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 (email@example.com).
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.