I am part of the new ESRC Scottish Centre for Constitutional Change which begins work from Monday for two years on a large set of projects relating to constitutional change in Scotland. Here is a brief outline of part of its focus:
Constitutional change agendas in Scotland produce ‘windows of opportunity’ to discuss the future of Scottish politics and policymaking. In the 1990s, the devolution agenda was used by organisations such as the Scottish Constitutional Convention to propose major political reforms – associated with the phrase ‘new politics’ – regarding the role of government, parliament, interest groups and the public in politics. The independence agenda has prompted similar proposals from organisations such as the Electoral Reform Society, recommending more local forms of public participation, and the ‘Common Weal’ project, recommending corporatism (close cooperation between government, business groups and unions) and greater popular participation, as part of radical reforms of Scotland’s social and economic organisation. The common theme is the idea that a Scottish government can produce a distinctive ‘policy style’ (the way that it makes and implements policy). This style may be used to pursue an alleged social and democratic tradition in Scotland that has much more in common with the ‘consensualism’ of the Nordic countries than the ‘majoritarianism’ of the UK. Yet, the experience of devolution suggests that Scottish politics shares many features with its Westminster counterpart. Both systems are driven by government, with Parliaments performing a limited scrutiny role. Public participation is limited largely to Scottish Parliament and UK General elections. Many of the differences between Scottish and UK practices – such as a more ‘bottom up’ approach to public service delivery, in which local authorities are given more autonomy – may result from the Scottish Government’s size and policy capacity rather than its distinctive culture.
In this context, we examine a future Scottish Government’s ability to make policy in a distinctive way, in partnership with the main social partners (business, unions, the third sector), public sector bodies and professions, the public and the Scottish Parliament to elaborate shared long-term goals. We identify policymaking constraints which are specific to Scotland (including its size and responsibilities) and common to all systems (including the limited resources of policymakers and a challenging economic context which may undermine some types of policy innovation). We draw on the experience of devolution to paint a realistic picture of potential changes in policy and policymaking and use these insights to examine the Government’s ability to pursue major reforms. We focus on socioeconomic policies which rely on its ability to link taxation policy to spending priorities and policy outcomes. We use ‘preventative spending’ as a case study, examining policy outcomes and linking them to the policies of governments. This area is a key test of the ability of a small government to pursue ‘holistic’ government by bringing together a range of departments and organisations to consider the reinforcing (or undermining) effect of a range of policies on each other – and the need to cooperate in a meaningful way, with a range of organizations, to secure shared policy aims.
Grant Jordan and I produced an article which sums up this argument: policymaking in the UK is nothing like the ‘Westminster model’ suggests. The UK is often described, rather lazily, as ‘majoritarian’, which suggests power is centralised and used to make policy from the top down. The Thatcher era, and slogans such as ‘there is no alternative’ and ‘the lady’s not for turning’, sum up this idea. This is a very misleading image of the UK in which policy tends to be made at low levels of government, with civil servants consulting routinely with organizations such as interest groups. Some policies may be introduced with minimal consultation, but they are not typical. The handy thing is that Thatcher also made this argument. Compare our argument with Thatcher’s letter to Hayek:
“the concept of ‘elective dictatorship’ (coined by Lord Hailsham in 1976) using parliamentary majorities was so worrying within the political class because it was seen as an abuse of the democracy-with-consent principle. For Lijphart, elective dictatorship is the essence of British arrangements, but the desire for consent means that majoritarian systems are far nearer consensus democracies than Lijphart allowed. The drive for consent and the premium placed on consultation are key features of the unwritten constitution. Although the idea of ‘constitutional morality’ is nebulous (Flinders, 2010, p. 289), it still underpins British government” (Jordan and Cairney, 2013: 249-50).
I have spent a fair amount of time arguing that the UK political system does not live up to its ‘majoritarian’ image. I mostly do it when comparing ‘new Scottish politics’ with ‘old Westminster’ and have recently extended the analysis to the ‘consensus’ Sweden. However, it has become a bit like getting rid of the bubbles in wallpaper: just as I feel like I’ve smoothed one out, up pops another. This time it’s Japan, after I found this (yes, I know it’s taken a while): Japan’s ‘Un-Westminster’ System. It contains a very interesting discussion about the need for prime ministers in Japan to negotiate with parties and bureaucrats to secure major reforms. So far, so good. However, then, it makes the assumption that they don’t do this sort of thing in the UK. No one needs to negotiate because power is concentrated in the centre. The more general sense I get is that many studies simply assume that Japan’s system contains unusual sources of inertia and/ or incrementalism without making sure that the UK lacks those elements (see pp104-6 on incrementalism UPP pp104-6 from Understanding Public Policy) . Instead the comparison is between real life Japan – with case studies of, say, expectations and implementation gaps – and fairytale UK. It will keep me in work for years.
Today’s Daily Mail has this brilliant piece by Simon Heffer in which he argues that “Since the mid-Nineties I have been convinced that England and Scotland would benefit from a divorce, or at least from a trial separation. Many Scots don’t much like the English and appear ungrateful for everything that England does for them in showering them with money”. There hasn’t been a storm as such – perhaps because if people spend their time calling each other arseholes they won’t pay much attention to someone calling them scroungers – although there is a reasonable-in-comparison reply on the blog of the Yes campaign.
Some people on twitter have pointed out that this piece appeared on the front page of the main London edition but not at all in the Scottish edition:
Look at the front page of today's English Daily Mail and then the Scottish edition – shockingly cowardly journalism pic.twitter.com/Yhyv66xwFx
The World Health Organization (WHO) Framework Convention for Tobacco Control (FCTC) is one of the most widely accepted treaties in the United Nations system. It represents an attempt by governments to address the global tobacco epidemic. It contains a ‘comprehensive’ set of measures to reduce the demand for, and supply of, tobacco products worldwide. In most countries, it has prompted an increase in the number and depth of policy instruments. It primarily sets the agenda for change rather than providing the means to ensure the domestic implementation of policy. Implementation has been uneven; it is more evident in ‘developed’ than ‘developing’ countries. We identify the policy processes that would have to change to ensure more successful global implementation.
The number of policies adopted across the globe has increased markedly since the negotiation of the FCTC. However, the implementation of policy has been uneven. The developed-developing country distinction provides an important way to describe this outcome, since most progress has been made in developed countries. However, it does not explain the uneven implementation of the FCTC; ‘development’ is not the causal factor. We synthesise the public policy literature to identify the key causal factors . We identify the most relevant characteristics of the policy processes within ‘leading’ countries with the most comprehensive tobacco control: their department of health has taken the policy lead (replacing trade and treasury departments); tobacco is ‘framed’ as a pressing public health problem (not an economic good); public health groups are more consulted (often at the expense of tobacco companies); socioeconomic conditions (including the value of tobacco taxation, and public attitudes to tobacco control) are conducive to policy change; and, the scientific evidence on the harmful effects of smoking and secondhand smoking are ‘set in stone’ within governments. These factors tend to be absent in the countries with limited controls. We argue that, in the absence of these wider changes in their policy environments, the countries most reliant on the FCTC are currently the least able to implement it.
Let me tell you a story about a handsome ginger 40 year old man at a conference in Japan. He’s the quiet, mumbling Scot type and he either likes to keep himself to himself or be warned if he has to do something super social like give a speech to over 100 academics at a conference. So, just on the off chance that he wins this lottery, he asks a friendly colleague ‘are there speeches at this reception?’ The reply was to the effect that some people from other countries may *want * to give a speech, but you’re OK. So, your man relaxes a bit and goes along prepared to stand and look pretty for a while. You can see where this is going, can’t you? He meets the nice chair of the exchange committee who asks him to give a speech. OK, sure, why not? Maybe for a few seconds or a minute? Well, maybe 2-3 minutes. Now, this young fellow (yes, 40 is young; yes, it is) is remarkably non-nervous because he has given all manner of inadequate speeches in his time. So, nothing remarkable there. But here’s the thing: he can see, from the other speeches, that the microphone is not amplifying well and people are not really listening to the other speeches. Plus, even if they were listening, they would really have to be within earshot and really, really trying to listen to be able to hear. So, he gets introduced and goes up to say his name, where he’s from, and to thank his colleagues for inviting him – which takes, say, 6 seconds. Then he hands back the microphone and everyone gets on with their evening. Now, I reckon he reckons that it is possible that no-one heard what he said. On that basis, my question to you is; did the speech exist?
UPDATE: Here are a couple of pictures to prove I was there at some point. These were taken after I gave my paper and everyone had left
I can’t give you an answer yet, but here is a draft abstract and then an explanation for the question.
‘Regionalism’ can be defined broadly as the pursuit or creation of a governing tier between central and local government. The experience of regionalism in the UK – and Scottish devolution in particular – has attracted significant academic and policymaker attention in Japan. It has the potential to provide important lessons, particularly if the regionalism agenda is expanded in Japan. However, the policy transfer literature suggests that lesson-drawing will not be successful unless the borrowing government understands how and why policy developed in the lender – and if that experience is comparable to its own. Consequently, we must first consider the comparability of their political systems and their reasons to pursue regionalism. In the case of Scotland, devolution arose largely from local demand for a degree of governing autonomy. Unlike in Japan, there was minimal impetus from the centre and minimal discussion by central government of an economic development or public sector reform imperative. It is therefore difficult to assess regionalism as an economic project directed by the state (the experience of English regions may be more relevant). However, we can identify two relevant issues. First, the UK experience shows what it takes to create and sustain popular support and legitimacy for regionalism: it has been possible recently in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland but not until the 1990s and not in England. Second, the Scottish experience demonstrates the ability of the Scottish Government to develop its own policymaking networks (‘territorial policy communities’) and governing styles – and both may contribute to the ability of regions to coordinate policies promoting social and economic development.
The draft paper came from this series of events: (1) I was asked by the National Diet of Japan to go there in November to talk about regionalism in Europe, and the UK/ Scotland in particular; (2) I knew, from my work on policy transfer, that I could only give relevant advice if I knew why they wanted the information and how comparable were the Japan/ UK experiences – i.e. there is no point in learning lessons from others if they don’t apply to you; (3) I knew that I knew very little about Japanese politics and policymaking; (4) I got together with Mikine Yamazaki to produce a more meaningful paper based on his knowledge of Japan (and Scotland) and mine of the UK. I’m in Hokkaido just now (to give a paper at the Japanese Political Science Association annual conference), so that has given us the chance to talk it through in person (which proved very valuable indeed).
I recommend this sort of thing. It’s very much like interdisciplinary work – the need to know so much about how to explain your specialist area (in my case to MPs, National Diet research staff, and members of the public) really forces you to think – in a more fundamental way – about the things you would ordinarily take for granted when communicating with a smaller group in your familiar networks. This is high bar work which, I think, will also improve the more straightforward work.
The prospect of Scottish independence, or major constitutional change, provides a ‘window of opportunity’ for other political reforms. People feel, quite rightly, that now is the time to push their ideas, as part of a package of reforms unlikely to be repeated for a generation. It’s now or never (or, at least, much later). You can see that in today’s Herald piece ‘A chance to revitalise our local democracy’ which pushes for more devolution of powers to local government (or, at least, those in Glasgow and the islands councils) – a push that is broadly supported by the ERS’ Democracy Max. Perhaps the difference is that the ERS considers this idea as part of a whole package, which is better than considering each bit on a separate day. Still, there are at least two unresolved issues to consider alongside such reforms:
1. What would be the role of the Scottish Parliament? Currently, Scotland has a fairly traditional Westminster system in which the Scottish Government is accountable to the Scottish Parliament. The experience of 14 years of devolution (and the last 6 in particular) is that the Parliament struggles to hold the Government to account because: (a) it does not get enough information about what is going on; and, (b) local authorities say they are not accountable to the Parliament because they have their own elections and mandates. This is despite the idea that Scottish Parliamentary committees are ‘powerful’ in relation to their Western European counterparts. More devolution to local authorities would exacerbate this tension between local and national accountability. In turn, it should prompt us to think about what the Parliament is there to do. Is it there to consider the Scottish Government’s broad strategies or should it get its hands dirty looking at the outcomes?
2. What would be the role of Scottish-level groups? The evidence to date suggests that most ‘lobbying’ to the Scottish Government and Parliament is done by (a) other parts of Government and (b) professional and interest groups – representing local authorities, local authority professions, the medical and health professions, businesses, business groups, the third sector, and so on. When policy is made at the Scottish level, those groups organise at the Scottish level – establishing bases in or near Edinburgh and spending their ‘lobbying’ time in consultation with civil servants. One consequence of devolving power locally is that these groups must reorganise, to shift from lobbying one national government to 32 local governments. For example, the SCVO role may shift from a national voice for hundreds of small groups to a national resource to aid those groups when they engage locally. There is nothing wrong with that, but it should prompt us to consider the local dynamics of consultation in at least two ways. First, there are likely to be clear winners and losers in this new setup. The well-resourced professional groups will be OK. However, the groups working on a shoestring budget, with one or two members of paid staff, only able to lobby the Scottish Government and Parliament, will struggle. In other words, the reforms may benefit the ‘usual suspects’. Second, who will take the place of the smaller groups? The ERS’ suggestion is that more local devolution produces a more active local population, but we need to know more about how and why people organise. It seems intuitive that local communities may organise on an ad hoc way to address major issues in their area, but the thing about professional groups is that they have a constant presence and that they often get a handle on the details of policies over time (at a level, such as Scotland, which allows a relatively efficient way of doing things, with fewer overlaps).
I won’t be doing a powerpoint at the PAC conference today. So, if you like something in front of you, here are my powerpoint-like bullet points. If you want to look like the Observer in Fringe, you can always try to deliver my talk a few seconds before me. Or, just wait for the end and deliver the final line, which is quite the bombshell.
So, I went to a session at #apsa2013 on Lipsky and Street Level Bureaucrats (no, Lipsky wasn’t there) and it got me to thinking about a partial shift of thinking in this area. Consider my summary of Lipsky in Understanding Public Policy (p37):
Lipsky (1980) argues that policy is, to a large extent, made by the ‘street-level bureaucrats’ (including teachers, doctors, police officers, judges, and welfare officers) who deliver it. Bureaucrats are subject to an immense range of, often unclear, requirements laid down by regulations at the top, but are powerless to implement them all successfully (1980: 14). In other words, this is not necessarily an argument based on ‘disobedience’: committed workers do not have the resources to fulfil all of their job requirements (1980: xii). Instead, they use their discretion to establish routines to satisfy a proportion of central government objectives while preserving a sense of professional autonomy necessary to maintain morale. The irony is that the cumulative pressure associated with central government policy effectively provides implementers with a degree of freedom to manage their budgets and day-to-day activities. Therefore, policy change at the top will not necessarily translate to change at the bottom.
For me, the suggestion is that the routines are based on professional norms; each profession has its own formal and informal means to encourage professionals to act in a particular way. However, a lot of the discussion was about more modern studies of SLBs and a shift to a focus on street level organizations (SLOs). The argument here is that: (a) much of this work is now done by quasi or non-governmental organisations; (b) the rise of new public management has led to attempts to regulate that policy delivery through measures such as targets, contract management and performance management. It ties in neatly with the idea of a shift from government to governance which, in this case, refers to a shift from direct to indirect public service delivery. The phrase – from Evelyn Brodkin – that stuck with me is that performance management reduces policy down to a few aspects of the law. If I understood this correctly, it points to an important change in the Lipsky-style argument. When, under direct government delivery, the SLBs were the people reducing policy down into a smaller number of manageable acts, this role is often now performed by people higher up the chain when setting performance related targets. It reminded me of the ‘regulatory state’ style argument which speaks to the tension between professional discretion and rules-based action. This idea tied in neatly with another paper (Rubin/ Chiques) at the panel which suggested that there were fewer people in SLOs delivering policy with discretion. Rather, there were layers of management responsible for dealing with targets (although still, of course, there is an element of discretion when organisations game the system to meet targets). This informed the first paper (Schram et al) which talked about the routines evident in welfare policy work. Some of it was about familiar indicators of discretion to do with categorising people so that they didn’t lose out on social security payments. Some of it was about the routines associated simply with meeting targets and performing semi-automated tasks. So, Schram talked about a ‘dehumanising’ need to meet numerical targets and a form of discretion that was often ‘wide, not deep’. The papers were US based but the focus on a shift from direct delivery, by professions, to targets-based service delivery by quangos and/ or non-governmental organisations are relevant to countries like the UK.
The article examines the intended, current and future role of the Scottish Parliament. First, it examines the intended role of the Scottish Parliament, as described initially by the Scottish Constitutional Convention (which put forward a vision for the Scottish political system), the UK Government (responsible for the White Paper on devolution and the Scotland Act 1998) and the Consultative Steering Group (which designed the Scottish Parliament’s principles and procedures). It suggests that the current operation of the Scottish Parliament has been influenced more by the UK Government’s design, which stresses the traditional role of parliament to provide scrutiny and accountability, even though the SCC set the agenda for the devolution movement in Scotland. Second, it emphasises that while the campaign for devolution sought to construct Holyrood in opposition to Westminster, the Scottish Parliament is in reality part of the ‘Westminster family’ (Mitchell, 2010) of parliaments. The main functions of Westminster parliaments are to make laws, hold the government to account and to represent the interests of the people. Third, it summarises the experience so far, identifying the interplay between high expectations for a new form of political practice in Scotland and the factors, common to the ‘Westminster family’, that limit such divergence (such as the important role of parties and the limited resources available to parliaments). Fourth, it compares briefly the Scottish experience with ‘Nordic’ experiences because the so called ‘consensus democracies’ were often an important reference point for political reformers in Scotland. It examines the extent to which the Scottish Parliament can, and should, emulate the Swedish experience, arguing that the adoption of Swedish practices may be inconsistent with the Scottish Parliament’s Westminster-family design. Finally, it considers the recent parliamentary reforms in both the House of Commons and the Scottish Parliament and concludes that there is a willingness within both institutions to learn from each other.
The Electoral Reform Society Scotland has published its very interesting report Democracy Max: An Inquiry into the Future of Scottish Democracy. The tone is set with the statement that ‘politics is too important to be left to politicians’. It is reinforced by the broader suggestion that politics is ‘broken’ . The idea is that representative government is flawed. It is not enough to elect politicians to represent us in Parliament. We also need a more direct link between politics, policymaking and ‘the people’. ‘Apathy is a myth’ and people just need the right opportunities to get involved.
This is a familiar refrain in the UK, especially after the MP expenses scandal in 2009. It also has a special place in Scotland. The pursuit of constitutional change is now accompanied by the pursuit of alternative forms of democracy. It happened before 1997 and it is happening again before 2014. Let’s think about that for a minute: why would we need this debate and reform twice in under twenty years? Why, if we had the debate about politics being broken in the 1990s, do we need to fix it now? The optimistic answer is that no-one fixed Scottish politics – or they just did a patchy job which needs to be re-done (see p.49). The pessimistic answer is that Scottish politics cannot or will not be fixed. Representative government is here to stay, warts and all.
We can explore these possibilities by comparing the ‘new politics’ in the Democracy Max proposals with the ‘new politics’ in the 1990s (as promoted by bodies such as cross-party and ‘civil society’ group, the Scottish Constitutional Convention, SCC and the Consultative Steering Group, CSG, set up by the UK Government to establish the Scottish Parliament’s standing orders and principles). We can identify: (a) the similarities in tone and substance between the reports; (b) why things are not likely to change despite the hopes expressed in such reports; and/ or (c) what would need to happen to produce greater success second time round.
How do you challenge the role of political parties *and* get their help? The SCC involved parties (primarily Labour, Liberal Democrat and to-be-Green), noting that ‘It is the instinct of political parties to disagree with one another, and the instinct of civic groups like the churches, the trade unions and others to be impatient with the preoccupations of politicians’. One of its stated successes was taking the time to hammer out a deal between parties and groups – an agreement deemed necessary for the success of its proposals in Scotland (although devolution policy was the responsibility of the UK Government). The ERS makes clear that it is an independent body, not a political party, helping to produce ‘a vision informed by people not politicians’ (pp6-7). The obvious question that arises is: who will turn its vision into reality? The devolution experience suggests that political parties and governments were the gatekeepers to political reform.
Will more venues produce better representatives? One tentative solution by the ERS is to provide resources (such as grants) to reduce the barriers for people to stand for election – to address the stated problem that people generally seek election only through parties. At the same time, they propose more local venues for election – a strong local government underpinned by further devolution to smaller units and/ or “’Mini-publics’ – deliberative local groups working alongside representative democracy, empowering people to run their own towns and villages”. The ERS perhaps have this sort of thing in mind (this isn’t just a wee joke; I really like the Gilmore Girls):
The ERS suggests that people who tend to be uninvolved in, or feel excluded from, national politics may be more likely to get involved in local politics. Indeed, this local involvement may be a springboard to local and national campaigns. There are perhaps two main problems which are partly addressed in the report. First, existing elected ‘elites’ may not share this enthusiasm for sharing power. Second, existing political parties may simply use these new venues as springboards for their own candidates. There is great potential for more layers of government populated by more representatives of parties (something that many of us may associate with the US). The ERS may or may not be right that ‘apathy is a myth’ but they do not show us how the non-partisan citizen can turn her or his newfound enthusiasm into a political project, engaging peers and attracting voters.
How could and should you give ‘more power to the people’? The alternative to more people involved in elected politics is some variation of a citizen jury in which people are selected to represent a local population. This presents two issues to explore. First, the production of a quota-style jury may solve one problem of the former Scottish Civic Forum. It was a self-selecting group, producing many of the old biases – based on gender, race and ethnicity – that new forms of democracy are there to challenge. A quota system gives us the ability to select people according to the most recognised social divisions. However, there is a danger that we are confusing diversity with representativeness, or diversity of opinion with a representative spread of opinion. Our hope is perhaps that people with certain characteristics represent people with a similar background, but I wonder how far we would go to make sure the system works (or, perhaps I am using the wrong standard here; for example, the substantial representation of women in Parliament is about much more than representing views or paying attention to certain issues).
Second, we need to think about how an unelected body will interact with an elected body. Which is the more legitimate actor here? Despite the general talk of distrust in politicians, we could assume that elected governments would make the final decision (and this seems to be the argument of the ERS when discussing juries). This may involve a decision that contradicts the views expressed by selected bodies, since politics is often about leadership and making unpopular decisions. Policymaking is also about evidence as well as opinion, and it usually involves gathering opinions, evidence and considering the unexpressed opinion from the latent public. In this context, it is difficult to know the status of the new “diversity of ‘witnesses’ to provide evidence”. If the ERS is simply making a call for more opinions, good, but this is really about giving a voice to some people rather than power to the people.
The ERS goes further when promoting the idea of a Citizens’ Assembly – a selected body that could be given a statutory function beyond mere consultation. This may involve a ‘new form of legitimacy’ (p52) beyond the world of elected representatives; a Citizens’ Chamber could have the power to ‘veto’ decisions made by the executive (p51). The problem here is that there is not enough discussion of the difference between the role of a new assembly as a forum for public discussion and as a policymaking body. The ERS calls for a discussion of new forms of legitimacy without demonstrating how an unelected body would be legitimate in the eyes of the public. There is also no demonstration that selecting people using quotas and then putting them in the same room will produce a deliberative effect in which people use reason to persuade others. They suggest that party politics limits the ability of MSPs to perform this role, but do not demonstrate that the absence of overt electoral partisanship will produce something different. In effect, we are comparing the problems of the existing system with the possibilities of a new one. This is not a good comparison.
A better comparison is based on the experience of the past. For example, the ERS’ case may be more convincing if it can say how a new Citizens’ Assembly would be an improvement on the old Scottish Civic Forum – beyond the idea that it would be selected from above rather than self-selected (and why would two-thirds be retired or unemployed?). Interestingly, the ERS report sometimes betrays the problem of forum-based advice. It collects a range of opinions without always choosing between them or considering how to prioritise aims or if the aims expressed by some contradict those expressed by others. There is perhaps an implicit belief that politics is about consensus seeking and compromise; that by talking we can come to an agreement that suits both parties to some extent (so the report would be the start of a conversation). If so, I don’t buy it. It is equally convincing to say that politics is about winning and losing; by talking we get other people to agree with, or oppose less, our decisions.
How do we stop ‘vested interests’ having too much power? By ‘vested interests’, the ERS is describing the links between money and power, such as when people with a privileged background gain privileged access to government, people give large donations to parties and expect something in return, or when private companies use their resources to influence disproportionately (and benefit financially from) public policy. I think we can all agree that this is a bad thing. So far, so good. The SCC was accompanied by the idea of getting beyond the ‘usual suspects’ – the well-resourced groups most likely to be consulted by governments during policymaking. These are different things. The first discussion implies private people and businesses being dodgy, sometimes aided by corrupt politicians. The second may include groups representing doctors, nurses, teachers, charities and local government. On the other hand, in both cases we may be talking about ‘self interested advocacy’ which is an almost-inescapable (and often very useful) part of politics. I don’t think that the ERS suggests that advocacy is necessarily a bad thing. Instead, it is the stuff of politics: if we are affected by politics we get mobilised and engage directly. This is as true for community groups seeking to protect their community as to doctors protecting their hospitals or businesses protecting their profits.
In that context, it is difficult to see the effect of a lobbying bill (one proposed solution). It will not stop advocacy, but make some meetings more visible to the public. The public (or perhaps some people in some parts of some media) may then be asked to decide which meetings are legitimate. This works to some extent when MSPs have to declare their expenses (pp85-8) (although perhaps less well when declaring their interests), but advocacy is a bit different. Companies using money to secure outcomes is one thing, but companies giving information and advice is another. We must also remember the importance of winning and losing. Consider, for example, the idea that we limit the activities of lobbying firms – this may simply benefit those groups with the resources to fund their own lobbying. Corporate lobbyists are not just employed by big business – they are also used by groups unable to maintain their own advocacy staff. ‘Vested interests’ will not be removed by legislation, they will just regroup.
What is so wrong with political parties and representative government? An old argument by Grant Jordan and Linda Stevenson is that by talking up ‘new politics’ we produce two problems: more disenchantment with representative democracy (which is here to stay) and alternative forms of democracy (which is hyped up to the point that it will always seem to fail). What we need to remember is that parties and elections serve a purpose. Parties provide a way for people with shared ideas to coordinate their activity. The heated debate between parties can provide information to the public. Adversarialism serves a purpose – it exposes important differences and encourages people to make choices which produce winners and losers. Parties produce manifestos allowing the electorate to choose according to their beliefs. This benefit of representative democracy tends to be downplayed in discussion of new politics because we are looking for faults to justify reforms. I reckon that we could make an equally convincing case for representative democracy based on the flaws of direct participation. A more honest assessment of the pros and cons of all forms of democratic participation would produce a very different type of debate on the future of Scottish politics.
How politics works. The ERS makes some very bold claims, including reference to the ‘inability of unreformed majoritarian and representative systems of democracy to answer the demands of popular uprisings around the world’ (p12) and a ‘Falling turnout in elections’ which ‘is not an apathetic response of a disinterested public. To many it is a very rational response to their increasing distrust in and alienation from traditional politics’. In such cases, it is important to be clear about the meaning of ‘traditional politics’. In this case, it probably just means that we don’t like the idea of MPs or MSPs being too corrupt, too blinkered to the facts or public opinion or too adversarial in Parliament.
However, for me, ‘traditional politics’ is also about the practices that we should expect in any relevant political system. The public, Parliament and government ministers can only pay attention to a tiny proportion of public policy. So they promote a very small number of issues to the top of their agenda and ignore the rest. The consequence is that most policy is made out of the public spotlight by civil servants engaging with organisations (such as interest groups, businesses, other parts of government). Those organisations trade information and advice for access to the political system. They often form trust-based relationships allowing groups to become involved in policymaking on a regular basis.
This is the context for any ‘new politics’ initiatives. Parliaments often seem ineffectual because there are 129 MSPs overseeing the work of 500,000 public employees. In that context, MSPs may be doing a good job at raising issues and providing a forum for deliberation (from the highly charged theatre of First Minister’s Questions to the more business-like inquiries in committees). Similarly, any new Citizens’ Assembly, elected or unelected, will be engaging with issues that represent a tiny proportion of government policy. They will shine a light on one house in a large city. If we expect more than that, we will be disappointed. Give it 20 more years and a new report will again say that politics is broken.
New Politics revisited. Still, the ERS report is valuable because it challenges us to think about the success of the original devolution reforms and consider the need for further reform. This type of discussion only seems possible when accompanied by a big event such as the prospect of further constitutional change. All I suggest is that we consider the potential drawbacks to a rejection of past decisions based on the assumption that old initiatives failed. If our expectations are too high, all initiatives will fail.
I have recently reviewed a couple of books for Scottish Affairs. I’m not sure when they will be out (or why people read book reviews) so here are my reviews in case anyone is desperate to know my rushed one-hour thoughts on books that the authors took months to write:
These posts introduce you to key concepts in the study of public policy. They are all designed to turn a complex policymaking world into something simple enough to understand. Some of them focus on small parts of the system. Others present ambitious ways to explain the system as a whole. The wide range of concepts should give you a sense of a variety of studies out there, but my aim is to show you that these studies have common themes.