Monthly Archives: August 2013

‘Representing’ Scotland and the UK at Japan’s PSA

Here is a paper – Cairney JPSA 2013 – that I will present at the annual conference of the Japanese Political Science Association in September. The abstract is fairly academic (and perhaps quite familiar if you read much on this site):

Lijphart’s (1984; 1999) distinction between majoritarian and consensus democracies still has a major effect on the comparative study of British politics.  Although the UK literature generally supports a more consensual image of British policymaking, reflecting a common ‘European Policy Style’ identified by Richardson and colleagues in 1982, it is difficult to shake off Britain’s distinctive ‘majoritarian’ label. This image was reinforced by a Scottish devolution campaign in the 1990s which promoted a shift from a UK majoritarian to a devolved consensus democracy.  Flinders (2010) uses Lijphart’s framework to allege ‘bi-constitutionality’: the Scottish political system adopted the consensus democracy ideal while majoritarianism was maintained in UK politics.  The aim of this paper is to present an alternative comparison, focusing on their ‘policy styles’ or how they make and implement policy. The evidence suggests that consultation practices in Scotland and the UK are similar (and not very ‘majoritarian’), while the way they implement policy often differs.  Further, Scotland’s size, its government’s capacity and the attitudes of governing parties may be better explanations for distinctive Scottish practices than its new ‘consensus democracy’ institutions.  In this context, the paper focuses briefly on the effect of devolution on intergovernmental relations, highlighting a generally smooth relationship between the UK and Scotland, and the potential for a distinctive relationship between Scottish Government and local authorities.

One aspect of the comparison may have a broader appeal, relating to how we see ourselves and others see us. The interest of the Japanese audience (and paper givers on this panel) is in intergovernmental relations (IGR). It will be interesting to see if we mean the same thing by IGR. For me, it refers primarily to the interactions between the UK and devolved governments and so I discuss briefly the comparisons between the UK government’s respective relationships with devolved governments and interest groups (making the same argument about the general lack of top-down imposition). However, it may also refer primarily to central-local relations. Still, there is some room for doubt here. For me, a focus on central local produces the chance to compare the UK central-local-government relationships with central-local relation in Scotland. In other countries, it may be that the comparison would not arise because (a) there would be no equivalent to the Scottish level and (b) the assumption may be that Scotland is part of the ‘local’ (or, at a push, regional) not the ‘central’. I have started to take for granted that the Scottish level is the national level, only to find in international conferences that this status may not occur to other observers. This is not necessarily a nationalist point. Independence would solve this problem, but so too would a well-worded footnote.



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I don’t know what to do with this policy theory/ practice paper

This is a first for me. I have gotten used to churning out and publishing papers quickly – often after one (or none) conference presentations. However, this one has beaten me. I have presented it 4 times in 2 years but am no further forward about how to revise it or where to send it. My first thought was Public Administration, but maybe it will be described as too specific and too self indulgent for such a highly rated journal (although it does tick the box on academic-practitioner discussion). My second thought was Teaching Public Administration because it is dealing with the ‘teaching’ of policy theory to practitioners.  Any suggestions welcome, unless you just want to suggest that I shoosh.

Paul Cairney ICPP 4.6.13 How Can Policy Theory Inform Policymaking


Paul Cairney (2015) ‘How Can Policy Theory Have an Impact on Policy Making?’ Teaching Public Administration, 33, 1, 22-39 PDF

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A brief guide to people

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Filed under Academic innovation or navel gazing, Folksy wisdom, Social change

Policy and Policymaking in the UK – chapter 2 draft 1

Here is the first draft of the second chapter of my new book:

Chapter 2 20.8.13 Cairney Policy Policymaking UK (direct) (dropbox)

Please feel free to comment and share. The introduction and bullet points are at the bottom. Here are some more fiddly things that I have been thinking about when writing the chapter:

1. Is it OK to reference a blog by a think tank like the CPS? It’s not evil or anything, but I think that some people might be put off. Bias is a big thing these days don’t you know.

2. Can I still use the phrase ‘rule of thumb’ when the Daily Mail recently reinforced the myth that it refers to a rule about domestic violence? You’ll have to search that one or take my word for it.

3. At one point, am I providing a big list of concepts without enough of a structure?

4. I succumbed to temptation and used one of the most over-used phrases in social research: complex. Oh, it’s complex. Remember it’s complex. Have you considered complexity? Life’s not simple, don’t you know? I tried to make up for it with a little definition box which differentiates between complex-as-complicated and complex-as-system (with particular properties identified and used to compare with other complex systems). I have also placed (in chapter 1) my flag on the phrase ‘complex government’ – a term used remarkably infrequently given the amount of times those words are used on their own.

5. Does this video (minus the suppository problem) sum up comprehensive rationality nicely? (courtesy of NormBlog –

Chapter 2 Policymaking in the UK: What is Policy and How is it Made?

This chapter examines:

  • The meaning of ‘policy’ and ‘public policy’
  • How we categorise, measure and describe public policy
  • The differences between comprehensive and bounded rationality
  • The effect of bounded rationality on policymaking
  • The links between comprehensive rationality and the Westminster model
  • The differences in policymaking styles between the UK and devolved governments

‘Policy’ and ‘public policy’ are difficult to define, but our attempts to give them meaning are important. For example, some definitions refer explicitly to the actions of government, while others identify a wider range of actors. Some talk about the difference between what governments do and what they choose not to do. Some discuss the difference between a range of activities, from the general statement of intent to the actual policy outcome. Overall, these definitions show us that the policy process is complex; the inability of one, concise, definition to capture our field of study demonstrates that complexity.

Even if we can settle on a definition of public policy, we may struggle to measure it. ‘Public policy’ is a collection of policies made at different times and, in many cases, different organisations.  Even when we break policymaking down into particular areas and issues, we find that policy is a collection of different instruments. In some cases, these instruments may be used to form a coherent strategy. For example, high taxes may be combined with public education and regulations on tobacco advertising to discourage smoking. In others, individual instruments may be used by different organisations with insufficient thought about how they will combine. For example, a Department for Education may face problems when coordinating the transition from key educational stages involving different actors (including early years, primary, secondary, and post-compulsory). This is a more regular feature of fragmented policymaking, in which different government departments may be responsible for individual aspects of policy and have different ideas about how to solve the problem. For example, in mental health, a high profile Home Office policy on detaining people with mental illnesses before they commit serious crimes may conflict with a Department of Health focus on challenging mental health stigma. Consequently, the ‘what is policy?’ question has an important practical element. To know what policy is in each area, we must know how to categorise, measure and describe a wide range of government activities.

This question also informs our discussion of how policy is made. The unrealistic idea of a single, coherent, policy strategy can be linked to ‘comprehensive rationality’ in which a single authoritative policymaker is at the heart of the process. This ideal-type is a traditional starting point for policy studies – as a way to highlight the implications of bounded rationality. For example, policymakers may respond to their own limitations by developing shortcuts to gather information, engaging in incremental rather than radical policy change (to address their uncertainty about the effects of their policies), and/ or focusing on some issues at the expense of most others (Simon, 1976; Lindblom 1959; 1979; Baumgartner and Jones, 1993).

A key aspect of comprehensive rationality is that the policy process is linear; there is a clear beginning and end, reached through a series of steps.  Policymaking is also cyclical – the end of one process marks the beginning of another. ‘Policy cycle’ sums up this process. It involves breaking policy down into a series of stages including agenda setting, policy formulation, legitimation, implementation and evaluation. This overall image of policymaking is now less popular in academic research, but there is still considerable attention to individual stages – including the difference between formulation and implementation, the role of bodies other than Parliament in legitimation, and the politics of evaluating the success of policy.

A final important aspect of comprehensive rationality is that it demonstrates important similarities and differences between the UK and other political systems. On the one hand, we can associate its emphasis on sole, central control with the Westminster model’s focus on the centralisation of power in the core executive. In that context, a focus on bounded rationality shows us the practical limits to executive power. On the other, we find that policymakers in all political systems face similar constraints. A focus on bounded rationality shows us that governments are subject to universal policy processes that often produce common patterns of policymaking despite important differences in their institutional design. We can demonstrate these points by comparing the policymaking styles of the UK and devolved governments. In particular, the Scottish system was designed, in part, to diverge from ‘old Westminster’ – but UK and Scottish policy styles are often rather similar.


Filed under agenda setting, public policy, Scottish politics, UK politics and policy

Fact: Social Construction is Briliant

dawkins tweet


A very short note on Richard Dawkins’ tweet because I am easily distracted. I’m going to call all these facts, which means that they are not facts (although we might call them self-evident):

1. Fact: no one is omniscient.

2. Fact: we can’t perceive or know everything at once (that’s point 1 said in a different way).

3. Fact: we pay attention to some facts and ignore others.

4. Fact: no two people have the same fingerprints (unless they do – it’s just an analogy).

5. Fact: no two people pay the same attention to the same facts.

6. Fact: so, each person perceives the world in a different way, based on the things to which they pay attention and ignore.

7. Fact: this prior knowledge informs their belief system which influences the ways in which they gather facts.

8. Fact: people generally gain this knowledge is particular settings, including schools. They are given facts and often asked to accept them on trust. You don’t go to school and the teacher says ‘what do you think about gravity?’. They say ‘this is a fact and you’ll damn well believe it, sonny/ missy’.

9. Fact: different groups present facts in different ways, so people learn in different ways and different groups end up perceiving the real world in all sorts of different ways. Then they go on twitter and often make an arse of themselves during aimless arguments.

10. Fact: you can make all these points without concluding that all opinions are equally valid. My belief is what counts, mate – socially constructed or not (fact: the assertion that I am right is an exercise of power to put the idiots in their place).

11. Fact: people who talk about social construction aren’t all arses using big words to look clever. Some of them are, but you would expect that with the law of averages (fact).

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Social Change and Our Part in It

Major social change takes decades, generations or centuries to complete. It results from millions of interactions between people, institutions and their social environments. There are two things we can take from that:
1. The role of the individual is minuscule. Any action we take as individuals, as groups; any small action by government will have almost no effect. So, let’s not bother.
2. If social change consists of millions of conversations and actions, nothing will change unless that process plays out. You may, as an individual, play a tiny part in social change but, if many people share your values, you are part of a wider movement that may initiate long term change.
I say this because it is annoying on twitter to hear constantly from people that something won’t work. People will still behave in the same way, only somewhere else. You don’t change someone’s mind overnight. No, of course not – but you can change minds over generations. You can look back at iconic, inspirational figures and see that they were part of something important. You can see if your actions grab attention, inspire others and set something in motion. The chances are that your actions will have a tiny effect if viewed in isolation, but a massive effect if viewed alongside the actions of those you inspired and those who share your project.
If change results from a million social exchanges, be the first to initiate that exchange. Inspire others to do the same. Learn from each other and support each other, then look back in 50 years (not 5 minutes) and see if you made a difference.

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A Guide to the use of ‘Nationalism’ and ‘Scottish nationalism’ on Twitter

If you find it confusing to hear someone describe themselves as pro-independence but not a ‘nationalist’, this explanation is for you. Let’s break it down into stages:

1. Nationalism is defined in very different ways. Even the Oxford English Dictionary gives you a wide range, from the belief in self-determination to the belief that some nations are privileged by God –
2. You can argue that people who support Scottish independence are, by definition, nationalists – if you adopt this OED definition: “advocacy of or support for national independence or self-determination”.
3. However, this definition is complicated in the following ways:
A.    Some people don’t like to be described as nationalists because it can be used pejoratively; as a short hand for bigot (the ethnic, rather, than the civic kind of nationalism – in which a person believes that one social group is superior to another).
B.     Some people don’t like to be called nationalists because some other people are determined to use it pejoratively; largely as a synonym for idiot. If they are going for more effect, they will shorten it to ‘nat’ or ‘cybernat’, to give you the image of a social deviant addicted to abusing people on twitter. Only in a tiny proportion of cases will someone say ‘nat’ simply because they are short of characters.
C.     Some people support Scottish independence for pragmatic reasons. They favour the idea of subsidiarity (taking government as close as possible to a local population or area – so it could be Northern Britain or a Scottish region or island) and see Scottish independence as the best they are going to get just now.
4. ‘Scottish nationalism’ may also refer to something that underpins the independence debate: survey respondents in Scotland express unusually high levels of Scottish national identity – however you ask the question (much more than their counterparts in England, Wales and Northern Ireland) (click the table to expand). Seeing yourself as Scottish (not British) or more Scottish than British seems to make you more likely to favour further constitutional change – but that link is not inevitable. Indeed, a key debate (when people aren’t simply finding euphemisms to describe other people as idiots) is about the implications of these figures – do enough people feel British enough to help maintain the Union?
national identity table 12.1

UPDATE: @TomHarrisMP put me on to this:


Filed under Scottish politics

Would an Independent Scotland Become a Consensus Democracy?

I have co-authored a paper with Anders Widfeldt on Scottish politics and policymaking, with the magnificently catchy title:
Comparing Politics and Policymaking in Sweden and the UK: Can we say that Scotland
is a Scandinavian-style Consensus Democracy and a UK-style Majoritarian Democracy?
 Part of it is for academics and students interested in concepts such as majoritarian and consensus democracies, and the paper spends some time clarifying the meaning of those terms.
 Another part is for people interested in the future of Scottish politics. It taps into the vague idea that Scottish politics should be more like Nordic or Scandinavian politics. These countries (and Sweden, Denmark and Norway in particular) often have this image as ‘consensus democracies’. In the lead up to the referendums in 1997 and 2014 we can identify (to some extent – I don’t want to exaggerate it) references to their political systems and their policies as something to aspire to (maybe Nordic Horizons is the best current example). So, the paper is about trying to work out what that means when applied to Sweden. The paper claims, at various points, that it ‘informs current debates regarding the nature of an independent Scottish political system’ but really doesn’t go into the specifics. So, this blog post will fill in some of those blanks by asking two questions:
 1. What would it take for an independent Scotland to become more like Sweden?
Here are some things we associate with Sweden:
  • Cross-party negotiation: a meaningful degree of cooperation between government and opposition groups before and after legislation is introduced to Parliament. This does not happen in Scotland, which still has a Westminster-style government/ opposition culture; opposition parties do not get much involved before a bill reaches Parliament. The odd debate on this topic has arisen since devolution, but the Swedish style continues to be rejected to maintain traditional Westminster lines of accountability between government and parliament. So, to be more like Sweden, Scotland would have to give up its existing parliamentary style. I can’t see this happening, not least because MSPs and parties are relatively proud of their committee system in which they scrutinise policy by gathering evidence and examining witnesses. Swedish-style cross-party negotiation generally takes place before a bill is introduced, so the Scottish-style evidence gathering role is not as important.
  • Commissions of inquiry: a meaningful degree of cooperation between government, interest groups (and other participants) and political parties, as policy is processed initially by civil servants. Sweden is also associated with corporatism, or relatively close relationships between government, business and labour groups during economic policymaking. If we take out the role of opposition parties, the Scottish and UK Governments have often-similar systems. Most policy is made by civil servants in consultation with groups at a level of government not particularly visible to the public, Parliament and senior policymakers. The difference may largely be in the detail and the formality of the process (and, at various stages, the corporatism).
  • Universalism and the Welfare State? When many people look to Sweden, it may be more for its policies than its policymaking. We often associate Sweden with high-tax-high-spend policies and an extensive welfare state with universal coverage. So, current debates in Scotland are often about the extent to which we can afford to maintain a universal system (or, more likely, political parties do not discuss these issues for fear of losing popularity if they jump first).
2. Is Sweden Like That Anyway?
A big part of the paper suggests that the modern Sweden isn’t like the old Sweden – that we are making our comparisons with an old romantic caricature. The world has changed, and Sweden has changed as a result. Some things to consider in that vein:
  • Corporatism is mostly associated with a period of economic growth, prosperity and the sense that ‘everyone benefits and everyone pays’. It also came at a time when the government could really influence its economy and the businesses that operated in Sweden. ‘Globalisation’ has undermined that ability and the incentive of businesses to take part in old processes.
  • Commissions of inquiry have reduced in number and intensity.
  • Issues such as immigration have exacerbated social tensions and made consensus-style agreements more difficult to produce.
  • The Social Democrat government, so central to Sweden’s old image, does not dominate elections in the way it used to
  • Sweden has had recent bouts of majority government (largely during Scotland’s minority spell)
Overall, we can say that there are some meaningful comparisons to be made. For example, the politics of Scotland and Sweden may often be similar because they are not countries with huge populations – the process is more manageable than for the UK as a whole. Further, in an independent Scotland, we could make more meaningful comparisons with a country that controls the high politics (foreign, defence, economic) as well as the low. In the meantime, let’s not make meaningless comparisons. Scotland will never look like a Swedish-style consensus democracy if we compare it to a Sweden that no longer exists.


Filed under public policy, Scottish politics, UK politics and policy

Policy and Policymaking in the UK – chapter 1 draft 1

Here is the first draft of the first chapter of my new book:
Please feel free to comment and share. I really mean that. I may need help (particularly with the substantive chapters).
I hope to write the chapters in order and to have the conceptual chapters (2-6) finished by the end of the summer. The rest of it seems more daunting. These books are usually edited volumes, but I wanted to write something that had more coherence, with a single author explaining and comparing the policy areas. It will either make me a super-specialist or ruin my career.
In the spirit of post-under-1000 words, I have copy and pasted the first 1000 words and then left it like a cliff hanger.
Introduction: how is policy made in the UK?
It is tempting to think that the policy process in the UK is chaotic and in continuous crisis. In fact, we have many crises from which to choose, including: economic, in which governments face recession, banking collapses, huge debts and ‘tough choices’ about cuts to public services; security, in which governments respond to terrorist threats in their own countries and consider going to war with others; energy, when there are high prices and shortages of supply; public service, whenever a health, social care, police or education service is found to be underfunded or underperforming; representative, when elected politicians become embroiled in scandals about their expenses and conduct; and, constitutional, when governments consider making major changes to the United Kingdom and European Union.
These issues are important, but this impression of chaos is also self-fulfilling; we collectively generate a sense of crisis by paying so much attention to so few aspects of government. The consequence is that most other government activity is performed with almost no media or public attention. So, the policy process is an odd collection of issues which generate high levels of attention, involving many actors, and issues that are processed almost completely out of the public spotlight, involving very few. Or, some issues receive disproportionate attention at one stage of development, only to be ignored at another – despite being just as important as they were in the past (Hogwood, 1987).
How do we make sense of such a policymaking system? Let’s begin by considering how policy appears to be made in the UK. This is not an easy task for two main reasons. First, there may be important differences between the design of political systems and their operation in practice. This is a key point to remember when we compare the UK with other political systems – a key tenet of policy studies is that systems may have been designed in rather different ways, only to operate similarly because policymakers face very similar pressures and problems. Second, political systems are complex; we need to simplify them to describe and understand them. Any simple description of the policy process will be partial, describing only a small number of features and ignoring others. This outcome is inevitable but also frustrating; we are left with the idea that something is missing and that we do not see the big picture. So, it is useful to generate several accounts and to compare them, to give ourselves a range of expectations and explanations of policymaking on which to draw.
A simple, optimistic, account relates policymaking to the wishes of the public: political parties engage each other in a battle of ideas, to attract the attention and support of the voting public; the public votes every 4-5 years; the winner forms a government; the government turns its manifesto into policy; and, policy choices are carried out by civil servants and other bodies. In other words, there is a clear (albeit infrequent) link between public preferences, the strategies and ideas of parties and the final result.
To this basic description, we can add some ideas associated with the Westminster model and the UK’s reputation as a ‘majoritarian’ democracy (Lijphart, 1999). The UK has a plurality (‘first past the post’) voting system which tends to exaggerate support for, and give a majority in Parliament to, the winning party. It has an adversarial style of politics and a ‘winner takes all’ mentality which tends to exclude opposition parties. The executive resides in the legislature and power tends to be concentrated within government (unlike the US system with checks and balances) – in ministers that head government departments and the Prime Minister who heads (and determines the members of) Cabinet. The government is responsible for the vast majority of public policy and it uses its governing majority, combined with a strong party ‘whip’ (a system used to make sure that most Members of Parliament vote according to the ‘party line’), to make sure that its legislation is passed by Parliament.
In other words, this narrative suggests that the UK policy process is centralised and that the arrangement reflects a ‘British political tradition’: the government is accountable to public, via Parliament, on the assumption that it is powerful and responsible. It takes responsibility for public policy and acts in a ‘responsible’ way, often making ‘strong, decisive, necessary action, even when opposed by a majority of the population’ (Blunkett and Richards, 2011).
A simple, pessimistic, account may identify the lack ofaccountability to the public: politics is too far removed from ‘the people’ because politicians make decisions in relative isolation. Part of this account relates to the UK political system in particular, since it may be associated with a ‘top-down’ mentality and ‘one way traffic from those governing (the Government) to those being governed (society)’ (Richards and Smith, 2002: 3). The behaviour of its political class was also highlighted by a major expenses scandal in 2009 (Pattie and Johnston, 2012; Vivyan et al, 2012). Another part highlights a general disenchantment with the politics of representative democracies; policymaking is described as elitist, carried out by a powerful political class that is too far removed from the general public to know how best to govern (Stoker, 2006; Hay, 2007; Flinders, 2012; prompting various ideas for reform, including the greater inclusion of underrepresented groups such as women – Ashe et al, 2010; Krook, 2006). Or, policymaking is a battle for election but not of ideas, since the main political parties tend to present similar ideas and compete to demonstrate their relative governing competence (Green, 2007).
Perhaps confusingly, we can also identify accounts which make the opposite case: that politicians are too likely to ‘pass the buck’ to other organisations and that no-one seems to be …….


Filed under agenda setting, public policy, UK politics and policy