scottish Parliament
Paul Cairney and Michael Keating
Scottish Affairs, 47, 115-34, 2004
One of the most controversial aspects of Scottish parliamentary procedure since devolution has been the use of Sewel motions, whereby the Scottish Parliament agrees to Westminster legislating in devolved matters. It was originally envisaged that this procedure would be exceptional, yet in the first session forty one were passed, provoking criticism that Holyrood was dodging its responsibility, becoming a ‘copycat Parliament’ and undermining the principles of devolution. Gerry Hassan (2002) makes much of the fact that the Scottish Parliament was passing almost as many Sewel motions as full Acts. The SNP have also been highly critical of the procedure on principle. They argue that more distinct Scottish solutions should be found for Scottish problems and that, even when Holyrood is adopting the same policy as Westminster, it should pass its own legislation . Academic commentators have criticized the procedure as weakening parliamentary scrutiny (Page 2002) and some lawyers and interest groups complain that the mixture of bits of Westminster and Holyrood legislation makes the statute book untidy and difficult to follow. Scottish ministers, on the other hand, have defended the practice, arguing that the opposition has exaggerated the problem and insisting on a pragmatic approach that saves parliamentary time by not duplicating legislation that is effectively identical on both sides of the border. Further, this debate shows no sign of abatement.

Consensual or Dominant Relationships with Parliament? A Comparison of Administrations and Ministers in Scotland
Mark Shephard and Paul Cairney
Public Administration, 82, 4, 831-56, 2004
The study of administrations and ministers and their relationships with UK Parliaments has tended to focus on the issues of accountability and responsibility, levels of legislative dissent or broad performance indicators supported by anecdotal examples. This paper addresses the lack of systematic analysis of executive/legislative relations in the policy-making process by examining the dominance of different administrations and ministers in the Scottish Parliament. Two questions are addressed. First, is there any variance in the legislative dominance of different administrations in the parliamentary arena? Second, do individual ministers make a difference to the degree of policy dominance? Controlling for both initial authorship and quality of amendments to Executive policy, we analyse the nature and extent of Executive dominance during the legislative process of the First Session of the Scottish Parliament. We find some evidence to suggest that Executive dominance varies both by administration and by individual minister.

Does Devolution Make a Difference? Legislative Output and Policy Divergence in Scotland
Michael Keating, Linda Stevenson, Paul Cairney and Kate Taylor
Journal of Legislative Studies, 9, 3, 110-39, 2003
Devolution provides large scope for Scotland to make its own policy. Primary legislation is one measure of this. Scottish legislation before devolution tended to replicate measures for the rest of the UK, with differences of style. Scottish legislation in the first four-year term of the Parliament shows a big increase in output. There is an autonomous sphere, in which Scotland has gone its own way without reference to the rest of the UK. In other areas, there is evidence of joint or parallel policy making, with Scottish legislation meeting the same goals by different means. Finally there is a sphere in which Scottish legislation is essentially the same as that in England and Wales. Sewel motions have not been used to impose policy uniformity on Scotland. There is evidence that devolution has shifted influence both vertically, between the UK and Scottish levels, and horizontally, within a Scottish legislative system that has been opened up.

New Public Management and the Thatcher Health Care Legacy
British Journal of Politics and International Relations, 4, 3, 375-98, 2002

See also:

Paul Cairney, Darren Halpin and Grant Jordan (2009) ‘New Scottish Parliament, Same Old Interest Group Politics?’ in C. Jeffery and J. Mitchell (eds.) The Scottish Parliament, 1999-2009: The First Decade (Edinburgh: Luath Press)
Michael Keating and Paul Cairney (2009) ‘The New Scottish Statute Book: The Scottish Parliament’s Legislative Record Since 1999’ in C. Jeffery and J. Mitchell (eds.) The Scottish Parliament, 1999-2009: The First Decade (Edinburgh: Luath Press)

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Scottish Politics students and MSPs

One of the benefits of teaching Scottish Politics in Scotland is that we are relatively close to the action. This is a slide show of various trips my students and I have made to the Scottish Parliament to meet MSPs and watch First Minister’s Questions. We have also been lucky enough to welcome some of these MSPs to Aberdeen University.

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Scottish Parliament Budget 2009

Here is a piece that I wrote on the Scottish Parliament’s Budget bill for the Press and Journal in February 2009.

The fallout from the annual budget rounds in the Scottish Parliament
Much has been made about the unprecedented nature of the SNP’s budget defeat, the fact that we are entering uncharted waters and that this is a crisis of epic proportions. Yet, this is to give the proceedings a sense of drama that they do not yet deserve. Let us first consider the defeat itself. This certainly marks a departure from the first 8 years of devolution in which the Labour- Liberal Democrat coalition dominated the vote within the Scottish Parliament. It would be possible to count the number of serious Scottish Executive defeats on the fingers of one hand. This, combined with the fact that only Scottish ministers can suggest amendments to the budget bill, gave the overall annual impression of a rather mundane, technical and ceremonial process. The only coverage given to the budget regarded the odd clash of personalities between the Finance Committee and ministers or the committee’s perennial call for better statistics. Neither the Parliament nor its parties had the resources or power to make a profound difference. Now, things have changed. The SNP Government must take seriously the concerns of at least two other parties. However, this was not a particular problem last year. Although the SNP had to court support from the Greens and Conservatives, the concessions it made were complementary to its own aims. While the Greens perhaps act as the SNP’s environmental conscience (drawing attention last year to the problem of ship-to-ship oil transfers), the Conservative requests for more police officers and tax relief for small businesses were consistent with the SNP’s manifesto. The demands from other parties were also relatively small compared to the overall budget. Therefore, while there was a brief drama when the bill was defeated at stage 1 (a consideration of the broad principles of the bill), the SNP had enough votes when it came to stage 3 (the final vote). The decision by Labour to abstain, just in case its opposition was enough to defeat the bill and prompt Alex Salmond to resign, prompted laughter rather than relief among the SNP front bench.

As things stand, we have more of the same. Although this year the bill has been defeated at stage 3, the SNP still has over two weeks to pass its replacement in time for the new financial year. Further, it did not lose by much. In fact, the vote was tied at 64-64, prompting Presiding Officer Alex Fergusson to vote for the ‘status quo’ and effectively reject the bill. Although both Labour and the Liberal Democrats voted against (the former wanted more for modern apprenticeships, while the latter pushed for a 2p reduction in Scottish income tax), the Conservatives are already on board, in exchange for assurances on fairly uncontroversial policies to regenerate towns, tackle hospital acquired infections and provide outdoor adventure training courses for school pupils (Margo MacDonald is also on-board following assurances about spending in Edinburgh). This just leaves the support of the Greens, who originally called for a policy promising £100m per year (for 10 years) for a major free home insulation project, but seem willing to accept £33m. As I understand it, its main source of opposition regarded the status of the money (Is it ‘new’? Will it be ‘ring fenced’ rather than left to cash-strapped local authorities with other priorities?) and the inability of SNP ministers to assure Patrick Harvie and Robin Harper about the seriousness of their commitment. If such assurances are forthcoming, then the next vote will (hopefully) seem like an anti-climax. The changes involved will also be marginal compared to the overall budget (they would also be marginal if the SNP agreed to fund Labour’s modern apprenticeships).

Now, let us consider the likelihood of a fallen government and extraordinary election if Alex Salmond resigns. A similar need for a re-election seemed likely for a brief period in the aftermath of the 2007 elections. However, this time things are very different for three main reasons. First, in 2007 there was a widespread sense that, although the SNP did not gain a majority (which is unlikely under most proportional electoral systems) they had effectively won the election. Therefore, the Scottish Labour Party went through several common phases of grief: from a position of stunned disbelief to rejection (when complaining about particular election results, including the loss of former minister Allan Wilson) and, eventually, acceptance of its loss. It then seemed politic to allow the SNP the first opportunity to form a government. Then, when the Liberal Democrats rejected an alliance with the SNP, it did so on the assumption that it would also not try to form a coalition with Labour. The mood of the Liberal Democrats was towards a period of opposition and relative independence (to rediscover itself and question what it had given up as a condition of coalition). This left the door open for only two realistic options: an SNP coalition with the Conservatives (always unlikely given the need for the SNP to link an independence vote to an unwelcome Conservative UK Government) and minority government. Under these circumstances, most parties were effectively willing to accept the experiment of minority government by voting for their own leader when they could, or abstaining when they couldn’t (the Greens voted for Salmond in exchange for assurances on environmental policies). This time, there will be no assumption towards an SNP First Minister. Second, there is potential for the other parties to argue that if a new First Minister has to be found then this is the fault of the SNP. This could be used to justify their attempts to form a multi-party coalition or, given that it is unlikely that any attempt to do so will command a majority, support an alternative minority government (although this is also unlikely). Third, this year there is a general sense that the more serious economic context gives parties more of an incentive to cooperate (which all vowed to do following the defeat). If the SNP are seen to be willing to risk the stability of government for the sake of fairly marginal sums, then it will no longer have the moral majority that it enjoyed in 2007. There would therefore not be a public uproar if a new First Minister were elected by existing MSPs. This is the more interesting aspect of uncharted territory. The Scottish Government does not have the power to dissolve Parliament and call for a general election. Instead, the parliament has 28 days to elect a new First Minister. If Labour attempts to call Salmond’s bluff and gets behind a new candidate (who will not necessarily require the support of the majority of MSPs), then the SNP may have to support one of its own (presumably Salmond) to stop that candidate succeeding.

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Scottish Conservatives 2009

Here is a piece that I wrote on the fortunes of the Scottish Conservative Party for Holyrood Magazine in February 2009

The Scottish Conservatives

One of the great ironies in the history of Scottish Politics is that the Conservative Party has a great deal to gain from the devolution that it worked so hard to oppose. Indeed, this payoff was almost immediate following the introduction of a mixed member proportional system to elect MSPs. While it failed to command a single Scottish seat during Labour’s landslide Westminster general election victory in 1997, a reduced share of the vote (from 17.5% to 15.6% of the constituency vote) gave it 18 (14%) of 129 Scottish Parliament seats – all from the regional list (it now has 17 seats, including 4 from the constituency vote). This level of representation was not enough to give it any real power in the first eight years of devolution because Labour and the Liberal Democrats formed a majority coalition that rarely needed to negotiate with the opposition parties. However, it did offer a way out of its embarrassing lack of representation and provided a spell of rehabilitation in which the party could seek to set new priorities and adapt its approach to the Scottish arena.

This has started to pay off following the formation of a minority SNP Government in 2007 producing a sense that every vote counts. In particular, it has emerged as the party most likely to secure policy concessions in return for support of the SNP’s annual budget. In the first year it secured a greater commitment to funding new police officers and revisit drugs policy, while in the second it secured a reduction in business rates and a commitment to dedicate funding to town regeneration. Although these are modest gains they are also significant. While the concessions are consistent with the SNP manifesto, they mark a moderate shift in SNP priorities. While the cost of the concessions represents less than 1% of the overall budget, there is only a 1% or so level of ‘slack’ in the budget anyway – because the funding increase is modest this year and governments feel the most pressure to maintain existing commitments. The concessions also compare favourably with those of the other parties and may represent as much as a party with 17 seats (minus the vote that Alex Fergusson effectively gave up when becoming Presiding Officer) could expect. Perhaps more importantly the Conservative party could be the only party that emerges with any sense of credit from the budget crisis. The budget process exposed both the SNP’s reliance on other parties and the role of Labour and the Liberal Democrats in seeking to oppose the budget only if it still proved successful. All three parties were undermined by the Green decision to oppose, prompting frenetic activity in Parliament to secure a face-saving deal allowing the main parties to sign up to a budget that looked suspiciously like the old one. In contrast, the Conservative position was consistent, allowing for the slightly uncomfortable sight of Annabel Goldie telling-off Iain Gray for playing party politics with the big issues (describing Labour’s strategy as a ‘bloodless debating chamber coup to ensconce him as First Minister’).

The Conservative strategy in Scotland has obvious links to its overall approach to the prospect of a UK general election win in 2010. It is no secret that a Conservative win would suit the SNP independence referendum strategy. This would be the first Conservative government operating in Scotland since the 1979-97 period in which Thatcherism proved so out of touch with Scottish public opinion (particularly when introducing the poll tax) and the Major government contributed to its own demise by refusing to support any significant form of constitutional change. Provided that the Conservatives fail to elect many MPs in Scotland (they will almost certainly fail to return the 11 MPs of 1992), the picture will be one of a return to the democratic deficit when Scotland votes for one government but receives another. However, three main things have changed in the meantime to challenge the sense in which the Conservatives are as out of touch with public opinion in Scotland as they were in the 1980s and 1990s. First, the party has shown, particularly since 2007, that it can engage effectively on the big Scottish Parliament debates and take a central role, when negotiating with the SNP or when contributing to unified opposition. Second, its pursuit of the status quo (i.e. devolution, not independence) now represents a new position on constitutional change – and one which is shared by most parties and the public in Scotland. Third, David Cameron has expressed a much greater willingness to ‘govern Scots with respect’, allow the Scottish party to go its own way, accept recommendations from the Calman Commission to enhance Scottish Parliament policy responsibilities and work closely with the Scottish Government. This even extended to headline-seeking offers to engage in meetings between SNP ministers and UK Conservative shadow ministers – for example, on the funding of the Forth road bridge at a time when the UK Labour Government seemed determined to embarrass John Swinney and show him who was in control. Thus, David Cameron has demonstrated the ability to appear both committed to the Union but also relaxed about the prospects for change, in marked contrast to the image of Gordon Brown as a source of interference and central control. This will not be enough to ensure a significant Scottish Conservative presence in Westminster. However, it may be enough to prevent independence as an unintended consequence of its electoral success overall.

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Scottish Labour and Liberal Democrats 2009

Here is a piece that I wrote on the fortunes of Scottish Labour and Liberal Democrats for Holyrood Magazine in February 2009.

What next for the former Scottish Executive – vision or opposition?

If there is one word that sums up the reaction by both Scottish Labour and the Scottish Liberal Democrats to the 2007 election and its aftermath, it is this: shock. For Labour the shock was profound because it has long been considered the ‘establishment’ party. The 2007 defeat followed a sustained period of electoral dominance in Scotland that stretches back to 1964. Although it never achieved more than 50% of the vote in Scotland, the first-past-the-post system exaggerated its position, allowing Labour to win the most Scottish seats in 15 of the 17 post-war UK general elections. Its dominance of seats even continued during the election of a Thatcher government in 1979 (Labour won 61% of Scottish seats) and a Michael Foot inspired Conservative landslide victory in 1983 (57%). Indeed, the years of Conservative government from 1979-97 actually cemented Labour’s position in Scotland – first, by producing a group of MPs (including Gordon Brown and Alistair Darling) more assured of election and more able to rise up the UK party ranks than many of their counterparts in England and, second, by establishing an association in the Scottish public mind between Labour and the need to address the ‘democratic deficit’ (in which a population votes for one government but receives another). By the time that New Labour enjoyed its own landslide in 1997, the share of seats rose to 78% – an expression of dominance made all the more significant by the failure of the Conservative party to win any seats. This pattern extended to local government, with Labour’s high (but generally below 50%) share of the vote translating into a majority of council seats and overall control of more councils than any other party for much of the post-war period.

Despite widespread hopes for ‘new politics’ and multi-party cooperation, the introduction of devolution in 1999 actually helped cement the image of Labour as the establishment party. Although its share of the vote fell below 40% and the introduction of proportional representation ruled out an exaggerated Labour majority in the Scottish Parliament, it was still the largest party. Following a coalition with the Liberal Democrats in both 1999 and 2003, it was effectively able to function as a majority in the Westminster mould. Further, since the reform of the electoral system for local government did not happen until 2007, Labour also commanded the majority of councillors in 1999 and 2003. Therefore, until 2007, the centrality of Scottish Labour to Scottish government (both central and local) seemed assured. Add to this the fact that Labour has formed the UK government as long as devolution’s existence, and the ability of Scottish Labour ministers to appoint a range of people in high profile governmental posts (such as quango boards), and you produce a widespread perception that the Labour party is embedded in the DNA of the Scottish political system. The culture of Scottish Labour included, understandably, an expectation that they would be in charge.

It is in this context that we can view the SNP’s electoral success, perhaps made more difficult for Labour by the margin of its defeat. For the neutral observer (if there is such a thing) there was a clear sense that, although the SNP did not gain a majority (which is unlikely under most proportional electoral systems) they had effectively won the election. However, for Labour we can identify a much longer thought process akin to the most common phases of grief: from stunned disbelief to anger (when complaining about particular election results, including the loss of former minister Allan Wilson) and, eventually, acceptance of its loss. This contributed to an unusually lengthy process in which the Scottish Labour leadership has sought to define its new role as an opposition party. To some extent this has been plagued with bad luck or issues outside of the control of the Scottish leadership. While Jack McConnell resigned as leader, he could not bow out as quickly from Scottish politics as he hoped, because Labour could not face an embarrassing result in the subsequent bye-election. While Wendy Alexander was elected as Scottish leader with minimal opposition, the unfortunate details surrounding the funding of her campaign contributed to her early downfall. While new leader Iain Gray’s election as Scottish leader should have marked a new era in Scottish politics, it was quickly mired in controversy over the conduct of Labour members in East Lothian and caught up in yet another bye-election which could threaten the position of Gordon Brown as Prime Minister – both issues in which Gray had little influence and distracted him from Labour’s strategy in the Scottish Parliament.

However, these events should not distract the party from a much wider problem: of how to balance the need to criticise the government for electoral gain while also supporting it enough to pursue its policy preferences and, more importantly, to not be seen as the main culprit behind the SNP government’s downfall (particularly during a period of economic crisis in which politicians are less likely to be forgiven their excessive partisanship). So far, the results have not been impressive. The image produced by the Creative Scotland Bill debacle was that the party was too pleased with its part in the Scottish Government’s defeat over the financial provisions to notice that this would kill the whole bill. Similarly, the party has not done well during the two annual budget rounds. Last year, it pursued neither the Conservative party’s aim of trading support for concessions nor the Liberal Democrats’ aim to present principled opposition. Instead, it abstained in the key stage 3 vote, producing more laughter than relief among the SNP benches. This year, its clearer opposition helped defeat the whole bill at stage 3, producing embarrassing headlines for the Scottish Parliament as a whole rather than the impression of a strong, assertive opposition (particularly when Labour then appeared to accept marginal concessions in exchange for support only a few days later).

Overall, recent experience has provided two main lessons for the Scottish Labour leadership. First, the idea of Scottish politicians standing up for Scottish interests goes down well. Conversely, Scottish Labour does not benefit from a media and public perception that it merely represents a regional arm of a larger and more powerful organisation. Scottish Labour needs to avoid a repeat of the effect that the lack of support from Gordon Brown had on Wendy Alexander. The aftermath of Alexander’s ‘bring it on’ statement was that she became vulnerable to portrayals as a powerless leader. It is time that a Scottish Labour leader gave the impression that s/he cares less about, or is at least willing to challenge, any response from the British party and its leadership. This will be crucial to the forthcoming debates on whether or not the Scottish Parliament should be given more powers (following the conclusion of the Calman report) and whether or not it should pass a referendum bill (following the conclusion of the National Conversation).

Second, no party should go too far in opposition. While principled opposition is justifiable, the strategy of opposition merely to embarrass the government is not (particularly in a country in which most parties are competing to occupy the same left-of-centre ground). Instead, the Scottish labour leadership needs to learn how to be a critical friend – to suggest, for example, that government policy is broadly the right thing to do but not the best way to do it (rather than introduce an alternative electoral programme without the support or resources to see it through). If the election in 2007 taught us anything it is that when the parties broadly agree on most (but not all) major policy issues, what counts is the ability to present an image of (past, current or future) governing competence and a positive vision that leaders can rely on when trying to rise above the petty world of electoral politics. In the domestic context, Iain Gray has done well to reflect on his party’s operational mistakes in government while sticking to the idea that the guiding principles were correct. The more ambitious and necessary strategy will be to present two coherent and related visions for Scotland. First, it is time that Scottish Labour outlined a vision for a distinct welfare state in Scotland, akin to but not as dramatically presented as Rhodri Morgan’s ‘clear red water’ speech. Second, it should produce a vision for Scotland’s constitutional future, to challenge not only the SNP but also send a signal that Scottish Labour is not merely run from London.

For the Scottish Liberal Democrats, the sense of shock was more subtle and related to the practicalities of life in opposition rather than government. In particular, its then leader, Nicol Stephen, soon found out that the lack of party resources produced a job in opposition more demanding than a minister in government. Less difficult was the change in thinking from government to opposition (because it has always been a relatively small party dependent on negotiation with larger parties to have any influence) or the issue of British party influence (because the Liberal Democrats favour a federal model in which the Scottish leader has more autonomy). There was also a greater sense of choice for the Liberal Democrats, who rejected the chance to negotiate another four years of government. It appears that the mood of the Liberal Democrats was towards a period of opposition and relative independence, to rediscover itself and question what it had given up as a condition of coalition (the difference in constitutional preferences between it and the SNP did not help either). Yet, the Liberal Democrats have also struggled to find that balance between opposition and support. In particular, Nicol Stephen’s unfortunate term ‘smell of sleaze’ (describing the SNP government’s involvement in the Trump planning application) played into the SNP’s hands, allowing Alex Salmond to wrap up any personal insult and refusal to answer a question properly as a reaction against Stephen’s initial snub. The Liberal Democrats also played their part in the Creative Scotland and annual budget debacles without appearing to gain much for the party or country in return (bar the SNP’s agreement to correspond with a Commission it does not value and a vague commitment to future cross-party scrutiny of the budget). While Tavish Scott is less likely to pursue a confrontational style, he has yet to demonstrate what value the Liberal Democrats add to the Scottish Parliament. As things stand, the party has a higgledy-piggledy approach to the presentation of its policy aims – promising very little during election campaigns (such as extra time for PE in schools), but then demanding the Earth when elected (such as a reduction in Scottish income tax). It is relatively easy to oppose policy innovation and make unrealistic demands in Parliament, but more difficult to present a worthwhile, viable and coherent alternative to government policy.

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Scottish National Party 2008-9

Here are two pieces that I wrote on the fortunes of the SNP for Holyrood Magazine.

April 2009
While the SNP Government has now returned from its remarkably-long honeymoon, it is still enjoying a fairly happy marriage with the Scottish electorate and non-threatening relations with its in-laws, the UK Government and Scottish Parliament. This may be a surprising summary given the rise in media stories regarding the SNP’s ‘broken promises’ to the electorate, tense territorial disputes and partisan opposition. So how do we justify this account and explain these three developments?

First, the SNP is enjoying something that most mid-term governments would envy: the ability to present a convincing narrative of continuous popularity. For example, polls throughout 2008 suggested that the SNP had maintained the level of popular support that won it the election in 2007, while Alex Salmond is still by far the most popular leader within the Scottish Parliament. This firm foundation of support has allowed it to weather the short-term storms of temporary unpopularity that any government would expect to face. For example, its polling fortunes appeared to suffer in March, signalling (for some) the prospect of a Labour win in 2011. Yet, in the same month, the SNP commanded the headlines by taking control of Dundee council for the first time in its history and, more importantly, producing another blow to the image of endless Labour dominance in certain parts of Scotland. Similarly, the quick establishment of the SNP as an effective government has softened the blow of an economic crisis that has often made Scottish political issues appear parochial and inconsequential, exposed some weaknesses of the independence argument and reignited the fortunes of Gordon Brown. The credit crunch initially allowed Brown to appear as a safe pair of hands during a period of crisis, to capitalise on the value of the Union and to accentuate the power of the Prime Minister to broker mergers and bail-out the big banks. It also allowed Brown to play a leading role in the world stage, particularly during the latest G20 summit in London. While the SNP has its own narrative of the economic crisis – stressing that Scotland needs its own fiscal measures to deal with its own problems, that Scottish ministers would not have left the banks unregulated, and that a combination of corporation-tax plus oil-tax surpluses would have put an independent Scottish Government in a position to bail out the RBS – this has struggled for media attention. Instead, the crisis often shifted Salmond’s image from a statesman on the world stage towards a parochial figure unable to command powerful policy levers in Scotland. On the other hand, the Scottish Government has shown a much greater ability to focus and not be overwhelmed by events. This contrasts with a UK government that appears to lurch from one crisis (e.g. ministerial expenses) to another (e.g. the planned smear campaign by a special adviser), exposing Brown to sporadic shifts in popularity and undermining his ability to focus consistently on Scottish politics in any meaningful way.

In some respects this void has been filled by Jim Murphy as the first full-time Secretary of State for Scotland since 2003. Murphy has also quickly become a figurehead for the UK Government’s more abrasive relationship with the SNP despite initial assurances that he represented ‘Scotland’s man in the cabinet rather than the cabinet’s man in Scotland’. This has produced publicity for a series of niggles between both governments (ranging from Linda Fabiani’s rebuffed phone calls to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office regarding the Mumbai massacre, to the China delegation nonsense and even John Swinney’s humiliating trip to London to discuss the funding of the Forth bridge) that Murphy may have exacerbated rather than smoothed over. Murphy’s role has also been to minimise the kinds of meetings between Salmond and Brown that establish the former as the latter’s equal. Yet, overall, the governments have enjoyed a smoother-than-expected relationship. This can be explained by three main factors. First, the big debate – on constitutional change – has still to take place and so the governments are effectively shadow boxing until at least 2010. Second, there is a strong logic to informality, consultation and negotiation. While some issues bubble up to the surface and enter the highly charged world of intergovernmental politics, most are resolved quietly between civil servants at a relatively low level of the Scottish and UK governments. Third, many debates that could have taken place between the governments have in fact been played out in the Scottish Parliament.

Yet, the rub is that the installation of a high profile, full-time Secretary of State for Scotland has undermined the image of effective Labour opposition in the Scottish Parliament. For example, the decision by John Swinney to drop local income tax proposals, combined with clear SNP difficulties in finding a coherent and effective alternative to public-private partnerships, could have represented a big win for the opposition in Scotland. Instead, both issues have been plagued by UK interference, allowing the SNP to produce a story of partisanship and intergovernmental constraint to compete very well with Labour’s account of ideological incoherence and the lack of popular and elite support for its measures. This is on top of an opposition party still struggling to provide useful opposition to the SNP. While Labour contributes to the theatre of parliamentary debate, its leader has yet to expose the SNP’s deficiencies in any effective way (the lack of publicity regarding the falling number of teachers in Scotland is a good example). In part, the reason that the SNP is still doing remarkably well in this regard is that it does not have an opposition with a coherent message. While the stories of broken promises may be on the rise, they are not accompanied by an alternative vision for Scottish politics. Therefore, the implicit opposition promises to do better with free swimming lessons, more police officers, cleaner hospitals and a clearer school curriculum on their own do not get many people excited. Further, it is too early to say whether or not the climb-down by the SNP towards the need for legislation to restrict alcohol consumption marks the beginning of an effective and assertive opposition in the Scottish Parliament.

Overall, the SNP has still to be tested. The interesting aspect in all of this is that it will not take much of a shift to produce a Labour win at the polls in 2011. Wouldn’t it be ironic if this occurred because the SNP was not given a chance to show its mettle in the face of effective opposition?

September 2008
The SNP is still enjoying a prolonged honeymoon that few marriages can boast. It is popular in the polls, effective in Parliament and finding that minority government can be much more productive than it expected. So how do we explain these three developments? Ironically, its prolonged popularity can be linked most usefully to the unpopularity of the UK Labour government. For this to work, the nature of Scottish Politics has to remain ‘second order’, in which most attention is still paid to the UK and the decisions of the Scottish Government are generally seen within that context (in other words, we may not expect this level of ‘cover’ following independence). Therefore, if Scots are suffering the effects of the ‘credit crunch’ and economic difficulties, we still blame the Treasury and pay more attention to its role in the collapse of Northern Rock, the HBOS/ Lloyds TSB merger and various gaffes (such as the 10 pence income tax row) that not only deflect attention from any SNP difficulties, but also taint a Labour Party in Scotland already uncomfortable with many policies pursued by the Blair and Brown governments. The novelty of different parties in government also shifts the Scotland-UK dynamic. Although from 1999 to 2007 we saw generous financial settlements for Scotland, the post-2007 settlement has been tight. If Scottish Labour had made it to a third term, these issues would have been embarrassing but dealt with in-house. Under the SNP, they give further grist to the independence mill, highlighting UK fiscal constraints (particularly when linked to North Sea Oil) and allowing Scottish ministers to blame the UK for any failure to meet its manifesto commitments (such as on student debt and the recruitment of police officers).

The spectre of UK Labour partly explains the SNP’s effectiveness in Parliament. Although much credit must go to Alex Salmond’s assured style (and the self confident style of ministers-with-a-cause such as Nicola Sturgeon and Kenny MacAskill), he has been helped by a faltering Labour leadership tainted yet again by developments in the UK. While the pressure from the party donations saga may have been enough to topple Wendy Alexander, the embarrassing lack of support from Gordon Brown for her position on the independence referendum sealed her fate and undermined her position when going against Salmond in FMQs (can anyone remember a single question asked by Alexander during this period?). This left the job of opposition to two figures with different fortunes. For the sake of a soundbite (‘smell of sleaze’), the Liberal Democrat leader Nicol Stephen played into Salmond’s hands, allowing him to appear offended and to do little else but insult Stephen rather than answer his questions. Only new leadership under Tavish Scott will allow a fresh start and more scope for public negotiations. In this regard, Annabel Goldie has played a more clever game, asking Salmond politely to provide the details of the policies he supports in plenary, while negotiating common goals (e.g. on small business rates and drugs) in private. No party has shown much interest in scrutinising the government through committee work.

The final success story has been minority government. Many senior SNP figures, including Salmond, preferred the idea of a more comfortable coalition. However, the decision by the Liberal Democrats not to negotiate (unless the SNP dropped its agenda on independence!) proved to be a blessing. SNP ministers soon found that most public policy decisions can be made faster and most effectively without recourse to legislation. Or, when legislation is required, it can continue its win-win game, taking the credit for populist bills (such as the abolition of tolls) and blaming the opposition for obstinate partisanship when things go wrong (such as when Labour MSPs contributed to the farcical demise of the Creative Scotland bill). The UK Labour hangover is still working. The SNP government can take a lot of credit for its appearance of governing competence (a key plank of the long term independence strategy) during a range of crisis situations – such as the terrorist attempt on Glasgow Airport, the outbreak of foot and mouth disease, and the strike at the Grangemouth refinery. Its lack of association with the crisis at Aberdeen City Council also followed the canny move to give local authorities the autonomy they want in exchange for a shift in accountability. However, had it been Jack McConnell and not Alex Salmond linked to questionable discussions with Donald Trump, the call for his head would have been much louder.

Overall, the SNP strategy is sound. If things go well, it can claim the credit as the elected government in Scotland. If they go badly, it can blame the UK (and ‘stand up for Scotland’) or the opposition in Parliament. The next test will be the local income tax. While I was surprised by the decision to pursue this so soon (in negotiation with Tavish Scott and the Greens), I have been convinced that it makes sense if the implementation is put off to coincide with a change in the mood of the UK government. If this follows the election of the Conservatives, then David Cameron may be unwilling to risk the union further by appearing to hold back ‘Scotland’s money’. Or, a new, non-Scottish Labour Prime Minister should be enough to deflect from an English perception of Scotland’s ‘advantage’ and Brown’s need to appear strong both at home and in government. Even Brown’s new stance towards fiscal autonomy may provide room for negotiation.

All that is left is the SNP’s end-game. The chances are that the Conservatives will win in 2010 and the independence referendum will have more Thatcher-inspired spice. However, the vote will be for greater devolved powers, not independence. Therefore, to avoid a drastic fall in popularity (in line with its fate in 1979), Salmond has to go into overdrive and take the credit for SNP success rather than become tainted with a once-in-a-generation failure.

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Scottish Devolution Monitoring Report January 2009

Here is a summary of the SDMR May 2009 report that appeared in Holyrood Magazine. The full report can be found at the UCL Constitution Unit. Or, if you would like the report as a Word document with endnotes rather than footnotes (you will see what I mean if you look at the report) then please email me (

The Devolution Monitoring Programme is a major research project into the functioning of devolution, led by University College London’s Constitution Unit and funded by the UK and devolved Governments. It has produced over 150 reports and five books since 1999, including over 30 reports on post-devolution trends in Scottish Politics. The Scotland team is now led by Dr Paul Cairney, Lecturer in Politics, University of Aberdeen.

Paul Cairney reveals the findings of the January 2009 Scotland Devolution Monitoring Report which covers events from September 2008 to January 2009.

This is a period dominated by the effect of economic crisis which serves to show that it is difficult to predict which issues will dominate the political agenda. A range of issues which had the potential to dominate the headlines for days or weeks on end have been downgraded to second place following heightened sensitivity to the prospect of recession and unemployment. This includes: the decision to delay Jack McConnell’s departure from the Scottish Parliament (to avoid a potentially damaging bye-election for the UK Labour Government); the prospect of an end to the detention of children of asylum seekers at Dungavel (a long-term practice which brooked considerable opposition from ‘civil society’ in Scotland and put pressure on the relationship between UK and Scottish Labour ministers); reports of a rise in the number of people employed by Scottish quangos when the Scottish Government (like all governments) has promised to reduce their number; the approval of (but continued uncertainty over) Donald Trump’s golf course in Aberdeenshire; the likelihood of a public inquiry into the deaths related to C. difficile at the Vale of Leven Hospital; David Cameron’s non-rejection of Scottish independence (combined with what appears to be a ban on Conservative MSPs making a contribution to the devolution debate); and, the decision not to transfer responsibility for Scottish Parliament elections to the Scottish Parliament.

Much more could also have been made about the first (interim) report of the Commission on Scottish Devolution, led by Professor Kenneth Calman and supported by the UK government civil service (as well as a motion passed by Labour, Conservative and Liberal Democrat MSPs). Yet, in this case the problem may have been the report’s contents. As Charlie Jeffery argues in The Scottish Constitutional Debate, although the report’s publication overshadowed the National Conversation conducted by the Scottish Government, very few commentators found much ‘meat’ to chew. Jeffery argues that this disinterest is unfortunate because the report discusses the principles behind potentially profound constitutional changes. First, its Independent Expert Group of Finance makes clear that any system of territorial finance which addresses the ‘right’ to fiscal autonomy but also the requirement to redistribute funding by ‘need’ has no ‘technical’ solution. Second, it entertains the prospect of establishing: ‘a distinctive welfare state in Scotland funded by resources raised in Scotland. The devolution-max option would not look out of place in the … SNP Government’s White Paper’.

For a brief period, the scale of the economic problem also produced an unusual level of consensus between the parties in Westminster and Holyrood. However, the Glenrothes bye-election subsequently heightened their differences, before Labour retained its seat and marked the end of the SNP’s remarkable honeymoon period in office and popularity. While the personalisation of politics and Gordon Brown’s premiership were key factors in previous Labour defeats, they worked in Labour’s favour this time. Brown became a ‘safe pair of hands’ and took centre stage in world politics by promoting a financial rescue plan that many countries welcomed. This allowed Labour to build on the message that small countries are vulnerable during global crises, that only the UK government could have bailed out the big banks and that the Union was crucial to Scotland’s economic stability. The ‘arc of prosperity’ – Salmond’s famous description of a range of small but successful independent nations (including Iceland) that Scotland could emulate if it became independent – was replaced in the headlines by Labour’s phrase ‘arc of insolvency’. This shifting mix of consensus and partisanship is mirrored in the actions of Jim Murphy, the new Secretary of State for Scotland. As Alan Trench discusses in Intergovernmental Relations, one of Murphy’s first statements was to assure the SNP that he was in the post to represent Scotland’s interests, as ‘Scotland’s man in the cabinet rather than the cabinet’s man in Scotland’. Murphy is also comfortable with the term ‘Scottish Government’ and became involved quickly in a number of joint meetings with Scottish Government ministers about issues such as the economic crisis and the future of Dungavel. Yet, Murphy was also a key figure during Labour’s defence of the Union and criticism of the SNP during the Glenrothes campaign.

As John Curtice argues in Public Attitudes and Elections, Labour’s win does not reflect a fundamental change in public opinion. The proportion backing independence ‘is still no lower now than it was in August 2007’ (but is still not high enough to win a referendum on independence). Similarly, although more people trust Brown (42%) over Salmond (23%) to ‘steer Scotland through the current financial crisis’, many more would prefer Salmond (38%) as First Minister than new Scottish Labour leader Iain Gray (13%). The SNP still commands ‘a larger lead over Labour than the party secured in the ballot box in May 2007’, and even enjoys popular support for its move to replace council tax with a local income tax (discussed at length by David Scott in Government Beyond the Centre).

There is also some evidence of consensus in parliamentary proceedings. As Paul Cairney argues in The Scottish Parliament and Parties, the post-2007 committees are finally showing some willingness to work together (on issues such as community policing, sexual offences, hate crimes and asbestos-related damages), while a wide range of plenary motions (on issues such as agriculture, forced marriages and child protection) passed with a promising degree of party cohesion. There may also still be hope for the bill introducing direct elections to health boards if the pilots prove to be a success. Perhaps ironically, the main exception is in finance, with parliament passing a motion (by 65 to 60) to discourage the introduction of a local income tax, heated debates in the Finance committee about the use of public private partnerships to fund major capital projects (most notably the Forth crossing) and the annual budget bill falling at the ‘final’ hurdle (before being reintroduced soon after). Much has been made about the unprecedented nature of the SNP’s budget defeat and that this was a crisis of epic proportions. Yet, this is to give the proceedings a sense of drama that they do not deserve: Alex Salmond does not want to resign; few MSPs would welcome an impromptu election (which is not in the gift of the First Minister anyway); and, most demands made by opposition MSPs only affect the budget at the margins. Indeed, doesn’t it seem bizarre that we could still end up with cross-party support for a bill that will be almost identical to the one that failed to pass? These proceedings have also been made worse by the increased use of parliamentary procedures to make party political points. This culminated in Presiding Officer Alex Fergusson’s decision to refer the ‘veracity’ of statements made in plenary to the Standards Committee. Although this has been spun by some opposition MSPs as proof that Scottish ministers have been making misleading statements, the premise of the review is to examine the use by MSPs of points of order to make such claims!

In Scottish Government and Public Policy, Paul Cairney argues that much of the SNP’s strategy to date has been to perform a balancing act between: (a) trying to demonstrate a high level of governing competence; and (b) exposing the limits of devolution (‘think how much better we could do in an independent state’); but (c) only in a way that keeps the constitutional question on the agenda without damaging the image of Scottish ministers (by making them seem parochial and powerless rather than the best people to defend Scotland’s interests). Recent developments have shown this to be a difficult task, with perceived delays in the funding of major capital projects highlighting the limits to Scottish Government borrowing (discussed at length by David Scott in Government Beyond the Centre), negotiations with major employers on the future of Scottish jobs exposing their need to persuade rather than coerce, and issues such as fuel poverty highlighting their control of only a small part of the solution. This is on top of the usual party political constraints that we would associate with minority government (for example, undermining moves to ban alcohol sales to under-21s or replace short prison terms with community sentences), problems of implementation (on issues such as class sizes and free school meals), unpredictable crises producing criticisms of ministerial decision-making (for example, centring on Nicol Sturgeon’s handling of the C. difficile related deaths at the Vale of Leven), unfortunate criticism (such as the Council of Economic Adviser’s decision to question the SNP’s stance on nuclear power) and the occasional piece of administrative difficulty which delays seemingly straightforward legislation (as with the set-up of Creative Scotland, discussed by David Scott). One ‘quick win’ has been to transform a UK Government mistake into a positive Scottish policy initiative (by promising to maintain pension overpayments for former workers in the Scottish public sector), while more long term success by can perhaps be maintained with more visionary initiatives, such as the proposed electricity grid between Scotland and northern Europe and taking the UK lead on emissions targets, combined with policy distance between the Scottish and UK Governments (such as the ‘battle of ideas’ between public and private healthcare, the decision to allow NHS ‘top-up’ payments notwithstanding). The SNP may also further the ‘Scottish Policy Style’ through consultation and negotiation rather than ‘top-down diktat’. This may mean that, in time, ‘problems of implementation’ become ‘opportunities for local discretion’.

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Scottish Devolution Monitoring Report May 2009

Here is a summary of the SDMR May 2009 report that will appear in Holyrood Magazine. The full report can be found on the UCL Constitution Unit’s website. Or, if you would like the report as a Word document with endnotes rather than footnotes (you will see what I mean if you look at the report) then please email me (

The Devolution Monitoring Programme is a major research project into the functioning of devolution, led by University College London’s Constitution Unit and funded by the UK and devolved Governments. It has produced over 150 reports and five books since 1999, including over 30 reports on post-devolution trends in Scottish Politics. The Scotland team is now led by Dr Paul Cairney, Lecturer in Politics, University of Aberdeen.

Paul Cairney reveals the findings of the May 2009 Scotland Devolution Monitoring Report which covers events from January to May.

This is a period in which the SNP remains remarkably popular for a mid-term government and still able to present an image of governing competence during difficult times. However, the political landscape appears to be more testing in 2009 than anything we have seen since 2007. For example, although Alex Salmond is still the most popular leader in the Scottish Parliament (and is now, again, viewed as a more effective leader than Gordon Brown), an opinion poll in March suggested that its lead was under threat. This comes on the back of a torrid time for the SNP when it failed to pass its annual budget first time round, dropped its plans to introduce legislation establishing a local income tax and appeared to be forced by the opposition parties to introduce new legislation to further its aims on alcohol policy. While these examples perhaps demonstrate the harsh realities of minority government, they do not represent a nail in its coffin. Perhaps the more important problem for the SNP is its public image during the policy process. The economic crisis has already damaged its hopes to appear to do a lot with limited powers, since Gordon Brown emerged as the leader most able to intervene and use the types of policy levers unavailable in Scotland. Similarly, a succession of legislative failures presents the image of a government struggling to exert its power. The role of Jim Murphy as Labour’s Secretary of State for Scotland may be to further this image. On the one hand the UK Government has accepted Scotland’s veto on nuclear power. On the other, it is highly critical of SNP policies and Murphy appears determined to block any formal meetings between First and Prime Minister that present the former with a sense of equal status. The strategy may be to present a misguided Salmond as equal in status only to Murphy and therefore less important than Brown.

These issues are discussed at length throughout the report. In The Scottish Constitutional Debate, Michael Keating argues that the debate continues along parallel tracks with the National Conversation and the Calman Commission, allowing both sides to avoid difficult questions that might be raised by the other. The National Conversation debate lacks serious research and discussion of the economic and social implications of independence. It also gives minimal consideration to the role of the EU and the limited ability of small member states to pick and choose from its framework. The Calman Commission does not articulate a clear and consistent idea of what the Union is, and therefore what its continued value might be. Instead, it makes questionable claims about the centrality of British (rather than Scottish) citizenship as a justification for universalist social and human rights policy. The further devolution of fiscal powers is a strong possibility, particularly following the SNP obligation to engage with Calman on this matter. However, the overall position of the unionist parties is relatively unclear. In The Financial Debate, Alan Trench adds that, although the SNP has effectively been obliged to engage with Calman on fiscal autonomy, its response also indicates a degree of pragmatism in the absence of independence. He adds that evidence from the House of Lords Select Committee on the Bar¬nett Formula suggests that the Labour Government is no closer to a solution than it was in 1979.

In Public Attitudes and Elections, John Curtice reports that there is little evidence that the SNP Government or the effect of the financial crisis on small states is affecting levels of support for independence. While much depends on the wording of the question, the most popular option remains strengthened devolution. The public supports the idea of holding a referendum (although not during the economic crisis) but the vote would be unlikely to produce support for independence. The survey evidence also does not confirm that the Scottish or UK populations think that Scotland gets ‘too much money’. There is some public support for raising the minimum age to buy alcohol, but not for minimum alcohol pricing. Curtice reports that the SNP’s lead over Labour was restored in April after it dipped for the first time in March (Scottish Parliament). Labour’s Westminster lead over the SNP also narrowed in April. Therefore, the battle to come out on top of the European Parliament elections (hot on the heels of the SNP’s by-election gain in Dundee that helped oust the existing Labour/Liberal Democrats coalition from power) will be close.

In The Scottish Parliament and Parties, Paul Cairney suggests that Westminster can learn much from the reforms to MSP expenses in 2005 (on transparency) and 2008 (on second homes). However, the Scottish system is by no means perfect, and raised UK attention may also accelerate Scottish Parliament reforms. The truth agenda also continues, despite being addressed by the Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments Committee which agrees with the Presiding Officer that truthfulness is the responsibility of individual MSPs. An independent advisory panel has ruled that Alex Salmond did not mislead the Scottish Parliament. Cairney also argues that the annual budget bill process has shown the best and worst aspects of minority politics, reflecting an odd mix of increasing maturity but destructive partisanship. The failure of the budget therefore reflected badly on all parties. It also showed that a political system containing a minority government could deal well with a crisis (assuming that the opposition parties would not welcome an early election), passing a new budget within a week of rejecting the old bill. Overall, the SNP continues to lose votes in the Scottish Parliament, but very few votes put it in a difficult position. There is further potential for cross-party cooperation on alcohol policy (there is a lot of common ground between the SNP and Labour on interventionist public health measures). This period also saw a significant rise in committee activity and there is some evidence of cross-party cooperation (most notably when beginning an inquiry into future annual budgets). The Conservatives arguably have the most incentive to support as well as criticise Scottish Government policy, while the unity of Scottish Labour’s constructive opposition continues to be undermined by UK interference. Not surprisingly, independence is still the biggest sticking point between the SNP and opposition parties. Although the Scottish Parliament voted against holding referendum in March, there is some evidence of opposition party division.

In Scottish Government and Public Policy, Cairney reports that the promotion of Mike Russell (February) and his new brief on the constitution suggests that the SNP is beginning a serious push for an independence referendum in 2010. However, the negative parliamentary motion in March, combined with pressure on Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill, suggests that an impromptu election may be just as likely. The economic crisis remains the key focus of public policy decisions and continues to demonstrate the limited economic levers that the Scottish Government enjoys. This is a common factor throughout many policy areas. While a decision on the fate of the Lockerbie bomber will be made in Scotland, the same can not be said for drugs classification, firearms or drink-driving. The extension of the UK Government’s high-speed rail link to Scotland demonstrates successful Scottish Government lobbying, while its success is less clear on lobbying its UK counterpart for a larger share of lottery funding and a clearer future for digital broadcasting in Scotland. Agriculture and fishing continues to be dogged by levels of uncertainty that the Scottish Government can only partially address, while poverty remains an issue effectively reserved to the UK Government. In more devolved areas we can identify different pressures. The SNP’s focus on publicly funded and provided healthcare was overshadowed by attention to swine flu and its response to the issue of hospital-acquired infections. Although Scotland has one of the most restrictive tobacco control regimes in the world, its alcohol strategy still commands the most attention. Alex Salmond countered a media tendency to blame social workers for the death of children of people monitored by social services. The launch of the Curriculum for Excellence and continued controversy over class sizes raises questions about who has, and wants to exercise, power in compulsory education. The economic crisis has put further pressure on Scottish Government funding for Universities, prompting calls for the reintroduction of fees, the UCU to call for more funding and Universities to recommend a new economic strategy. The Scottish Government has strengthened environmental targets and dropped proposals to lease forestry to the private sector. It will not provide further funds for the Edinburgh trams project. There is ‘clear blue water’ between the Freedom of Information practices in the Scottish and UK Governments. However, Scotland’s Information Commissioner is still pushing for an extension of the legislation to most bodies providing public services.

In Government Beyond the Centre, David Scott reports on the debate about why the Scottish Government withdrew its plans to introduce a local income tax. Local authorities have agreed to freeze council taxes for a second year (a measure previously associated with the move to LIT) and the Concordat remains in place despite financial pressures and implementation problems. The Scottish Government has also announced further funds for social and council housing and further restrictions on the right-to-buy. The Local Government Elections Bill will separate the dates of elections to the Scottish Parliament and local authorities, while the Health Boards Act pilots direct elections to health boards (allowing 16 and 17 year olds to vote). Scott also discusses John Swinney’s plans to reduce public bodies by one-quarter and the irony of an expert in PPP being appointed as Chief Executive of the Scottish Futures Trust.

In Intergovernmental Relations, Alan Trench reports that the first part of 2009 has seen an increasing level of formal engagement between London and Edinburgh, and an increasing focus on substantive issues where the two governments are in disagreement. Some issues have been resolved effectively, such as the ‘Somerville’ issue, visas for overseas students, and fatal accident inquiries (note also that the SNP did not blame the UK Government’s refusal to collaborate with the collection of the LIT as a factor in its withdrawal) while others, mainly financial, have not. The period has also seen considerable activity on the part of the UK Secretary of State for Scotland, Jim Murphy, who has raised both his and the UK Government’s profile. The UK Government has adjusted the devolution settlement further to ensure that defence policy is wholly reserved. UK Government ‘efficiency savings’ may have a greater effect on Scotland than Wales or Northern Ireland.

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Scottish Politics Book

This is a photo of Alex Salmond reading a book that Neil McGarvey and I wrote on Scottish Politics.

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Hello and welcome to my very low-key blog. Right now, it is just a repository for some work that I do on Scottish politics and public policy. I am a lecturer in politics at the University of Aberdeen and also write some commentary pieces for political journals such as Holyrood Magazine. So this site will hold those sorts of submissions and also some off-shoot writing from my work on the Devolution Monitoring Programme.

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