Pluralist democracy and the ‘Scottish policy style’: the role of ‘pressure participants’ such as interest groups #POLU9SP

A key theme of the course is that we can explain policymaking, in most political systems, with reference to ‘universal’ concepts such as policy networks. These concepts help us identify: (a) the policy processes shared by most systems, before we examine (b) how to best understand those processes in specific systems. For example, we can link closely, but recognize key differences in, descriptions of subsystems in the US and networks in the UK.

In Scottish politics, that kind of comparison tends to be with UK policymaking: can we identify the same basic processes, or did devolution prompt a ‘Scottish policy style’ that differs significantly from the ‘British style’?

box 8.1 networks

While Box 8.1 highlights a ‘logic’ of policy communities that is common to Scottish and UK government, it does not suggest that their processes are identical. Rather, much of the literature recounts an important story, told by participants and policymakers in Scotland, that their ‘territorial policy communities’ have distinctive features. Some participants describe ‘cultural’ differences in consultation, which can relate to our discussions of ‘new politics’ and ‘consensus democracy’, or more practical factors such as Scotland’s size, the scale of the Scottish Government’s responsibilities, and its resources to make and fund policy. This takes place in a multi-level system in which it is often difficult – particularly for pressure participants*– to identify a Scottish process of policymaking, separate from developments at EU, UK, and local levels.

Devolution and new policy networks

Keating et al (2009: 54) use the term ‘territorial policy communities’ to describe the development of new networks in Scotland, prompted by the devolution of new responsibilities to the Scottish Government and significant levels of UK interest group devolution (or the proliferation of new Scottish groups). These new arrangements were characterised initially by:

  • a period of adjustment, in which ministers and civil servants adapted to their new policymaking role and groups sought new opportunities or felt obliged to lobby Scottish political institutions
  • ‘cognitive change’, in which policy problems became defined increasingly from a territorial perspective
  • a new group-government dynamic, in which groups formed new relationships with their allies (and competitors).

Perhaps more importantly, groups increasingly follow a devolved policy agenda. Gone are the days of the old (pre-1999) Scottish Office, responsible primarily for policy implementation, and the tendency of groups to form coalitions to oppose or modify UK Conservative government policies at the margins. Now, groups respond to Scottish Government demands for new policy ideas, and often compete as well as cooperate with each other to draw the attention of that captive audience.   The evidence suggests that some groups addressed that task more quickly than others: some groups improved on links that were already partly established (in which areas?), some reinforced the links that they developed with the Labour government from 1997 (which ones?), some maintained dual UK and Scottish links, to reflect limited devolution in their areas (which groups?), and others took time to get over their opposition to devolution and find a clear role (which ones?). Devolution perhaps gave all groups more opportunities to engage, but this did not diminish a tendency to consult with ‘the usual suspects’.

box 8.4

Distinctive elements of the ‘Scottish policy style’: a new policymaking culture?

box 8.3

Box 8.3 describes interest group perceptions of policymaking in the early years of devolution. They describe their shift of attention to Scottish institutions, and a sense that they generally enjoyed regular and meaningful access to policymakers in the Scottish Government and politicians in the Scottish Parliament (although, do their links to MSPs matter much if the Scottish Parliament is often peripheral to policymaking?). Many groups also describe this process as better than the UK equivalent. This is the sort of statement that we should be wary of: how might we explain it, beyond simply saying that they are right? Some possibilities include:

  • Many groups, which supported devolution, ‘would say that, wouldn’t they?’
  • Many describe UK processes of which they have limited experience.
  • Many describe their experiences of consultation, not influence.
  • Some describe their greater ability to compete with other groups in Scotland, compared to their experiences in the UK.
  • Some conflate their experiences with their attitudes to a Conservative UK government, which they opposed, and Labour-led Scottish Government, which they supported.
  • Not all groups reported positive experiences.

Still, we should not ignore completely the general feeling that something has changed, for the better.

Explanations for the Scottish policy style: new politics or pragmatism?

The most immediate and obvious explanation for these developments is ‘new politics’: devolution went hand in hand with the expectation that politicians and policymakers would open their doors, and their minds to new ideas. Politics would be more participative and deliberative, and policymaking would be more open and based on more regular and meaningful consultation.

However, consider three practical reasons for Scottish Government policymaking to differ from its UK counterpart:

  1. Scotland’s size, and the scale of Scottish Government responsibilities, allows closer personal relationships to develop between key actors. You can get all the key players in one room.
  2. The Scottish Government has limited resources, prompting civil servants to rely more – for information, advice, and support – on experts outside of government and the actors who will become responsible for policy implementation.
  3. Devolution went hand in hand with a significant increase in Scottish public expenditure.   It is easier to generate goodwill or consensus on policy innovation and greater investment than on how to cut public services.

Further, we can discuss another possibility next week, in relation to the ‘Scottish Approach’: if the Scottish Government was relatively keen to delegate policymaking responsibility to local public bodies, maybe it moved the trickier decisions to other policymaking venues. Maybe everyone gets together at the national level to support a vague strategy, only to struggle to influence or secure agreement on its delivery.

How do groups try to influence Scottish policymaking in a multi-level system?

In weeks 6-7, we can discuss the extent to which the idea of a ‘Scottish policy style’ makes sense when so many policies affecting Scotland take place at other levels of government. This complication provides a major dilemma for interest groups seeking influence but recognizing the need to maintain multiple channels of access. How do they do it?

  • Some groups only have the resources to lobby the Scottish Government, and rely on their networks with other groups to lobby UK and EU bodies. Others are regional branches of UK organizations.
  • Much depends on the policy issue or area. For example, major banks, businesses, and unions maintain Scottish links but focus their attention largely on issues – such as macroeconomic policy, export regulations, and employment laws – reserved to the UK Government and/ or influenced by EU bodies. Groups seeking influence over environmental or agricultural policy recognise that they are heavily ‘Europeanised’. This leaves key examples of devolved areas, such as education, health, local government, and housing, in which groups are most likely to direct their attention primarily to the Scottish Government.

In some cases, such as tobacco and alcohol control, policy consists of a series of measures produced by Scottish, UK, and EU bodies:

box 8.5 cigs alcohol

Finally, next week we can consider the effect of the ‘Scottish Approach’ on interest groups. What will they do if the face the need to shift their attention from 1 Scottish Government to 32 local authorities and their partners?

*Note: ‘Pressure participants’ is a term used by Jordan et al (2004) partly to show us that terms such as ‘pressure groups’ or ‘interest groups’ can be misleading because: (a) they conjure up a particular image of a pressure group which may not be accurate (we may think of unions or membership groups like Greenpeace); and (b) the organisations most likely to lobby governments are businesses, public sector organisations such as universities and other types of government.


Filed under POLU9SP, Scottish politics

5 responses to “Pluralist democracy and the ‘Scottish policy style’: the role of ‘pressure participants’ such as interest groups #POLU9SP

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