Monthly Archives: October 2014

The Smith Commission: will greater powers come with greater democratic accountability?

The main focus of the Smith Commission is to decide which powers should be devolved to the Scottish Parliament. Yet, in practice, these powers are held by the Scottish Government and devolved to, or shared with, a large number of governmental, non-governmental and quasi-non-governmental bodies. As a result, no one is quite sure who is responsible for decisions made in the name of the Scottish Parliament. This makes it almost impossible to identify a democratic system in which there are meaningful levels of accountability – either through the ballot box or in our day to day scrutiny of government policy. The Smith process should not just be a means to devolve greater powers. Rather, it should consider how to make sure that, with greater responsibility, comes greater democratic accountability.

Scotland has an apparently simple accountability process: power is concentrated in the hands of ministers, who are accountable to the public through Parliament. This simple picture of ministerial accountability is increasingly misleading. 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. Most policy is processed in ‘policy communities’, which bring together civil servants, interest groups, and representatives of an extensive public sector landscape, including local, health, police, fire service and other service-specific bodies. This generally takes place out of the public spotlight and often with minimal parliamentary involvement. Indeed, few non-specialists could describe how these bodies interact and where key decisions on Scottish policy are being made.

Further, the Scottish public sector landscape is changing. The Scottish Government has moved from the production of short term targets to long term outcomes measures which go beyond the five-year terms of elected office. It often encourages localism. It has, since 2007, produced a National Performance Framework and rejected the idea that it can, or should, micromanage public sector bodies using performance measures combined with short term targets. Instead, it encourages them to cooperate to produce long term outcomes consistent with the Framework, through vehicles such as Community Planning Partnerships. Further, following its commitment to a ‘decisive shift to prevention’, it has begun to encourage reforms designed to harness greater community and service-user design of public services.

Most of these measures seem appropriate, particularly when they foster decision-making by local actors with greater knowledge of local areas. Yet, they are also troubling, because it is increasingly difficult to know who is responsible for policy outcomes – and, therefore, who or what to hold to account. In the Scottish political system, the Scottish Government processes the vast majority of policy, the Scottish Parliament is generally peripheral to that day-to-day policy process, and the public has limited opportunities for direct influence.

This is important background which should inform the current debate, most of which focuses on more powers and neglects the need for more accountability. The Smith agenda gives us a chance to evaluate the devolution experience so far, and consider what might change if there is further devolution. As far as possible, we should focus on the Scottish political system as a whole, including the relationship between the Scottish Parliament, public participation, the Scottish Government, and a wide range of public sector bodies, most of which are unelected.

Consider, for example, if the system follows its current trajectory, towards a greater reliance on local governance. 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.

Local decision-making also has the potential to change the ‘subsystem’ landscape. Currently, most Scottish policy is processed by civil servants who consult regularly with pressure participants. Most ‘lobbying’ to the Scottish Government is done by (a) other parts or types of Government and (b) professional and interest groups. Civil servants rely on groups for information and advice, and they often form long term, efficient and productive relationships based on trust and regular exchange. When policy is made at the Scottish level, those groups organise at the Scottish level. The Scottish Government is a key hub for policy relationships; it coordinates networks, referees disputes, and gathers information and advice at a central level. One consequence of devolving more power locally is that these 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.

Such developments may prompt discussions about three types of reform. The first relates to a greater need to develop 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 second relates to governance reforms which focus primarily on the relationship between elected local authorities, a wide range of unelected public bodies, and service users. There is some potential to establish a form of legitimacy through local elections but, as things stand, local authorities are expected to work in partnership with unelected bodies – not hold them to account. There is also some scope to develop a form of user-driven public service accountability, but separate from the electoral process and with an uncertain focus on how that process fits into the wider picture.

The third relates to parliamentary reform. So far, the Scottish Parliament has not responded significantly to governance trends and a shift to outcomes-focused policymaking. Its main role is to scrutinise draft Scottish Government legislation as it is introduced. Its committees devote 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. It has the potential to change its role. It can shift its activities towards a focus on Scottish Government policy in broader terms, through the work of inquiries in general and its finance and audit functions in particular. However, its role will remain limited as long as it has a small permanent staff. The devolution of greater responsibilities to the Scottish Government, without a proportionate increase in Scottish Parliament research capacity, could simultaneously enhance and undermine the Scottish Parliament’s powers.

The Smith Commission provides a brief ‘window of opportunity’ to consider these issues of governance, participation and accountability – and how these problems may be exacerbated by the devolution of greater powers. We face the possibility of a Scottish system, in which we already struggle to hold policymakers to account, taking on more responsibilities without a proportionate increase in accountability measures. For example, the Scottish Parliament will have to scrutinize more activity with the same, limited, resources.

The Smith agenda should already prompt us to consider how powers would be used if they were devolved. This is not about the different policy decisions that each party would make with extra powers, which Smith has, appropriately, decided is outside of his remit. Rather, it is about how, for example, new tax and welfare powers interact with already-devolved powers over public services – such as when the devolution of relevant taxes and housing benefit can be linked to housing policy.

Similarly, it is difficult to consider the devolution of greater powers without considering how they will be used – and what effect more devolution would have on Scottish democracy. People already struggle to know who to hold to account in a relatively simple system in which there is a quite-clear list of devolved powers and tax/ welfare powers stay with the UK. We should think more about how we can understand a further devolved system, in which powers are shared across levels and, for example, ministerial accountability to parliament may only scratch the surface of a complex accountability landscape. This aspect of the process may, in principle, appear to be beyond the Smith remit but, in practice, there is no way to separate the long-term constitutional question from the day-to-day democratic question.

I discuss most of these issues in this paper: Cairney Political Quarterly workshop 23.10.14

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

The Scottish political system and policy process share the same ‘complex government’ features as any country



Filed under Scottish politics

Kingdon’s Multiple Streams Analysis: A New Research Agenda?

It is the 30 year anniversary of Kingdon’s Agendas, Alternatives, and Public Policies. The book’s influence can be measured by its citations (over 12000), but I wonder about its broader influence. For example, is Kingdon’s analysis used to inform policy theory as a whole, or one part of it? Is it used to structure research and help explain the results, or merely remembered fondly as the source of a great metaphor?

In a new paper, I explore this question in three ways:

  1. Outlining its key tenets, focusing on the extent to which multiple streams analysis contains ‘universal’ insights or insights specific to the US federal system. This part is based on a blog post, part of a larger series summarizing policy theories and concepts.
  2. Identifying its place in the broader literature, focusing in particular on its contribution to ‘evolutionary’ theory. This part is based on another blog post and article on evolutionary policy theory.
  3. Examining 41 serious articles on MSA (i.e. they don’t just nod to Kingdon), to try to identify the literature’s development, particularly in the last 10 years. Most of the articles focus on the US and EU, and the sample is split between national/ international (28) and subnational (13).

Preliminary categories

  1. Conceptual revisions to reflect the object of study (14). The biggest category reflects the rising application of MSA to non-US policymaking (one of the most studied arenas in the world) and/ or non-national jurisdictions. Some studies overlap between, for example, EU and subnational studies. Six focus on the EU (3) or member states within the EU (3).
  2. Straightforward applications as part of multiple-theory approaches, or case studies which use MSA as a part of a broad sweep of the literature (7).   The case studies make reference to the MSA as one of several relevant theories, but with Kingdon’s model at centre stage, or providing a key insight.
  3. Straightforward ‘replications’ with no other theories mentioned (5). A case study uses the MSA to structure and help explain policy change in a detailed case study, without challenging Kingdon’s analysis or suggesting conceptual revision.
  4. Major conceptual revisions (5) Cases in which there is so much conceptual revision that the MSA becomes difficult to compare with the new approach.
  5. Direct theory development and hypothesis testing (4).
  6. Accounts for practitioners, advocating reform or providing advice on the right time to propose solutions (3).
  7. Work which cites or engages superficially with MSA (3).

Overall, we may get the sense of a generally self-contained literature, in which case study authors either: do not speak to the wider literature, present models that are difficult to compare with others; or use MSA primarily to focus on new objects of study.

However, as a group, they raise important issues on comparative policymaking, and some new conceptual issues may arise. For example, two argue that, in the EU, ‘ambiguity’ extends from issue framing to not knowing which directorate is responsible for policy – opening up the potential for entrepreneurs to assert a primary jurisdiction or venue shop.

Six studies (4 of the EU or member states in the EU, and 2 of US states), focus on distinctive ‘policy streams’ (where policy solutions are developed), reflecting the importance of policy diffusion or transfer. They highlight the role of a federal or supranational body, or a transnational policy community, at the centre of the policy stream, suggesting that many solutions originate outside the political system under study. In these cases, the idea of a ‘policy transfer window’ could help combine two literatures: MSA, which originally did not recognise this external role, and the transfer literature, which often focuses on how rather than why governments import policies. Studies can combine a focus on the role of external organisations or networks in the production of the ideas in the policy stream, and the need for a shift of attention combined with some receptivity to import the policy idea, before transfer takes place.

Three studies of subnational policymaking suggest that a policy entrepreneur can be more effective at a smaller scale of government – and more able to influence or direct all three streams. They highlight the potential for a hypothesis along the lines of: ‘the three streams are more independent at the federal or supranational level; at local levels, they are more open to influence or coordination by exceptional individuals’.

Three studies focus on little-studied areas. Zhu examines the extent to which a policy theory derived from studies of the US can be used to explain policymaking in China. The case demonstrates that, while some ‘universal’ concepts travel well, they do not tell us much about the policy processes of other countries.

Such discussions might prompt us to revisit some key issues in Kingdon’s research:

  • How large are policy windows? Do they open up to allow specific policy solutions, or major reform programmes?
  • How specific are the solutions that couple with problems and politics? Several studies suggest that policy change can happen when only a vague policy solution has been produced and adopted. Consequently, a further process of ‘coupling’ may be required (perhaps at another at level of government) when a more detailed solution must be found. How can we conceptualise the process? Do we seek to conceptualise policymaking going on simultaneously in multiple arenas, or identify a series of policy windows in different jurisdictions as key decisions are made at different points?

I discuss these issues in greater depth in this paper, which combines an 8000 word discussion with a very generous 5000 word annex: Cairney Kingdon Singapore 9.10.14 final . It’s part of a 2-day Kingdon workshop organised by Michael Howlett. That’s why I’m going to Singapore.


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Social investment, prevention and early intervention: a ‘window of opportunity’ for new ideas?

In policy studies, we talk about the rare occasions when some problems or policy solutions ‘take off’ suddenly or when an ‘idea’s time seems to come’. Indeed, one aim of Kingdon’s ‘multiple streams analysis’ is to show us that ideas come and go, only to be adopted if the time is right: when attention to a problem is high, a well-thought-out idea exists, and policymakers have the motive and opportunity to adopt it. Only then will policy change in a meaningful way.

If only life were so simple. Instead, look again at that word ‘idea’. It means at least two things: a specific policy solution to a clearly defined problem, or a potentially useful but vague way of thinking about a complex and perhaps intractable (or, at least, ‘wicked’) problem. If it is the latter, the ‘window of opportunity’ may not produce the sort of policy change we might expect. Instead, we may see a groundswell of attention to, and support for, a policy solution that is very difficult to ‘operationalise’. We may find that everyone agrees on the broad solution, but no-one agrees on the detail, and we spend years making very little progress.

This is the danger with several potential solutions which highlight the possibility of addressing: the fall-out from austerity and reduced budgets; the need to reduce demand for acute public services by addressing socio-economic problems at an early stage; the need to ‘join up’ a range of government responsibilities; and, a desire to move away from unhelpful short term targets towards more long term and meaningful measures of policy success. Several solutions are currently in good currency, including: the social investment model, the wellbeing agenda, prevention (or preventative spending) and early intervention.

In each case, there may be a window of opportunity to promote such solutions, but the following obstacles arise:

  • Each example represents an idea, or way of thinking about things like public expenditure, that could either underpin new ways of thinking within government, become faddish before being rejected, or provide a gloss to justify decisions already made.
  • If the former, it could take decades for this way of thinking to become ‘institutionalised’, turned into ‘standard operating procedures’ and detailed rules to coordinate action across the public sector (suggesting that it requires meaningful, sustained cross-party support).
  • During this time, governments will still face hard choices about which areas are worthy of the most investment. In each case, the aim is vague, the evidence is often weak, it is difficult to compare the return from investments in different public services, and the process has a tendency to revert to a political exercise to determine priorities. In the face of uncertainty, policymakers may revert to tried and trusted rules to make decisions, and reject the more risky, new approach, with uncertain measures and outcomes.
  • The budget process is, in many ways, separate from a focus on social investment, activity and outcomes – largely because it remains an exercise to guarantee spending on established services and departments, or to reduce spending on some services at the margins.
  • There is a level of unpredictability in politics that makes such long term investment problematic – particularly when investment in one area, with quiet winners, comes at the expense of another service, with vocal losers (as demonstrated by any move to close a local hospital, rural school or university department). A tension between long term central planning and short term electoral issues often produces incremental and non-strategic changes, in which services receive ‘disinvestment’ and are allowed to wither.

To some extent, these issues may be addressed well during regular interactions between governments and their ‘social partners’, such as when governments, business and unions get together to produce something akin to a framework in which other policy decisions are made. In that sense, group-government relations represent a form of ‘institutional memory’. Governments and politicians come and go, but group-government relations represent a sense of continuity. This could be the main way to keep social investment on government agendas, as a salient topic or, perhaps more powerfully, as a way of thinking that is taken for granted and questioned rarely, even when new parties enter office.

Yet, there are problems with this ‘corporatist’ aim if it refers to government-wide group-government relations, since policy networks tend to develop on a ‘sectoral and subsectoral’ scale. Governments tend to deal with complex government by breaking it down into manageable chunks. Consequently, for example, medical and teaching unions could engage as one of many trades unions in concert with business, but they tend to speak mostly to education and health departments, in areas with minimal union-business links. Further, such groups tend to be more concerned with the targets and priorities identified at sectoral levels. They may like the idea of soft targets and long term, more meaningful, outcome measures, but have to address short term targets; they may pay attention to cross-sectoral aims when they can, but focus most of their attention on particular fields and priorities specific to their work.

The Scottish Government case

The issues I described are not unique to one government. Yet, some governments also face distinctive problems. For example, in Scotland, as part of the UK, there are specific issues around the links between policy instruments, shared responsibility, and joined up thinking:

  • The Scottish Government remains part of a UK process in which monetary and fiscal policies are determined largely by the Treasury, with the Scottish Government’s primary role to spend and invest.
  • Its position raises awkward questions about the consistency of policies, when spending decisions based on a ‘universalism’ narrative cannot be linked directly to the idea that redistribution should be achieved through taxation. The Scottish Government may be overseeing a spending regime that favours the wealthy and middle classes (universal free services with no means testing) as long as taxation is not sufficiently redistributive.
  • These issues have not become acute since devolution, partly because the Scottish Government budget has been high, and the independence agenda has postponed some difficult debates on new budget priorities. However, they are likely to become more pressing as budgets fall and organisations compete for scarcer resources.

Current issues: more powers, more accountability?

These issues are important right now, because the Smith Commission is currently considering the devolution of further powers to the Scottish Parliament/ Government:

  • A focus on policies such as ‘prevention’ should prompt us to consider how to align priorities and powers. The parallel is with economic policy, in which a key concern relates to the alignment of fiscal powers with monetary union. With prevention, we should ask what’ more powers’ would be used for. For example, would the Scottish Government seek to address health and education inequalities by addressing income inequalities? If so, what powers could be devolved to address this issue without undermining that broader question of macroeconomic coherence?
  • A focus on shared powers raises new issues about accountability. As things stand, accountability is already a problem in relation to outcomes based measures and the devolution of policies to local public bodies. In a ‘Westminster’ style system, we are used to the idea of government accountability to the public via ministers accounting to Parliament, or directly via elections. Yet, if the responsibility for outcomes is further devolved, and outcomes measures span multiple elections, how can we hold governments to account in a meaningful way? Or, as importantly, if elected policymakers still feel bound by these short-term accountability mechanisms, how can we possibly expect them to commit to policies with short term costs, with pay-offs that may only begin to show fruit after they have retired from office?
  • These issues are further exacerbated by a shared powers model, in which we don’t know where UK government responsibility ends and Scottish Government responsibility begins.

This sort of discussion may prompt us to re-examine the idea of a ‘window of opportunity’ for change, at least when we are discussing vague solutions to complex problems. A window may produce a broad change in policymaker commitment to a policy solution, but that event may only represent the beginning of a long, drawn out process of policy change. We often talk about ‘policy entrepreneurs’ lying in wait to present their pet solutions when the time is right – but, in this case, ‘solution’ may be a rather misleading description of a broad agenda, in which everyone can agree on the aims, but not the objectives.


Filed under ESRC Scottish Centre for Constitutional Change, Evidence Based Policymaking (EBPM), Public health, public policy, Scottish independence, Scottish politics, UK politics and policy

3 reasons why devo max won’t happen

For our purposes, devo max means the devolution of everything except foreign and defence policy.

  1. It wasn’t offered by the three main UK parties, even if many people claimed that it was. The three party leaders made ‘The Vow’, which is a vague commitment to ‘extensive new powers’ and not what we think of when we say devo max. In fact, the vow includes a commitment to the Barnett formula, which suggests that most fiscal powers won’t be devolved (and we already know that monetary policy will remain at the UK level). In a separate post is a list of examples of media stories and politicians telling people that devo max is coming, but it’s not coming. You can believe that these devo max predictions either betray some loose, or deliberately misleading, language (or a mix of both), but they were made by people not in a position to deliver on devo max promises.
  2. Those UK parties remain at the heart of the decision. The Smith Commission is asking for views from the public and ‘civic leaders’, but it is working to a wacky timetable determined largely by the UK political parties, the commission is stuffed with representatives of parties, and the proposals will be taken forward by one or more parties. It is not one of the old-style constitutional conventions with widespread membership, and it is not set up to maximise public engagement. Instead, it is there to turn three separate plans on further devolution, made by three different parties (discussed well by the IFG), into one coherent plan (while, somehow, incorporating the SNP’s push for devo max).
  3. It’s too easy to argue that people seem to want the ‘devo max’ powers but not the outcomes. Recent polls suggest that, when asked directly, a large majority of respondents favour the proper devo max not on offer. However, when asked about the consequences – such as raising and spending all finance in Scotland, and/or producing the potential for different tax rates and social security spending (e.g. the state pension) – that support falls. As John Curtice suggests, this is partly a consequence of a binary yes/ no debate which did not allow us to clarify the practical meaning of devo max. Consequently, political parties have the wiggle room to argue that most people don’t really want devo max (and that it’s not a good idea).


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

When People Talk About Media Bias, What Do They Mean? What is the Evidence?

Update: at the end, and in comments, I am collating examples of the use of ‘devo max’ to describe the offer of more devolved powers for Scotland during the referendum debate.

“We had issues from time to time, but I don’t myself that we faced a systemic bias if you like, that there was some corporate intent to disadvantage the Yes campaign” (Blair Jenkins, interviewed on STV)

Allegations of media bias became a big feature of the Scottish independence campaign, with some Yes supporters adamant that the BBC was biased against them, and perturbed that only one newspaper (the Sunday Herald) came out in favour of independence. This argument was rehearsed mostly on social media, but spilled out into some protests outside the BBC studio in Glasgow, and in some academic work by John Robertson which sought to measure systematic bias in media coverage (there is also some work on left/right wing media bias, which could tie in with the debate in Scotland).

The academic work mostly received attention from the Yes side, and its author spoke at one of the BBC demos, but was dismissed by the BBC (which criticised his research) and many other commentators, largely because the author was pro-Yes and the line between evidence and advocacy became more blurry than we are perhaps used to. This is a shame, because this episode could prompt us to think about the meaning of bias and, in particular, how much is based on choice.

To begin with, let’s examine this topic at a very abstract level, to identify how much choice goes into information bias. The most general argument can be broken down as follows:

  1. There is an almost-infinite amount of information out there, and we must decide what information to pay a disproportionate amount of attention to, and what to ignore. In other words, all information gathering is biased in some way, and the process involves some element of choice. We all do it and are all biased in that general sense.
  2. As soon as we make that choice, it sets us down a particular path. Focusing on one kind of information leads to choices that reinforce the original focus. Think, for example, about an academic choosing initially to study politics, then Scottish politics, then devolution, then aspects of the referendum. Some of it may be based initially on semi-accidental circumstances (e.g. a work opportunity, a funding opportunity) and a degree of choice (about, for example, what aspects of the debate to follow). Whatever the mix of choice and opportunity, that person’s initial choices influence their subsequent focus: on what issues to describe, and how to do so, and what to ignore. It involves an element of bias, about what to focus on and how to present the information. Academics, like other people, develop ‘standard operating procedures’ to allow them to gather information systematically and present it in an acceptable way. Their biases – of focus and method, what to become knowledgeable about, and on what topics to know little about – become, to a large extent, systematic. Some of those procedures are considered ‘scientific’ – which largely means systematic (according to the principles or standards of scientific professions) rather than impartial or unbiased.
  3. The same goes for media organisations. They get into routines which govern how they choose issues to study and how they gather information (which sources they use, and which people they speak to). Some of it involves conscious decisions, and some of it becomes habitual. When people get into such routines, they may begin to examine and portray issues in a particular way. Their biases become systematic, and their particular biases may not be about choosing explicitly to favour some people and stick it to others.

So far, so general. The tricky part is to separate this broad source of often-implicit bias from the allegations of explicit and specific bias to support one campaign and undermine another.

For me, the most interesting side to that discussion of bias relates to the issues that media organisations choose to highlight. Each story becomes a political choice, because to focus on one story means to crowd out the others. One chooses what to prioritise and what to ignore.

This argument holds even when media organisations appear to approach these stories in a sort-of unbiased way. They may, for example, bring on an equal number of Yes/ No supporters to discuss the issue, and call it impartial reporting. Yet, the discussion is already not-impartial because those people are talking about one issue at the expense of the rest.

So, for example, every story about not sharing the pound (and the phrase ‘plan B’), struggling to join the EU, or uncertainty over pensions, was already likely to be a victory for the No side before anyone from Yes/ No uttered a word. Similarly, a focus on the inadequacy of Westminster politics would generally become fertile territory for the Yes campaign (while issues such as the NHS were more up for grabs).

In that sense, to gauge one kind of media bias, perhaps all you have to do is identify which topics receive the most attention among individual media organisations.

Or, you might look out for the idea that the current devolved settlement represents normality, and that independence, as the major change, should be the case to prove. This type of consideration would sit on top of John Roberston’s focus on the more obvious signs of bias in relation to, for example, the personalisation of issues (usually in relation to Alex Salmond).

But the question that remains is: what should we do with the information?

During the campaign, I found myself concluding that such reports of bias seem quite intuitive: that a British Broadcasting Corporation (and other UK based media) would see the world through a British lens, and seek to interrogate the issues on that basis. So, for example, the currency issue would be at or near the top of the list because this issue, more than the NHS in Scotland, affects people across the UK. Perhaps the BBC might also focus on Salmond because few other politicians are known outside Scotland and he has, for a long time, been the figurehead for the push for Scottish independence, and remained the focus of attention for his competitors (indeed, for some time, and on the 2007 Scottish Parliament ballot paper, Salmond was put forward by the SNP as its figurehead).

My dull initial conclusion is that I look forward to the peer review and publication of studies on bias in an academic journal (rather than in a Yes-friendly outlet) – as a process that moves us on from an instant reaction to the results, during an intense period of Scottish politics, to a more considered evaluation of the data, in a more dispassionate way than afforded to us during the heat of the campaign.

However, of course, this is a cop-out, because the political process is still going on, and the media coverage is still playing its part – with the potential to contribute to a sense of grievance among people who rely on a small number of media sources to get their information.

Devo Max

Currently, the best example is the issue of ‘devo max’. My argument is that devo-max is not possible and was never on offer by the leaders of UK parties in ‘The Vow’ (I say this in my own dull way here, and it is edited-and-headlined-for-most-effect here). However, other people have said that devo max was on offer, well before the campaign period (which I challenged here), and during the most intense period of debate. Some of these claims of devo-max were made by No enthusiasts and some by journalists – including Jackie Bird, who used the term when interviewing Alistair Darling, and was not contradicted by Alistair Darling:

So, even though devo max was not on offer, it is possible for some people to get the impression that it was. This is a problem on which serious media sources, or at least those organisations keen to maintain an image of balance, may reflect. Most are keen – and rightly so – to turn complex issues into very simple statements and phrases, and to condense long debates into short and manageable soundbites, but it should not come at the expense of clarity. It should not contribute too much to a sense of grievance that is already high.

Final note: is there more evidence out there?

I’d like to get a better sense of how many times these ‘devo max’ claims were made during the campaign. If you have well-documented examples (web links to video clips, online and newspaper stories – not vague allegations), please could you pass them on to me? I will then collate them at the end of this post. I could also do the same for ‘home rule’ and ‘federalism’, but these terms seem, to me, to be even vaguer.

Update. Some examples based on the comments so far (these are stories I have read or listened to):

Bear in mind the element of self selection here. This list does not give an overall sense of the tone and substance of reports in the round. For all I know, these outlets presented nuanced reports the rest of the time (and, for example, in the case of the BBC, there is a mix of shorthand and nuance).

The Newspapers

The Independent 15.9.14 Scottish Independence: What is devo-max? “Put simply, devo-max – also known as maximum devolution – would give Holyrood the power over most reserved matters, except defence and foreign affairs. All the three main pro-union parties – Labour, the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats – have pledged to offer a version of devo-max if Scotland votes no in Thursday’s referendum”.

The Guardian 16.9.14 The Guardian view on the devo max pledge “Published on the front of the Daily Record, and thus aimed prominently and squarely at the traditional Labour voters who make up a lot of the Record’s readership, “the vow” reiterated that extensive new “devo max” powers for the Scottish parliament would follow hard on from a no vote on Thursday”.

The Financial Times (Nick Butler 14.9.14 Is devo max the answer for Scotland or the next problem?):Devolution max — the home rule option endorsed by the three UK party leaders — could just encourage Scots to vote No next Thursday” is followed by a discussion of how ill-advised the offer of more powers is and, in a way that suggests devo max is used as a shorthand for more powers, “The final shape of devo max would not be known until there was a new government in Westminster next June”. Also note that the FT’s devo max link is to a story by the BBC, which does not make the same mistake. On the contrary, its last section ‘Is this Devo Max?’ quotes Alex Salmond: “George Osborne and David Cameron, their one red line issue in setting up this referendum was not to allow Devo Max on the ballot paper, so to actually produce something which is far short of that, which is weak and insipid and has already been discounted by the Scottish people, is a sign of the total disintegration of the No campaign.”

The Daily Record article (9.9.14 Independence referendum: Voters not convinced by No camp’s last-gasp Devo-Max proposals ) gives the impression that many people came to think of ‘The Vow’, coupled with Gordon Brown’s intervention, as the proposal of devo max.

This Herald article (2.6.14 U-turn as Tory leader unveils devo-max plan) only uses devo max in the title, which perhaps says more about the fact that journalists don’t write their own titles.

The Scotsman (3.10.14 JK Rowling urges Labour to clarify DevoMax offer) really talks about someone hoping for devo max, not it being offered.

The TV Coverage

Robert Peston uses the phrase ‘devo max’, but he describes it (45 seconds in) as ‘the ugly shorthand for giving it [the Scottish Parliament] more power’ (BBC 9.9.14 Scottish independence: How would ‘devo max’ affect economy?)

Debi Edward (2.6.14 Scottish Conservatives deliver their Devo Max plans for a no vote) makes the same argument for ITV: “Devo Max is a snappy (ish) way of describing further devolution (more powers for the Scottish Parliament) and in polls it proves more popular that a Yes vote or a vote for status quo”.

Anushka Asthana for Sky (8.9.14 Scotland ‘Devo Max’ Deal A Win-Win For Salmond) perhaps adds to the confusion by stating: “The nationalists say that it is too little, too late. But still, arguably a form of devo max [my underline] is very much on the table for those who vote no. And that leaves SNP leader Alex Salmond in a win-win situation. This is a man who described devo-max as a “very attractive” idea back in 2012″.

The Politicians

ITV (14.9.14 Lord Steel: “Devo-max now on ballot paper“) has a clip of David Steel (former LD leader and former Scottish Parliament Presiding Officer) accompanied by the text: “The former leader of the Liberal Party says the so-called devo-max option is now effectively on the ballot paper for the referendum. Lord David Steel, who lives in Selkirk, says voting no would effectively be a vote for full fiscal powers in Scotland”. I don’t know how it played on TV, but the same web page has this qualification: “But the Yes campaign say the Unionist Parties’ aren’t offering anything remotely like devo-max, which they say would be Scotland controlling everything except defence and foreign affairs”.

Gordon Brown’s speech (in comment by hoppinghaggis below) suggests that the plan he outlines is proposed by the Labour Party (not the government). It talks about getting as close to federalism as you can in an asymmetrical UK (where England has 80+% of the population), and effectively offering Keir Hardie’s idea of Home Rule  – a statement criticised by the Yes campaign, but both sides are really speculating about what Hardie would want now. The next best thing is to know what George Buchanan proposed when introducing ‘Scottish Home Rule’ in his Home Rule Bill in 1924: “it proposes to set up a Scottish Parliament with fairly large powers, controlling everything except the Post Office, the Excise and Customs, the Army and Navy, and foreign affairs”.

John Prescott describes (in hoppinghaggis list below) “a revolution of devolution”, but he is talking about more devolution across the UK, prompted by further devolution in Scotland (the Youtube video is called ‘Prescott backs devo max for all’, but I don’t hear him use that phrase).

George Galloway (representing the No side on a TV debate) described ‘super devo max’, but much hinges on how seriously people take George Galloway.

See also:

Sky News’ post-vote story (19.9.14 Devo Max: What New Powers Can Scotland Have?) is relatively nuanced, discussing ‘quasi’ devo max and qualifying the meaning of devo max: “David Cameron has pledged new powers for Scotland that some have said amount to Devo Max. However, it’s not quite as clear cut as that. What is Devo Max? Scottish Parliament basically gets power over everything – apart from defence and foreign affairs. Maximum devolution. Is that on offer? No it’s not, although some say David Cameron, Nick Clegg and Ed Miliband have come close to that” (while a different story, again by Anushka Asthana (19.9.14 Scotland Vote Not A Total Disaster For Salmond)  describes “a version of Devo Max”).


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