Now that the SNP dominates Scottish politics, it should it have a vision for Scottish Government

This is the claim made in different ways by Scotland’s dream team of Andrew Tickell and Chris Deerin. For Tickell, it’s time to stop gloating about wiping out Scottish Labour and start talking about what the SNP stands for in policy terms. For Deerin, it’s time for Nicola Sturgeon to demonstrate what she has achieved in government rather than in party politics; to show that the SNP has any ideas worthy of its popularity.

deerin policy

In this post, I’ll show you that the Scottish Government has a vision. It might seem bland and motherhood/ apple pie, and maybe almost no one has heard of it, but if you accept it then the questions raised by Tickell and Deerin will seem off-target and unambitious. Instead, there is another, far less discussed, problem that is so big that it goes to the heart of our political system, but so abstract that only the die-hards will want to read further. I’ll put in a picture of Joe Pesci (in JFK) here to suggest that talking about the whole system of government might be entertaining.

Joe Pesci JFK the system

The Scottish Government’s vision

Since 2007, the SNP Government has presented a ‘ten year vision’ which includes:

  • a ‘core purpose – to create a more successful country, with opportunities for all of Scotland to flourish, through increasing sustainable economic growth’; linked to
  • a ‘purpose framework’, with targets gauging its economic growth, productivity, labour market participation, population, income inequality, regional inequality and (emissions based) sustainability;
  • five ‘strategic objectives’: Enabling businesses and people to increase their wealth and more people to share fairly in that wealth, Helping people to sustain and improve their health, especially in disadvantaged communities, ensuring better, local and faster access to health care, Helping communities to flourish, becoming stronger, safer places to live, offering improved opportunities and a better quality of life, Expanding opportunities to succeed from nurture through to lifelong learning ensuring higher and more widely shared achievements, and Improving Scotland’s natural and built environment and the sustainable use and enjoyment of it.
  • sixteen ‘National Outcomes’ and fifty ‘National Indicators’ of progress towards the fulfilment of its vision.

It also has a clear narrative of how it wants to make policy. Its ‘governance’ strategy is based on a desire to delegate or share policymaking responsibility with key stakeholders in the public, private and third sectors. So, it has set up or reinforced local partnerships, charged with turning a broad vision into something that can be delivered according to the politics and circumstances of local areas. It talks about making sure that service users are at the heart of designing public services. It has also developed a desire to harness high levels of pre-referendum participation by stating its broad aims and inviting the public to help make sense of them. Or, it talks about a new era in which governments no longer do policy to people but with them – which translates into, for example, going into a consultation or meeting without having a fixed Scottish Government position or knowing what the outcome will be. Maybe it will also experiment with other ways to foster participation, such as citizen assemblies or juries or civic forums.

Why this vision is so important

This is a bland vision which includes aims that most people would struggle to criticise. That’s what makes it so important. It’s the kind of vision that political parties try to come up with, using a new mix of words, at every Scottish election. It generates so much cross-party support that it can relied upon as a reference point for the long term. So, for example, when we identify current major inequalities in health or education attainment, we can make reference to the long term vision and ask if there has been stagnation or progress. Then, when we think about that progress, we can point to meaningful outcomes (e.g. increases in community wellbeing) rather than just adherence to arbitrary inputs (e.g. teacher numbers) or outputs (e.g. meeting waiting times). It allows us to come up with more realistic measure of progress than 8-month or annual anniversaries in power – and, as such provides an antidote (albeit only for the few people seeking one) to the usual party political evaluations provided by politicians.

It also allows us to measure progress or decline in one area in relation to another, so that we don’t just extrapolate from one good or bad experience to produce a misleading overall picture. Maybe it even gives you a reference point for debates on, for example, the idea that policymaking remains excessively centralist (or the opposite). Certainly, it presents a realistic response to complex government: it helps elected governments recognise their limited abilities to centralise power to deliver their promises. Within this vision is the sense that elected policymakers are one of many groups of actors with the ability to influence outcomes. To assert otherwise is to mislead the electorate.

In short, even if you put the finest minds on the case – perhaps a collection of party worthies, civil servants, scientists, economists, philosophers, novelists, and poets – I doubt they could come up with a markedly better vision for Scottish policy.

Why this vision is incompatible with the way we understand politics

The bigger problem with this sort of vision is that it is, in important ways, the enemy of the kind of politics that we hold most dear. This can be a positive thing, if a technocratic vision makes up for some of the worst excesses of representative government and party politics. For example, parties don’t really have long term visions – they pretend to have them to win elections. They try to come up with new words to describe what is pretty much the Scottish Government position anyway, but without the sense that any party can promise to be in government long enough to see it through.

Parties also produce manifestos with much more specific aims which scupper long term visions – such as when they make silly short term promises on police officer or teacher or nurse numbers or hospital waiting times, which distort long term justice, education and health policy planning by limiting choice and putting short term aims on inputs/ outputs further up the agenda than long term outcomes. Or, parties make very firm commitments to policy decisions – which makes a nonsense of the idea that politicians and civil servants go into a room without knowing what the outcome will be. Or, more generally, they give the sense, during electoral competition, that central government makes the decisions and is accountable for everything that happens – which goes against the idea that the Scottish Government can delegate and share responsibility with local bodies.

But the adherence to a non-party-specific vision can also take us too far in the other direction. The worrying thing may not be that representative government distorts politics – since it’s the best form of politics we have – but that the alternative distorts representative government. Consider, for example, the implication of the Scottish Government sharing responsibility with everyone – local public bodies, stakeholders, service users – for long term outcomes. With that system, how can you decide how well things are going or who is to blame when things go badly? Sharing responsibility with so many people means not taking the blame (unless we are scapegoating or holding to account some individuals when they appear to be incompetent). It means that the call for an 8-month progress report is too easy to bat away. It means that the Scottish Parliament will struggle to hold the Scottish Government to account for policy progress, and that the electorate will struggle to reward or punish elected governments for what goes on in their name.

If you want the SNP to have a vision, and win elections, keep it bland

Beyond Scottish independence, we know roughly what the SNP wants and that it will take far longer to achieve than in the space of a few elections. We might want some milestones along the way, but also recognise that ‘quick wins’ are not the same as important wins.

In that sense, if you value representative government and party competition, it seems OK to accept that the presentation of a vision is a means to an end to win a game. You don’t bare your soul in a manifesto. You tell people that everything will be OK: the long term vision is already there and we are the most competent group of people to ensure its progress. The SNP is very good at this. It won the 2011 election on the back of it. It is one unheralded part of the SNP’s strategy to remain popular and in government: maintaining an image of governing competence by presenting a bland vision and avoiding major mistakes. It shouldn’t be underrated, particularly since it has allowed the SNP to remain Teflon in the face of a growing number of specific criticisms of its record.

The worrying bit

In short, if any political party tried to sell me another vision in its manifesto, or a new leader tried to claim the credit for policy progress in 8 months, I would take an instant distrust to them (in contrast to the politicians that live to stick it to other politicians – at least you know where you stand).

The only problem is that I don’t really know what I want from them instead, beyond a bland commitment to make society fairer. I know that they can only do so much in government, that they are part of a larger complex system, that their influence on policy outcomes is limited, and that they shouldn’t really take the bulk of the credit or blame for what happens. I know that their manifestos shouldn’t be too specific because some promises have a bewitching effect on debates and distorting effect on policy. Beyond hoping for competent and trustworthy people who seem to share my outlook on life, I’m not sure what else to root for. That seems much more of a problem to me than the lack of a political party’s soul or a leader’s 8-month narrative.

See also:

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

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

Scotland’s Future Political System

1 Comment

Filed under Scottish politics

One response to “Now that the SNP dominates Scottish politics, it should it have a vision for Scottish Government

  1. davidnlarge

    A really punchy piece Paul, thanks. One thing I’d pick up on is how the government leads the people, and how the people direct the government (or don’t).

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