The Scottish Conservatives took some grief for campaigning to become the opposition party in Holyrood. We all know they won’t come close to winning, but many people would like them to go through the ridiculous charade of pretending to try. Yet, this is only the second most ridiculous pretence in Scottish politics. The first is that the governing party is in control of Scottish government and can therefore be held to account in a meaningful way in Holyrood elections. While one problem will go away next month, the other is a fundamental flaw in our political system that will rip us apart at the seams.
For the people who read beyond the first paragraph, let me lay this out in a less dramatic way by highlighting the gulf between two ways of thinking about Scottish government.
- The language of Scottish elections.
The language of elections is one of ambition, high stakes competition, central government control, and accountability through elections:
- Parties compete to tell you the tantalizing transformations they can deliver with Scottish Government powers.
- The elections are high stakes because much power is held in Scottish central government.
- If there is high central control, with major ‘levers’ of policy change, you know who is in charge and therefore who to praise or blame. Education doing well? Praise the SNP. NHS in a slump? Blame the SNP. Police Scotland having a nightmare? Blame the SNP. Wee Jimmy tripped and fell over a wonky slab in Largs? Blame the SNP.
So, the underlying message of Scottish Parliament elections is: let’s blame or praise the central government because it is in control and has the levers to make things happen. It’s much the same, only more so, in Westminster elections.
- The language of governance and policy studies
Most policy studies suggest that central government can achieve far less than you’d care to think. We use many phrases to highlight the limits to central control and the pragmatic ways in which the centre shares policymaking responsibility with other actors such as local public bodies and ‘stakeholders’. Key concepts include:
- Policy communities. Ministers can only pay attention to a fraction of the things for which they are formally in charge. So, they pay disproportionate attention to a small number of issues and ignore the rest. They delegate responsibility for those tasks to civil servants, who consult with stakeholders to produce policy.
- Governance (not government). There is a blurry boundary between formal responsibility and informal influence. A huge number of actors are involved in the policy process and it is difficult to separate their effects. Instead, we often think of policy outcomes as the product of collective action, only some of which is coordinated by central government.
- Complexity, or complex government. In complex policymaking systems, policy outcomes seem to ‘emerge’ from local practices and rules, often despite central government attempts to control them. Consequently, there is a large literature which tries to produce pragmatic responses to deal with the limits to central government control.
The language of accountability does not mix well with the language of complexity
I want you to imagine that you’ve put new denim jeans in with your whites wash: one part of the wash has really messed up the other. Now, I want you to think of this as a clever analogy: the language of elections is the denim and it’s really messing up your governance whites.
There are good reasons for central governments to share power and responsibility with other actors, including:
- civil servants have the capacity, knowledge, and networks to research and make detailed policies;
- many public bodies like ‘quangos’ need to be at ‘arm’s length’ from ministers to achieve legitimacy in the eyes of their public;
- local governments have their own mandates, often possess a keener sense of the needs of local communities, and can work in partnership with local stakeholders and public bodies to produce long term strategies for their areas
- stakeholders provide knowledge and advice on how to deliver policies in specialised areas
- service users often have profound insights on the public services they receive
So, alongside fighting elections, the Scottish Government tries to produce pragmatic ways to share policymaking responsibility and encourage new mechanisms of accountability: institutional, local, community, service user.
The only problem is this: almost no one buys these forms of accountability, partly because it looks like the central government is trying to shirk responsibility for its actions. Come election time, you have to pretend that you are in charge of all of it. So, it’s difficult to argue during the rest of the time – for example, when ‘being held to account’ by the Scottish Parliament, or criticised in the media – that things are really not your fault.
The worst of it comes when governments try to adapt to both of those things, producing highly contradictory strategies:
- On the one hand, they pursue thinks like ‘prevention’ strategies which encourage relatively hands-off policymaking for the long term in cooperation with local bodies.
- On the other, they make election promises – e.g. on the numbers of police officers, teachers, and nurses they’ll employ – and maintain performance management systems to show that they are in charge and making some progress. These actions to achieve short term electoral success can really mess up the long term strategies.
The upshot is this: we could use our knowledge of this contradiction in language to get beyond simplistic debates in which the elected central government gets all the praise or blame for outcomes in devolved areas in Scotland. It might help produce more honest and sensible policymaking. However, can you imagine any big party ever willing to try? When the Scottish Conservatives get this much shit for admitting they won’t win office, can you imagine a larger party admitting that it won’t achieve that much in office because it’s one part of a complex system?