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 or email

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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