Daily Archives: November 2, 2015

The effect of constitutional change on politics and policymaking #POLU9SP

This is one of two opportunities in the course to consider the role of further constitutional change. In this lecture, we can explore the changes associated with Scotland Bills (and their causes). In the final lecture, we can take a step back and consider how much the territorial nature of the constitution/ political system compares with ‘universal’ aspects of the policy process.

The Scotland Act 1998 set up the modern Scottish Parliament, outlining its new institutions (including the electoral system) and policy responsibilities. Although I have tried to qualify-to-death the idea that Scottish devolution changed policymaking in Scotland, this was the big one. At the heart of our discussions of the ‘Scottish policy style’ is the knowledge that the Scottish Government has significant policymaking responsibilities and it uses its powers in often-distinctive ways.

The Act also represents the initial ‘settlement’ arising from a decades-long push for political devolution in Scotland. However, it did not prove to be the final settlement. Instead, the UK Government and ‘unionist’ political parties have sought ways to extend devolution enough to maintain Scottish support for the union.

Note the role and endurance of the ‘democratic deficit’ argument

In the 1990s, devolution was often described as a way to solve the ‘democratic deficit’. The charge was that people in Scotland voted for one party in a UK general election (Labour) but received another (Conservative) on many occasions.

This problem was exacerbated by a long spell of Thatcher-led government (1979-1990). A frequent argument is that devolution (made possible by a vote in 1979) could have ‘defended Scotland from Thatcherism’, and allowed the maintenance of Scottish traditions of participative democracy and social democracy. In that context, the new Scottish Parliament represented the idea that Scottish devolution would cushion the blow of any future UK Conservative government.

Yet, as we saw during the independence debate, devolution was often described by Yes supporters as a poor solution to the democratic deficit because the UK Government still makes decisions – particularly on the reform of the welfare state – which have a profound effect on Scotland, with little scope for the Scottish Government to produce an alternative.

The Scotland Acts of 2012 and 2016

The Scotland Act 2012 amended the Scottish Parliament’s and Scottish Government’s responsibilities. It represents the second major attempt at a devolved settlement, following the election of an SNP (minority) government in 2007 and the rise of an independence agenda. The prospect of independence has prompted Scotland’s other main parties (Labour, Conservative, Liberal Democrat – all of which are part of British parties) and the UK Government to consider further devolution; to try to produce a devolved solution that will settle the matter once and for all.

The Calman Commission recommended further devolution in 2009. It prompted the Scotland Act 2012, to introduce further tax devolution (part of income, land and landfill taxes), the ability of the Scottish Government to borrow to invest in capital projects, and new powers in areas such as Scottish Parliament elections, air weapons, driving and drug treatment. The Scotland Act 2012 was designed to be implemented after the referendum, giving opposition parties the opportunity to guarantee further devolution after a No vote.

Scotland Act 2012

Yet, this promise of further devolution proved to be insufficient and, during the referendum period, each party produced separate plans to extend devolution further. The parties then came together, in the lead up to the referendum to make what is now called ‘The Vow’ of ‘extensive new powers’ (and a retained Barnett formula) for a devolved Scotland. The Smith Commission was set up to take this agenda forward. It reported on the 27th November 2014, and its recommendations include to:

  • make the Scottish Parliament ‘permanent’.
  • devolve some fiscal powers, including the power to: set income tax rates and bands (higher earnings are taxed at a higher rate) but not the ‘personal allowance’ (the amount to be earned before income tax applies); set air passenger duty; and to receive a share of sales tax (VAT).
  • increase the Scottish Government’s borrowing powers.
  • devolve some aspects of social security, including those which relate to disability, personal care, housing and ‘council tax’ benefits (council tax is a property tax charged by local authorities to home owners/ renters and based on the value of homes).
  • devolve policies designed to encourage a return to employment.
  • devolve the ability to license onshore oil and gas extraction (which includes hydraulic fracturing, ‘fracking’, for shale gas).
  • control the contract to run the Scottish rail network.
  • encourage greater intergovernmental relations and a more formal Scottish Government role in aspects of UK policymaking.

In response, the UK Government has produced a new draft Scotland Bill.

To a large extent, the proposals reflect the plans of the three main British parties, rather than the SNP (which requested ‘devo max’), although they go further than those parties would have proposed in the absence of the referendum agenda. Again, they are designed to represent a devolved ‘settlement’, reinforced by the knowledge that 55% voted against Scottish independence in 2014 (the turnout was 84.6%).

Yet, this sense of a ‘settled will’ is not yet apparent. Indeed, it seems just as likely that the proposals will merely postpone a second referendum (although it is difficult to predict how long it will take the SNP to think it will win).

What will happen until then?

In the meantime, we can discuss how further devolution might affect the discussions we have had so far. For example, some things don’t seem destined to change much, such as the lack of ‘new politics’ or participatory democracy, the pervasiveness of networks, the development of the ‘Scottish approach’, or the importance of central-local relations. Others might see some significant developments:

  • The Scottish Parliament. If you think it is peripheral to the policy process now, think what will happen when the Scottish Government gets new responsibilities but the Parliament has the same paltry resources for scrutiny (see also McEwen, Petersohn and Swan).
  • MLG and IGR. Nicola McEwen and Bettina Petersohn know more about this than me, and they go into (by drawing on relevant international comparisons) the kinds of issues that the UK and Scottish Governments will face when they develop a shared powers model. The biggest issue is that that there will be far more overlaps in policy responsibilities than before. Under the original settlement, their respective responsibilities were fairly clear. Now, they are expected to cooperate on issues such as taxation, social security, and the energy mix. There is also a weird-looking requirement for the actions of one government to have ‘no detriment’ on another, the effects of which we do not yet know.
  • The Barnett formula. David Bell knows more about this than me, and he thinks that the new arrangements will place a great strain on the formula, partly because the new taxation arrangements give the Scottish Government more power to set its own budget (at least notionally) than rely on a block grant from the Treasury.
  • It’s more difficult to work out the effect of its new responsibilities on tax and social security, but I predict that little will change (albeit in the knowledge that I am not known for my good predictions). Kirstein Rummery knows more about this subject than me. See her commentary on the Scottish Government’s budget and the longer term potential for major change.


Filed under POLU9SP, Scottish independence, Scottish politics

The role of HM Treasury and the ‘Barnett formula’ #POLU9SP

Q: why has the ‘Barnett formula’ endured for decades as a political solution despite being so heavily criticized?

A: it suits both governments because it turns potentially controversial funding negotiations into a routine and humdrum process that normally takes place out of the public spotlight.


Think back to our previous lecture which explained why IGR is so smooth and informal:

  • the arrangements suit both governments even though one is more powerful (and even when headed by different parties)
  • key actors, sometimes political parties but always civil servants, help smooth relations
  • there are well-established routines to solve overlaps in responsibilities and ward off potential disputes

The ‘Barnett formula’ is one of the best examples: the Treasury is the more powerful actor, but it has long accepted the use of a formula which appears to entrench Scotland’s advantageous funding settlement within the UK. It has the power to change the way in which it distributes territorial funding, but no alternative policy offers enough of an economic or political benefit to make up for the fallout from the opposition in Scotland to a major reduction of Scottish Government funding.

But what is the Barnett formula?

Here is a quick description. There is a longer description (and a list of further reading) in Scottish Politics.

The Scottish budget, transferred by the UK Treasury, comprises two elements:

  1. an initial block settlement based on historic spends, and
  2. the Barnett formula to adjust spending in Scotland to reflect changing levels of spending in England.

The formula only relates to changes in the level of spending. It is based on an estimate of populations within the UK. Initially this was a 10–5–85 split for Scotland, Wales and England which suggested that Scotland would receive 10/85 of any increase in comparable spending for England by UK Government departments (or lose the same amount if spending fell). This comparability varies according to department. While some are almost fully devolved (e.g. Health, Education), others are partly devolved (e.g. Transport) and only the comparable spending will be applied to Scotland.

So, ‘Barnett consequentials’ (how much does the relevant Scottish Government budget change when spending for England changes?) are based on three estimates:

  1. Scotland’s share of the UK population
  2. The change in levels of spending of UK Government departments
  3. The level of comparability in specific programmes.

However, note that a change in spending on, say, health in England does not mean a direct change in health spending in Scotland. Instead, the change is made to the overall Scottish Government budget, and the Scottish Government decides if it will follow the UK lead or not.

This final point is at the heart of a lot of futile debate on the extent to which Scottish Government spending on salient areas – such as the NHS – can/ does/ should rise at the same rate as spending rises in England because:

If the Barnett formula is working as allegedly intended it should not be possible for the Scottish Government to keep up (with a proportionate real rise in spending) without finding money from elsewhere.

What is the Barnett Formula allegedly supposed to do?

I say ‘allegedly’ because people have been piecing together the history of Barnett, and not everyone agrees on its primary function.

barnett supposed to do

What we can say for sure is that – ‘all other things remaining equal’ (ceteris paribus) – the consequence of extra spending in England is extra spending in Scotland according to its estimated share of the population rather than its traditionally higher share of UK public expenditure (the latter is sometimes estimated at 20% per head higher than in England).

The latter is proportionally greater because Scotland’s initial block settlement produced much larger per capita spending than in England (‘per capita’ spend is the budget divided by the population). So, there should be significant convergence between spending in England and Scotland: the more spending there is, the smaller the gap in per capita spending.

Yet, the ‘Barnett squeeze’ didn’t happen as much or as quickly as we might expect because:

  • The estimates are not accurate (England’s population is rising more quickly than Scotland’s)
  • Spending doesn’t always go up
  • The UK Government sometimes gives ad hoc funding to the Scottish Government without using the formula (‘formula bypass’)

Further, Scotland’s higher per capita spending is often maintained by UK Government spending that is not covered by the formula, in areas such as social security and agriculture.

Barnett fair

Why has Barnett not been replaced by something more sensible?

The Barnett formula has stood the test of time despite repeated calls for its replacement. We can talk about two key explanations:

  1. Agenda setting and incrementalism/ inertia. Imagine that both governments privately like the political advantages of the formula (although elected members often say something different in public) because (a) it reduces the need for heated negotiations by introducing a semi-autonomic routine, and (b) it might suit both audiences: you can tell an audience in Scotland that it helps maintain its financial position in the short term; you can tell an audience in England that it reduces Scottish advantage in the long term. There is little incentive for them to shift radically from a previously-negotiated settlement, or at least one that only attracts periodic attention.
  2. The alternative is not easy. If you are going to change the system, it will produce winners and losers (and the losers may be more vocal). Ideally, you want to be sure that your alternative is demonstrably better. Maybe you even want to find a calculation that looks similarly technical and objective, so that it doesn’t look like you are making political choices to redistribute funding. Yet, no such objective calculation exists. Maybe the closest thing is a ‘needs assessment’ formula, but it suffers from three problems: a lack of agreement on the concept of need, or the criteria to use (let’s discuss some examples – free tuition fees, catholic schools), a lack of good information, and a lack of political will to go for the big change (or, a concern that the big change will tip the balance in favour of a Yes vote?)

What does this experience tell us about bigger issues of power and IGR?

Barnett is a good example of an effective IGR mechanism in the often-distinctive UK tradition: it helps maintain smooth governmental relations by using a routine measure to make big decisions. The Treasury has the power to change it, and to give the Scottish Government a smaller settlement, but it chooses to stick with a formula that suits both governments in important ways.

We can see a similar mix of power and flexibility in a broader discussion of their relationship:

  • The Treasury still controls the size of the Scottish Government: how much is raised in taxation then passed on to the Scottish Government, and the extent to which the Scottish Government can borrow to invest.
  • However, the Scottish Government has considerable power over how to spend its budget (particularly when compared with territorial governments in other countries).

When you put those statements together, you find some uncertainty about Scottish Government discretion:

  • it has the power to spend, but most of it is effectively tied-up in existing spending decisions (although this would be true regardless of its power to raise money);
  • it comes under partisan pressure to match Treasury decisions, particularly on higher NHS spending.

Further, the UK Government still makes the big decisions on how to deal with ‘austerity’ and, for example, how to reform social security spending.

In the next lecture, we can discuss how forthcoming constitutional changes may affect this relationship.



Filed under POLU9SP, Scottish politics

Policy Concepts in 1000 Words: Framing

framing main

(podcast download)

‘Framing’ is a metaphor to describe the ways in which we understand, and use language selectively to portray, policy problems. There are many ways to describe this process in many disciplines, including communications, psychological, and sociological research. There is also more than one way to understand the metaphor.

For example, I think that most scholars describe this image (from litemind) of someone deciding which part of the world on which to focus.

framing with hands

However, I have also seen colleagues use this image, of a timber frame, to highlight the structure of a discussion which is crucial but often unseen and taken for granted:

timber frame

  1. Intentional framing and cognition.

The first kind of framing relates to bounded rationality or the effect of our cognitive processes on the ways in which we process information (and influence how others process information):

  • We use major cognitive shortcuts to turn an infinite amount of information into the ‘signals’ we perceive or pay attention to.
  • These cognitive processes often produce interesting conclusions, such as when (a) we place higher value on the things we own/ might lose rather than the things we don’t own/ might gain (‘prospect theory’) or (b) we value, or pay more attention to, the things with which we are most familiar and can process more easily (‘fluency’).
  • We often rely on other people to process and select information on our behalf.
  • We are susceptible to simple manipulation based on the order (or other ways) in which we process information, and the form it takes.

In that context, you can see one meaning of framing: other actors portray information selectively to influence the ways in which we see the world, or which parts of the world capture our attention (here is a simple example of wind farms).

In policy theory, framing studies focus on ambiguity: there are many ways in which we can understand and define the same policy problem (note terms such as ‘problem definition’ and a ‘policy image’). Therefore, actors exercise power to draw attention to, and generate support for, one particular understanding at the expense of others. They do this with simple stories or the selective presentation of facts, often coupled with emotional appeals, to manipulate the ways in which we process information.

  1. Frames as structures

Think about the extent to which we take for granted certain ways to understand or frame issues. We don’t begin each new discussion with reference to ‘first principles’. Instead, we discuss issues with reference to:

(a) debates that have been won and may not seem worth revisiting (imagine, for example, the ways in which ‘socialist’ policies are treated in the US)

(b) other well-established ways to understand the world which, when they seem to dominate our ways of thinking, are often described as ‘hegemonic’ or with reference to paradigms.

In such cases, the timber frame metaphor serves two purposes:

(a) we can conclude that it is difficult but not impossible to change.

(b) if it is hidden by walls, we do not see it; we often take it for granted even though we should know it exists.

Framing the social, not physical, world

These metaphors can only take us so far, because the social world does not have such easily identifiable physical structures. Instead, when we frame issues, we don’t just choose where to look; we also influence how people describe what we are looking at. Or, ‘structural’ frames relate to regular patterns of behaviour or ways of thinking which are more difficult to identify than in a building. Consequently, we do not all describe structural constraints in the same way even though, ostensibly, we are looking at the same thing.

In this respect, for example, the well-known ‘Overton window’ is a sort-of helpful but also problematic concept, since it suggests that policymakers are bound to stay within the limits of what Kingdon calls the ‘national mood’. The public will only accept so much before it punishes you in events such as elections. Yet, of course, there is no such thing as the public mood. Rather, some actors (policymakers) make decisions with reference to their perception of such social constraints (how will the public react?) but they also know that they can influence how we interpret those constraints with reference to one or more proxies, including opinion polls, public consultations, media coverage, and direct action:

JEPP public opinion

They might get it wrong, and suffer the consequences, but it still makes sense to say that they have a choice to interpret and adapt to such ‘structural’ constraints.

Framing, power and the role of ideas

We can bring these two ideas about framing together to suggest that some actors exercise power to reinforce dominant ways to think about the world. Power is not simply about visible conflicts in which one group with greater material resources wins and another loses. It also relates to agenda setting. First, actors may exercise power to reinforce social attitudes. If the weight of public opinion is against government action, maybe governments will not intervene. The classic example is poverty – if most people believe that it is caused by fecklessness, what is the role of government? In such cases, power and powerlessness may relate to the (in)ability of groups to persuade the public, media and/ or government that there is a reason to make policy; a problem to be solved.  In other examples, the battle may be about the extent to which issues are private (with no legitimate role for government) or public (and open to legitimate government action), including: should governments intervene in disputes between businesses and workers? Should they intervene in disputes between husbands and wives? Should they try to stop people smoking in private or public places?

Second, policymakers can only pay attention to a tiny amount of issues for which they are responsible. So, actors exercise power to keep some issues on their agenda at the expense of others.  Issues on the agenda are sometimes described as ‘safe’: more attention to these issues means less attention to the imbalances of power within society.


Filed under 1000 words, agenda setting, PhD, public policy