Monthly Archives: August 2014

Scottish Independence: How do you decide?

I often hear that people don’t have enough information to help them make a decision about the independence referendum. Yet, there is too much information. Most people, starting now, would not be able to wade through all the literature. I stopped trying a long time ago.

I also hear that what we need is an ‘objective’ guide; someone to pull together all the evidence so that people can read it and make an informed decision. This will never happen. There is no objective guide. Indeed, the whole idea of objectivity is misleading. Anyone presenting ‘evidence’ on the debate is giving a partial story. This is clear when you hear people making the best, most optimistic, cases for or against evidence. If you want a well-rounded case, you don’t ask Salmond or Darling.

It’s less clear when alleged experts join in, but the biases are still there if you look hard enough. Everyone tells you some things and leaves out the rest; they describe to you one simple part of a complicated picture. Then, another expert will tell you the direct opposite. So, there will never come a point when you read enough to make a decision based on ‘the evidence’.

What can we do instead? I suggest two strategies.

The first strategy is to engage critically with any information you receive. Don’t take it at face value. Instead, consider:

  • Who is giving me the information and to what extent can I trust them? This is relatively easy when you read a Yes or No pamphlet or listen to campaigners in debates. Set your trust levels to low (often, these messages simply reinforce what you believe, or tick you off). Or, at least, try to combine their accounts to see if there is any middle ground (which is not always possible). It’s harder when people are brought in as ‘experts’. For every business guru, lawyer or University professor on one side, there seems to be an equivalent on the other. It is not a good idea to assume that, just because Professor Something said something it is true. What you should think about professors is that they have excellent reputations based on research and scholarly excellence in a particular field – not that everything they say is gold. Beware, in particular, the Professor with expertise in one field (such as law or economics) trying to give you his/her views of another (such as economics or law).
  • What do people really mean? What tends to happen in this debate is that no-one wants to give any ground. As a result, the debates tend to be very limited and partial, producing more heat than light. A simple example is the prospect of currency union: ‘keeping the pound’ can refer to using it as a means of exchange (simple enough) or agreeing to use the Bank of England as a lender of last resort. Or, NHS ‘privatisation’ can refer to anything from the use of private companies to deliver health services, to a less-well funded service, or the removal of a tax funded service. Or, people use ‘Barnett formula’ to mean Scotland’s budget rather than the means to adjust it.
  • How much of the information is based on what they claim to know versus what they predict? Some problems are easy to spot: beware any prediction of Armageddon or a better world. If a prediction for a new world seems too good to be true, you know what to do. If someone says that everything will be shite, you can dismiss them quite easily. It’s harder to spot expert predictions based on one part knowledge and nine parts soothsaying. A good general rule is that a prediction becomes less useful for every year into the future it goes (my favourite example is the fifty year economic prediction). If the future involves people, it is not easily predictable.
  • How does this information compare with other information? One way to deal with information from one source is to compare it with as many other information sources as possible. So, for example, if you hear a point made in a debate, or read it in a leaflet, you can compare it with the thoughts of, say, critical media commentators (boo!) and academics (yay!). Or, you can simply ask yourself: is this an assertion, with no evidence, or can they back up what they are saying?

Unfortunately, this is not a good enough strategy on its own, largely because:

  1. Much of the relevant information is not available. We don’t know how people will behave after the vote – how, for example, the negotiations would progress after a Yes vote, how businesses and ‘the markets’ would react, or how the political parties would react to demands for more devolution after a No vote.
  2. There is too much information to process.
  3. We have to trust some people to give us useful information; to give us an account of the evidence on which we can rely.

So, the second strategy is to find ways to simplify your decision, to make it ‘good enough’. Forget that sexist crap about some people thinking with their hearts and other people with their heads. Forget the idea of staying awake from now until the 18th to make sure you’ve considered every indyref statement. Instead, we all use short-cuts to make sure that we pay attention to some information and ignore the rest – and, for all of us, those short cuts include our established beliefs (we tend to reject some information if it contradicts our beliefs) and our emotions. Don’t feel bad if you feel passionately about something and can’t quite explain why. Don’t feel inadequate if someone else tells you that their decision is somehow more ‘rational’. Instead, seek simple ways to combine emotions with ‘rationality’:

  1. Work out your priorities. For some, it’s about the future of the pound or the NHS. For some, it’s about the environment or Trident. For others, it’s about ‘Westminster’ and a desire to have policy decisions made within Scotland. For you, it may be about all of these things, but they may not be as important as each other. It is worth considering these priorities before you engage with the information.
  2. Work out what you are willing to give up. There is no realistic scenario in which everyone will be better off after a certain vote, or that everything will improve in each area. Rather, we are making important choices about what we are willing to give up to secure something else. For some, the uncertainty about the pound seems to trump all else. For others, it is about a principle that is more important than a guaranteed outcome.
  3. Identify your ‘gut feeling’ about which way to vote and ask yourself why you feel that way.
  4. Don’t be too annoyed. It is easy to decide to vote one way or another because someone in the Yes or No camp annoys you, or they appear to present misleading material, or give you a message in a patronising way. It’s not about them – otherwise, I think that most of us would spoil our ballot papers.

Then vote .


Filed under Scottish independence, Scottish politics

If there is a Yes vote in the #indyref, will you be deported?

It sounds like a ridiculous question, but it came up again on Radio Scotland this morning – someone’s Polish friends were worried that they would not be able to stay in Scotland because Scotland would not be part of the European Union. My colleagues also recently gave an information session, through an interpreter, to reassure people that they would be OK.

One thing that should be reassuring to people who know little about the debate is this:

Scotland would not become an independent state on the 19th of September.

Therefore, it would not leave the European Union and seek re-entry from the 19th. Instead, initially, it remains part of the UK, which is the EU member state. It would then negotiate its entry to the EU from that position. There may be some doubt about the timetable. Many people suggest that it would take longer than 18 months to secure EU entry. However, those people are not suggesting that people would be deported in the meantime.

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Who won the second #Indyref Debate? Ask the audience

To work out who won these debates between Alex Salmond and Alistair Darling, you have to ask the audience. The trouble is that different audiences will tell you different things.

If you asked the studio audience, they’d say that Darling won the first round and Salmond the second – a point reinforced by most of the media coverage (such as in the Daily Mail, Guardian, Herald, Financial Times, New Statesman and Huffington Post) . However, I think this says much more about the bias of the audiences, and their participation in the debate, than Salmond and Darling. At key points, the audience seemed more important than the politicians on stage (thus bringing to life Schattschneider’s famous thought experiment). Salmond and Darling were making very similar points in both debates. In the first, Salmond was uncomfortable and seemed defensive when pressed to reveal his currency ‘Plan B’. This time, he was self-assured when presenting ‘three Plan Bs’. In the first debate, the currency argument was working great for Darling. This time, you could hear people ridiculing him when he tried to press the point home. It seemed to make a difference, giving Salmond the confidence to make a further claim, which might have faced an audible backlash in the first debate: if we don’t get our share of the Bank of England’s assets, we can’t be expected to share the UK’s debts.

Darling often seemed defensive or repetitive, and lost his cool enough to break ranks from Better Together to stress his Labour credentials – which he is entitled to do, but it suggests that he has an uneasy temporary alliance with his Conservative and Liberal Democrat colleagues. He also seemed unable to adapt quickly enough to Salmond’s surprisingly-subtle and relatively soft concern about the future of the Scottish NHS – a topic which has often proved important enough to knock the currency issue off the headlines. In the lead up to the debate, Better Together’s argument was about the Yes campaign’s ‘scaremongering’ and ‘lies’, which related to the claim that: privatisation of the English NHS would reduce spending on the Scottish NHS; it might oblige Scotland to follow the same path (a problem exacerbated by the new ‘TTIP’ trade deal between the US and EU); and, only a written Scottish constitution could guarantee a public health service. Yet, Salmond merely said that, in the future, the UK government might start charging fees and spend less on the NHS, which could have a knock-on effect for the Scottish budget (Health Secretary Alex Neil went a bit further in the Scottish Parliament). I think this wrong-footed Darling, who seemed determined to identify the Yes campaign’s scaremongering regardless.

If you asked the ‘snap poll’ audience, you would get the same answer: Darling won the first round (56% agree, if you remove don’t knows) and Salmond the second (71%). Note that, of course, your response very much depends on who you already support. Note also that it is difficult to avoid the manly punch up metaphor, which seems appropriate, given how long Salmond and Darling engaged in some entertaining/ off-putting verbal sparring.

However, right now, the only audience that matters is the voting public. Remember that, in the first debate, a Darling ‘win’ produced either the same opinion poll results or a slight bump for Yes in a small number of polls. This time, Salmond’s win had no immediate impact on the vote. As John Curtice argues, we won’t know if there has been an effect, if any, until we wait for people to read and think about the debate and its coverage over the next few days and weeks.



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Accountability and oversight of the security services in an independent Scotland

This brief paper examines the current role of the Scottish Parliament, to help examine how it might oversee the security functions of the Scottish Government in an independent Scotland. I prepared it for the seminar series ‘Security in Scotland, with or without constitutional change’ convened by Andrew Neal.

Key points[1]:

  1. The Scottish Parliament was designed to be distinctive when compared to Westminster – with powerful, business-like, committees at its heart. This approach sounds well-suited to security oversight, which may require unusually high levels of cross-party cooperation and discretion.
  2. Yet, the Scottish Parliament remains part of the ‘Westminster family’ and committees suffer the same limitations – limited resources, high turnover, and a strong party whip – which undermine their independence, expertise and ability to secure information.
  3. Indeed, the Scottish Parliament may have more limitations than Westminster, including a smaller pool of recruitment and less-developed backbench career path.
  4. Independence could exacerbate these problems. We face the prospect of an already-stretched Scottish Parliament with more responsibilities but the same resources.

The Scottish Parliament was designed to be distinctive when compared to Westminster

The Scottish Parliament was designed, in some ways, to be a powerful and effective legislature with committees at the heart of its work.

  • Committees were designed to combine standing and select committee roles, to foster expertise among their members.
  • The idea was that committees would become relatively independent from government. Most committees are permanent and not subject to government dissolution. They have rela­tively few members, to allow them to develop a ‘businesslike’, not partisan, culture. The number of convenors (chairs) is proportional by party and they are selected by each committee.
  • The hope was that MSPs would, to some extent, leave their party affiliations at the door, to engage in relatively consensual scrutiny without the same potential for grandstanding in public.
  • It was invested with further powers and functions that we associate with relatively strong legislatures. Committees consider each stage of the legislative process before plenary. They can invite witnesses and demand government documents. They monitor of the Scottish Government’s pre-legislative consultation. Further, if all else fails, they have the ability to initiate their own bills.

Yet, the Scottish Parliament remains part of the ‘Westminster family’

The Scottish Parliament was not designed to be a powerful legislature in the way that we associate with political systems such as the United States. There are not the same divisions of powers and checks and balances between executive, legislature and judiciary. Instead, the executive operates at the heart of the legislature and, when enjoying a single or coalition party majority, has the ability to control its procedures. There is an expectation that the Scottish Parliament will not ‘share power’ in the way we would understand that phrase in the US. Rather, this is a traditional Westminster-style relationship in which the Scottish Government is expected to produce most policy, including legislation and amendments to legislation. The Scottish Parliament generally performs a scrutiny role to legitimise the outputs of the Scottish Government.

In practice, its distinctive elements are overshadowed by ‘universal’ constraints to Westminster-style Parliaments. Scottish Parliament committees:

  • Operate in a system in which the party whip is strong, which limits the kind of independence of MSPs necessary to perform a business-like role. From 1999-2007 and 2011 onwards, the governing party or coalition enjoyed a majority of MSPs on all committees.
  • Possess insufficient resources to perform an effective scrutiny role. Committees have 2-3 staff and 7-9 MSPs, and meet infrequently (Tuesday, Wednesday and/ or Thursday morning, during each session).
  • Struggle to generate expertise – a problem exacerbated by (a) the other demands on MSP time, and (b) periods of high committee turnover.
  • Struggle to gather information from the Scottish Government and public bodies. Public sector accountability is focused on ministerial accountability. Committees may struggle to secure detailed information directly from bodies such as health boards, while local authorities may ‘push back’ and assert their accountability to the public via local elections.
  • Perhaps the most relevant example is the European (and External Relations) committee, which demonstrates the potential for a Scottish Government to be openly reluctant to share information. In the past, it has withheld information, using a new variant of the convention of collective cabinet responsibility. The committee also does not seem to have the ‘scrutiny reserve’ afforded to Westminster.
  • One would expect the security services to be better equipped at withholding information, and more reluctant to share relatively sensitive information. The Scottish Parliament has not yet demonstrated a way to address this problem.

 The Scottish Parliament may have more limitations than Westminster

  • It has only 129 MSPs, which limits the pool of recruitment for committee members – a little over 100 MSPs cover 17 committees.
  • Approximately half of those MSPs may be in the party of government (with the exception of minority government, 2007-11, in which the SNP had 47 MSPs in total).
  • The ‘party whip’ is strong – and perhaps made stronger by the chance, eventually, for most MSPs of the governing party, to play a role in government.
  • There appears to be no direct equivalent in the Scottish Parliament to the idea of a career backbencher occupying a senior role in committees.

Independence could exacerbate these problems

  • The Scottish Government White Paper Scotland’s Future devotes very little time to the Scottish Parliament, and largely expresses satisfaction about its current role.[2]
  • The Scottish National Party suggests that its membership may remain at 129. Dave Thompson MSP received minimal SNP support when he proposed an increase of 70 MSPs. Deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon appears to advocate the maintenance of 129 MSPs (see the Youtube video here). Of course, SNP policy may not mean Scottish policy, but no opposition party has expressed an interest in this topic.
  • If the number of MSPs remains at 129, the Scottish Parliament’s responsibilities will rise profoundly, without any guarantee that its resources will follow suit.
  • We face the prospect of an already-limited Scottish Parliament being stretched further – given a large number of extra responsibilities but not the resources to perform an effective scrutiny role.

[1] Drawn from these papers and blog posts: How Can the Scottish Parliament Be Improved as a Legislature?; What is the Role of the Scottish Parliament?; The Role of the Scottish Parliament in a Devolved or Independent Scotland; If the Vote is Yes: What Will Be the Size of the Scottish Parliament?

[2] See pages 355-6: “The Scottish Parliament. Scotland already has a modern, accessible parliament, elected on a proportional representation system. It will remain the parliament of an independent Scotland. The Scottish Parliament has set an example within the UK on how a modern legislature should operate. In line with its founding principles of power sharing, accountability, access and participation, and equal opportunity, the Parliament has successfully put into practice the principles on which it was founded: the petitions system makes the Parliament accessible and improves accountability; the legislative process gives civil society and individuals significant opportunities to participate before and during the formal Parliamentary processes parliamentary committees and, since 2008, the Scottish Cabinet take the process of government to all parts of the country – during the summer of 2013 alone, for example, the Cabinet has convened in Lerwick, Hawick, Campbeltown and Fraserburgh; participation and engagement is built into the work of government, parliament, local government and the wider public sector”.



Filed under Scottish independence, Scottish politics

Public Lecture: ‘Will life go on after the Scottish Independence referendum?’

Update: the audio of the lecture is available here:

(or separate page here: Lecture plus QA Paul Cairney Inaugural Professorial Lecture or here: Lecture plus QA Paul Cairney Inaugural Professorial Lecture )

the blog posts are available here (1000 words) and here (3000 words)

and the sense of occasion is picked up here:

and here:


I will give my inaugural lecture on Wednesday 24 September 2014 at the University of Stirling. The lecture is called ‘Will life go on after the Scottish Independence referendum?’, which is as sarcastic as I felt I could get away with without putting people off. It’s a public lecture, so anyone willing to make the trip is more than welcome. I’ll be wearing ceremonial robes, but you can do smart casual or sports casual. It starts at 6.30pm, in the Pathfoot Lecture Theatre (the first building, on the left, as you enter the campus: enter and go straight ahead, then go up the stairs and listen out for the live music and cheers). It ends, I think, at 7.30pm, followed by a drinks reception. I don’t drink, so I can’t tell you if the free booze makes the trip worthwhile. My mum is making the trip from Reading, so think about that if you live in the central belt and can’t be arsed. My partner and kids are also going, so we’re going to hang around enough to answer questions and be polite, then nip away for dinner and high 5s when no-one is looking.

The official advice is that ‘If you would like to attend then please RSVP by Wednesday 17 September 2014:‘ but there is no-one there to keep non-RSVPers out and I will eat my hat if the lecture is full. In fact, you’d be doing me a favour by just turning up, wearing Homer Simpson specs and falling asleep.  

This is what I’ve said I’ll talk about:

‘Will life go on after the Scottish Independence referendum?’

The lecture discusses the future of Scotland’s political system after the independence referendum. It touches upon the referendum campaigns and the immediate impact of a yes or no vote, but focuses on the aspects of politics and policymaking that are relatively unaffected by the result, including: the presence of ‘wicked’ policy problems that all governments struggle to solve; the tendency for the public to focus on salient political issues at the expense of most government activity; and, the often-peripheral role of the MSPs we elect to the Scottish Parliament. Regardless of the vote, we will continue to focus on one small, simple, part of the political process (including elections), often ignoring the complex problems that policymakers face, and remaining unaware of the complex policy processes in which they operate. How is policy made under those circumstances – and should you pay attention?



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Why would the UK Government take a tough line with the Scottish Government after a Yes or No vote?

Update: so far, the main reaction to the Scottish No vote has been David Cameron’s plan to address the idea of ‘English Votes for English Laws’, plus some wider discussion of how to address the English Question. From what I can tell, no one has yet told politicians in Scotland to get stuffed. Instead, The Vow, coupled with Gordon Brown’s intervention, has kept quick and ‘extensive’ further devolution high on the agenda on Scotland and it remains to be seen if constitutional change for England will get the same attention.

Judging by some of the rhetoric on the Scottish independence referendum, one thing is certain: the UK Government will take a tough line with the Scottish Government. If there is a Yes vote, it will defend UK interests to the hilt. If there is a No vote, and the Scottish Government seeks further devolution, it will assert the rights of the rest of the UK. Why will this happen? Well, because the UK Government acts in the interests of the rest of the UK, and the rest of the UK – and England in particular – is waking up to Scotland’s privileged position within the Union.

At least, that’s what I’ve heard. Beyond this assertion, how can we demonstrate that the rest of the UK is ready to put pressure on the UK Government to take a tough line? I think there are three sources of relevant information, only two of which reinforce this argument.

The first is personal testimony from politicians, either directly in interview, or indirectly through the columns of journalists, including:

  • The decision by George Osborne, Ed Balls and Danny Alexander to rule out a currency union, on the basis that it is against the UK interest (Alexander also argues that it is against the Scottish interest).
  • Boris Johnson’s suggestion that there is no reason to grant the Scottish Parliament more powers in the event of a No vote.
  • Nigel Farage’s suggestion, in a BBC documentary, that a Yes vote would provoke the rest of the UK, and England in particular, to wake up and protect its interests (followed by vox pops making this claim in stronger terms).
  • Archetypal media commentary, such as Adrian Woolridge’s caricature of an English response, describing the opportunity to ‘turn off the tap’ (end subsidies for Scotland) after a Yes vote, or invite the Scots to shut up after a No vote (note that the first three paragraphs are set up to get your attention for a more subtle argument in the remainder).

2014-08-17 17.01.47

The second is quantitative survey research. For example, an IPPR press release in 2012 argues that: ‘The evidence presented here suggests the emergence of what might be called an ‘English political community’, one marked by notable concerns within England about the seeming privileges of Scotland in particular and a growing questioning of the capacity of the current UK-level political institutions to pursue and defend English interests, and one underpinned by a deepening sense of English identity. The full report by Richard Wyn Jones and colleagues suggests that a small majority of people who feel ‘English, not British’ or ‘More English than British’ believe that Scotland gets more than its ‘fair share’ (p27). It is not a majority of the English respondents as a whole – but the 44% response in 2011 is more than double the (21%) response in 2000 (see p116 of the Scottish independence chapter, by John Curtice and Rachel Ormston, in British Social Attitudes 29).

This was followed by a YouGov/ University of Cardiff survey of 3705 English adults which suggests that attitudes towards Scotland have hardened, on several measures. When asked:

  • If Scotland ‘should be able to continue to use the pound’, 53% disagreed and 23% agreed (15% neither, 9% DK).
  • If ‘Levels of public spending in Scotland should be reduced to the levels in the rest of the UK’, 56% agreed and 9% disagreed (21%, 13%).

Respondents were happy enough for the Scottish Parliament to take control over ‘the majority of taxes raised in Scotland’ and the welfare state, but not too keen to help it join international organizations.

The third is a mixture of qualitative and quantitative. In this case, the aim is to allow people to speak for themselves without a questionnaire setting the agenda. In other words, if you ask people , in a questionnaire, if Scots get more than their fair share, many will say ‘yes’ without having given it much thought. You don’t get a brilliant feel for the way in which they prioritise important issues – and you don’t know if they would have articulated this concern in the absence of someone asking them about it. The alternative is to simply raise a broad issue and ask people to say what they think. This approach has been done to great effect by Susan Condor (2010) in the journal article Devolution and national identity: the rules of English (dis)engagement, which draws on ‘1,652 conversational interview transcripts collected between 2000 and 2009’. The argument that is most striking to me is that: ‘most people remain unaware of the policy issues that excite so much interest among the political and intellectual elite’. In other words, politicians and journalists talk as if they represent the will of a population, without providing much evidence that the population knows or cares as much about the issues as they do.

The major caveat to this third argument is that the research took place before surveys started picking up a growing sense of English national identity (and before it started having some sort of impact on electoral behaviour via support for UKIP). Yet, it should still give us pause, to wonder: if Susan Condor repeated this research, would it support or undermine the assertion that there will be an English backlash to Scottish independence or further devolution?



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

Scottish Independence: Will Anything Really Change?

Some issues are territorial. Others are universal.

I like to tell people that very little will change after an event such as an election or referendum. While we focus on the exciting world of party politics, elections, campaigns and a referendum, the humdrum world of policymaking goes on, often unnoticed. Indeed, one partly causes the other: our attention to a small number of high profile people allows a large number of people to carry on, delivering public policy, out of the spotlight. Some issues receive huge amounts of attention, and policy might change if there is a problem that can be solved and the solution is not too expensive or controversial. Others receive almost no attention – yet, life goes on, and policy is often delivered in much the same way as in the past. When we elect governments, or choose a completely new kind of government, we expect ministers to solve problems for us. Yet, they can only pay attention to a tiny proportion of the things for which they are responsible. No individual, or small group of people at the heart of government, has the ability to understand or control the complex government of which it is in charge. In Scotland, regardless of a Yes or No vote, one of those key issues is about how to organise, deliver and reform public services. It demonstrates two main problems that you find in any study of government and policymaking. First, there is an inescapable trade-off between a desire to harmonise national policies and to encourage local discretion. Policymakers and policy participants understand this problem in different ways; some bemoan the ‘fragmentation’ of public services and the potential for a ‘postcode lottery’, while others identify more positive notions of flexible government, the potential for innovation, and the value of ‘community-led’ policies or individualised, ‘co-produced’, services. Second, policymakers have a limited amount of control over this trade-off. They do not simply choose a level of fragmentation. Instead, they face the same problems as any government: the ability to pay attention to only a small proportion of issues, or to a small proportion of public service activity; the tendency for problems to be processed in government ‘silos’ (by one part of government, not communicating well with others); the potential for policymakers, in different departments or levels of government, to understand and address the policy problem in very different ways; and, ‘complexity’, which suggests that policy outcomes often ‘emerge’ from local action in the absence of central control. These problems can only be addressed in a limited way by government strategies based on: the use of accountability and performance measures; the encouragement of learning and cooperation between public bodies; and, the development of a professional culture in which many people are committed to the same policy approach. In our new paper, my colleagues Emily St Denny, Siabhainn Russell and I look at how the Scottish Government addresses these ‘universal’ problems. We describe its reputation for making policy in a distinctive way; its reputation for pursuing a consultative and cooperative style when it makes and implements policy. It works with a wide range of bodies to build support for its policy aims. Its policy delivery involves a broad national strategy combined with a commitment to trust bodies such as local authorities to meet its aims. In turn, local authorities work with a wide range of bodies in the public, voluntary and private sector to produce shared aims relevant to their local areas. This approach could help address problems associated with ‘silos’, ‘ambiguity’ and local discretion, if policy is ‘co-produced’ and ‘owned’ by national and local bodies. On the other hand, the ‘Scottish Approach’ implies a decision to encourage discretion, the production of a meaningful degree of local policymaking, and perhaps even the acceptance that some policies may ‘emerge’ in the absence of central direction and traditional accountability measures. To show how complicated government is, we select problems and strategies that seem more likely to exacerbate these ‘universal’ problems more than others. We outline two policy areas, on prevention and transition, which cut across many government departments, involve many levels of government (local, Scottish, UK, and perhaps EU) and types of government (including education, social work, health and police authorities), and seem particularly difficult to define and manage. In both cases, the problem is not one of disagreement. In fact, there is a widespread commitment to both issues, and to achieve a ‘decisive shift to prevention’ in particular. Rather, the problem is often one of ambiguity – for example, people are not quite sure what prevention means in practice, when applied to different kinds of policy problem – or ‘fragmentation’, when a range of public bodies have to work together to produce more specific aims and objectives. These ‘universal’ points are important when we consider Scottish policymaking in the context of constitutional change: a shift of policymaking responsibility from the UK to Scotland may reduce one aspect of complex government – such as the link between the social security system (currently reserved to the UK) and public services – but many would still remain. In cases such as prevention, Scottish independence could have an impact on budget and policy priorities. It would not, however, solve the problem of how to define and address a cross-cutting and ambiguous problem. That problem would remain, and life would go on regardless of a Yes and No vote. The paper is here: Cairney Russell St Denny ECPR 19.8.14


Filed under public policy, Scottish independence, Scottish politics

Vote Yes to Save the NHS?

Well, what do I know? I thought that the Yes campaign argument – independence is the only way to protect the Scottish NHS – wouldn’t gain much traction. Instead, it is getting a lot of attention, perhaps at the expense of the currency issue, and is described as this week’s ‘key battleground’ by the Guardian and BBC – partly because concern for the NHS appears to prompt a rise in support for Scottish independence. No campaigners have become increasingly agitated about this claim – I have read a gazillion tweets about NHS ‘lies’, and Malcolm Chisholm MSP describes the ‘the biggest lie of the Referendum campaign’ and ‘the biggest political lie of all my years in politics’.

So, what are the issues involved and what explains the direction of the debate so far?

I described this campaign as surprising because health policy has been devolved since 1999. Under devolution, over the last 15 years, the Scottish Government has been responsible for using a devolved budget that has generally been large, allowing it to develop or maintain distinctive health policies without much interference from the UK Government – including a rejection of the ‘internal market’ strategy pursued with great vigour in England.

Yet, in this ‘age of austerity’, things are beginning to change – allowing the Yes campaign to make three headline grabbing arguments:

1. The UK Government is cutting NHS spending in England, which has a knock-on effect for the Scottish budget via the Barnett formula.

2. The UK Government is pursuing a ‘privatisation’ agenda which, unless you vote Yes, the Scottish Government may be obliged to follow.

3. The right to free healthcare could be written into the constitution of an independent Scotland.

What brings these three arguments together is the idea that staying in the UK means sticking with the austerity agenda – with less money available for public services such as healthcare. The use of one or all of these arguments can be found in almost all of the Yes-friendly newspaper and social media messages so far, including by Lesely Riddoch, Humza Yousaf, Kate Higgins, and Dr Philippa Whitford.

For me, the argument seems exaggerated for three main reasons. First, since devolution, most UK Governments have been keen to boost or maintain funding for the NHS (during good times). In fact, the Scottish Government’s overall budget has risen markedly from 1999 (see the tables at the end).

Second, if there is a No vote, the Scottish Government will continue to spend a budget over which is has very high control. A change in the NHS budget for England does not mean a change in the NHS budget for Scotland. Rather, it affects the overall budget. Therefore, the big question is whether or not the overall Scottish Government budget would rise or fall after a Yes/ No vote. This is a much bigger question that goes beyond the NHS towards, for example, a discussion of Scotland’s fiscal policy, its share of UK debt, and its alternative ideas on austerity.

Third, so far, the ‘privatisation’ agenda in England relates to the use of the private sector to deliver services. The NHS remains tax funded and, in most cases, free at the point of delivery. Further, I can’t see a clear way in which the UK Government could oblige the Scottish Government to follow its lead.* On the contrary – 15 years of devolution has shown us that Scotland can go its own way within the UK.

If so, why does the NHS story have so much traction? Three reasons come to mind:

1. The image of the NHS is so positive and strong that it can prompt regular attention (perhaps more so than education and policing – similar Yes campaigns have received less attention so far). If you talk about privatisation, and the fate of the NHS under the Conservative Party, you can tap into fears about the loss of an institution that is cherished in Scotland (compare with John McTernan’s praise of competition).

2. The survey question, to demonstrate the impact of NHS concerns on a Yes vote, is a wee bit leading: Does the prospect of an increased role of the private sector in the NHS in England having an adverse effect on the Scottish budget which funds NHS Scotland make you likely or unlikely to vote for an independent Scotland in the referendum? Indeed, I am surprised that only 46% said that it made them likely to vote Yes (35% No, 18% undecided).

  1. The UK Labour Party has picked a bad time to warn voters in England that the NHS is in crisis, and treated by the Conservative-led government as ‘another utility to be broken up and privatised’. It has prompted the Yes campaign to suggest that its concerns are shared by the most important party (in Scotland) involved in the No campaign*:


It was also a point made repeatedly by Cabinet Secretary Alex Neil in his Scottish Parliament statement on the 19th August. This comes at a time when the NHS in England is described regularly as in crisis or near ‘collapse’. For every one story suggesting that the NHS budget in Scotland continues to rise, you may find several arguing that the NHS budget in England has been ‘clawed back’ (e.g. here, here and here).

Overall, the ‘save our NHS’ message is simple and could yet be effective. Who knew?

*UPDATE. 9.9.14. One response to this post is that ‘privatisation’ may result from a forthcoming trade agreement between the US and EU –  the ‘Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership’, designed to allow EU companies  to compete in the US market, and vice versa. The prospect of TTIP has prompted a lot of attention to the potential for US companies to strong-arm their way into the NHS. The argument is strongest in the UK, with a relatively large market for private companies and tendered services. The argument goes that, if a government puts a service out to tender, private companies have the right to compete. Then, people argue that, if the NHS is not exempt, private companies have an assured place in the market – and can sue if they find any obstructions to their involvement in a free market. Then, the argument goes, if the UK does not exempt its NHS, Scotland cannot exempt its NHS (it is not the EU member state). This prompts the prospect of US companies suing to gain a share of the Scottish NHS market. From what I can tell, the argument is almost entirely speculative, based on little or no legal advice and little or no comparable experiences. It has also been rejected by European Commission’s chief negotiator.

Tables at the end

The first and third are from our book. The second is from the Scottish Government’s GERS. These tables are not ideal, but you get the general idea. Spending on the NHS still goes up every year on cash terms, and it has risen markedly in real terms since 1999. However, the Scottish budget has begun to fall in real terms.

table 11.1 CAirney McGArvey budgetGERS 2012-3 on health11.2 Cairney McGArvey austerity
*See also: Scottish Labour’s response

Scottish labour nhs 19.8.14


Filed under Scottish independence, Scottish politics

What Do People Know About Scottish Politics and the Independence Referendum?

Updated to reflect the publication of a new report by Ailsa Henderson, Liam Delaney and Robert Liñeira here –

Paul Cairney: Politics & Public Policy

Maybe people can agree on one thing about the Scottish independence referendum: we need a well informed electorate to make the Yes/ No choice. So, how well informed is the electorate?

Ailsa Henderson, Liam Delaney and Robert Liñeira address this question in two ways: first, by asking 2000 people about their perceived knowledge of politics (p9), going from a 0-10 scale, with 0-3 representing ‘very little’, 4-6 some, and 7-10 ‘a lot’. The proportion with a perceived ‘lot of knowledge’ was quite high in general (44%) but higher in relation to the issues raised (56%) and the consequences of independence (56%) and, perhaps surprisingly, the consequences of a No vote (59%). It rises to over 80% in each category if we include people who think they have some knowledge.

This perception contrasts somewhat with a separate measure. Henderson et al ask people ten true/false questions to test their knowledge of the Scottish Government’s White…

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Mental Health and a New Scottish Constitution

If there is a Yes vote to Scottish independence, the plan is to have an interim Scottish constitution and then a permanent constitution setting out, for example, the relationship between its governing institutions. One controversial point is that the Scottish Government proposes entrenching in a constitution ‘so many issues which are in effect policy preferences’. These preferences involve a mix of specific pledges, such as to ban nuclear weapons, control the use of military force and – according to today’s headlines – a right to free healthcare, as well as broader principles regarding equalities, environmental protection and minimum living standards.

For me, this prompts the identification of two things.

First, there is a debate to be had about the distinction between: very specific policy preferences, which can produce a much greater role for the courts, to help enforce constitutional provisions, and principles designed to have symbolic rather than legal weight. The latter signal some sort of collective belief about the world and, perhaps, can be used by governments, citizens, or interest groups, to remind public services about their broad obligations. They may be criticised because they create legal confusion – but the benefits, relating to the importance of these beliefs, may be greater than the costs associated with their unintended consequences (and, importantly, they are open to amendment).

Second, the Scottish Parliament has already faced this problem when, for example, producing mental health legislation. The Adults with Incapacity (Scotland) Act 2000 and the Mental Health (Care and Treatment) (Scotland) Act 2003 both contain statements of principle, designed not to be legally binding. Instead, they have two purposes: to signal to public bodies the principles on which their services are built; and, to send a message to service users that they deserve respect. The latter statement is difficult to overstate, since we are talking about a mental health service that could, for example, deprive people of their liberty. Consequently, one of the principles underpinning the Mental Health Act was ‘reciprocity’:

Reciprocity – Where society imposes an obligation on an individual to comply with a programme of treatment of care, it should impose a parallel obligation on the health and social care authorities to provide safe and appropriate services, including ongoing care following discharge from compulsion.

This use of legislation was opposed by some of the drafters of Scottish Parliament legislation, largely on technical grounds: why enshrine non-legally binding provisions in a legal document (or, as Bruce Millan put it, ‘The draftsmen didn’t like it – against the drafting tradition!’)? The answer is that, after a two year consultation process, the principles had huge symbolic and practical value – to show, after a long process, that the government had listened to mental health service users and interest groups, and to give bodies such as the Mental Welfare Commission the ability to use them, as a powerful reference point, when monitoring the work of mental health services. This came at a time when the UK Government was producing legislation with many similar elements but, in the absence of the same commitment to prioritising service user rights, it produced a long and tense stand-off with groups.

So, the law may not give principles legal weight, and we should not simply assert that they have an effect on policy outcomes, but it does give them policy-relevant importance, as a way to ‘frame’ the provision of services. It is worth considering this broader agenda-setting role alongside the discussion of the use and abuse of the law – a constitution is a political statement as well as a legal document.




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Would an Independent Scotland be More Left Wing (in a meaningful way)?

It is tempting to think that the Scottish population is more left wing than its English counterpart and, therefore, to hope that an independent Scotland would pursue more left-wing policies. There are several measures of left-right wing from which to choose, but I think that the ‘socialist-laissez faire’ scale tends to be the one that gets most attention – directly in campaigns such as the Common Weal, and indirectly in Scottish Government-initiated discussions of the future of the welfare state and public services, which hang on proxy debates of things like the ‘bedroom tax’ and ‘privatisation’.

A post-devolution Scottish Government has also developed a reputation for pursuing ‘universalist’ policies – in areas such as higher education (tuition fees), health (e.g. prescriptions) and social care (care for older people) – and has elected parties that generally compete to occupy centre-left territory (or, at least, the only party portraying itself as centre-right, the Scottish Conservative Party, doesn’t do well). On the face of it, you can see some sort of divide between Scottish and UK (Westminster) politics – for example, the UK entertains more right-wing political party competition and governments more willing to shift from state to market based policies.

Would this difference continue in an independent Scotland?

I suppose you can now see where this is going. I’m about to give you a list of things that should make you pause:

  1. This difference does not seem to be driven by massive differences in social attitudes – Scottish attitudes do not seem to be markedly different from the rest of the UK. Instead, the Scottish population shares many attitudes with those in many English regions, and it may often be the south of England that is distinctive within the UK.
  2. Many of the differences are in spending, when the Scottish budget was generally higher than the English equivalent and, more importantly, so high that Scottish Governments often did not spend it all. So far, there have not been too many ‘hard choices’ to make.
  3. Independence would produce a much closer link between taxation and spending. At the moment, people are largely voting for parties producing policies from a fixed budget. They are not considering the effect of spending on taxation – and no party, so far, has made a serious argument for a tax rise to fund social programmes.
  4. It is difficult to see the effects of Scottish policies where it really matters – in, for example, income based measures of equality. Scotland remains a remarkably unequal society when we compare the rhetoric on universalism and egalitarianism with how we actually live. A major assault on inequality seems to require a major attempt to use the tax and benefits system to redistribute income. This could happen in an independent Scotland, but it has not really featured in the debate. If anything, the only major party to discuss future plans, has emphasised a reduction in taxation (the plan to reduce corporation taxes to encourage inward investment).

So, what could happen is that we continue with a political system that encourages parties to compete on left-wing issues and policies, but does not punish them when their policies are half-hearted, or have limited effects, in practice.





Filed under public policy, Scottish politics

Perspectives on the Scottish independence referendum

Just go to the end if you want the Boris Johnson bit.

It is easy to lose perspective when you are immersed in a continuous, heated debate in places like twitter. Most people do not pay as much attention to these issues as you do. Or, they live outside Scotland, or outside the UK, and they have different understandings and points of reference. They see the debate through different eyes. What are the implications?

What shorthand language we can reasonably use to skip over what we already know, and what we might need to explain?

The obvious example is about the meaning of independence. It is quite common for people new to the debate to quickly realise that independence doesn’t mean independence, and/ or declare that its supporters are stupid if they think it means independence, and/ or that it’s not worth bothering about:

Yet, many have known for some time that the meaning of independence has changed – partly to reflect the SNP’s pragmatic response to interdependence – and many still think that it’s worth doing, for reasons other than a desire to remove themselves completely from the world around them.

What might people need to know about the Scottish context?

The example that springs to mind is Thatcherism and Conservatism. “Not identifying with the Conservatives” was more important to support for devolution than identification with parties like the SNP. There is still great potential in Scotland to demonise the Conservative party. Some people have long memories about the poll tax and associate with Thatcherism the decline of important industries and an assault on the welfare state in Scotland. The Conservative party does terribly in the Scottish part of UK General Elections and secures about one-sixth of Scottish Parliament seats. It still has little chance of forming part of a coalition government in the Scottish Parliament because its inclusion would undermine the status of any other party.

Most importantly, a Conservative-led UK Government, which received little electoral support in Scotland, can sometimes be used to good effect by the Yes campaign (particularly in reference to policies, like the ‘bedroom tax’, that Yes supporters argue can be abolished in an independent Scotland). Things are so bad, for some, that people like David Cameron and George Osborne have to think twice about saying what they think about the referendum, for fear of their statements backfiring.

What might we recognise when engaging with people who view the debate in the rest of the UK?

The main thing is that UK political parties are operating in two arenas. They want to influence the independence debate, but they are also mindful of how their strategies will look to their larger audience, primarily in England. What goes down well in ‘Westminster’ politics, for one audience, may be damaging in Scotland.

Usually, this example is best served by looking at the rising importance of UKIP in England and the need for the main parties to respond, often by taking a tougher line on things like the EU (a referendum now seems inevitable) and immigration. Or, we might note that the UK Government’s rejection of a currency union plays well in the rest of the UK.

However, today, it is best served by the comments attributed to Boris Johnson. Someone who seems, to many, to be an entertaining oaf, worthy of election to London Mayor, and discussed as a potential future leader of the Conservative Party, can be a liability to the No campaign in Scotland. Something that might play very well to many audiences in England – along the lines of ‘Scotland is already privileged, and it deserves no more’ – has the potential to derail the No campaign in Scotland:




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Scottish independence: what is the next step in the currency union debate?

When I wrote a post, trying to put the currency ‘Plan B’ debate in context, I got two main replies about the UK Government strategy: (1) to state unequivocally, ‘there will be no currency union’; and (2) to show the markets, and the public, that it is prepared to take on all of the UK debt if no deal can be done with the Scottish Government. The first often seems like a masterstroke, since it has put the Yes campaign, and Alex Salmond in particular, in a tight spot – and it has been exploited to great effect by the No side. I’m not so sure about the second strategy, which might provide reassurance about its economic responsibility, but also gives a little bit of light to the Yes campaign.

This side of the indyref debate, the aim is to win the vote – and the rejection of a currency union seems, most of the time, to be a very clever way to do so, even if there have been times when it had the potential to backfire. Let’s try to put this in order of appearance:

  1. The initial rejection. George Osborne announced the ‘no currency union’ line in Edinburgh in February. At the time, it seemed like a good strategy, and I was surprised at how effective the rebuttal – this is ‘bluff, bluster and bullying’ – often seemed to be – or, at least, how confident the SNP was about making such statements (see also Scheffer in the New Statesman).
  2. The cross-party agreement. Osborne’s statement was made all the more powerful by equivalent statements by Labour and the Liberal Democrats, which suggested that no UK Government would accept currency union. This time, the message came from people often seen as less objectionable than Osborne.
  3. The Salmond/ Darling debate. This issue became Alistair Darling’s most effective resource, particularly when he pressed Alex Salmond on his apparent lack of a ‘Plan B’.
  4. The media coverage, since the debate, has focused primarily on the ‘no Plan B’ issue.
  5. The No campaign has produced some rather striking campaign material to reinforce the point.

So far, so good for the No campaign, particularly if the currency issue continues to dominate the media coverage.

I’m not so sure about the debt issue, for two main reasons. First, no one ‘owns’ this decision in the same way. There is not the same sense of clear, decisive, decision making. Instead, we are piecing together a strategy from background discussions, some intelligent speculation (e.g. by John McDermott and Joseph Cotterill in the FT) and bitty replies to media questions – such as when Darling described being ‘phlegmatic’ about writing off Scotland’s share of the UK debt, amounting to approximately £120b, or £5b per year (10% of a new Scottish budget?). It has yet to be a key feature of the currency debate, and people are starting to ask questions.

Second, there is much more unresolved doubt about the effect of this aspect of the debate on voters. If you lose the pound, oh No. If you don’t have to pay a huge debt, oh Yes.

The assumption, so far, has been that a decision to refuse to pay the debt is ‘not in Scotland’s interests’ because ‘the markets’ would punish the Scottish Government, or lend only with high interest. Scottish Government debt would be expensive and our mortgage payments would go through the roof. If true, everything falls into place: if Salmond and his colleagues complain, and threaten to walk away, it seems like an empty promise or a remarkably irresponsible threat. Why would you entrust an independent Scotland to such fools?

Yet, on the other side of the coin, is an argument that could become persuasive to many voters: the UK Government refuses to negotiate. It rejects a currency union and it has already decided to pay the equivalent of Scotland’s share of the debt. The UK regards itself as the ‘successor state’ and, as such, has agreed to maintain its control of all assets and liabilities. In this context, Salmond and colleagues have not made irresponsible threats. Rather, the Scottish Government has not been given a choice, since the UK Government has decided not to share. More importantly, the Scottish Government would not default on its share of the debt, because it has no share on which to default. It ‘loses the pound’ but is remarkably debt free, and shoulders no blame for the outcome. No assets, no liabilities.

I’m not saying that this is a likely outcome. Nor am I saying that I am good at predictions (indeed, to show how bad I am at predictions, note that I still think there would be a currency union after a Yes vote). What I’m saying is that, if the currency debate continues to dominate, and people want to hear something new in the next Darling/ Salmond showdown, maybe this is what they’ll get. And maybe, next time, the debate won’t be so one-sided.

Update 25.8.14: this topic made the news in the lead up to the second debate:

Scotland ‘should not take on UK debt’ unless it can keep the pound (The Telegraph)

Nobel economist: Scots would be right to refuse to share UK debt if London won’t share pound (The Herald)

26.8.14 Scottish independence: John Swinney says ‘No currency, no debt’ (BBC)



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What is the Barnett Formula?

A lot of the Scottish Independence debate takes place on the assumption that people know what the Barnett Formula is. Yet, when I ask people if they know what it is, many simply say ‘no’ and many say ‘yes’, perhaps because they think that everyone else knows what it means. Here is a quick description. The Scottish budget, transferred by the UK Treasury, comprises two elements: an initial block settlement based on historic spends and the Barnett formula to adjust spending in Scotland to reflect changing levels of spending in England. The formula only relates to changes in the level of spending. It is based on an estimate of populations within the UK. Initially this was a 10–5–85 split for Scotland, Wales and England which suggested that Scotland would receive 10/85 of any increase in comparable spending for England by UK Government departments (or lose the same amount if spending fell). This comparability varies according to department. While some are almost fully devolved (e.g. Health, Education), others are partly devolved (e.g. Transport) and only the comparable spending will be applied to Scotland. The size of these ‘Barnett consequentials’ are based on three estimates: Scotland’s share of the UK population; the change in levels of spending of UK Government departments; and the level of comparability in specific programmes.

The crucial thing to note is that a change in spending on, say, health in England does not mean a direct change in health spending in Scotland. Instead, the change is made to the overall Scottish Government budget, and the SG decides if it will follow the UK lead or, for example, find money for health from another public service.

So, Barnett underpins a lot of indyref discussion because Scottish spending is linked to spending in England, producing some anxiety about the effect of ‘austerity’, even if the impact is not direct.

Another thing to note is that Barnett has a weird history and that it has stood the test of time, despite repeated calls for its replacement. To some extent, the wider system will change if there is a No vote, because the Scotland Act 2012 provides a way for the Scottish Government to borrow (from the Treasury) to invest in capital projects, and gives some more (albeit very limited in practice) powers to change the rate of income tax.










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Would Scottish Independence Save the NHS and Keep Education Free?

There have been two quite-surprising messages from the Yes campaign recently: independence is the only way to protect the Scottish NHS, and independence is the only way to keep Scottish compulsory education free. I say ‘surprising’ because both areas have been devolved since 1999 and the Scottish Government has developed or maintained distinctive policies without much interference from the UK Government. It is tempting to conclude that these arguments represent little more than the hype that campaigners feel they have to generate to get attention – and No campaigners have generally been dismissive of these claims. Beyond the hype, what is the argument in each case?

In health, there are two arguments. First, the UK Government is cutting (or will cut) NHS spending in England, which has a knock-on effect for the Scottish budget. The Scottish Government would either have to cut Scottish NHS spending or find the money from another service (as in higher education, if UK spending falls when it charges fees). Second, the UK Government is pursuing a ‘privatisation’ agenda, which is anathema in Scotland. Yet, so far, this relates largely to the use of the private sector to deliver services. The NHS remains tax funded and, in most cases, free at the point of delivery.

In education, the argument from Teachers for Yes seems to be: if you vote Yes, you can stop funding nuclear weapons and give education greater priority in the budget. This can be used to fund education directly – teachers, buildings, equipment – and indirectly, by reducing poverty and, therefore, reducing inequalities in education outcomes (or, for example, spending more on childcare and pre-school services). Independence would also give the opportunity to enshrine a right to education in a written constitution. The press release contrasts this vision with a UK future of austerity, with reduced spending on education in England having a knock-on effect on Scotland.

There is a more sophisticated case that could be made by the Yes campaign, which could go something like this:

  • our priority is to reduce inequality
  • at the heart of health and education inequality is income inequality
  • only independence gives us the levers to introduce a more progressive tax and benefits system and reduce income inequality.
  • This might be boosted by the desire of many to reduce spending on areas such as defence and, for some, to increase taxation.

Or, it could simply argue that everything is connected; that a tax and benefits system underpins all efforts to ‘join up’ the delivery and funding of public services. Some of that argument is in the Scottish Government’s White Paper.

However, I don’t think that the Yes campaign is making that sophisticated case. Or, at least, I haven’t yet seen it. Instead, the focus is on the idea that staying in the UK means sticking with the austerity agenda – and less money for public services such as health and education. What it doesn’t address is that the austerity agenda would be faced by an independent Scottish Government as much as a devolved one. What it doesn’t address is that, under devolution, the Scottish Government has been responsible for using a devolved budget that has generally been very large and has only now begun to shrink – and that, if UK austerity really does start to ‘bite’, a devolved Scottish Government will have some scope to borrow and tax to offset the effect (although I qualify that statement here). Consequently, it is too easy to dismiss. While it might have an effect on some voters inclined to vote Yes, it is also vulnerable to ridicule and could easily backfire.

See also: a discussion of the Barnett formula, which underpins a lot of this debate


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If there is a Yes vote to Scottish independence, what is ‘the UK interest’?

A key feature of the currency debate has been the argument that the UK would reject a currency union because it ‘would not be in the UK’s interests’, which has prompted the argument that the Yes campaign (focused on Alex Salmond in particular) has no ‘plan B’. The argument seems to have a lot of traction, largely because we are considering each referendum issue individually. If we consider these issues collectively, as part of a post-referendum negotiation, the picture becomes less clear. As the representative of the rest of the UK, the UK Government has a huge number of interests to protect and, crucially, they may often be contradictory. A negotiation becomes complicated when each side decides which issues represent their priorities and which points they are willing to concede to secure those priorities. In that sense, it makes little sense to talk of the ‘UK interest’ as if it were an absolute. Rather, it is in the eyes of the negotiators and their perception of the views of the people they represent – and it could quite easily change during negotiations.

The debate, so far, operates on the assumption that the UK Government is so powerful that its interests and priorities will prevail, with the Scottish Government forced to accept anything that comes its way and rely on the UK’s benevolence for help with the EU. I just don’t see it working like that, for two main reasons:

1. The Scottish Government does have some cards, and the Yes campaign has chosen to accentuate some of them, including its share of the UK debt (and assets) and its influence on the future of Trident in Scotland. Whatever we think of the likelihood of a Scottish Government refusing to share the UK’s debt or insisting that Trident is removed from Scotland, we know that the issues are important enough to make the UK Government jumpy – particularly since it has not secured an agreement from the Scottish Government, on either point, before the vote.

2. As we have seen in the discussion of the Scottish currency, they key issue is a general sense of public and economic uncertainty: ‘the markets don’t like it’ and, crucially, governments don’t like to contribute to it (consider, for example, how jumpy people were during the very brief coalition government negotiations). So, it may be ‘in their interests’ to secure a compromise deal quickly than a long-drawn out victory. We assume that governments want to look strong and uncompromising, to satisfy their potential electorates, but they also want to appear to be competent.

Consequently, I’m surprised that so few people analyse critically the ‘UK interest’ sound bite whenever they hear it. There is no such thing.


These tweets, one linking to two stories in the FT, suggests that a SG would have fewer cards because the UK Government has effectively given up on Scotland’s share of the UK debt. Wouldn’t it be nice if we knew it for sure?

and here is a small thread on likely rUK opposition to a currency union (click on the date for the link to the threads):


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Who won the first Salmond/ Darling #indyref debate? How can you tell?

Note: *I* do not think that University debate clubs are for arses.

Most of the media coverage of last night’s #Scotdecides debate seems to suggest that Alistair Darling won it. This impression is backed up by a small poll for the Guardian. It is also reinforced by the tendency for no supporters to think that Darling won, and yes supporters to plump for Salmond, with the former having more people to declare victory.  But on what are they basing their assessment? I ask because relatively few posts note the – albeit small and insufficient – bump for the yes vote after the debate  (described by John Curtice). Isn’t that outcome the most important measure of victory? The problem, for me, is summed up in Alex Massie’s tweet (not, I should say, Massie himself – solid, stout fellow, salt of the earth, etc.). It suggests that we are judging Salmond and Darling according to who would win a high school or University debating match. This is just a hunch, but my guess is that most Scottish voters think that those debate clubs are for arses. Many will think that they are, generally but not exclusively, male arses. Or, at least, many of the people that matter – such as the undecided voters – will be focused on other aspects of the debate – some on the information, and some on the demeanour of the debaters. In that case, it becomes a much more personal decision on who ‘won’. My impression, for example, is that Darling lost it as soon as he started getting all pointy fingered. And, even though I am 41, it still occurred to me that Darling ‘started it’. My 9 year old was more impressed with Darling’s catchphrases ‘stupidity on stilts’ and, of course, Best of Both Worlds – but he won’t be able to vote until the next referendum.

You can watch the debate here:



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What does Scottish independence mean?

The meaning of ‘independence’ in Scotland has changed markedly. The main change relates to the way that we understand the independence or autonomy of any country in a globalized world and, in the case of Scotland, an increasingly Europeanized political system. Historically, or understood in a ‘Westphalian’ sense, independence referred to the autonomy to direct all domestic affairs within a well-defined territory (‘Westphalian’ is now a shorthand term to describe the historic idea of sovereign states not subject to influence from external bodies such as international organizations). Now, this idea of an autonomous nation state is questioned because countries are interdependent and no country can make decisions on the most significant issues (such as economic policy) due to agreements that they share with others and their membership of a wide range of international organizations. In particular, countries within the European Union have made legal commitments to accept a wide range of EU laws, regulations and financial commitments.

The SNP famously recognized this limitation when it introduced its ‘Independence in Europe’ slogan in the late 1980s. The modern SNP’s idea of independence has also changed somewhat to reflect changing circumstances and a rather pragmatic view on what it will accept to secure its constitutional aims. Most notably, the SNP has stated that Scotland will keep the pound in the short term until its voters decide whether or not to adopt the euro (a position rejected by the UK’s Chancellor of the Exchequer). Consequently, monetary policy (and interest rates in particular) would be determined largely by a UK central bank. Scotland is also likely to accept that the UK monarch will remain as the Scottish Head of State and UK-wide membership of bodies such as the BBC may be maintained.

Overall, these developments provide us with a relatively messy picture of modern Scottish independence: as a small country part of a globalized world, subject to EU commitments, accepting a key UK role in some key policy areas and perhaps even accepting some legal commitments to shared decision making with the UK as part of a long-term orderly transition to independence. An independent Scottish Government is likely to agree to inherit most, if not all, existing agreements and membership of international bodies before it considers its future actions.

The other side of this coin is that independence no longer seems such a ‘scary’ prospect to referendum voters because it is not a million miles away from the idea of extended devolution or ‘devo max’, which might refer to the proposal to devolve all policy responsibilities with the exception of defence and foreign affairs (but see this qualification). Table 12.1  outlines their main differences, bearing in mind that some of these differences may be unclear or disputed. The ‘devo max’ column draws heavily on the Steel Commission report, which also complicates matters by calling for a series of policy areas to be partly devolved (through a legal requirement to consult with the Scottish Government before legislating). The overall picture is one of constrained autonomy when we consider the extent to which any independent country can act unilaterally to determine domestic policy.

Clearly, there are some very important differences, particularly in the areas of fiscal autonomy (versus further fiscal devolution), international affairs and defence. Other areas, such as immigration, social security and energy are less clear. Much will come down to the implementation of Scottish-UK agreements – a process that tends to unfold over a very long period. In that vein, we should also consider the practical effect that independence might have on already-devolved areas such as health, justice and education policies. For example, an independent Scotland in the EU would no longer be able to charge students from the rest of the UK for university tuition fees. It would also seek to maintain agreements with the rest of the UK on criminal justice issues, such as prisoner transfer agreements and, like any country in a wider global system, might still face pressures to maintain rules on criminal punishment that are broadly consistent with neighbouring countries. Health care policy may be more difficult to predict – while Scotland has a less punitive target-based regime to measure things like waiting lists and times, the comparisons with England will still be made and popular pressure may still encourage governments to maintain and enforce some targets.

table 12.1atable 12.1bSource: excerpt from Cairney, P. and McGarvey (2013) Scottish Politics (Basingstoke: Palgrave)


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