Monthly Archives: September 2014

Fracking in Scotland: maximum devolution versus a quadruple lock?

The case of fracking presents an interesting thought experiment about further devolution in Scotland: should you just push for the maximum devolution in each case or encourage the sharing of powers between many levels of government? Of course, it very much depends what you want to do, but I wouldn’t assume that further devolution means reduced drilling activity – largely because the party of government will change over time, even when the level of government responsibility does not. What seems like a good decision now (keep fracking away from the business-friendly UK Tories) may not in the future (and fracking, to me, seems like a very long term concern).

In general, the case for a ‘devo max’ attitude is quite clear: there is high support for further devolution and the more you devolve the more you satisfy a large part of the voting population. This can be exploited quite effectively by a Scottish Government minister arguing that the UK Government is depriving it of powers.

What is the case for not devolving all you can? Let’s use fracking as an example.

What if an explicit decision to share powers makes it less likely that one or two levels of government can control the process? In this case, you might need to go through four obstacles to produce a fracking decision:

  1. Satisfy the European Union that your activities would not contravene directives on water and air quality.
  2. Satisfy the UK Government that you are a fit company to receive a drilling license, and that the rules on drilling are appropriate.
  3. Work within Scottish Government guidance on how to plan land use to produce energy (shale gas, renewable, oil, nuclear) across the whole of Scotland.
  4. Satisfy local authority concerns about the effect of a drilling site in a particular area.

To me, that sounds a lot trickier for a private company, already facing a lot of opposition, than the concentration of power in a smaller territory. Or, at least, the thought process prompts us to ask: what are we devolving these powers for? Is it to satisfy a constitutional desire, or to satisfy a policy-based desire? The chat I see on twitter, aghast at the UK exercising power in this field, suggests that you can address both questions with further devolution – but I’d like to think about that a bit more before I agree.



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Filed under public policy, Scottish independence, Scottish politics

Life goes on after the Scottish independence referendum

This is the 3000 word experimental-album post, and there is also a shorter radio-edit single for the LSE blog. I discussed these issues at my inaugural lecture and the audio is available here:

There was a no vote in the Scottish independence referendum. Almost immediately, David Cameron announced that Lord Smith of Kelvin would take charge of the process to turn broad UK party promises on further devolution into a more detailed plan. I discuss the main issues regarding that plan here, but in this post I want to focus more on the bigger picture, to link the discussion of Scottish devolution to academic work on the ‘universal’ challenges that all governments face:

  • Does anyone understand the policy process in Scotland?
  • Can anyone control or influence that process?
  • If not, can we hold them to account?
  • To what extent does the Scottish Government face the same challenges as any other?
  • Do Scottish political institutions have the capacity to address them in a distinctive way?

My aim is not to deny that Scottish politics is distinctive, but to argue that its political system, and policy process, shares the same ‘complex government’ features as any country. This may provide a useful sense of perspective after a long period of excitement about one aspect of British politics – which has produced the idea that (a) people know how the Scottish policy process would work after a yes or no vote, and (b) that major constitutional change produces a major change in policy and policymaking. I don’t think that either of those beliefs is true.

I also use the ‘will life go on?’ question, partly to be sarcastic, and partly to show that government and society have an auto-pilot function: while we have been obsessed with the referendum, 500,000 public employees in Scotland have continued delivering public policies out of the public spotlight, and citizens have continued to interact with public services.

In short, my aim is to show you the links between two separate-looking concerns:

Does anyone understand the policy process in Scotland and the UK?

You might get the impression from the debate on the referendum that one side knows how Scottish policymaking works; that if you vote yes or no, you guarantee a particular outcome or, at least, guard against a bad outcome. Yet, the policy process is too complex to for anyone understand fully – from the citizen, dipping in and out of political debate, to the policymaker trying to make a difference, and the academics, still confused after decades of study.

Instead, politicians and campaigners find ways to simplify the process enough to understand and explain, while academics like me develop a language to show why we couldn’t possibly understand the process. We focus on five elements which, on their own, show the complexity of policymaking and, combined, make us thoroughly confused:

  1. ‘Bounded rationality’ suggests that policymakers do not have the time, resources and cognitive ability to consider all information, possibilities, solutions, or consequences of their actions. Instead, they use informational shortcuts or heuristics to produce good-enough decisions. They may be ‘goal-oriented’, but also use emotional, intuitive and often unreliable ‘heuristics’ to make decisions quickly. Their attention may lurch dramatically from one issue to another, and they may draw on quick, emotional judgements to treat different social groups as deserving of government benefits or sanctions.
  2. Institutions are the rules, norms, and practices that influence political behaviour. Some are visible and widely understood – such as constitutions – and others are informal, often only understood by a small number of people. These are the rules that organisations develop to run a complex world into something understandable and manageable. Yet, different rules develop in many parts of government, or government ‘silos’, often with little reference to each other. This can produce: unpredictable outcomes when people follow often contradictory rules when they interact; a multiplicity of accountability and performance management processes which do not ‘join up’; and, a convoluted statute book, made more complex by the interaction between laws and regulations designed for devolved, UK and EU matters.
  3. Policy networks show us how policymakers deal with their ability to pay attention to only a fraction of the things for which they are responsible. We begin with the huge reach and responsibilities of governments, producing the potential for ministerial ‘overload’. Governments divide responsibilities into broad sectors and specialist subsectors, and senior policymakers delegate responsibility to civil servants. ‘Policy community’ describes the relationships that often develop between the actors responsible for policy decisions and the participants, such as interest groups (and businesses, public sector organisations, and other types of government body), with which they engage. For example, civil servants seek information from groups. Or, they seek legitimacy for their policies through group ‘ownership’. Groups use their resources – based on what they provide (expertise, advice, research) and/ or who they represent (a large membership; an important profession; a high status donor or corporation) – to secure regular access to government. In some cases, the relationships between policymakers and participants endure, they ‘co-produce’ policy, and we use the term ‘governance’ to describe a messy world in which it is difficult to attribute outcomes simply to the decisions of governments. Multi-level governance describes this messy process involving the blurry boundaries between policy produced by elected policymakers and civil servants, and the influence of a wide range of governmental, non-governmental and quasi-non-governmental bodies.
  4. Ideas are beliefs or ways of thinking. Some ways of thinking are accepted to such an extent that they are taken for granted or rarely challenged (we often call them ‘paradigms’). Others regard new ways of thinking, or new solutions to problems, and the persuasion necessary to prompt other actors to rethink their beliefs. The policy process involves actors competing to raise attention to problems and propose their favoured solutions. Not everyone has the same opportunity. Some can exploit a dominant understanding of the policy problem, while others have to work harder to challenge existing beliefs. A focus on ideas is a focus on power: to persuade the public, media and/ or government that there is a reason to make policy; and, to keep some issues on the agenda at the expense of others.
  5. Context describes a policymaker’s environment. It includes the policy conditions that policymakers take into account when identifying problems, such as a political system’s geography, demographic profile, economy, and mass behaviour. It can refer to a sense of policymaker ‘inheritance’ – of laws, rules, and programs – when they enter office. Or, we may identify events, either routine, such as elections, or unanticipated, including social or natural crises or major scientific breakthroughs and technological change. In each case, we consider if a policymaker’s environment is in her control and how it influences her decisions. In some cases, the role of context seems irresistible – examples include major demographic change, the role of technology in driving healthcare demand, climate change, extreme events, and ‘globalisation’. Yet, governments have shown that they can ignore such issues for long periods of time.

Can anyone control or influence that process? If not, can we hold them to account?

Each of these five elements could contribute to a sense of complexity. When combined, they suggest that the world of policymaking is too complex to predict or fully understand. They expose slogans such as ‘joined up’ or ‘holistic’ government as attempts to give the appearance of order to policymaking when we know that policymakers can only pay attention to a small portion of the issues for which they are responsible.

The idea of ‘complex government’ can be used to reject the idea – associated with the ‘Westminster model’ – that power is concentrated in the hands of a small number of people in central government. Instead, governments develop strategies to deal with the fact that their powers are rather limited in practice.

Consequently, there is a profoundly important tension between the reality of complex government and the assertion of government control and accountability. Policymakers have to justify their activities with regard to the idea of accountability to the public via ministers and Parliament. We expect ministers to deliver on their promises, and few are brave enough to admit their limitations.

Complex government also prompts us to consider how we can hold policymakers to account if the vast majority of the population does not understand how the policy process works; if policy outcomes seem to emerge in unpredictable or uncontrollable ways, or the allegation of complexity is used to undermine popular participation or obscure accountability. The aim of political reformers, to go beyond representative government and produce more participatory forms of democracy, may solve a general sense of detachment by the political class, and aid the transparency of some aspects of policymaking, but it will not solve this bigger problem.

To what extent does the Scottish Government face the same challenges as any other?

Right now, the Scottish Government faces the same task as a large number of countries:

  1. In the aftermath of economic crisis, and reduced budgets, it has to consider how to deliver similar levels of public services – including health, education, emergency services, and housing – at lower cost.
  2. It also seeks to reduce inequalities – albeit without the policy levers that could make the biggest difference.
  3. It needs to find a balance, to address an inescapable trade-off between a degree of uniformity of national policies and local discretion. People 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.
  4. It needs to find a way to ‘join up’ its public services – to make, for example, health speak to education, social work and policing.

As in many countries, one potential solution to all four problems is the idea of ‘prevention’ or ‘early intervention’. Preventative spending’ and ‘prevention’ are terms used by many governments, and in many policy studies, to describe a broad aim to reduce public service costs (and ‘demand’) by addressing policy problems at an early stage. The argument is that too much government spending is devoted to services to address severe social problems at a late stage. The aim is for governments to address a wide range of longstanding problems – including crime and anti-social behaviour, ill health and unhealthy behaviour, low educational attainment, and unemployment (and newer problems relating to climate change and anti-environmental behaviour) – by addressing them at source, before they become too severe and relatively expensive.

Yet, as in all countries, it cannot simply make this happen, for three main reasons:

  • Inequalities are often described as ‘wicked’ problems because they seem intractable – because governments do not appear to have the means, or perhaps the ability and willingness, to solve them. For example, health inequalities could be caused largely by income inequality, which the Scottish Government would struggle to address, and the UK Government may be unwilling to address radically. Or, we have a mix of solutions, from the often-innocuous (more spending on pre-school education), to the sensitive (restricting the use of alcohol and tobacco) and the downright controversial (preventing crime before it happens).
  • We are back to the idea of complex government – to address social and economic problems at this scale requires something akin to complete central government control over policies and outcomes. Instead, governments try to find ways to cooperate with a wide range of actors to secure some of their aims while dealing with the unintended consequences of their policies.
  • No one is quite sure what ‘early intervention’ or ‘prevention’ is. It sounds intuitive but, when you get into the details and need to produce a detailed plan, ambiguity and uncertainty replace intuition and a shared understanding of what to do.

So, policymakers have a limited amount of control over this process and 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.

Do Scottish political institutions have the capacity to address them in a distinctive way?

The Scottish Government addresses this problem in two potentially-distinctive ways:

  • Policymaking culture. Many studies explore the idea of a ‘Scottish policy style’, which refers to the ways in which the Scottish Government makes policy following consultation and negotiation with pressure participants such as interest groups, local government organisations and unions
  • Administrative organisation. Many studies explore a distinctive ‘governance’ style, or a relative ability or willingness to devolve the delivery of policy to other organisations in a meaningful way. It sets a broad national strategy, the National Performance Framework, invites local bodies to produce policies consistent with it, and measures performance using broad, long term outcomes. For example, it now encourages local authorities to cooperate with a range of other bodies in the public sector (including health, enterprise, police, fire and transport), private and ‘third’ sector (mostly voluntary or charitable organisations) via established ‘Community Planning Partnerships’ (CPPs), to produce a ‘strategic vision’ for each local area.

In both cases, we usually find that the comparator is ‘Westminster’. Scotland can do things differently (at least when funding is not a problem) because it is smaller, which allows its government to develop closer relationships with key actors, and develop relatively high levels of trust in other bodies to deliver public services.

So, yes, in the context of all that I have said about governments facing the same challenges, and addressing them in similar ways, the Scottish Government has some distinctive policymaking elements.

What about the Scottish Parliament and other bodies?

Yet, consider the effect of this distinctiveness on the rest of the political system. My description of the policy process should already give the sense that it is driven primarily by government, and that parliament and ‘the people’ don’t play much of a role. What if policymaking follows its current trajectory, with more powers devolved to local authorities and a range of bodies involved in CPPs?

  1. This development has great potential to undermine traditional forms of parliamentary scrutiny. The Scottish Parliament already lacks the ability to gather information independently – it tends to rely on bodies such as the Scottish Government to provide that information. It does not get enough information from the Scottish Government about what is going on locally. Scotland lacks the top-down performance management system that we associate with the UK Government, and a greater focus on long term outcomes removes an important and regular source of information on public sector performance. Local and health authorities also push back against calls for detailed information. More devolution to local authorities would exacerbate this tension between local and national accountability.
  2. A second consequence of devolving more power locally is interest groups must reorganise, to shift from lobbying one national government to 32 local governments. Such a shift would produce new winners and losers. The well-resourced professional groups can adapt their multi-level lobbying strategies, while the groups working on a small budget, only able to lobby the Scottish Government, will struggle.
  3. These trends may prompt a new agenda on local participatory capacity, to take on the functions performed less by these national organisations. For example, the ERS Scotland’s suggestion is that more local devolution could produce a more active local population. Even so, we still need to know more about how and why people organise. For example, local communities may organise in an ad hoc way to address major issues in their area as they arise; to engage in a small part of the policy process at a particular time. They do not have the resources to engage in a more meaningful way, compared to a Parliament and collection of established groups which maintain a constant presence and develop knowledge of the details of policies over time.


The conclusion is that, if we focus on the wider policymaking and political process, we should get a stronger sense that a Yes vote or major further devolution would not produce radical change. The idea of giving a Scottish Government the powers to make radical changes to inequalities, public services, and outcomes, should take second stage to the idea that all governments are constrained by a lack of resources to make a quick and fundamental difference to the economy and society. No-one really understands the policy process, and no-one is in the position to control it. Rather, people pay attention to a small number of issues, and work with a large number of other people to negotiate some changes in some areas. This process involves major trade-offs, and the knowledge that attention to a small number of priorities means ignoring the rest.

So, too, should we be sceptical about the idea of a new era of popular participation, sweeping the nation and changing the way we do politics in Scotland. Even the Scottish Parliament struggles to know what happens in the Scottish Government and beyond. Even well-resourced interest groups struggle to keep track of an increasingly devolved system. So, what chance would citizens have if they did not devote their whole lives to politics? We should encourage popular participation, as the right thing to do, but without creating false expectations about the results.

Final note: in the Q&A I mention the Gilmore Girls. To follow up the reference,  see


Filed under agenda setting, ESRC Scottish Centre for Constitutional Change, public policy, Scottish independence, Scottish politics, UK politics and policy

What will devo-max mean?

One of the unfortunate things about the independence referendum debate is that it did not help us clarify the most likely outcome: something that many people will call ‘devo max’. For some, devo max refers to the idea of devolving everything except foreign and defence policy – something that just can’t happen to Scotland if it remains part of the UK. Instead, at the very least, the Bank of England will remain in charge of monetary policy and the UK Government will retain control of many fiscal policies.

I think that most politicians, and many campaigners, know that devo max is not possible and was not offered during The Vow. Instead, the three UK party leaders offered ‘extensive new powers’ in a remarkably short space of time (with draft legislation to come before the next general election). From that starting point, what might happen?

  1. Each of the main parties produced their own plans before The Vow, and it is difficult to tell what will happen when they all get together, perhaps with the SNP, to produce a settlement that sticks this time – in a small fraction of the time it took to produce the ill-fated Scotland Act 2012. Whatever it is may still be called ‘devo max’, but it will come to mean the maximum you will get, not the maximum you thought you could have.
  2. The only thing we can be sure about is this: it won’t be a sensible outcome. By that, I mean it will be a political outcome. People won’t always get together to work out, in a ‘technical’ way, what responsibilities complement each other, and what level of government is appropriate to what decision (if, indeed, that is possible). They won’t always ask: what are the powers for? Instead, the outcome will result from who is the most persuasive or in the best position to further their interests – such as whatever party is in power after the UK General election in 2015. Or, the negotiations will work from what Scotland already has (note that the Scotland Act 1998 devolved to the Scottish Parliament the responsibilities already held by the Scottish Office, and the Scotland Act 2012 did not go much further) and consider what greater settlement people in Scotland and the rest of the UK will be content with.
  3. We might start to think about how the Scottish Government might share or negotiate more powers on a regular basis. In one sense, it would have been handier for this process to include a stronger representation from the Liberal Democrats, since they have thought about devolution for a long time and have a relatively mature sense of the idea of sharing powers in key areas – perhaps to encourage routine intergovernmental negotiations rather than seek a stark (and, in practice, often artificial) separation of powers. Such a relationship seems inevitable if the Scottish Government seeks to ‘join up’ its responsibilities with those of the UK – as opposed to (parts of) a Yes campaign simply waiting for an inadequate settlement to go wrong.

What would happen if we asked: powers for what?

Still, I remain a boringly optimistic academic with a lot of time on my hands. So, what follows is my attempt to work out what each government does, and what we might reasonably expect if our focus is more on the ‘joined up’ rather than political side to the next devolved settlement.

Economic and social security policy: what hope for redistributive policies?

The idea of devo max suggests that you can, in Scotland, join up taxation and spending issues. For example, if you want to redistribute on a massive scale, to address economic inequalities that contribute to health and education inequalities, you need to connect those dots. You decide who to raise taxes from, in what mix (corporations? North sea oil? People who buy things? Higher earners? Local property taxes?), and how much you want to borrow to fund capital programmes. At the same time, you decide which services (health, education, criminal justice, local authorities, universities and colleges, etc.) and which people should benefit from the distribution of that income.

Then, you might try to join up some of those things by, for example: spending big on employment and training programmes, on the assumption that you will then save money on benefits or gain it in tax; rolling out a huge childcare expansion policy, to do the same when more people (mostly women) are freed up to work; introducing a ‘living wage’ (higher minimum wage) and reducing benefits (or transferring benefits to tax credits); or, spending big on public health to reduce long term pressure on the NHS (as part of a broader focus on ‘prevention’ or ‘early intervention’). Under devo max, it is clear who to blame if your taxes are too high or your benefits are too low.

However, there are several obstacles to that outcome:

  1. Scotland remains part of the UK. Many of the arguments rehearsed during the referendum still apply, including: the desire to maintain a degree of fiscal uniformity when two countries share a currency; the cost of setting up new (or boosting old) institutions to deal with the administration of a new tax regime; and, the desire to maintain a certain level of uniformity in taxes and benefits (and to transfer proceeds across the UK) as part of a broad attachment to UK ‘social citizenship’.
  2. Scotland remains part of the EU. This makes it difficult to devolve certain taxes, such as corporation (if the Scottish Government reduced corporation tax, to become more competitive, it may be interpreted as state aid) and value added (or, at least, the EU promotes a high degree of uniformity and minimum levels of VAT). I’m not sure about alcohol duty which, if devolved, could have been a more straightforward instrument (than minimum pricing legislation) to keep prices high.
  3. No-one promised anything of the sort. If you look at the proposals by the main parties (summarised here), you find the greatest emphasis on devolving all, or most, responsibility for income tax. I have never heard a UK politician promise to assign oil tax revenue to Scotland. Instead, we have heard the three leaders maintain a commitment to the Barnett formula, which suggests that they envision Scottish Governments tinkering at the taxation margins while, on the whole, receiving their income from the Treasury. Under ‘devo max’, the Barnett formula would disappear in Scotland – and I just don’t see it happening.

So, we are likely to see the introduction of limited borrowing powers, plus the devolution of some taxes, some of which can be used as instruments in their own right (such as the landfill tax, already due to be devolved, which could be used for environmental purposes), and one which remains electorally toxic (income tax). If we are being super-cynical, we might say that the UK will mostly devolve a tax that it expects Scotland not to use, while claiming that a Scottish Government can raise taxes to fund more public services to satisfy an allegedly left-wing electorate.

It might also talk up the idea of the Scottish Parliament becoming more accountable for the money it spends. This is the bit I don’t get: if most of the Scottish Government budget is raised by the UK, and the Scottish Government is destined to tinker at the margins, and remains integrated within a UK regime, how can you hold it accountable for its tax and spending regime? It seems only a little more plausible than holding local authorities to account for their council tax rates. More broadly speaking, a multi-level policymaking environment makes it increasingly difficult to know who decides what happens.

Instead, what we could (but, I expect, won’t) explore is the idea of a shared strategy, with the Scottish Government signalling to the Treasury its desire to pursue distinctive policies (on employment, childcare, and/ or a higher minimum wage) and seek the financial rewards/ punishments if they work out. Or, it might seek equivalent funding when its policies have an effect on UK benefits. That would require a degree of regular cooperation (and, to be honest, Treasury guesswork) that we have yet to see since devolution. Indeed, in high profile cases – attendance allowance to people receiving free personal care (introduced by the Labour-LD Scottish Government), and council tax benefit for people paying local income tax (a policy proposed, but not introduced, by the SNP) – the experience has been bruising for all involved.

Perhaps a safer bet is in the field of ‘employability’, which currently combines devolved public service provision (such as education and training) and reserved job search/ support services. Certainly, the ‘Christie Commission’, which received cross-party support in Scotland, recommends the devolution of the latter.

International relations, defence and security: what does it cover?

This category covers some of the big, scary, issues regarding the future of nuclear weapons, the UK armed forces, and the UK’s part in international security. We can also expect immigration to be a UK (and EU) responsibility, with minimal scope for the Scottish Government to pursue a distinctive policy (Fresh Talent seems like a long time ago).

The UK would also remain the member state in the EU, responsible for monitoring the Scottish Government’s adherence to EU rules and regulations, particularly in areas (including environment, agriculture, and fish) with a strong EU presence. There is some scope for Scottish discretion in some areas (such as in the implementation of a common agricultural policy).

Crime: drugs and guns

Most aspects of criminal justice, and police operations, are already devolved, and Scotland has always had its own legal system. The main exceptions are in responsibility for firearms, drugs and certain driving offences. The Scotland Act 2012 would devolve responsibility for the regulation of air weapons (a longstanding issue for successive Scottish First Ministers, largely following high profile incidents of air rifle misuse), the treatment of drug addicts with controlled drugs (e.g. prescribing opiates), the national speed limit (which can’t really go up in Scotland while its roads are so crap) and drink drive limits.

It is in this field that we might see the greatest reason for governmental cooperation to address issues such as human trafficking, drug trafficking, and terrorism – but perhaps without a great desire of the UK to devolve more responsibilities to do so.


It is in this field that we have seen a promising degree of cooperation (or, at least, delegation) beyond the reserved/ devolved divide. The UK remains responsible for energy policy, but has effectively devolved some decisions to Scottish ministers – such as agreeing (informally) to a Scottish veto on new nuclear power stations – and, through the devolution of planning (and land reform) laws, has allowed the Scottish Government to develop distinctive policies on the expansion of renewable energy (and, to all intents and purposes, the decision to allow or refuse fracking for unconventional oil and gas in Scotland – even though the UK still grants the drilling licenses). As things stand, the UK would remain responsible for the taxation of North Sea oil, and it is difficult to see a future in which that responsibility would be devolved, to allow the Scottish Government to pursue a coherent energy strategy (instead, we might expect a focus on entitlement to the proceeds of oil taxation, which is a different thing).


Who knew this would be a hot button topic? Our original concern was about the fate of Doctor Who (which has turned out to be not worth the debate), but now our attention has shifted to allegations of BBC bias against the Yes campaign, which might prompt the SNP to push harder for a devolved system.

The already-devolved areas

Health, education, housing and social care is devolved, and we have seen a significant amount of policy divergence in key areas, such as higher education tuition fees, personal care for older people, homelessness legislation, healthcare organisation, public health and mental health. The remaining issues regard the funding of public services and their link to the benefits system. We might expect the devolution of housing benefit, largely because the ‘bedroom tax’ became such a beacon of the Yes campaign, and (perhaps) other benefits related to previous Scottish Government policies on personal care (attendance allowance) and a proposed local income tax (council tax benefit) – subject to a strong desire within the UK to retain a uniform level of pension and social security entitlement.


Filed under Scottish independence, Scottish politics

A surge of SNP support – what does it mean?

You could be forgiven for thinking that the independence referendum was a once in a generation opportunity and that, after a no vote, things would return to normal for 20-30 years (in other words, a human generation). What you didn’t know is that we are talking about a new political generation, which seems to have the same timescale as fruit flies or, in this case, bacteria. You can go to bed and wake up to a new generation.

After only a few days, a key change has been a surge in membership for Yes parties, with the biggest numbers going to the SNP – a 65% rise from 25,642 to 42,336 in approximately 4 days (reported in The Herald, BBC, C4), the membership of the Scottish Greens more than doubling, from 2000 to 5000 and the SSP reportedly doubling its membership to 4000 (I can only get that from twitter so far). The Guardian reports that the SNP has become the UK’s 3rd largest party, ahead of the Liberal Democrats and UKIP, which seems all the more remarkable given that its membership in 2003 was 9450 (see page 42 of Mitchell, Bennie and Johns).* It has all happened so fast that no one can quite get their head round the arithmetic when they report it (it’s also worth re-checking the SNP website – on the 23rd they reported 50000 members).

But what does it all mean? The obvious answer is that it represents a positive response to the no vote. Many people have quickly become part of #the45 and are seeking ways to keep the prospect of Scottish independence high on the agenda. I think we can ignore the idea put forward by Sillars (who has always been free to say what he likes) and Salmond (who now has the freedom to wind people up on a regular basis) that Scottish independence could realistically come from a majority in the Scottish Parliament, but it is more realistic to think that a consistently high showing in Scottish Parliament elections will make another referendum seem, eventually, to be a natural step. The numbers seem to contradict the idea that a no vote in a once-in-a-generation referendum signals the end of a push for independence. Instead, we may be in election territory, where one side accepts the result this time, only to plan victory in the next vote.

However, the more immediate answer is that it helps the SNP negotiate further devolution, backed by the tangible sense that its support is, by this measure, rising. It contributes to the sense, generated by Yes votes in Glasgow and Dundee, that Scottish Labour may not compete well in the next Scottish Parliament elections in 2016 (although, who knows about the general election in 2015, where Labour almost always does well?). Each party may enter those negotiations knowing that an inadequate-looking devolution settlement, after the general election in 2015, will gift the 2016 election to the SNP.

Lynn Bennie and I spoke about this on Radio Scotland on the 23rd (about half-way in)


*There should be one note of caution when we try to compare the numbers over a longer term. As Mitchell, Bennie and Johns (p41) point out, the initial rise in SNP membership, in the mid-2000s, followed the party getting its act together, reforming membership rules, centralizing the operation, and doing away with a fixed membership fee – to allow people on low incomes to join (as the SNP sought other ways, beyond membership, to raise money). We will also have to wait to see if the SNP’s membership is still skewed towards men.


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Filed under Scottish independence, Scottish politics

Scottish independence: don’t try to explain the wrong thing

Many people are trying to explain why the Yes campaign did not win the referendum. I think, in time, we will wonder why we thought this might happen, why the campaign was so successful, and why people were so disheartened by a decent result.

Why did we think it might happen? Did we get caught up in the excitement?

Thinking back, for most of the campaign, it looked like the No side would win. I remember my stock answer was: ‘No is so far in the lead that we would need a big bang event to change things’. I think that was the feeling among most people for most of the time. It was certainly the feeling of the bookies.

Yet, for a brief moment, the prospect of a win was enough for the famous Vow and to produce a glimmer of excitement. So, what changed that longer term perception?

  • The trend in the polls towards convergence – which made it look like Yes progress might continue.
  • The margin of error – which made it look like the error could be in favour of Yes when the poll was close. A 52-48 should have been interpreted as 55-45 rather than 49-51.
  • That famous 51-49 YouGov poll for Yes, which got the world excited briefly.
  • It combined, for some, with a belief among the Yes campaign that it was picking up high levels of support ‘on the doorstep’.

Then, there was the general atmosphere:

  • There was such a Yes presence, physically, that you would be forgiven for thinking that almost no-one supported the No side publicly. This was particularly true in the final weeks, when the streets, parks and town halls seemed stuffed with Yes supporters.
  • There was such a skew in social media towards the Yes campaign: more numbers and often-stronger feelings.

Why think the campaign was so successful?

If we go back to the early to mid-2000s, we see an SNP struggling to make progress in the Scottish Parliament. That is the point of reference we should have when considering the success of the Yes campaign.

It has been an incredible 10 years: the return of Salmond as leader, with Sturgeon as deputy; the formation of a minority government in 2007; majority government in 2011 on 45% of the vote (based, in part, on the SNP’s image in government, rather than a desire for independence); and a referendum process that got so many people involved and persuaded 45% of the population to vote Yes.

Throughout this long period, we have heard that the campaign would be an unwelcome distraction – but it has energised people to discuss politics and actually turn out to vote in a way that no other campaign has. It also contributed to a vote that was closer than seemed possible a few years ago, when 60-40 in favour of No seemed about right.

Why so disheartened?

I think that way of thinking should give us some sense of the role of Alex Salmond. Personally, I worry that his resignation so soon after the result suggests that he is taking responsibility for the failure of the Yes campaign. Yet, the campaign was not a failure. Historically, support for independence was so low that a 45% result is an amazing achievement – and one that has stopped us taking No support for granted. The process put Scotland on the world stage, and Salmond (as a key figure in UK politics) is a big part of that.

In other words, we consider this a Yes loss because we came to think of it as an equal contest – like thinking that I could go out and compete with Paula Radcliffe in a marathon. If either side could have won, and Yes didn’t, the Yes side failed. In time, I don’t think we’ll stick to that story. Yes gaining 45% is a bit like me running a marathon in 4 hours* – something that looks a bit crap to casual observers, but something that should give some heart to the people involved.

*One day, I hope. One day.


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The Scottish Independence Debate: a missed opportunity for political reform?

This post appears on the Crick Centre Blog:

It is commonplace to argue that the Scottish independence referendum has reinvigorated political debate: grabbing the attention of people who would normally not engage; producing high TV audiences for debates; and packing the town halls with people hungry for information. Yet, two problems should give us pause for thought. First, public knowledge of the issues is patchy – as expressed in polls as general uncertainty or incorrect answers to specific questions. Second, public attention to a small number of issues – including the future of a currency Union, Scotland’s membership of the EU, Scotland’s NHS, and Trident – comes at the expense of attention to political and policy processes. The referendum on Scottish independence has not produced the same focus on political reform as the referendum on Scottish devolution.

In the lead up to the referendum in 1997, the proposed Scottish Parliament was at the heart of debates on political reform. Elite support for devolution – articulated by political parties, local governments, and ‘civil society’ groups, via the Scottish Constitutional Convention – was built on the idea of a crisis of legitimation, linked to an image of top-down Westminster politics based on the concentration of government power and marginalisation of Parliament and ‘civil society’. Devolution was accompanied by an electoral system designed to diffuse power among parties, and some measures to help put the Scottish Parliament at the centre of new forms of participative and deliberative democracy. The Consultative Steering Group, a cross-party group with members drawn from ‘civil society’, articulated the principles it would seek to uphold: ‘the sharing of power’ between government, parliament and ‘the people’; accountability of government to parliament and the people; accessibility; and, equal opportunity.

Scottish devolution had an important impact in key areas: producing a more transparent legislature, coalition and minority governments, and increasing the representation of women. Yet, it had a limited impact on ‘power sharing’ and accountability. The Scottish system remains part of the ‘Westminster family’, with a traditional focus on the accountability of ministers to the public via Parliament. This outcome became problematic in several respects: Scottish Parliament committees have limited resources to scrutinise policy and question ministers effectively; they rarely engage in meaningful or direct contact with civil servants; they struggle to gather information on the work of public bodies; and, local authorities generally argue that they are accountable to their electorates, not Parliament. Periods of coalition majority (1999-2007), minority (2007-11) and single party majority (2011-) government have reinforced this image of an often-peripheral body. The Scottish Parliament is a powerful body at the heart of accountability on paper, but not in practice.

Nevertheless, there has been no major debate on the role of the Scottish Parliament since it was established in 1999, and no major reforms have taken place. There have been some individual reports, such as ERS Scotland’s Democracy Max, but nothing like the scale of the SCC. This lack of attention seems significant for three reasons. First, other Parliaments, such as Westminster, have engaged in modernisation during this period. Second, the lead up to the referendum on independence in 2014 seemed like the perfect opportunity to revisit its role within Scotland’s independent or further-devolved political system. Yet, if people have discussed the Scottish Parliament, it is largely to confirm that they have no plans to reform (see footnote 2, citing the Scottish Government’s Scotland’s Future).

Third, the Scottish policy process has changed. The focus of the Scottish Government and its partners has changed markedly, towards the importance of ‘outcomes’, rather than ‘inputs’, as the key measure of government success. The Scottish Government plays an overarching role in policymaking: it sets a broad strategy and invites a large number of public bodies to carry it out. Ministers devolve most day to day policymaking to civil servants. The Scottish Government has also moved from the production of short term targets to long term outcomes measures which go beyond the five-year terms of elected office. It encourages localism, respecting the competing mandate of elected local authorities and encouraging them to work with other public bodies through community planning partnerships. This is not a recent event; it has been the approach of the Scottish Government at least as far back as the National Performance Framework, established in 2007, to provide a strategic framework for policy outcomes and invite a range of public bodies to meet its aims.

Until recently, the Scottish Parliament did not respond to these changes. Its procedures and activities are generally focused on inputs to the political system. Its main role is to scrutinise draft Scottish Government legislation as it is introduced. Its committees have devoted two to three months per year to the scrutiny of the annual budget bill. In general, this scrutiny has a very narrow focus, with a limited emphasis on pre- or post-legislative scrutiny, and its value is unclear. In many ways, its activities do not seem to match the hopes of the Consultative Steering Group.

Consequently, like Westminster, the Scottish Parliament is part of an apparently simple accountability process: power is concentrated in the hands of ministers, who are accountable to the public through Parliament. Yet, as in Westminster, this simple picture of ministerial accountability is increasingly misleading. The Scottish Government oversees a complex public sector, with a large number of accountability mechanisms, most of which do not involve the Scottish Parliament. As things stand, this will continue regardless of the vote in the referendum. Policy will continue to be made out of the public and parliamentary spotlight.


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The Vow: what is the significance of the Barnett formula announcement?

This post appears in the FUS website:

On the front page of yesterday’s Daily Record, the three UK party leaders made ‘The Vow’ – to support a timetable for greater devolution and to retain the Barnett formula. For people who have been predicting the demise of the Barnett formula for years, this must seem like an astonishing move. For people calling for an end to the formula, as a symbol of financial advantage to Scotland, it must seem like a crushing blow. For others, less acquainted with the technicalities of public finance, the significance of this move must seem unclear. Yet, for each audience, the message is simple: they will protect the current way in which Scotland receives its budget, and promise further devolution, then deal with the rest of the UK later.

While the promise of further devolution is still unclear, the maintenance of Barnett represents a strong message of intent. To understand why, let’s consider what the formula appears to be designed to do.

The Scottish budget, transferred by the UK Treasury, comprises two elements: an initial block settlement based on historic spending in Scotland, and the Barnett formula, to adjust spending in Scotland in line with 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, in the 1970s, 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.

One 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 Scottish Government can decide if it will follow the UK lead.

Perhaps more importantly, a reference in the current debate, to ‘Barnett’ is a shorthand way to describe Scotland’s current budget settlement. By agreeing to maintain Barnett, the three parties leaders want to convince people that the Scottish Government will not be cut dramatically after, for example, a ‘backlash’ in the rest of the UK. Rather, the formula will, in theory, reduce Scotland’s financial advantage over a much longer period, as increases in the budget for England produce ‘consequentials’ for Scotland according to its population share, rather than protecting its initial higher levels of per capita spending. Or, as has been the case before (and, to some extent, after) devolution, the UK Government might find ways to ‘bypass’ the formula to provide additional funding to Scotland. Either way, the aim is to assure people that the onset of austerity will not have a dramatic effect on the Scottish Government budget, and that key services in health and education will not face radical changes.

Until the referendum vote, all eyes will be on the reaction in Scotland to this ‘vow’. Yet, it seems inevitable that our attention will shift, eventually, to the ways in which the rest of the UK reacts to these promises. Previously, the advantage to Barnett was that it seemed to satisfy two audiences: the Scottish audience, by promising not to reduce Scotland’s budget dramatically; and, the English audience, by promising that Scotland’s advantage would be eroded over decades.

Yet, this week, only one audience seems to count. Scotland’s advantageous public spending position (compared to Wales and many English regions) will be protected, at least in the short term, and Scotland will receive more powers to tax, borrow and spend. There appears to be no prospect for a UK-wide constitutional convention or a UK-wide ‘needs based’ exercise. In effect, the No campaign has been based on the idea that, in the UK, we are all in this together. Yet, to win the referendum, it has to accept that any promises given to Scotland will be at the expense of – at least one part of – the rest of the UK.


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