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:
- 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.
- 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).
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.