Daily Archives: September 17, 2014

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

This post appears on the Crick Centre Blog: http://www.crickcentre.org/blog/scottish-independence-debate-missed-opportunity-political-reform/

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

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

This post appears in the FUS website: http://www.futureukandscotland.ac.uk/blog/what-significance-barnett-formula-announcement

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.


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