Monthly Archives: January 2012


Here are the ‘talking points’ that I was asked to produce for the publication of my new book:

Argument 1: The World has Already Changed Since Scottish Devolution
a A Labour era has been replaced by a new SNP era in Scotland
b Labour dominated UK General Election results in Scotland for most of the post-war period
c Its success extended to early Scottish Parliament elections, but the more-proportional electoral system stopped it receiving enough seats to form a majority single party government
d A Labour-led Scottish Executive seemed inevitable for many years
e Labour lost the 2007 Scottish Parliament election to the SNP, which formed a minority government
f The SNP won a landslide Scottish Parliament election victory in 2011, securing a majority of seats and control of government and parliament
g The SNP wiped out Labour’s historical advantage, producing (in only 8 years) the sense of a new era in Scottish electoral politics

Argument 2: There is no such thing as ‘New Politics’
a Devolution was sold primarily as a way to solve the ‘democratic deficit’ when Scotland voted Labour but received a Conservative UK Government
b There was a residual feeling among devolution supporters that a successful ‘yes’ vote in the 1979 referendum would have saved Scotland from Thatcher rule from 1979-90 and Conservative rule from 1979-97
c The image of the UK Government was top-down and impositional, in a place with a strong tradition of collective action and consensus politics
d So, devolution would come hand in hand with new ways to foster that approach to politics
e The devolution agenda produced expectations about new forms of participation (e.g. a civic forum, a petitions system) and more consensual policymaking between parties, or between parliament and executive
f However, Scottish politics represents business as usual, with very few examples of new (and affective) forms of participation or new relationships between parties
g The government still governs and we still have government-versus-opposition
h This new reality, coupled with unrealistic expectations, produced a long spell of (particularly media) disillusionment about devolution and Scottish politics

Argument 3: Minority Government Made Little Difference to the Scottish Parliament
a Or at least , it made less of a difference than many expected
b From 1999-2007, Labour sought strength and stability in Parliament by forming a coalition with the Liberal Democrats, to maintain a majority of votes to ensure its legislative programme and avoid motions of no confidence
c From 2007-11 the SNP formed a minority government, more vulnerable to defeat and no confidence motions
d However, the SNP lasted the full 4 years
e It did not pursue some key measures (a referendum on independence; a reform of council tax; a minimum price on alcohol)
f However, it also passed a lot of legislation (over 40 bills, compared to the usual 50)
g More notably, it was able to pursue most of its objectives without recourse to Parliament, using finance, existing legislation, and its relationship with key organizations such as local authorities

Argument 4: The SNP appeared much more coherent in government – and benefited in the next election
a Labour traded strength/ stability in Parliament for reduced strength/ stability in government
b Its relationship within government was relatively convoluted
c The SNP cabinet was relatively small and able to act well as a collective body
d It was able to convey a sense of common purpose and efficiency not associated with 1999-2007
e Most policy is devolved to civil servants and negotiated with interest groups and other organizations. Governments operate best when recognizing that setup and providing the wider strategic framework in which those negotiations take place.
f The SNP Government maximized its impact by taking that high level strategic approach.
g This contributed to its image of governing competence, which became one of the key explanations for its huge success in 2011

Argument 5: Scottish-UK intergovernmental relations have been remarkably low key – and remain so, despite the arrival of the SNP and Conservatives
a 1999-2007 can be characterized as a period of informal IGR
b Formal mechanisms existed to resolve disputes and manage relations (the courts, the Joint Ministerial Committee, the Memorandum of Understanding and associated concordats between departments) but these were used rarely
c The governments resolved issues informally, through the Labour party and the civil service
d The SNP government did not produce a sea change in those relationships
e There were more disputes, but visible public disputes were still rare
f Nor did the election of a Conservative led UK government produce a new relationship in 2010
g The long term experience shows us the ‘logic of informal IGR’ in which the UK Government recognises the costs to top-down imposition (or merely disengages from devolution) and the Scottish Government picks its battles wisely or acknowledges its relatively less powerful position and limited room for formal dispute resolution in its favour
h This overall experience is qualified in chapter 5’s focus on two key sources of tension: the role of the Scottish Secretary (a UK government post) in Scottish affairs; and, the Scottish Government’s limited ability to engage in or influence EU affairs

Argument 6: The biggest SNP effect is on local government and policy implementation
a 1999-2007 produced a mixed picture of central-local relations
b There were some concerns that the Scottish Government would replace local government, even though local authorities largely supported devolution and enjoyed a better relationship with government than their counterparts in England
c The 1999-2007 relationship reflected that tension, with better consultation and more open access to devolved government sitting alongside key tensions on the funding and autonomy of local authorities
d The SNP government exploited that tense relationship, signaling an end to ‘top down diktats’ and freeing up local authorities to make more decisions on how they delivered and funded local policies
e Its concordat with COSLA (Convention of Scottish Local Authorities) summed up that shift. It involved the trade of more local autonomy for key commitments on aspects of education and, most politically importantly, to freeze local council taxes in preparation for the introduction of a new local income tax
f This shift of relationships is still unfolding, with interest groups now faced with the task of influencing not only one Scottish Government but also 32 local authorities

Argument 7: The Public wants more devolution, not independence
a Levels of Scottish national identity are relatively strong and remain strong; they have been affected little by devolution
b When given the choice between independence, more devolution or a return to the days of no Scottish Parliament, a plurality choose more devolution
c This changes little if we mess around with the question – about a third want independence and at least half want devolution or more devolution
d Independence sometimes gains a plurality of responses (not the majority, since too many people are undecided) if the question is asked in a particular way
e The question must refer to the negotiation of independence, not automatic independence
f The record of SNP Government has not changed these attitudes
g The 2011 election avalanche did not reflect a significant rise in support for independence
h Respondents generally suggest that devolution has made little difference to policy or their lives
i However, they do not blame Scottish institutions; rather, they want more devolution to make more difference
j They want a Scottish government to stand up for Scotland’s interests (even if few really know what this involves)
k This, and the SNP’s perceived record in office (and the status of its leader, Alex Salmond), helps explain SNP popularity – not support for independence
l Overall, the evidence suggests that the only way people will vote for independence is if the UK Government holds a snap poll (annoying the Scottish electorate and reminding them of the old top-down Conservative rule) and asks the electorate to make a yes/ no decision on independence. This will turn the process into a vote for the Scottish government over the UK government.
m That move might eventually be more popular in England, where there is some (but let’s not exaggerate it) rise in the perception that Scotland is doing disproportionately well out the of the Union
n In other news, the link between public opinion is often very weak indeed. This effect began almost immediately, with the Scottish Parliament putting leadership before opinion when deciding to abolish ‘section 28’. Few examples since then have produced a closer association between opinion and policy. Indeed, in key areas of public health (such as smoking and drinking), the Scottish Government appears more interested in changing rather than reflecting public opinion.

Argument 8: Evolution, not revolution, in public policy
a There was much talk before devolution about the need for ‘Scottish solutions to Scottish problems’ and the idea of Westminster having no time for Scottish legislation
b Hopes were high for policy innovation and new ideas
c At the same time, devolution was seen by many as a way to avoid policy innovation; to step off the train associated with the constant top-down reform agenda of the UK government
d The latter image is a better guide
e Public policy did not change dramatically after devolution, and did not mark dramatic policy divergence from the past or the rest of the UK
f There were key examples of divergence, including ‘free’ personal care for older people, the abolition of higher education tuition fees, the abolition of the healthcare internal market and the introduction of the single transferable vote in local elections
g There were also sources of policy change in areas such as housing stock transfer and anti-social behavior
h However, there was also a notable degree of policy continuity and pressure to converge with UK government policy
i The phrase ‘Scottish solutions to Scottish problems’ may relate more to how it processes policy than the actual policy outputs and outcomes

Argument 9: The much-maligned ‘Barnett formula’ has proved to be remarkably durable despite its lack of public support
a Scotland appears to enjoy a funding advantage, with more public money spent per head in Scotland than in most parts of England and Wales
b This advantage has become associated with the Barnett formula, even though the formula is not the cause of (and does not help protect) that advantage
c The Barnett formula represents a way to determine annual changes to the Scottish budget
d We identify (comparable) changes to English budgets and assign a Scottish share based on its share of the UK population
e If all else remains equal, and spending rises, the Barnett formula may in fact help reduce Scotland’s higher per capita rates of spending
f The pre- and post-devolved experience is that things do not remain equal and that other factors (including incorrect estimates of Scotland’s share of the UK population) have contributed to the maintenance of Scotland’s financial position
g This issue received relatively low attention in the first 10 years (or so) of devolution, when overall UK expenditure was high and rising
h It now receives more attention during the new age of economic austerity, but has yet to produce a new system in Scotland
i The experience shows us the importance of inertia in politics, where the status quo is difficult to shift when there is no agreement on what new system to introduce, hard choices have to made and any new system will produce vocal ‘losers’
j It exposes a contradiction of sorts, in which the UK Treasury remains a powerful actor in Scottish politics, determining the size of the Scottish budget but also providing a large budget and often giving little direction on how to spend it (with the exception of areas such as capital spending, where it limits the ability of devolved governments to pursue alternatives to public private partnerships)
k The Scottish Government does not have the equivalent of a Treasury and its control of the key economic levers are very limited

Argument 9: We are entering a new phase of constitutional fixation

a. The first half of devolution was characterized by relatively low attention to further constitutional change
b. Constitutional issues arose rarely and referred to the potential anomalies of devolution, including the ‘West Lothian’ question and the role of a UK Supreme Court in Scottish criminal justice
c. The prospect of an SNP election victory helped raise the constitutional question up the Scottish agenda
d. The 2007-11 period saw two reviews of the devolution settlement – the SNP’s National Conversation (seeking views on its preference for devolution) and the Scottish Parliament commissioned (and UK Government financed) Calman Commission review of devolution.
e. Both operated on parallel tracks, with limited engagement between the two
f. The National Conversation did not culminate in a referendum on independence, since the SNP did not have enough support in the Scottish Parliament to pass a referendum bill
g. The Calman Commission produced recommendations to extend devolution in a number of small ways (such as on airguns policy and the devolution of some taxes) and provide a new framework for the administration of Scottish income tax (allowing the Scottish Parliament to vary the rate by ten pence in the pound and obliging it to choose its income tax rate in a way not seen before)
h. The Scotland Bill may now be amended to reflect many of Calman’s recommendations, but the 2011 election result has complicated matters
i. A particular source of tension regards the Scottish Parliament’s scrutiny of the new Scotland Bill in the light of a new SNP majority on the relevant committee
j. Independence following a referendum is unlikely, but the referendum may result in a vote for further devolution or ‘devolution max’
k. Whatever the result, further devolution is likely to result in a very messy compromise, since no one is quite sure what further devolution will involve

Argument 10: Scottish devolution has been a success, but only if we measure success in a particular way
a. There are many ways to measure the success of devolution, from instant success, as soon as the Scotland Bill was passed in 1998, to almost no success, as the Scottish Parliament failed to live up to its billing as the symbol of new politics
b. If devolution is about a new form of politics, then it has been a failure – but we should not compare its actual operation with the unrealistic aspirations of its most naïve supporters
c. The often-peripheral role of the Scottish Parliament in the policy process should not detract from its new role as a source of light on the policymaking process in Scotland
d. Further, there is now a Scottish political system with its own institutions that are here to stay

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Independence Referendum: One for the Trainspotters

One of my students pointed out that the SNP commitment to hold the independence referendum in the second half of the 2011-16 parliamentary session is not in its 2011 manifesto. So, I checked and he is correct. Yet, both Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon (in the video above Curtice’s article) are very clear that they have an electoral mandate for that timetable. What this means is that the SNP made this commitment orally during the campaign itself. Specifically, Alex Salmond made the commitment during the BBC debate on May 1st. This was described by the Telegraph as a climb down to stop scaring potential voters, while the Daily Record reports in its class style: ‘After weeks of refusing to name a date, he said he wanted Scots to vote on breaking up Britain “in the second half of the parliament”‘. Salmond’s justification in the BBC debate was that the first half of the session would be taken up by scrutiny of the new Scotland Bill. In any case, it seems to have been well-known-enough during the campaign (certainly, all the main opposition parties and media knew about it) to justify recent statements, but it is one of those issues that makes us wonder what ‘the electorate’ is said to give a mandate to – the party in general or the manifesto in particular?

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The Independence Referendum – annoyance is important

I’m not much of a blogger, and you probably shouldn’t blog when you are annoyed (just like email), but I am annoyed and so I want to blog about the independence referendum chatter. What a pile of nonsense. Yes, that’s quite vague, but that is my overall feeling about the current debate. There is the usually excellent reasoning given by John Curtice about why David Cameron is pushing the issue now, in terms of current opinion polls and the window of opportunity to close the matter down. However, I don’t think there are many analyses about the basic link to the emotions on which we draw when we make major decisions. We make different decisions when we are annoyed. We make different decisions when we feel that we are being pressured or told what to do. We make different decisions when people tell us that we do not have the right to make decisions. Indeed, we might even make contrary choices simply because some people have told us to do otherwise. That is why David Cameron’s recent strategy seems so off the mark. In my mind, the only thing that will produce a ‘yes to independence’ vote is a combination of two things: (1) the referendum is held and controlled by the Conservative-led UK Government (since many Scots feel much more strongly about the Conservatives than they do about constitutional change); and, (2) it asks a stark yes/ no question about independence (since the best way to ensure a lower vote for independence is to offer further devolution instead). However, the more that this goes on, the more I think that the Conservative-led UK Government can screw it up without holding the referendum itself. All it has to do is keep banging on about the 18-month timetable of permission (just as Iron Lady is coming to our screens) and watch as a huge population of docile people suddenly get annoyed enough to vote ‘yes’. For anecdotal evidence, take me as a best case. When asked about this issue in private I say ‘I don’t care about independence’. When asked on academic panels, and I have to be more polite and sound more intelligent, I say ‘I really don’t think that independence will have a significant effect on our daily lives’. Yet, now, I DO care – and, if the vote was tomorrow, I would vote ‘yes’. Now, let’s say that I am am a relatively intelligent and thoughtful person, that I think carefully about major decisions and that, therefore, I am a decent ‘best case’ for either side. I have just said that a combination of David Cameron’s poor strategy, combined with being annoyed by commentators on Sky News saying ‘we English should have a say, too’ (the best response seems to be to consider a relationship in which one person wants out; the other person gets a say in how they divvy up their possessions, but not if they stay together), has made me want to vote ‘yes’ instantly. Now consider all those people who don’t study Scottish politics for a living and are much more likely to make an emotional decision backed on little evidence. Be careful not to open doors towards you, otherwise you will be knocked over by the stampede to the polling booths (or, in my case, first class post). My advice to unionists is simple: do not let anyone from the current (or, in the case of Michael Forsyth, former) UK Government near this issue (with the exception of civil servants negotiating the details behind closed doors). There may be few sparkling lights in the Scottish political class, but the fact that they are practicing their politics in Scotland and adapting to its environment is much more valuable than a smoother operator making pronouncements from on high.


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