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

2 responses to “Policy and Policymaking in the UK – chapter 1 draft 1

  1. Note to self: cultural policy, morality policy, …

  2. Pingback: What We Think We Know About Thatcher | Paul Cairney: Politics and Policy

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