Crisis of the Union?

Update: the book is now out – and here is a pre-pub version of my chapter: Paul Cairney – A Crisis of the Union

Here is a link to a paper I gave to a joint CIPOL/SPERI Workshop entitled “UK Institutions, Crisis and the Response” at the University of Sheffield, 29 June 2012.  My paper is called “A Crisis of the Union? The Case of Constitutional Change in Scotland” and the introduction is below:

“The election of a majority Scottish National Party (SNP) Government in Scotland, following the election of a minority SNP Government in 2007, has the potential to reinforce a broader feeling of UK institutional crisis. The prospect of Scottish independence has triggered some concern about the potential emergence of a crisis of the Union in which Scottish independence forces the other devolved territories, and perhaps English regions, to reconsider the role and value of ‘the Union’ and what it stands for. However, this paper outlines three key qualifications to such arguments. First, the rise in support for the SNP has not been accompanied by a rise in support for independence (indeed, support for independence fell in 2007). Rather, the SNP’s popularity can be better explained in terms of valence politics factors such as its image of governing competence. Consequently, there may be a crisis of the union, but more in terms of an impending point of decision than a realistic possibility of a fundamental constitutional change.

Second, to a large extent, the ‘crisis of the Union’ is 15-20 years out of sync with important aspects of the modern debate on crisis in the UK. For example, the ‘conservative conception of crisis’ outlined in the introduction, regarding the general notion that politics has failed, was a key part of the ‘new politics’ narrative in the run up to the devolution referendums in 1997. The now-almost-forgotten ‘new politics’ was already about a ‘crisis’ of representative government. Indeed, perhaps ironically, the modern Scottish experience may provide a corrective to the idea that traditional representative democracy in the UK is under threat. The Scottish experience shows us that ‘new politics’ was little more than rhetoric and the Scottish Parliament has operated along Westminster lines despite being designed as a ‘consensus democracy’ with participative and deliberative elements. In other words, counter to the argument presented in the introduction, the alleged ‘more participatory or deliberative models practiced elsewhere’, such as Scotland, do not ‘offer a sharp corrective to the UK tradition’. Instead, the comparisons show us that such images of crisis may be universal or, at least, not specific to the UK experience. The same can be said for the universal constraints to serious challenges to representative government or a rise in participation. For example, any perceived challenge to the idea of a central government ‘club’ is offset by the limitations to such challenges, not least in terms of the limited extent to which the population (or key parts of it) can pay attention to modern governments with huge resources and responsibilities. Instead, what we may be witnessing is an unprecedented level of attention to a very small proportion of government business.

Third, the same sorts of crises associated with UK politics and representative government can be found in Scottish politics, suggesting that constitutional change does not represent a solution to such problems. For example, the Scottish Parliament had its own expenses scandal and ‘lobbygate’ experience several years before Westminster and it also has representatives with similar levels of ‘politics facilitating’ backgrounds (Keating and Cairney, 2006). “

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Filed under Scottish politics, Uncategorized

One response to “Crisis of the Union?

  1. Pingback: Scottish Independence: beware the Constitutional Convention? | Paul Cairney: Politics & Public Policy

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