Daily Archives: October 29, 2009

Global Nations? Paper on Coalition and Minority Government in Scotland

Paper to Global Nations? Irish and Scottish Expansion since the 16th Century, University of Aberdeen, October 2009

Paul Cairney, University of Aberdeen paul.cairney@abdn.ac.uk

Coalition and Minority Government in Scotland

While there is a long tradition of minority government in Ireland it is a rather alien concept in the post-war UK. Further, although Wales flirted with the idea in 1999 and 2005, the formation of an SNP government in 2007 provides the first full test of the effect of a prolonged period of minority government since devolution. This paper explores the difference that minority government makes when compared to coalition government. It suggests that the first eight years of devolution were marked by a form of majoritarian coalition 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 often disengaged from the Scottish Parliament. Most opposition parties have also failed to come to terms with their new role. Therefore, the Parliament is still not a policy-making body. Yet, the set-up has proved surprisingly stable and minority government has the potential to become the norm in Scottish politics, allowing parties to adapt to their new roles in the future.

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 – 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 – 67 (52%) seats 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 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 for the SNP 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 and minimal support for a Conservative government ruling 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 – Paun, 2009) 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, despite Strøm’s (1990) best efforts, 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 mid and 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. There are also two more recent experience of minority government in Wales. First, it followed the first Welsh Assembly election that gave Labour 28 of 60 seats and prompted it to try minority government from May 1999. However, the process was problematic (and helped produce a vote of no-confidence in leader Alun Michael in February 2000 – Osmond, 2000: 3), in part because the institutions were new and the clarity of roles between executive and legislature were relatively unclear in the NAW. When the ‘approach failed .. a formal coalition was negotiated with the Liberal Democrats in October 2000’ (Seyd, 2002: 124). Minority government was avoided until 2005 when 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) – reduced Labour’s number from 30 to 29 AMs (Seaton and Osmond, 2005: 8-9). This experience also accentuated the negative picture of minority government, producing a willingness of 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 to achieve concessions.

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 these cases is that the main parties associate minority government with turmoil and have striven to avoid the possibility ever since. It is rare for governments in the UK and devolved territories to go down this route through choice.

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 a so-called ‘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.

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). 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). Further, the parties produced successive partnership agreements that tied both to a detailed programme of legislation and towards supporting the Scottish Executive line (and collective cabinet responsibility) throughout.

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 similarly 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).

The experience from 1999-2007 suggests that it would be wrong to equate the formal capacity of legislatures with their power or influence over policy outcomes (Arter, 2006; Cairney, 2006; McGarvey and Cairney, 2008). Rather, this is largely an empirical question based not only on the formal roles of institutions (and actors within them), but also their resources and willingness and ability to exercise power in particular instances. In many (if not most) cases the powers of certain legislatures only look impressive when compared to other legislatures, not their executives. This was certainly the case when the Scottish Executive coalition dominated the legislative process, passing the vast majority of an extensive legislation programme which undermined the ability of Parliament to set the policy agenda through inquiries. The Scottish Executive presided over a punishing legislative schedule, producing the 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; reinforcing the rule of thumb by Olson, in Arter, 2006: 250, that the executives initiate 90% of legislation and gets 90% of what they want). There was also a trend from 2003 towards increased Scottish Executive dominance, perhaps following the honeymoon period of the first session (and despite the new makeup of the Parliament in which more small parties were represented) but also because the Scottish Executive used legislation (which was often unnecessary; it could have pursued the policy with non-legislative means) to set the Scottish Parliament’s agenda.

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). From 1999-2003, 50 Scottish Executive, 1 committee and 8 member’s bills were passed while from 2003-7 the split was 53, 1, and 3. From 1999-2003 166 inquiries were conducted (Arter, 2004: 77), but this fell to 99 in 2003–07 (of which 11 were short or one-day inquiries). 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).

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. There is no accepted way for the parties to gauge the success or failure of the new arrangements.

Minority Government Since 2007: Is this what new politics looks like?
There are many ways to measure the importance of minority government. In particular, we may wish to separate, analytically, issues of governing legitimacy and the interactions between parties and institutions from policy outcomes. For example, 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 lacked a factor key to minority government success: a feeling that it is a desirable way to engage in politics. 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 policies or 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).

Such tensions are reflected in one of the longest running sores in the new session: the use by opposition MSPs of points of order to question the veracity of ministerial statements. While we may accept and even enjoy a degree of partisanship during the theatre of First Minister’s Questions, this has been taken to the extreme by allegations of ministerial misconduct when making untruthful or misleading statements to Parliament (see Cairney, 2009c: 30). This prompted two actions (on top of a belated revision to the Scottish Ministerial Code). First, Alex Salmond took the unprecedented step of referring complaints about his conduct to the new independent advisory panel consisting of the two former Presiding Officers David Steel and George Reid (which ruled in both cases that he did not mislead Parliament – Cairney, 2009e: 32-3; Cairney, 2009f: 41). Second, Alex Fergusson reiterated a belief held variously by all Presiding Officers (and reflected in Standing Orders) that he should not become the arbiter of the truthfulness of comments made by any MSP in Parliament. Instead, he asked the Standards committee to investigate the use of points of order. In turn, the committee endorsed Fergusson’s view, proposed that it produce new guidance on the party political use of points of order and called for a joint protocol between Scottish Government and Parliament on their respective roles (Cairney, May 2009e: 32). Thus, over two years into the new relationship, there is still a sense of learning by doing.

In most other cases it is difficult to separate issues of executive-legislative relationships from their policy effects. Most important is the extent to which the Scottish Government invites the Scottish Parliament to examine its policies (or the extent to which the Parliament asserts its right to scrutinise Government policy). While the main measure of this activity is the extent to which it publishes draft legislation for parliamentary scrutiny, there is no agreement about how much primary legislation (and of what degree of substance) should be brought to Parliament in one session. Although we know there has been too much in the past, we do not quite know what is too little.

With regards to the former, a key outcome of the 1999-2007 sessions was a widespread sense that too much legislation had been produced and that a new government should slow down (Cairney, 2007b: 83; 2007c: 24; Mitchell, in correspondence). This was a feature of the ‘legacy’ reports produced by committees in 2007 that suggested they were unable to perform their scrutiny and inquiry functions properly because there was too much legislation to consider (McGarvey and Cairney, 2008: 102). Minority government certainly had an effect on part of this process. The SNP Government, already committed in its manifesto to a reduction in legislative volume (and faced with a tight budget that precluded expensive policy innovation), has found that it does not have the votes to pass legislative measures that it would certainly have introduced if it enjoyed a majority (the SNP also modified its ‘1st 100 days’ commitments considerably). Indeed, the independence referendum bill may be the only one introduced when the SNP knows that it will likely fail (and this outcome is still uncertain). While this reduction of legislative activity is a welcome development, it produces a key question: does the reduction in legislation demonstrate the power of the Scottish Parliament or the Scottish Government?

The choice of the latter is in part based on criticism 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; note that opposition party criticism of the legislative programme has always been an annual event). Although this has been addressed to some extent by a recent flurry of activity – there were 15 Scottish Government bills by September 2009 – there may still be a residual sense that 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; although the counterargument is that the excessive production of legislation in the first eight years exaggerated the drop since 2007).

The ability of the SNP to maintain policy distance reflects the consistent imbalance of power in Scotland between executive and legislative institutions regardless of the type of government and party balance. The Scottish Government has the vast majority of policy capacity and many of its policy aims (on intergovernmental relations, the civil service, capital finance projects, public service targets, prescription charges) can be pursued without using legislation, while others can be pursued using the legislation that exists (i.e. with secondary legislation and regulations much less subject to parliamentary scrutiny). Further, 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).

Consequently, the Parliament has not filled the legislative gap. There has not been a perceptible rise in successful legislation initiated by committees or MSPs since 2007 (from May 2007-September 2009 the split was 15, 1, and 3). While there was some talk by Labour regarding their alternative legislative programme (Cairney, 2008e: 97; 2009e: 31), this has not taken off (and seems to consist of four member’s bills ). While committees have more time to set the policy agenda through inquiries, few committees have used their newly-granted time effectively and found enough common ground to pursue a long-term inquiry in any meaningful way, while others have merely exploited the chance to make party political points with short, headline grabbing, inquiries (Cairney, 2008b: 16 discusses the inquiry into Donald Trump’s development in the Menie estate; see also 2008c: 17-18; 2008d: 20-1; for more recent evidence that committees are able to find areas of common interest, see Cairney, 2008d: 21; 2009c: 37-8; 2009f: 45-8). In the first two years there were approximately 40 inquiries or reports which were not conducted in response to draft bills or legislative consent motions – with at least 10 related to Scottish Parliament procedures, not government policy.

There is also unclear evidence on the tangible effect of the new parliamentary arithmetic on Scottish Government legislation. While we can reasonably expect more government defeats and amendments coming from opposition parties, the effect on the substance of legislation does not seem particularly significant (analysis of this effect by Steven MacGregor is ongoing). Similarly, although there may be evidence that civil servants are now more likely to anticipate the reactions of opposition parties when developing policy (Paun, 2009: 52), there is less evidence to suggest that this has affected that policy substantively. Instead, civil servants appear to be committed to implementing SNP policy and, in some cases, defending that policy and the Scottish Government’s record in public (Paun, 2009: 52; Cairney, 2009g: 53). Further, the process is nothing like coalition government in which civil servants had to clear policy with two parties (Paun, 2009: 52). Therefore, if anything, the Scottish Parliament has become a policy-stifling forum acting as a deterrent to some policy initiation, slowing down the legislative sausage machine without using the extra time to any great effect. It is therefore tempting, still, to conclude that most policy activity is going on elsewhere – particularly since the new concordat between the Scottish Government and local authorities allows a significant degree of discretion over policy priorities (such as class sizes in schools) that the opposition parties have a keen interest in but a lack of powers to direct.

This situation is not altogether surprising because, despite the range of Scottish Parliament ‘powers’, it was not designed to be a policy initiating body. Rather, the institution represents an attempt to improve on the scrutiny powers of Westminster without marking a profound change in the executive-legislative relationship. Committees have the power to hold ministers and civil servants to account, to make sure they consult properly (i.e. they are not expected to undertake large consultations themselves) and to initiate legislation as a last resort if MSPs believe that government policy is inadequate. Yet, they are also instructed by the CSG to let the government govern, arguably encouraged to play a minimal pre-legislative role and, in the case of the budget, not equipped to develop alternative legislation (although see Cairney, 2009f: 47-8 for a discussion of the Finance Committee inquiry and new Financial Scrutiny Unit). The Scottish Parliament also lacks Westminster’s equivalent of a ‘scrutiny reserve’ for EU issues, while the recent process surrounding the release of the Lockerbie bomber suggests that it has no role to play before such Scottish ministerial decisions are made (see Cairney, 2009f: 40-1). Further, the resources of committees and opposition parties are too thin on the ground to provide anything more than scrutiny and criticism (and there appears to be no appetite to boost the resources of committees). It would therefore take much more than minority government to solve the wider problem of parliamentary constraint.

Relatedly, Scottish Parliament committees still do not provide the ‘motor of a new politics’, particularly since Labour’s front bench does not sit on them and Labour has not yet fully engaged with them (in part because the former Scottish Executive does not want to scrutinise its own policies). Rather, key debates are played out and negotiations are conducted in plenary. Indeed, there seems to be a rise in the propensity to overturn decisions reached in committee in plenary (although the research, by Steven McGregor, is still in progress). In the 1999-2003 session the key indicator of respect for committee decisions was the non-Executive amendment of Executive legislation – less than 80% of these were reversed by a Scottish Executive (which had the majority to reverse them all), in part because committee assertiveness was linked to at least one vote by an MSP from a Scottish Executive party (Cairney, 2006: 203). Now, the parliamentary arithmetic is such that a Scottish Government bill may be amended against its wishes at stage 2 merely because the Scottish Government and its supporting party do not have enough votes, only for this to be reversed in plenary at stage 3 when they do (see e.g. The Herald, 2009). Or, in the case of the Graduate Endowment Abolition (Scotland) Bill, the whole bill may be rejected in committee only to be approved in plenary (Cairney, 2008b: 23). In many cases this is linked to the post-2007 abandonment by convenors of the status quo convention. Instead, many are using their casting vote politically, in turn undermining the less established convention that committee decisions are respected in plenary.

There may be some cases, such as the climate change bill, in which we see the best of minority government or the potential for new politics; a genuine attempt by the SNP to pursue a partly ideological policy and a willingness to negotiate the details, combined with opposition party willingness to cooperate and give the necessary support in exchange for concessions (although more research is required to determine how many concessions are merely ‘handout’ amendments from the Scottish Government). Yet, such examples do not seem to be common.

This fact alone may not be enough to provoke opposition parties to ‘go nuclear’ and cooperate to undermine the government (at least while the SNP remains popular). 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 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, even in this case there is evidence of a negotiated position (the trams project did go ahead) and ministers generally seek to avoid unnecessary confrontations (particularly since they produce opposition party pressure to resign – see the case of Kenny MacAskill and court reform – Cairney, 2009d: 52). Instead, SNP whips and business managers seek to avoid 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), including the decision to drop plans for a flagship bill introducing a local income tax. Few motions force the hands of the Scottish Government. Far more motions either demonstrate a lack of united opposition or merely (in examples such as police numbers or rural schools), ‘seek to reinforce existing Scottish Government policies and place them higher on its agenda’ (Cairney, 2009e: 38). This semi-agenda-setting role is also a feature of the better committee inquiries (Cairney, 2009f: 45-8). Overall, this may be what new politics looks like in practice.

The Annual Budgets
The annual budget bill process has taken on a new significance under minority government. It is the most important legislative test so far, in part because there is an obligation for both sides to agree on the bill. Effectively, for minority government to continue the Scottish Government must seek agreement for its budget and the opposition parties must find a way to reach a negotiated settlement. This process has shown the best and worst aspects of minority government. First, it is certainly 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, independent 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 which may prove crucial to the long term success of minority government. This may be reinforced both by the SNP’s new willingness to pursue its ‘flagship’ alcohol policy primarily through parliamentary-influenced legislation and Scottish Labour’s apparent willingness to support most measures (Maddox, 2009a; 2009b; Cairney, 2009g: 57). So does this suggest that minority government in Scotland can become stable and a phenomenon that is repeated beyond 2011?

Will Minority Government Become the Norm? Lessons from Elsewhere
It is relatively easy to explain the occurrence in 2007 of minority government in Scotland as a one-off: despite favouring a coalition with the Liberal Democrats, the SNP was not willing to make the key concession – dropping its plans for a referendum on independence – that the Liberal Democrats (who appeared to some extent to be disenchanted with 8 years in government) put forward as a condition of coalition. Further, a coalition with other parties was either not politically desirable (Conservatives) or possible (Labour, the main competitor). It is more difficult to predict whether or not this process will be repeated. One way to explore the durability of minority government in Scotland is to extrapolate lessons from two types of comparative literature – studies which suggest universal rules for government formation and more detailed studies of individual countries.

According to Strøm (1990: 21) the problem of predicting that minority governments will become regular or the norm is that they ‘violate many basic assumptions of how parliamentary democracy works … They are a counterintuitive phenomenon’. The ‘conventional’ view is that minority governments form in ‘unstable and conflictual political systems, whose party systems may be highly fractionalized. Such cabinets are suboptimal and unstable solutions, which are resorted to only when all else fails’ (Strøm, 1990: 15). They do not follow the rational decisions of political parties and are associated in this literature with ‘malaise, irrationality and poor performance’ (1990: 21).

Drawing on Strøm’s (1990: 11-20) review of existing theories it is difficult to equate the Scottish experience with this literature:

1. Political crisis and instability. In this case, minorities arise because there is a systemic crisis that precludes coalition or a specific crisis that undermines coalition forming in one time period. However, in both cases the process is underspecified (1990: 10). It would be difficult to explain the SNP’s minority in crisis terms since a coalition with the Liberal Democrats was possible and at some stages seemed likely. Rather, for both parties this resembles more of a strategic calculation rather than one forced upon them (although there is a deadline to elect a First Minister in 28 days).
2. Political culture and heritage. Luebbert (in Strøm, 1990: 11-2) explains minority formation in terms of two characteristics of the political regime: (1) the degree of regime legitimacy; and (2) the extent to which opposition parties engage in consensus-building legislation. If both are high, this is a consensual democracy. If both are low, this is a conflictual democracy. In consensual democracies minorities form because there is no incentive to form a coalition majority. In conflictual democracies they form because not enough parties can agree enough to form a coalition. It is possible that 1 may be high but 2 low – this is a competitive system – but Luebbert suggests that this is rare. Yet, the UK political culture that Scotland inherited appears to be competitive and it combines cultures or norms based on conflict (e.g. an adversarial system of government versus opposition) and consensus (e.g. there was a widespread understanding between the parties of the unwritten rules of government formation – that the SNP had the right to try to form a coalition or minority government first because it had the most seats). Therefore, both coalition and minority governments may both be the logical consequences of negotiations in Scotland; the incentives to form a coalition and the extent of party agreement vary over time.
3. Party system fractionalization. Sartori (in Strøm, 1990: 12-3) associates minority government with ‘moderate pluralism’, which describes a system with 3-5 significant parties and the inability of any to maintain a majority (‘polarized pluralism’ has more parties at more extreme ends of the left-right scale). The rational position for at least one party is that the largest minority should not be allowed to govern alone when it can oblige that party to share power in a coalition. Thus, minorities result when parties do not act rationally or when, for example, they miscalculate their negotiating positions. Strøm (1990: 13) links this position to explanations based on the ‘fractionalization’ or fragmentation of party systems, in which the more parties there are and the more they split the electorate then the more difficult it is to form a majority. This has direct relevance to Scotland at a basic level, in that the introduction of PR has produced moderate pluralism rather than single party majority government. Yet, it is difficult to explain fully the Scottish position in terms of fragmentation and miscalculated negotiations. The decision by the SNP and Liberal Democrats not to form a coalition was based to a large extent on a basic ideological difference (and, for the latter, ambivalence about re-entering government) rather than a miscalculation. Perhaps both overestimated the extent to which each would compromise or back down to secure power, but both also seemed to revert to a position that was not particularly unfavourable to them – the idea of minority status for the SNP and outsider status for the Liberal Democrats grew on them both. Further, when compared to other systems elected under PR, Scotland does not display a particularly high degree of fragmentation – there are only two parties with the ability to form the majority of a coalition, competing with two smaller parties. While in 2003 parties such as the Greens and Scottish Socialist party enjoyed more seats, Labour and the Liberal Democrats also enjoyed a majority.
4. Cleavage conflict and polarisation. In this case, minorities form because the parties are too divided ideologically to form an agreement. Instead, one party takes on a ‘caretaker’ status (Powell in Strøm, 1990: 14), suggesting that the expectation is that the minority will not continue beyond the next election. To some extent we can see this ideological divide between the SNP and the other major parties. Strøm (1990: 65; 270) characterises the SNP as ‘extremist’ and therefore less likely to enter into negotiations. However, the waters are muddied to some extent by the SNP’s new position that it will only seek a referendum on independence. This is something that all parties could sign up for (the others in the hope that the referendum would be unsuccessful). Further, there is not a tangible sense of the SNP becoming a caretaker rather than full-term government, particularly since it passed non-routine legislation to abolish higher education tuition fees less than a year after taking office.
5. Proximate Conditions. Minority governments form when all other options have been exhausted or when no other options exist; they ‘represent failed interparty negotiations (Strøm, 1990: 15). This is most associated with rational choice explanations of coalition building, with minority government rarely seen as the rational outcome or positive equilibrium. Rather, it is ‘commonly explained through reference to constraints, limited choice, failure of negotiation, and lower-order preferences, conditions that are often tied to the negotiation process itself’ (1990: 15). Normally it follows a high number of failed coalition attempts. We can see this potential for failure in these terms because the unusual party arithmetic meant that a coalition between two parties (bar SNP and Labour) would not have been enough and even if the SNP had secured Liberal Democrat support, it also needed help from the 2 Green MSPs who were only willing to provide limited and conditional support. Yet, few coalition negotiations took place and minority government did not follow a failed coalition. Further, while the focus on failed negotiations could be used to explain minority government in Scotland, it is difficult to see why the outcome should be seen as a failure rather than the rational decisions of parties making choices based on their preferences.

It is not surprising that such theories fail to fully account for the Scottish outcome, since Strøm (1990: 15) suggests that they are fairly ad hoc and inadequate explanations, not backed up by empirical evidence, for a phenomenon that is by no means exceptional. Minority government accounts for approximately one-third of all post-war parliamentary governments and 28% of government tenure, with only 11% of minority governments accompanied by formal agreements with supporting parties (1990: 59; 95; 116). Further, while coalition government (rather than single-party majority) is the most common in parliamentary democracies (Muller and Strøm, 2003: 1) and they last approximately 25% longer than minority governments (17-18 months compared to 13-14; for a majority party it is 30), they are also more likely to dissolve as a result of ‘crisis’ and to produce a negative incumbency effect. Therefore, minority government may be an attractive proposition for parties (Strøm, 1990: 130).

On this basis, Strøm’s (1990: 38; 69) alternative is to argue that the choice of minority government is rational in many cases, in part by questioning the assumptions of coalition formation – that majority status is necessary for effective government formation, that party leaders are motivated solely by the pursuit of power rather than policy objectives, and that one must hold government office to have policy influence (although the degree of non-governmental influences varies by party and polity) – and highlighting the balance between long term and short term rationality. In particular, the incumbency effect suggests that the longer term pursuit of election success may be consistent with a short term absence from office or damaged by a period office (particularly if a condition of office is accepting and promoting policies that undermine the relationship between the party and its core electorate). In other words, the crucial condition for minority stability is that other parties do not seek to force a coalition. If those parties ‘value policy influence and electoral success, government participation need not be their best strategy … [instead they may] wait for more favourable circumstances’ (1990: 56; 69). This is based on the assumption that elections are ‘decisive’: parties present clear alternatives, elections produce significant fluctuations in the share of seats held by parties, parties are less likely to be in office when they lose seats, and cabinets are formed soon after elections (1990: 73-4).

Strøm’s argument is that minority government is more likely when opposition parties are happy to remain outside of government. In turn, this is more likely when they can exert influence in opposition while biding their time waiting for the next election to reduce the incumbent government’s standing and increase their own. In other words, there is a clear long term gain associated with opposition that a rational party leader would recognise when considering the short term benefits of office as the smaller party within a coalition. This is a probabilistic argument: the more scope for opposition influence that the political system affords, and the more decisive an election is, then the more likely that minority governments will form.

In these broad terms we can identify many of the key Scottish Parliament dynamics. First, and most importantly, it is increasingly clear that minority status does not preclude effective government formation (particularly since the election of a First Minister requires only a plurality of the vote and the subsequent approval of ministers is effectively a formality). Rather, it constrains the nature or volume of legislation that will be accepted by the Scottish Parliament, which is not the same thing when a government can pursue policy through non-legislative means. While the SNP may not pass some bills which are central to the delivery of its manifesto, it still enjoys the power to control the resources of the Scottish Government and pass most of its proposed legislation and has yet to face a motion of no confidence. Further, by forming a single party government it benefits from the lack of detailed policy compromises that a majority coalition (or formal minority government agreement with a supporting party) would entail. It has also survived two defeats on its proposed legislation (and regular defeats on non-binding motions). Second, we can detect in the Liberal Democrats (to some extent) a desire to return to opposition to reclaim ideological distance from other parties, while in the Conservatives we can see a clear strategy of exchanging support for policy influence (particularly during budget negotiations). Finally, in Labour we can detect the realisation that the short term pursuit of office would have a longer term effect on its popularity (particularly since it is also tied to an unpopular UK Labour Government). Thus, minority government formation may be more likely in Scotland than in other countries that do not have parties playing these roles.

However, our findings are heavily qualified when we explore Strøm’s measure of opposition influence (there is also not, as yet, a negative incumbency effect for the SNP government). While Strøm (1990: 42) identifies ‘very significant policy influence’ in studies of Italian, French and Norwegian legislatures, we may struggle to identify the same level of direct and positive influence in Scotland (without considering the extent to which opposition parties benefit from the passage of policies consistent with their aims). Indeed, if we were to use Arter’s (2006: 251) four measures, it would be difficult to demonstrate with existing output measures that the Scottish Parliament is more powerful than Westminster (which represents, in comparative studies, the government dominated legislature). Significantly, this is despite the fact that the Scottish Parliament enjoys virtually all of the powers that, in Mattson and Strøm’s (2004: 100–1) work, point to unusually high committee strength (McGarvey and Cairney, 2008: 97) and, for Strøm, denote high opposition influence (it has at least 10 committees with fixed jurisdictions, select committees linked to ministerial departments, and committee chairs allocated proportionately by party). It is also despite the relative ease with which the opposition parties could pass a vote of no confidence (for Strøm, 1990: 108, a key factor of minority stability in Denmark). In others words, the Scottish case reinforces the need, explored in Arter’s (2006) edited volume, to challenge the idea that some legislatures are powerful because they appear to have the capacity to be powerful (and, as Cairney, 2006 argues, this is power compared to other legislatures, not its government). The high formal capacity of legislatures does not necessarily produce opposition party influence.

In part this may be because although the institutions were designed to be ‘inclusive’ as in Norway, the culture is adversarial as in Westminster (see Strøm, 1990: 90). There also seems to be reluctance among many parties to try to exercise policy influence (in part because, unlike in some legislatures, there is no requirement of the government to achieve parliamentary approval in advance for its legislative programme). Further, the Scottish committees not only lack resources in the form of staff but also their own members (most post-2007 committees have 8), since the pool of recruitment is much smaller than Westminster which also offers a clearer alternative career route for MPs. Overall, an important caveat in Scotland is that the payoffs seem to be far greater for the governing party than those seeking influence through opposition (there is a high ‘policy influence differential’). Despite Strom’s expectations based on formal legislature capacity (rather than more direct measures of influence such as the impact of legislatures on government legislation), opposition parties do not enjoy significant influence in the Scottish Parliament. Thus, this is not as useful a prediction as it first appeared.

Instead, in some ways the more useful explanation of minority status is the very existence of moderate pluralism caused by the electoral system, combined with party decisions based on their previous experiences. Perhaps we can say that the Liberal Democrats anticipated that Strom’s prediction would be realised; that opposition parties would become more influential under minority conditions. If this imbalance of power is now known (and wasn’t in 2007 when the parties had only experienced coalitions), it may affect the strategies of parties in 2011, with the SNP and Labour perhaps more likely to seek minority but the Liberal Democrats more likely to seek coalition (the Conservatives will generally struggle to find a partner in Scotland – more so than in Wales – and so may act accordingly) when they reflect on their lack of influence in opposition (and that, although the 2007 election had a profound effect on small parties and the balance of power between SNP and Labour, its Scottish Parliament results are fairly consistent). Yet, we cannot be certain until more research is conducted to determine MSP perceptions of success, since most opposition parties often seem content with their limited involvement in the details of policy. This may be because it increases their ability to step back and criticise it to increase their own standing. It may also reflect the longer term parliamentary culture, in which the government governs and the opposition scrutinises, that did not disappear when coalition government ceased.

In any event, universal theories of minority government only take us so far and this reinforces the need to supplement them with detailed case studies of individual countries and comparisons with others. For example, as Mitchell (2008: 81) suggests, there are lessons to be learned from the Danish case. While minority government has been the post-war norm, it can be usefully divided into before and after the ‘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), characterised by ‘intense electoral competition and policy dispersion among multiple dimensions’ (Strøm, 1990: 107). 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 the increased scale of 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 (Green-Pedersen, 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 still 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. The post-1973 rejection of the norm that a government that loses a vote in parliament must resign has also aided minority stability (Seyd, 2002: 128).

While this adaptation took over twenty years to materialise in Denmark, a country with a long tradition of minority government, 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 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. In other words, there is no need (at least yet) for a minority government to make concessions to a wide range of disparate parties. 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 (particularly if compared to the UK).

On the other hand, Strøm (1990: 106) relates the durability of minority government in Denmark to a process in which the government makes a series of policy-specific and significant legislative concessions to various parties in exchange for their support (see also Qvortrup, 2000 who links this ‘search for consensus’ to the ability of the Folketing to refer a bill to referendum if the move receive supports from one-third of its membership). While we can see some evidence of this process in Scotland during the annual budget, the amount of negotiation appears to be low and it is not replicated across the board. Rather, the opposition parties wait for government legislation to appear and then engage in the same kind of scrutiny performed from 1999-2007. There is little evidence of pre-legislative negotiation or scrutiny. In these terms, it is difficult to see Scotland emulating Denmark’s propensity for minority government if its parties (and the Liberal Democrats in particular – see Paun, 2009: 54) seek policy influence as well as electoral success.

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. Many teething troubles have healed – and maybe this is what stable minority government really looks like. The main caveat is that the first two years were marked by high SNP popularity, suggesting that it would not currently be in the interests of the opposition parties to destabilise minority government. It is therefore difficult to attribute the new system to a powerful new norm when an explanation based on party self-interest is just as convincing.

Equally unclear is the effect that minority government has on public policy. Eight years of coalition government largely produced a policy agenda driven by the government. Two years of minority government has produced a new relationship between the Scottish Government and Parliament, but this is not based on the eagerness on either side to mark a profound shift in responsibility for policy formulation and implementation. The drop in legislative activity from the Scottish Government has not been met with an equivalent rise from Parliament. Committees have not produced more agenda setting inquiries. Rather, the Parliament has become a forum for limited policy concessions based largely on the (usually uncontroversial) Government legislative agenda and the limited ability of the opposition parties to monitor Government policy activity that is not brought to parliament for regular approval. We may find evidence of parliamentary power in other areas – such as in the anticipated reactions of the SNP when deciding which bills to pursue and when civil servants developing policy pay heed to what they perceive to be the parliament’s (as well as the minister’s) ‘mind’. However, this is an area of public policy that has not been researched in great depth either in Scotland or in the comparative literature (instead, the focus is on negotiation between parties). From the limited evidence that we have, it is difficult to identify enough policy influence for opposition parties to give them an incentive to eschew public office when it is available. This is not really an issue for the Conservatives who are not likely to be offered the chance to form a government and will therefore benefit more from minority government. However, the lack of policy influence enjoyed by the Liberal Democrats since 2007 seems to diminish the probability that it will accept minority government in the future.

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Strøme, K. (1990) Minority Government and Majority Rule (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press)
Wyn Jones, R. and Scully, R. (2006) ‘Summary and Introduction’ in Wyn Jones, R. and Scully, R. (eds.) Wales Devolution Monitoring Report January 2006 http://www.ucl.ac.uk/constitution-unit/research/devolution/dmr99-05.htm
Seyd, B. (2002) Coalition Government in Britain: Lessons from Overseas (London: The Constitution Unit) http://www.ucl.ac.uk/constitution-unit/publications/unit-publications/84.html

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Scottish Devolution Moniting Report September 2009

Paul Cairney reveals the findings of the September 2009 Scotland Devolution Monitoring Report which covers events from May to September. For the full report see http://www.ucl.ac.uk/constitution-unit/research/devolution/devo-monitoring-programme.html or email paul.cairney@abdn.ac.uk

In the introduction, Paul Cairney reports that this is a period dominated by Kenny MacAskill’s decision to release the Lockerbie bomber, Abdelbaset al-Megrahi, from Greenock Prison on compassionate grounds. Indeed, it is difficult to think of any other ‘Scottish’ issue that would command such international attention or prompt so much analysis on the SNP’s governing competence on the world stage. The issue is multi-faceted and still unfolding in the public domain. As such, we have witnessed a classic media process in which attention lurches from one aspect of the story to another: how MacAskill conducted his inquiry; if he would struggle to meet the deadline for a decision; whether or not al-Megrahi would drop his appeal; the extent to which MacAskill would be subject and vulnerable to a wide range of political pressure; how this relates to wider forms of parliamentary political pressure on MacAskill following the recent prospect of a vote of no confidence in Parliament; the Scottish-UK intergovernmental issue (or lack thereof) and the degree of Scottish ministerial autonomy; the silence of Gordon Brown; the (un)popularity of the decision; Al-Megrahi’s welcoming reception in Libya; and, the intense international reaction.

Lockerbie has overshadowed the other main issue in this period: the publication of the Calman report. In The Scottish Constitutional Debate, Paul Cairney argues that, given its limited remit and the tone of its interim report, the final report of the Calman Commission is surprisingly ambitious. Its recommendations on finance, the further devolution of powers, intergovernmental relations and the role of the Scottish Parliament are substantive, providing the potential for further changes in the future. Most significant is the proposal to make the Scottish Parliament more accountable for income taxation (although it produces a half-way house between fiscal dependence and autonomy). Much of the report is consistent with SNP aims. This includes the call for more formal intergovernmental relations and to devolve responsibility for Scottish Parliament elections, airgun and drink-driving regulations. While it was received well by its main audience (the Labour, Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties), no party has made any firm commitment to implement its recommendations. Indeed, the irony is that the party most critical of the report (the SNP) is also the keenest to see some of it implemented immediately. While the National Conversation has been relatively low key in comparison, the Scottish Government has reaffirmed its commitment to an independence referendum bill. Cairney also discusses the House of Lords Select Committee on the Barnett Formula which has recommended Barnett’s abolition.

In Public Attitudes and Elections, John Curtice reports that there has been no marked movement in favour of independence. In fact, some recent polls record a significant decline. However, there is majority support for a referendum on constitutional change (including the implementation of Calman’s recommendations). Although the SNP’s wording would increase the ‘yes’ vote in a yes/no independence referendum, there is still not enough support. Indeed, people still do not think that independence is likely in the next twenty years. The most popular choice in a multi-option referendum would be ‘devolution with some tax powers’. Curtice then discusses evaluations of devolution. While many more people think devolution has had a positive rather than a negative impact, most believe it has made no difference. Since the election of the SNP, more people think that they are better represented in the Union and receive a fair share of UK spending. This may be ironic for a party seeking to foster a strong sense of grievance that might provide the basis of increased support for independence. Devolution also continues not to have any long-term impact on national identity. Finally, Curtice discusses the fortunes of parties and their leaders. Although the release of al-Megrahi was unpopular, it has created fewer difficulties for the SNP than some opposition politicians anticipated. The SNP still enjoys a lead over Labour in voting intentions for the Scottish Parliament (while the Greens may again emerge as an electoral force in 2011). There is also some prospect of significant SNP gains in Westminster in 2010 (and little sign that the Conservatives are making the gains we see in England). Labour’s showing in the European Parliament elections was disastrous and its vote was down from 2007 in local government by-elections. In contrast, the SNP’s share of the vote increased in both. Alex Salmond is still the most popular leader in Scotland and more popular than Gordon Brown and David Cameron

In The Scottish Parliament and Parties, Paul Cairney reports on a range of developments: the Scottish Parliament was only permitted to debate the release of al-Megrahi after the decision was made; Alex Salmond has again been cleared of misleading the Scottish Parliament; the draft annual budget has been published and although there are many likely flashpoints, previous experience of the budget crisis may reduce conflict this year; most of the major parties have struggled to maintain an image of unity during their party conferences and in the lead up to by-elections; few motions in the Scottish Parliament have put pressure on SNP policy; and, the Westminster expenses scandal continues to cast a shadow over Holyrood. Cairney also argues that Scottish Parliament committees are still not the ‘motor of a new politics’. They favour headline-grabbing short inquires over high-impact long term inquiries. One of the notable exceptions is the agenda on parliamentary scrutiny of the annual budget. Further, the number of Scottish Government bills has risen to 15, but many are short and only 6 can be traced directly and meaningfully to the SNP manifesto.

In Scottish Government and Public Policy, Cairney reports that: the neutrality and conduct of senior Scottish Government civil servants has come under considerable opposition party scrutiny; the agendas on public spending and expenses have focused attention to the size and cost of the Scottish public sector; there is still a clear difference in the UK and Scottish Government approaches to target setting for the public sector; the recession (and Diageo affair) has further exposed the limited levers the Scottish Government enjoys over the economy; the swine flu pandemic has exposed intergovernmental disagreement over treatment funding; the Scottish Government continues to build on tobacco controls and further the agenda on alcohol regulation; the parties continue to disagree over short term sentencing and progress made on police numbers, but have worked well together on sexual offences legislation; the SNP seems at its most vulnerable when defending its record on education; blame-avoidance may be more likely than earlier intervention in social work cases; the Climate Change Act introduces new targets to reduce emissions; Scottish crofting policy remains unresolved; new council housing may not be enough to address bigger problems of affordable and social rented housing; and, the new ‘Scottish Six’ may come from the STV, not the BBC

Finally, in Government Beyond the Centre, David Scott reports that, while relations between Scotland councils and the Scottish Government continue to be positive there is unease over policies like classroom sizes. He then considers key proposals published on affordable housing and the concern over the availability of sufficient funding, the Bill on local government elections that will allow the poll to be held on a separate day from Scottish Parliament elections and Scottish Government pilot plans for the first direct elections to health boards. Audit Scotland has published reports on public sector purchasing and asset management as well as Best Value audit reports on individual councils; and a Bill on public service reform aims to reduce the number of public bodies by eight and simplify the structure of the public sector.

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