Devolution and ‘new politics’ in Scotland: the implications for policymaking #POLU9SP

The phrases ‘new Scottish politics’ or ‘new politics’ should be understood with reference to ‘old Westminster’. They represented important reference points for the ‘architects of devolution’, or the reformers keen to present devolution as a way to transfer policymaking responsibilities and reform political practices.

These aims can be associated with two documents specific to Scotland. The first is the Scottish Constitutional Convention’s (1995) Scotland’s Parliament: Scotland’s Right, which made a general case for political reform:

the coming of a Scottish Parliament will usher in a way of politics that is radically different from the rituals of Westminster: more participative, more creative, less needlessly confrontational.

The second is the Consultative Steering Group’s (1998) Shaping Scotland’s Parliament, which designed the operation of the Scottish Parliament with regard to four key principles: ‘power sharing’, ‘accountability’, ‘equal opportunities’, and ‘openness and participation’.

However, I’ll show you that the debate links to a broader distinction between ‘majoritarian’ and ‘consensus’ democracy.

This focus on new political behaviour was an important reference point for politicians and commentators in the early years of devolution. Now, you don’t hear it so much. Yet, it gives us a reference point, to highlight limited progress towards ‘new politics’ and identify continuities in politics and policymaking despite these expectations for novelty.

In particular, I’ll show you, in a series of lectures, that Scottish devolution came with a set of measures combining new and ‘old Westminster’ elements, and it soon became a political system that would not look out of place in the ‘Westminster family’. Then, we can note that the slow or limited progress of new politics did not feature prominently in the debate on Scottish independence. Although the previous debate on constitutional change gave advocates a major opportunity to pursue political reforms, the independence debate did not. Finally, we can discuss the overall implications for policymaking: did the new politics agenda change how people make policy in Scotland?

From a ‘majoritarian’ to a ‘consensus’ democracy?

When you read some of the literature describing new Scottish politics as an alternative to old Westminster politics, note how similar it sounds to Lijphart’s discussion of majoritarian and consensus democracies. Neil McGarvey and I summarise Lijphart’s argument in Scottish Politics (see also my co-authored comparisons with the UK, Sweden, and Switzerland):

(click on them to make them bigger)


box 8.2 Lijphart

These discussions suggest that, for many commentators, ‘Westminster’ represents an archetypal centralised political system with an adversarial and top-down political culture. This is an image that we should examine critically throughout the course rather than take for granted.

For now, note the link between the formalised rules to govern behaviour, such as on the style of election or the division of powers between organisations, and the informal rules or ‘cultures’ that they are alleged to promote. In particular, note that we might hesitate to expect that a shift in the voting system, from plurality to proportional, will necessarily prompt a major shift in political culture.

Scottish politics: combining new and ‘old Westminster’ elements

‘New politics’ is a meaningless phrase without a clear definition or reference to specific objectives. In Scottish politics, you can take your pick from quite a long list of ‘old Westminster’s’ alleged failings (the next section is in pages 12 and 13 of the 1st ed of Scottish Politics):

Electoral system – the first-past-the-post system exaggerates majorities and excludes small parties. It tends to result in a majority which, combined with a strong party system, ensures that one party dominates proceedings.

Executive dominance – this ‘top-down’ system, in which power is concentrated within government, is not appropriate for a Scottish system with a tradition of civic democracy and the diffusion of power. In Westminster, the centre not only has the ability for force legislation through (and ignore wider demands), but also to dominate the resources devoted to policy. Parliament does not possess the resources to hold the executive to account.

Adversarial style – most discussions in Westminster take place in plenary sessions (the whole House sits together) with a charged partisan atmosphere. There is insufficient scope for detailed and specialist scrutiny in an atmosphere conducive to consensual working practices. This extends to committees – the partisan nature of politics undermines real scrutiny and there are limited resources to investigate or monitor departments. Given the distinction between select and standing committees, there may be a problem of coordination and a lack of potential for long-term consensual styles to emerge.

Too much power is vested in the House of Lords – an unelected and unrepresentative second chamber.

Although the government may consult with interest groups, this tends to be with the ‘usual suspects’. This reliance on the most powerful and well resourced groups (such as big business) reinforces the concentration of power in a ruling class.

Since power is concentrated at the centre there are limited links between state and civic society. Outside of the voting process, there are limited means for ‘the people’ to influence government.

Parliamentary overload – Parliament is too focused on scrutinizing government legislation. This leaves MPs with too little time to devote to their constituencies.

Parliament as a whole does not reflect the people that elect it in terms of microcosmic representation. There is a particular lack of women in Parliament as well as a tendency for MPs to be drawn from a ruling class’.

These deficiencies would therefore be addressed with a number of aims:

A proportional electoral system with a strong likelihood of coalition and bargaining between parties.

A consensual style of politics with a reduced role for party conflict.

Power-sharing rather than executive dominance.

A strong role for committees to initiate legislation, scrutinize the activity of the executive and conduct inquiries

Fostering closer links between state and civic society through parliament (e.g. with a focus on the right to petition parliament and the committee role in obliging the executive to consult widely)

Ensuring that MSPs have enough time for constituency work by restricting business in the Scottish Parliament to three days per week.

Fostering equality in the selection of candidates and making the Scottish Parliament equally attractive to men and women’.

Why did so few people discuss ‘new politics’ during the independence referendum?

In this lecture, I’m going to ask what you think of this list: how many of these aims do you think have been fulfilled? For example, is the Scottish Parliament more representative in terms of social background?

We can discuss briefly why you think that an evaluation of devolution, and a discussion of further political reform, did not seem to be a central feature of the independence referendum debate. Did most people assume that a Yes vote was – yet againa rejection of ‘Westminster politics’ without thinking about the extent to which it was different from Holyrood politics? Or, if it didn’t come up much, what were people talking about instead?

We can then go into some detail on participation, the role of the Scottish Parliament, and ‘pluralist democracy’ in subsequent lectures.

What can we conclude about the distinctiveness of Scottish policymaking?

Finally, we will come back to the main theme or guiding question of the course: what difference do these things make to policymaking in Scotland?

In particular, let’s see what you think of these two arguments:

  1. The argument specific to Scotland. Despite these hopes for greater ‘power sharing’ between the government, parliament, and ‘the people’, Scottish government largely operates in the same way as UK government. Most policy is processed by governments who consult with ‘pressure participants’ such as interest groups.
  2. The more general argument. There is a ‘universal’ logic to this kind of policymaking in majoritarian and consensus democracies. Although they look different, they engage in very similar policy processes.


Filed under POLU9SP, Scottish politics

3 responses to “Devolution and ‘new politics’ in Scotland: the implications for policymaking #POLU9SP

  1. Pingback: Paul Cairney: Politics & Public Policy

  2. Pingback: 12 things to know about studying public policy | Paul Cairney: Politics & Public Policy

  3. Pingback: The effect of constitutional change on politics and policymaking #POLU9SP | Paul Cairney: Politics & Public Policy

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