Is our understanding of Scottish politics stuck in the past?

The good news is that there has been refreshingly high attention to the substance of Scottish politics lately. Concerns about the operation of Police Scotland, and the new exams system, show that we can talk about more than the next referendum, election, or leadership race.

The bad news is that a lot of this discussion betrays an old fashioned sense of Scottish politics: power is concentrated in central government; and we can hold ministers to account for everything that goes wrong.

Instead, since devolution, successive Scottish governments have been reforming the public landscape, reinforcing the role of non-departmental public bodies, devolving responsibility for public sector performance to local and health authorities, and expecting those bodies to form new relationships with stakeholders, communities, and the users of public services. In this sense, they have been pursuing the idea that we all share responsibility for policy outcomes.

Further, this blurring of central/local accountability comes on top of a more general sense that we don’t know exactly what the Scottish Government is responsible for: the devolved settlement might look clear on paper, but the level of UK/ Scottish Government overlaps and shared responsibilities (which will rise following the new Scotland Act) gives too many people the sense that Scottish ministers are not fully in control and therefore can only take so much of the blame.

These developments help explain why so many SNP ministers seem to be Teflon whenever anything seems to go wrong in government. Of course, most of their ability to remain popular stems from our ongoing fascination with the constitution – but not all of it. Indeed, many people vote SNP because it has developed a hugely impressive image of governing competence (which is the main explanation for its 2011 majority). This image will suffer if it looks like Scottish ministers are making bad decisions which have a direct effect on policy outcomes.

In light of these developments in accountability, it would be right for people to complain that they make it harder to hold central government, and specific ministers, to account in a meaningful way – through parliamentary and media scrutiny, and in Scottish Parliament elections based on the Scottish Government’s record.

It would be wrong, instead, to carry on as normal on the assumption that none of these developments have taken place. In this case, partisan (and some media and a lot of social media) criticisms just don’t hit the mark. They make a general case for SNP ministers to take the blame for something – using argument (a) the buck stops with ministers, or (b) you have been too obsessed with independence to pay attention to government – but don’t present a convincingly specific case which links poor ministerial decisions to poor outcomes.

So, if you see me on twitter arguing that certain criticisms don’t hit the mark, it is not because I am defending the SNP’s record in government. Instead, I am suggesting that too many criticisms of its record are too lazy or scattergun or vague to have any meaningful effect.

1 Comment

Filed under agenda setting, Scottish politics

One response to “Is our understanding of Scottish politics stuck in the past?

  1. You will continue to have this phenomenon so long as you have two (or more) levels of government. In Canada, the one consistent key message any provincial government can be counted upon to roll out on any issue involving Ottawa will be (as per the attached video of comedians Bowser and Blue), “c’est la route du federale.””

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