What do we learn about UK hydraulic fracturing for shale energy (‘fracking’) policy and policymaking by comparing it to Switzerland?
- Current UK policy outcomes do not seem so different from a country in which anti-fracking actors are successful
The UK Government looks like it is as strongly pro-fracking as it can possibly be. Prime Minister David Cameron famously declared: ‘we’re going all out for shale‘ and Chancellor George Osborne oversaw many policies to encourage initial exploration and investment. Yet, the UK’s outcomes – no commercial fracking – are not so different from Switzerland, in which the most affected Cantons have introduced moratoriums or bans. These moratoriums are now in place in Scotland and Wales, and the UK Government has yet to overturn an English local authority decision to withhold planning permission for development.
- The UK does not live up to its ‘top down’, ‘majoritarian’ reputation
These outcomes often seem surprising because the UK government has a reputation built on a misleading image of ‘majoritarian’ (Westminster) democracies in which central governments hoard power and impose policies from the top down. So, for example, as soon as Cameron declared himself ‘all out for shale’, you’d be forgiven for thinking he could flick a switch and make it so.
This is what makes the Switzerland comparison so relevant: it has the opposite image, of a consensus democracy with a federalist structure and participative politics. Switzerland has an established culture of direct and regular participation via referendums. Direct-democratic instruments oblige public authorities to negotiate policy solutions with minority groups. Federalism offers ‘veto points’ and allows actors to defy a policy solution favoured by central government.
Yet, the difference in policymaking does not reflect the difference in these images (if anything, Swiss policy has been far more quick and decisive).
The main reason for the lack of difference is that these reputations only tell one part of the story. The most visible aspects of political systems may differ, but central governments routinely devolve policymaking and/ or negotiate political settlements in less visible subsystems. The contentious, high profile statements and subsequent disputes may represent the most visible part of policymaking, but the negotiation of settlements out of the public spotlight is far more common and routine.
- The UK policy process is more competitive, less consensual (but not in the way you might think)
So, we find differences in UK and Swiss policymaking, but they are far more subtle than you’d expect if you focused on high profile events and reputations. They happen in subsystems, in which coalitions of pro- and anti-fracking actors share information to influence the policy agenda.
Normally, you would expect actors to share certain information with their allies and withhold it from their competitors (such as political information on how best to ‘frame’ the issue and lobby governments), or to only share certain types of information (such as when coalitions compete to interpret technical or scientific information). However, this effect is far more pronounced in the UK, in which there is more competition and less trust. So, the ‘majoritarian’ UK seems to produce a more competitive policy process even though it shares with Switzerland a tendency to make policy in subsystems, often out of the public spotlight.
You can read more in this draft paper, which also describes how we use the same theory (Advocacy Coalition Framework) and method (survey data and documentary analysis) to compare policy and policymaking systematically in two ‘most different’ countries: