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:


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