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

2 responses to “Would an Independent Scotland Become a Consensus Democracy?

  1. Pingback: PAC conference notes | Paul Cairney: Politics and Policy

  2. Pingback: Stereotyping Political Systems | Paul Cairney: Politics and Policy

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