Monthly Archives: November 2014

The result of the Scottish independence referendum and the future of British politics

Paul Cairney, Professor of Politics and Public Policy, University of Stirling,

Tokyo University of Foreign Studies, Tokyo 4.12.14 and Hokkaido University, Sapporo, 6.12.14

The result of the Scottish independence referendum and the future of British politics

In part one, I provide historical background to the referendum debate, identify the importance of the Scottish National Party, outline the process for further devolution, and explain why further devolution might not produce a ‘settlement’ or prevent a second independence referendum.[i]

In part two, I outline a list of topics which we might discuss further in the question and answer session.

At the heart of the ‘future of British politics’ issue is the question: will Scotland remain a part of it? In the short term, the answer is ‘yes’. On the 18th of September 2014, 55% of the voting population voted No to the question, ‘Should Scotland be an independent country?’.

In the long term, it is impossible to tell. The referendum was often described as a once-in-a-generation opportunity to vote for independence. Yet, it is realistic to expect another referendum in 10 years. This event would form part of a longer term trend, in which the constitutional changes, designed to represent a devolved settlement in Scotland, have not solved the problem – partly because the problem changes or is articulated in new ways.

The background to the initial ‘devolution settlement’ and the spectre of ‘Thatcherism’

In the 1990s, devolution was often described as a way to solve the ‘democratic deficit’. The charge was that people in Scotland voted for one party in a UK general election (Labour) but received another (Conservative) on many occasions. This occurred from 1979-97, and the problem was exacerbated by a long spell of Thatcher-led government (1979-1990). ‘Thatcherism’ had a profound and enduring effect on Scottish politics, and it can refer to several alleged developments:

  • the pursuit of ‘neoliberal’ policies that challenged a ‘social democratic consensus’ in Scotland
  • the ‘top down’ imposition of unpopular policies in Scotland by the UK central government, often before they are introduced in the rest of the UK (such as the ‘poll tax’).
  • the pursuit of economic policies to grow the economy in the south-east at the expense of the north (including the manufacturing industries)
  • the promotion of British policies without sufficiently distinctive Scottish arrangements.

Devolution represented ‘unfinished business’ (since a referendum in 1979 produced a small Yes majority which did not meet a required threshold) and subsequent opposition to Conservatism helps explain a rise in support for devolution. A frequent argument is that devolution could have ‘defended Scotland from Thatcherism’, and allowed the maintenance of Scottish traditions of participative democracy and social democracy. Yet, as we saw in the independence debate, devolution was often described as a poor solution to the democratic deficit.

Devolution became a platform for the Scottish National Party

Devolution was described famously by former Labour Shadow Scottish Secretary, George Robertson, in 1995, as the opportunity to ‘kill nationalism stone dead’. Ironically, it is more accurate to say that the independence referendum could not have happened without devolution.

The introduction of the Scottish Parliament gave an in important new platform to the Scottish National Party (SNP). In 1999 and 2003 it was the second largest party (behind Scottish Labour). In 2007 it became the largest party (47 of 129 seats – Labour had 46) and formed a minority government. From 2007-11, it had insufficient support to pass a bill to hold an independence referendum. Yet, 4 years of government allowed it to develop a strong image of governing competence, which became one of the most important explanations for its major election victory in 2011 (the other is that the Scottish Parliament’s electoral system is not fully proportional – it combines plurality and proportional elements). It secured approximately 45% of the vote, which allowed it to gain a small majority of Scottish Parliament seats (53%, or 69 of 129).

The formation of a majority SNP government in the Scottish Parliament gave it enough support to pass a referendum bill, while the appearance of a ‘landslide’ (a major electoral victory which signals a strong momentum) allowed the SNP’s leader, Alex Salmond, to argue successfully that it gave the SNP a mandate to pursue the referendum. This event became an important way to secure the UK Government’s agreement to support the process (note that this support does not exist in, for example, Catalonia/ Spain).

Further constitutional change may never produce a devolution ‘settlement’ or solve the ‘democratic deficit’

The independence agenda has prompted Scotland’s other main parties (Labour, Conservative, Liberal Democrat – all of which are part of British parties) and the UK Government to consider further devolution; to try to produce a devolved solution that will settle the matter once and for all.

The Calman Commission recommended further devolution in 2009. It prompted the Scotland Act 2012, to introduce further tax devolution (part of income, land and landfill taxes), the ability of the Scottish Government to borrow to invest in capital projects, and new powers in areas such as Scottish Parliament elections, air weapons, driving and drug treatment. The Scotland Act 2012 was designed to be implemented after the referendum, giving opposition parties the opportunity to guarantee further devolution after a No vote.

Yet, this promise of further devolution proved to be insufficient and, during the referendum period, each party produced separate plans to extend devolution further. The parties then came together, in the lead up to the referendum to make what is now called ‘The Vow’ of ‘extensive new powers’ for a devolved Scotland. The Smith Commission was set up to take this agenda forward. It reported on the 27th November 2014, and its recommendations include to:

  • make the Scottish Parliament ‘permanent’.
  • devolve some fiscal powers, including the power to: set income tax rates and bands (higher earnings are taxed at a higher rate) but not the ‘personal allowance’ (the amount to be earned before income tax applies); set air passenger duty; and to receive a share of sales tax (VAT).
  • increase the Scottish Government’s borrowing powers.
  • devolve some aspects of social security, including those which relate to disability, personal care, housing and ‘council tax’ benefits (council tax is a property tax charged by local authorities to home owners/ renters and based on the value of homes).
  • devolve policies designed to encourage a return to employment.
  • devolve the ability to license onshore oil and gas extraction (which includes hydraulic fracturing, ‘fracking’, for shale gas).
  • control the contract to run the Scottish rail network.
  • encourage greater intergovernmental relations and a more formal Scottish Government role in aspects of UK policymaking.

The UK Government now aims to produce draft legislation to take these plans forward, although the bill will not be passed before the general election in May 2015.

To a large extent, the proposals reflect the plans of the three main British parties, rather than the SNP (which requested ‘devo max’), although they go further than those parties would have proposed in the absence of the referendum agenda. Again, they are designed to represent a devolved ‘settlement’, reinforced by the knowledge that 55% voted against Scottish independence in 2014 (the turnout was 84.6%).

Yet, this sense of a ‘settled will’ is not yet apparent. Indeed, it seems just as likely that the proposals will merely postpone a second referendum, for these reasons:

  1. The new plan may represent the largest amount of devolution that is possible if Scotland is to remain in the UK. However, it does not address all of the charges associated with the ‘democratic deficit’.

The ‘spectre of Thatcherism’ is still used by proponents of independence, and a period of Conservative-led government has been used to identify the potential for the ‘top down imposition’ of ‘neoliberal’ policies to continue in some areas, and for economic policy to remain focused on the south-east. It is still used to suggest that only independence could secure a Scottish consensus democracy. This narrative has only been addressed to some extent with the devolution of symbolically important responsibilities – including the ability to remove the so-called ‘bedroom tax’ (an unpopular policy associated strongly with Conservative-led welfare reform), reform local taxes (associated first with the ‘poll tax’, then the difficulty of the SNP to abolish the ‘council tax’ in favour of a local income tax), and administer benefits related to personal social care (associated with a longstanding dispute between the Scottish and UK Governments on ‘attendance allowance’).

  1. The SNP remains remarkably popular. Its membership has risen dramatically since the referendum, from 25,000 to over 92,000 and it is now the third biggest party in the whole of the UK despite Scotland having only 8% of the UK population. Its leader, new First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, is one of the few to maintain a positive popularity rating in opinion polls. Current polls also suggest that the SNP will gain ground in the UK election in 2015 and maintain a strong position in the Scottish Parliament in 2016.
  2. There is majority support for a referendum in the future.
  3. A second referendum would have a clearer sense of what people are voting for. In 2014, the ‘Vow’ allowed people to vote No and expect further devolution. In the future, the debate would be more simply about Yes or No to independence (albeit an independence that does not mean what it used to mean).

Part two – possible Q&A topics

  • What were the most important debating points? Examples include: the use of the pound as the Scottish currency, the future economic health of Scotland, and the future of important public services such as the National Health Service.
  • What are the limits to further devolution? ‘Devo max’ is the idea of devolving everything except foreign and defence affairs. It is not possible to devolve all tax and spending responsibilities (partly because European Union rules prevent it), and was never going to happen (at least while people support the idea of a United Kingdom which keeps the pound as its currency).
  • Should we try to explain why the Yes campaign lost or why it did so well?
  • Why is the Barnett formula so controversial and important to the debate?
  • Is the referendum debate about securing powers in principle or using them for particular purposes such as social democratic?
  • Would independence have produced a new system producing policy in a different way?
  • Is the Scottish population more left wing and does this produce more demand for independence or different parties?
  • Does national identity drive support for independence?

We could also discuss how Scottish politics relates to debates in the rest of the UK, including:

[i] I have written this document in essay form to keep it short and easier to translate into Japanese. I draw on a series of posts on my blog – and books such as Cairney, P. and McGarvey, N. (2013) Scottish Politics (Basingstoke: Palgrave). My points may look descriptive and factual, but it is impossible to summarise this debate in a non-political way.


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The Smith Commission on accountability: I don’t think it means what they think it means



Other blog posts argue that the Smith proposals fall far short of ‘devo max’ or ‘federalism’ and will disappoint people looking for the extensive devolution of welfare powers. So, I will focus on its statement on accountability:

“A more accountable and responsible Parliament. Complementing the expansion of its powers will be a corresponding increase in the Parliament’s accountability and responsibility for the effects of its decisions and their resulting benefits or costs”.

This is very misleading for the following step-by-step reasons:

  1. The Scottish Parliament will ostensibly become responsible for more powers, but Scotland inherited a Westminster-style system of democratic accountability. The Scottish Parliament delegates almost all policymaking responsibility to ministers, who are accountable to the public via Parliament. So, in practice, Scottish ministers are receiving greater responsibilities.
  2. The Scottish Government balances the Westminster idea of democratic accountability with others, such as institutional accountability (e.g. the chief executives of agencies take responsibility for delivery) and shared ownership (e.g. through community planning partnerships).
  3. The Scottish Parliament struggles to hold ministers to account at the best of times. When the Scottish Government devolves powers to the wider public sector, the Scottish Parliament struggles a bit more. The devolution experience is one of limited parliamentary influence.
  4. The Scottish Parliament will not grow in tandem with growing devolution. Instead, the same number of people will oversee a growing set of Scottish Government responsibilities.
  5. So, all other things being equal, greater ministerial responsibility will DECREASE democratic accountability.

In fact, the Smith Commission recognises this point and recommends a response:

“The addition of new responsibilities over taxes, welfare and borrowing means that the Parliament’s oversight of Government will need to be strengthened. I recommend that the Scottish Parliament’s Presiding Officer continues to build on her work on parliamentary reform by undertaking an inclusive review which will produce recommendations to run alongside the timetable for the transfer of powers”.

This need to pass the buck is understandable, given the limits to Smith’s remit (the Commission also makes good noises about the need for public engagement, to help people understand what the Scottish Parliament does). What is less understandable is why the commission presents these measures as good for accountability. What it means is that the ‘Scottish Parliament’ will become more responsible for raising some of the money it spends – but, as long as it can only control one small part of a mix of taxes, that argument is misleading too. Overall, we have a vague and misleading statement, using the language of greater accountability, but it’s not greater democratic accountability. It’s the other kind of accountability. The kind where democratic accountability is further reduced.

jim my arse

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The ‘political class’ in Scotland: do the numbers tell the full story?

With Michael Keating and Alex Wilson, I am doing some work on the UK ‘political class’ – focusing, for example, on the devolution effect. While we find a positive effect on the representation of women, we note that devolution has accelerated the trend towards ‘professionalization’:

Elected representatives are far more likely  to enjoy  high levels of university education and are increasingly likely to have  formative occupation in narrowly  defined  ‘politics-facilitating’  role.  Very  few  politicians  have  a  blue  or  white  collar  background, despite this representing the largest category in the general population. Devolution has  reinforced many of these trends.

Yet, the numbers don’t really give you a sense of the diversity of occupations. Here is a list of notes on the occupational backgrounds of MSPs in 2011 (with some blanks where we have minimal detail). There are some predictable entries (e.g. ‘Lists no relevant work experience outside of politics’) but also many that are not.

Notes on Occupation
biochemist Aberdeen Royal Infirmary
Senior media relations officer for Church of Scotland. Various spells in public affairs and as political researcher.
First for a TUC unemployment centre then council posts in similar area
NUS president then Press office help the aged then Labour party.
Research Officer for Labour, Amicus, Royal College of Nursing. Prior to election was Policy Manager of Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations.
Senior planner and lecturer in planning
Trained as a solicitor. Directs a small company that carries out business training.
Served in the Marines 4 years). Then worked for 15 years as a local government professional, where he was an active trade union representative with UNISON.
Manager of Citizens Advice Bureau 1987-2011
Worked for Nicola Sturgeon, Shona Robison, Stewart Hosie.
Worked 25 years for motor retail business then 5 years as a business consultant.
Worked for Learning and Teaching Scotland, firstly as Software Development Manager, then as Quality and Risk Manager.
Worked for Ark Housing Association (3 years) then for 10 years as a social worker.
SNP researcher then solicitor then advocate since 1990
Sports Journalist 1980-2011
Worked as a chemical engineer for Unilever. For many more years has been a self-employed musician, performer, teacher.
School Teacher.
Parliamentary Researcher 2003-7, Glasgow City Councillor 2007-
Confusing background – to verify
Vol sector then MP assistant then part of Calaghan’s election team then FT for GMB
Solicitor, own firm
EU Competition Lawyer in Brussels then MP 2001-5
Clerical then housing association posts
Worked for various companies but unclear in what capacity
Clerical posts in local government, voluntary and TU sectors then Labour Party organiser
Housing Officer (7 years), Teacher (8 years)
Career in police service until 2006
Worked for SNP since university.
Full-time councillor in Glasgow. Former MSP 1999-2003
Principal teacher
Solicitor/ partner
Teacher then solicitor
Administrator in council and UNISON
Teacher then OXFAM
student and political activist
Youth Worker Gay Men’s Services, PHACE Scotland then Lanarkshire Development Worker
Accountant then teacher but main work in community care/ rights in councils
Worked for Alex Neill MSP.
Insurance marketing
Ran family business then business consultant, then research, then economic consultant
Partner family firm
Assistant to MSP 1999-2011. Check what she did between leaving school and 1999
Lists no relevant work experience outside of politics
Worked on various white collar jobs, mainly for Scottish Power.
Candidate for national, and regional elections, usually lost. Absence of non-political work or interests.
Solicitor 2000-2007.
Clerical work electricity board then Salmond’s office then council
Worked for family business – butcher
Teacher and director of shelter, but mostly journalist
MP researcher and adviser; lecturer 1 year
Worked for MSPs
Management Accountant in private sector 1989-2011. Several administrative account positions in public and private sector 1981-989
BBC news producer
Student who dropped out of Glasgow university, local councillor and full-time political activist
Fisherman for 3 years then builder for 18 years. Small business owner?
public and private sector, special constable, territorial army. IR Need some dates
worked in pr then qualified as lawyer
FT councillor
Public Affairs for Shelter
qualified as chartered accountant but worked for many years in voluntary sector, MP 2008-10. Not clear what he did between 2001 and 2008
Community occupational therapist
Various admin work in family business then fire brigade
Worked for various politicians and as director of public affairs consultancies.
training consultant, training executive
Shipping then stockbroker then set up a fish farm
Combined voluntary work and motherhood.
Nurse and Social Worker.
Librarian, MSP 1999-2003
Welder until 1996 then political researcher
Supply Analyst for IBM (2 years). Worked for SNP (7 years)
Shipbuilder then FT GMB official
Doctor and researcher in oncology
Teacher then MSP adviser
Academic scientific research then private sector then MEP researcher then PT lecturer
Manager in public/ private sectors and economic consultant
Electrical Fitter (9 years inc. 3 training), Trade Union Official (9 years)
Own car sales business
38 year career in police service reaching high rank
Welder, British Steel Corporation
LibDems in local government 1990-2001 and Westminster 2010-11, Public relations 2001-6, MP 2006-10
Social Worker 1979-88. Guide Dogs for Blind 1989-2005. North East Sensory Services 2005-11.
Community worker
Author and journalist, then director of private company.
Economist in CS then private sector
CS then BT but lecturer economics 20 years
MP assistant and some PR jobs but also 8 years as farmer
GP and psychiatrist
Teacher; pilot voluntary sector project
Teacher (16 years), Conservative Party (8 years)
Voluntary Sector inc. political communications, political assistant with trade union elected positions. Dates??
technology innovation in BOS
Social Worker (16 years), MP ( 8 years), Voluntary Sector (2 years)
retail sector then political assistant for SNP since 1999
Solicitor Drumchapel law centre
Research project then business consultant
Local Government (Trading Standards). Internal Promotions till level of Director.
Engineer 1987-2007, assistant to MSP 2007-11
Manages family hotel since 1973
Electrical engineer by training, worked in management of various oil/gas companies with spells as director/managing directo
Teacher (2 years), then as PA for Deutag Drilling (14 years)
Press officer William Wallace society
Coachbuilder (10 years), Voluntary Sector/Housing Associations (14 Years), Scottish Government (6 years)

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What is the problem with the British political class?

Now with a full draft paper at the end. Also note some recent developments – the new 50/50 Scottish Cabinet – and new research on Westminster candidates

Paul Cairney: Politics & Public Policy

It is now commonplace in Britain to bemoan the failings of the ‘political class’. A wide selection of broadcast, print and social media commentators argue that elected politicians in the UK are not representative of their constituents. Instead, they are part of a self-referential ‘political class’ which is increasingly distant from the real world and mistrusted by the public. Examples include:

Peter Oborne’s (2007) description of a ‘narrow, self-serving governing elite’.
Guido Fawkes (2009) allegation that ‘Disenchantment with politicians has never been higher, most think they are overpaid and dishonest’.
Andrew Neil’s 2011 documentary ‘Posh and Posher: Why Public School Boys Run Britain’ (; see Crone, 2011) and assertion (in BBC2’s Daily Politics 19.6.14 from 39 minutes) that ‘all MPs will end up looking and sounding the same’ if ‘hand picked by the party high command’.
Leo McKinstry’s (2014) assertion that ‘the political class inhabits its own…

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The language of complexity does not mix well with the language of Westminster-style accountability


A common argument in British politics is that the UK Government has exacerbated its own ‘governance problem’. A collection of post-war reforms, many of which were perhaps designed to reinforce central control, has produced a fragmented public landscape and a periodic sense that no one is in control. This outcome presents major problems for the ‘Westminster’ narrative of central government and ministerial accountability to the public via Parliament. If ministers are not in control of their departments, how can we hold them to account in a meaningful way?

Yet, in many cases, it is misleading to link these outcomes to specific decisions or points in time, since many aspects of the ‘governance problem’ are universal: policymakers can only pay attention to a small fraction of the issues for which they are responsible; they do not have enough information to make decisions without major uncertainty; policy problems are too multi-faceted and ‘cross-cutting’ to allow policymaking without ambiguity; there is an inescapable logic to delegating decisions to ‘policy communities’ which may not talk to each other or account meaningfully to government; and, delivery bodies will always have discretion in the way they manage competing government demands.

In this context, policymaking systems can be described usefully as complex systems, in which behaviour is always difficult to predict, and outcomes often seem to emerge in the absence of central control. Further, the literature on complexity provides some advice about how governments should operate within complex systems. Unfortunately, much of this literature invites policymakers to give up on the idea that they can control policy processes and outcomes. While this may be a pragmatic response, it does not deal well with the need for elected policymakers to account for their actions in a very particular way. What seems sensible to one audience may be indefensible to another. In particular, the language of complexity does not mix well with the language of Westminster-style accountability.

What we need is a response that sets out a governmental acknowledgement of the limits to its powers, combined with the sense that we can still hold elected policymakers to account in a meaningful way. Ideally, this response should be systematic enough to allow us to predict when ministers will take responsibility for their actions, redirect attention to other accountable public bodies, and/ or identify the limited way in which they can be held responsible for certain outcomes. Beyond this ideal, we may settle for a government strategy based on explicit trade-offs between pragmatism, in which governments acknowledge the effect of administrative devolution (or, in the case of local authorities, political devolution), and meaningful representation, in which they maintain some degree of responsibility for decisions made in their name.

The aim of this post’s further reading (updated 10.5.2022) is to draw lessons largely from the Scottish experience, which demonstrates an attempt to mix strategic responsibility with an element of flexibility and delegation. While we should not exaggerate the coherence of government strategies, we can meaningfully describe a ‘Scottish policy style’, identified in empirical studies, and a ‘Scottish approach’ as a self-styled description of policymaking by the Scottish Government. Further, the Scottish context is comparable enough to the UK to offer lessons. Although much of the rhetoric of ‘new Scottish politics’ suggests that it is markedly different from ‘old Westminster’, it has inherited a Westminster-style focus on government accountability to the public via Parliament (and an assumption that ‘the government governs’). Although Scotland is smaller, and the Scottish Government is able to design a governance style based on greater personal contact with interest groups and public bodies, this only serves to reinforce the importance of ‘universal’ problems when the problems that arise in Scotland resemble those faced in the UK. Overall, Scottish policymaking demonstrates that many problems related to ‘governance’ cannot be solved. Rather, the Scottish experience prompts us to identify important trade-offs between the delegation of administrative functions and the maintenance of central accountability.

To explain these issues, several papers:

  1. Summarize how UK or Scottish governments have allegedly exacerbated governance problems
  2. Separate this focus on specific outcomes from the universal constraints on central control common to all complex policymaking systems
  3. Contrasts the practical advice that arises from a focus on complexity theory with the political imperative, in Westminster systems, to present policy outcomes as the responsibility of ministers.
  4. Identify the balance struck between accountability and delegation by the Scottish Government since 2007, and the transferable lessons to other systems.

The relevant publications include:

  1. Paul Cairney (2015) ‘How Can Policy Theory Have an Impact on Policy Making?’ Teaching Public Administration, 33, 1, 22-39 PDF
  2. Paul Cairney (2015) ‘What is complex government and what can we do about it?’ Public Money and Management, 35, 1, 3-6 PDF
  3. Paul Cairney (2015) ‘Scotland’s Future Political System’, Political Quarterly, 86, 2, 217-25 PDF
  4. Paul Cairney (2016) ‘The future of Scottish government and public policy: a distinctive Scottish style?’ in (ed) McTavish, D. Politics in Scotland (London: RoutledgePDF
  5. Paul Cairney, Siabhainn Russell and Emily St Denny (2016) “The ‘Scottish approach’ to policy and policymaking: what issues are territorial and what are universal?” Policy and Politics, 44, 3, 333-50 PDF
  6. Paul Cairney (2017) “Evidence-based best practice is more political than it looks: a case study of the ‘Scottish Approach’”, Evidence and Policy, 13, 3, 499-515 PDF
  7. Paul Cairney and Kathryn Oliver (2017) ‘Evidence-based policymaking is not like evidence-based medicine, so how far should you go to bridge the divide between evidence and policy?’ Health Research Policy and Systems (HARPS), DOI: 10.1186/s12961-017-0192-x PDF AM
  8. Paul Cairney, Malcolm Harvey and Emily St Denny (2017) ‘Constitutional Change, Social Investment and Prevention Policy in Scotland’ in (ed.) Keating, M. A Wealthier, Fairer Scotland (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press)  PDF
  9. Paul Cairney and Emily St Denny (2020) Why Isn’t Government Policy More Preventive? (Oxford University Press) Preview Introduction Preview Conclusion (Google BooksBlogs
  10. Paul Cairney (2020) “The ‘Scottish Approach’ to Policymaking’ in (ed) Michael Keating The Oxford Handbook of Scottish Politics (Oxford: Oxford University Press), 463-80 Preprint
  11. Paul Cairney, Emily St Denny, and Sean Kippin (2021) ‘Policy learning to reduce inequalities: the search for a coherent Scottish gender mainstreaming policy in a multi-level UK’, Territory, Politics and Governance, 9, 3, 412-33 PDF
  12. Paul Cairney, Emily St Denny, and Sean Kippin (2021) ‘Policy learning to reduce inequalities: the search for a coherent Scottish gender mainstreaming policy in a multi-level UK’, Territory, Politics and Governance, 9, 3, 412-33 PDF
  13. Paul Cairney (2021) ‘The contested relationship between governance and evidence’ in (eds) Christopher Ansell and Jacob Torfing Handbook on Theories of Governance (Cheltenham: Edward Elgar) PDF
  14. Paul Cairney (2021) ‘Would Scotland’s political structures and policy-making change with independence?’ in (eds) Eve Hepburn, Michael Keating and Nicola McEwen Scotland’s New Choice: Independence after Brexit (Edinburgh: Centre on Constitutional Change and The Hunter Foundation) PDF whole book

Some of the wider issues are discussed here:

Policy Concepts in 1000 Words: the Westminster Model and Multi-level Governance

Policy Concepts in 1000 Words: Complex Systems

What is ‘Complex Government’ and what can we do about it?

Sharing professional and academic knowledge: The role of academic-practitioner workshops (on turning policy and complexity theories into something consistent with Westminster politics)

Life goes on after the Scottish independence referendum (3000 words and a lecture)

The Scottish political system and policy process share the same ‘complex government’ features as any country (LSE 1200 words)

You can also find these themes in a half-written book called Politics and Policymaking in the UK.


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

Why does public health policy change?

Some public health policies have changed radically in the post-war period. The extent of change varies considerably, from issue to issue, and country to country. For example, the UK has one of the most comprehensive tobacco control regimes in the world, but China does not. While the UK has changed its post-war tobacco policy radically, the same amount of policy change cannot be found in alcohol (or in newer concerns such as sugar, saturated fat and salt in food). While public health policy is often quite similar across the UK, there have been significant differences, in timing and/ or content, in devolved and UK Government policies.

My interest is in the extent to which we explain these developments in (broadly) the same way. With colleagues, Donley Studlar and Hadii Mamudu, I focus on the extent to which actors, in favour of tobacco or alcohol control, operate within a ‘policy environment’ conducive to their aims.

What makes a conducive policy environment?

  1. Institutions. Policymaking responsibility has shifted, to a government department sympathetic to the policy, and following rules which enable its successful delivery.
  2. Networks. The balance of power within departments has shifted in favour of public health and medical, not industry, groups.
  3. Socioeconomics. Social behaviour (e.g. there is a low number of smokers/ drinkers and amount of smoking/ drinking) and attitudes to control have become more in line with policy aims, and there are fewer economic penalties to public health controls (e.g. a loss of tax revenue or economic activity).
  4. Ideas and ‘framing’. There is now an acceptance of the scientific evidence on unhealthy behaviour within government, control is high on its agenda, and it now ‘frames’ the issue in terms of a pressing public health problem (rather than, say, an economic good).

This broad focus can help us explain a range of global, national and subnational developments in public health policy, including:

Global Tobacco Policy

There is a policy environment conducive to tobacco control at a global level – the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, led by the World Health Organisation – and in many ‘leading’ countries, but not in most countries. Consequently, most countries in the world have signed the FCTC but this is not yet reflected in policy outcomes.

Blog posts and pages:

Global Tobacco Control

The Tobacco ‘Endgame’

The WHO Framework Convention for Tobacco Control (FCTC): What would have to change to ensure effective policy implementation?*

Articles and Book

Hadii Mamudu, Paul Cairney and Donley Studlar (2015) ‘Global Public Policy: does the new venue for transnational tobacco control challenge the old way of doing things?’ forthcoming in Public Administration. ‘Green’ version: Mamudu Cairney Studlar Global Public Policy FCTC 6.11.14

Paul Cairney, Donley Studlar and Haddii Mamudu (2012) Global Tobacco Control: Power, Policy, Governance and Transfer (Basingstoke: Palgrave)

Paul Cairney and Haddii Mamudu (2014) ‘The Global Tobacco Control ‘Endgame’: change the policy environment to implement the FCTC’ Journal of Public Health Policy, Advance Access doi: 10.1057/jphp.2014.18

Donley Studlar and Paul Cairney (2014) ‘Conceptualizing Punctuated and Non-Punctuated Policy Change: Tobacco Control in Comparative Perspective’, International Review of Administrative Sciences, 80, 3, 513-31

UK Tobacco and Alcohol Policy.

UK Tobacco control is now far more comprehensive than alcohol control.

After the War on Tobacco, Is a War on Alcohol Next?*

Alcohol: the Harmful versus Healthy Debate

Why is there more tobacco control policy than alcohol control policy in the UK?

Paul Cairney and Donley Studlar (2014) ‘Public Health Policy in the United Kingdom: After the War on Tobacco, Is a War on Alcohol Brewing?’ World Medical and Health Policy, 6, 3, 308-323

Multi-level Policymaking: tobacco control in EU, UK and devolved government.

Although the EU provides some common standards, they are followed more or less enthusiastically by member states. Although key policies, such as the ban on smoking in public places, exist in all parts of the UK, it is important to explain the ‘window of opportunity’ for policy change in each territory.

Bossman Asare, Paul Cairney and Donley Studlar (2009) ‘Federalism and Multilevel Governance in Tobacco Policy: The European Union, the United Kingdom and the Devolved UK Institutions’, Journal of Public Policy, 29, 1, 79-102 PDF Paywall Green

Paul Cairney (2009) ‘The Role of Ideas in Policy Transfer: The Case of UK Smoking Bans since Devolution’, Journal of European Public Policy, 16, 3, 471-488 PDF Paywall Green

Paul Cairney (2007) ‘A Multiple Lens Approach to Policy Change: the Case of Tobacco Policy in the UK’, British Politics, 2, 1, 45-68 PDF Paywall (plus corrected table) Green

Paul Cairney (2007) ‘Using Devolution to Set the Agenda? Venue shift and the smoking ban in Scotland’,  British Journal of Politics and International Relations, 9,1, 73-89 PDF Paywall Green (it’s also stored by a US University here)

For the broader argument on ‘evolutionary theory, see:

Policy Concepts in 1000 Words: Evolution

Paul Cairney (2013) ‘What is Evolutionary Theory and How Does it Inform Policy Studies?’ Policy and Politics, 41, 2, 279-98

What is ‘Complex Government’ and what can we do about it?






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