Monthly Archives: May 2016

How should we interpret the Scottish Survey of Literacy and Numeracy?


The Scottish Survey of Literacy and Numeracy 2015 is now out. It is a great example for students of agenda setting and framing because an apparently dry account of recent trends may come to dominate the highest level debates in Scottish politics.

The stakes are high because the figures – showing some drops in attainment at key stages, and major gaps in inequalities of attainment at all stages – are being interpreted in this context:

Allegations of government shenanigans

The SNP Government’s opponents reckon that it delayed the results because they were so bad as to undermine the SNP vote in the Holyrood elections in 2016.

Allegations of misplaced priorities

The SNP Government’s critics reckon that it has funded free tuition for the middle classes at the expense of funding to reduce attainment gaps at school (which make it less likely for people in deprived areas to go to benefit from free University education).

SNP Government priorities

Education will be the big focal point from 2016-21 because the SNP has signalled it as the top priority (symbolised by the fact that John Swinney is now in charge). Indeed, Nicola Sturgeon promised at one point to ‘close the attainment gap completely’ (report on original speech).

The SNP manifesto in 2016 presents more of a mix of aims (using more equivocal language). Its promise to ‘close the attainment gap between young people from the most and those from the least affluent backgrounds’ really means reduce (‘our mission is to make significant progress in closing the gap within the next parliament and to substantially eliminate it within a decade’), while its promise to deliver ‘significant progress in closing the attainment gap within the lifetime of the next parliament and substantially eliminating it within a decade’ betrays the sense that it does not really know how to tell how far it can reduce the gap and declare almost-complete success.

This background gives us a lens through which to view most analysis of the figures

As you’d expect, so far the immediate reaction is rather critical:

The SNP Government response will be trickier-than-usual for the following reasons:

  1. Free University tuition is non-negotiable.

It won’t give up on free University tuition (for Scottish students and, in effect, EU students outside the UK), and it doesn’t accept the argument that its spending on University tuition comes at the expense of its spending on pre-school and school spending. So, it has to find the money, to reduce the attainment gap, from other areas (producing the possibility of limited success in education and worsening results in other high profile areas such as health).

  1. Its ability to link the issue to Scottish independence is now more limited.

The usual (and often plausible) response to the inequalities in attainment gap is to argue that: (a) it is caused largely by socio-economic conditions such as poverty, rather than teaching; and, (b) the Scottish Government does not have the tax/ spending power to reduce the problem at source. Yet, Sturgeon has staked her reputation on making a difference despite these constraints.

So, what happens next?

At some point, we might have a less emotive, less partisan, and more considered look at these figures. If so, I’d like to be clearer on three different kinds of question. The first two are about setting milestones so that we don’t wait until the figures come out before we pronounce success/ failure, and the third is about the figures themselves:

  1. What level of inequality of attainment is OK?

Whatever language the SNP uses, it won’t close this gap completely. Instead, we could benefit from an honest and pragmatic discussion about the level of inequality in attainment that we think is acceptable (at least at each stage of policy development). In Scotland, we tell a good story about consensus politics, but it won’t mean much if the government pretends to hold on to aims it doesn’t think are achievable, while the opposition criticises any gap regardless of progress.

  1. What trends are acceptable?

In agenda setting studies we note the profound effects of trends in data, which can be more important (in gaining attention) than the baseline figures. If we want to try to avoid getting sucked into these lurches of attention to often-minimal change, we could benefit from a sense of perspective on trends. Is any positive effect a cause for celebration or negative effect a cause for prophecies of doom? No. Yet, the stakes are so high that people are ready to pounce at any minute, or at least every year. Governments play that game too, with performance management systems that really don’t help (and, for example, Robert Geyer has a different way to consider long term success and failure).

  1. What do these figures really mean?

I don’t think the survey was designed with these high political stakes in mind. If they are to remain so crucial to political debate, I’d like to see more explanation – to the public and political commentators – of the method and results, to give a clearer sense of how to interpret the baseline figures as well as the trends.

Otherwise, for example, people will point to the wacky drop in attainment progress in S2 (compared to P7) and wonder what the hell happened (particularly since it exposes the major gap in attainment linked to deprivation). The report itself mentions the well-discussed problem of transition from primary to secondary school, but could discuss more the likelihood that this statistical dip is caused partly by measurement (possible explanations include: the expectation for S2 is disproportionately high, given the problems of transition; or, secondary and primary teachers have different view on how well someone is doing when they enter S1).

For further reading, see Lucy Hunter Blackburn’s site Adventures in Evidence, which provides more frequent and in-depth (and critical!) coverage of Scottish education policy than mine.

See also A memo to John Swinney

For some of the coverage, see for example:

Numeracy rate falls among pupils in Scotland, latest figures show




Filed under agenda setting, Scottish politics

The EU referendum: How do you decide?

Andrew Glencross and Paul Cairney give some advice on how to wade through all the information on ‘Brexit’ to make an informed choice. Andrew offers a more thorough discussion in Remain or Leave? A MOOC on the UK Referendum on EU Membership.

We often hear that citizens don’t have enough information to help them make a decision about the EU referendum. Yet, there is too much information. Most people don’t have the time or inclination to  wade through all the campaign claims and evaluate them

We also hear that what we need is an ‘objective’ guide; someone to pull together all the evidence so that people can read it and make an informed decision. This will never happen. There is no objective guide. Indeed, the whole idea of objectivity is misleading. Anyone presenting ‘evidence’ on the debate is giving a partial story. This is clear when you hear people making the best, most optimistic, cases for or against evidence. If you want a well-rounded case, you don’t ask David Cameron or Boris Johnson.

It’s less clear when alleged experts join in, but the biases are still there. Everyone tells you some things and leaves out the rest; they describe to you one simple part of a complicated picture. Then, another expert will tell you the direct opposite. So, there will never come a point when you read enough to make a decision based on ‘the evidence’.

What can you do instead? We suggest two strategies.

Strategy 1: engage critically with any information you receive

Don’t take it at face value. Instead, consider:

Who is giving me the information and to what extent can I trust them?

This is relatively easy when you read a Remain or Leave pamphlet or listen to campaigners in debates. Set your trust levels to low (often, these messages simply reinforce what you believe, or annoy you). Or, at least, try to combine their accounts to see if there is any middle ground (which is not always possible).

It’s harder when people are brought in as ‘experts’. For every business guru, lawyer or university professor on one side, there seems to be an equivalent on the other (although, in some cases such as economic matters, there seems to be an imbalance towards Remain).

Still, it is not a good idea to assume that, just because Professor Something said something it is true. What you should think about professors is that they have excellent reputations based on research and scholarly excellence in a particular field – not that everything they say is gold. Beware, in particular, the Professor with expertise in one field (such as law or economics) trying to give you his/her views of another (such as economics or law).

What do people really mean?

What tends to happen in this debate is that no-one wants to give any ground; on both sides, the goal is to win at all costs. As a result, the debates tend to be very limited and partial, producing more heat than light before another topic has its moment in the limelight. Simple examples include the debate on how many EU migrants actually work in the UK (should we rely on national insurance numbers issued or exit surveys at airport?) or the question of whether the EU has secret plans for a common army (more cooperation in defence can go ahead without UK participation, but that does not mean the outcome will be an EU army).

How much of the information is based on what they claim to know versus what they predict?

Some problems are easy to spot: beware any prediction of Armageddon or of a better world. If a prediction for a new world seems too good to be true, you know to reject it. If someone says that everything will be unambiguously terrible, you can dismiss them quite easily. It’s harder to spot expert predictions based on one part knowledge and nine parts soothsaying. A good general rule is that a prediction becomes less useful for every year into the future it goes. If the future involves people, it is not easy to predict.

How does this information compare with other information?

One way to deal with information from one source is to compare it with as many other information sources as possible. So, for example, if you hear a point made in a debate, or read it in a leaflet, you can compare it with the thoughts of, say, critical media commentators and academics (e.g. UK in a Changing Europe, or the Centre on Constitutional Change). Or, you can simply ask yourself: is this an assertion, with no evidence, or can they back up what they are saying?

Unfortunately, this is not a good enough strategy on its own, largely because:

  1. Much of the relevant information is not available. We don’t know how people will behave after the vote – how, for example, the negotiations with the EU would progress after a Leave vote, how businesses and ‘the markets’ would react, or even if the vote prompts a further referendum in Scotland.
  2. There is too much information to process.
  3. We have to trust some people to give us useful information; to give us an account of the evidence on which we can rely.

Strategy 2: find ways to simplify your decision, to make it ‘good enough’.

So, we need an additional strategy to act intelligently but quickly. Forget the usual bunkum about some people thinking with their hearts and other people with their heads. Forget the idea of staying awake from now until the vote to make sure you’ve considered every Leave and Remain statement.

Instead, we all use short-cuts to make sure that we pay attention to some information and ignore the rest – and, for all of us, those short cuts include our established beliefs (we tend to reject some information if it contradicts our beliefs) and our emotions. Don’t feel bad if you feel passionately about something and can’t quite explain why. Don’t feel inadequate if someone else tells you that their decision is somehow more ‘rational’. Instead, seek simple ways to combine emotions with ‘rationality’:

  1. Work out your priorities. For some, it’s about the future of immigration. For some, it’s about the economy and certainty over trade. For others, it’s about ‘sovereignty’ and a desire to have policy decisions made in Westminster. For you, it may be about all of these things, but they may not be as important as each other. It is worth considering these priorities before you engage with the information.
  2. Work out what you are willing to give up. There is no realistic scenario in which everyone will be better off after a certain vote, or that everything will improve in each area. Rather, we are making important choices about what we are willing to give up to secure something else. For some, the uncertainty about the economy seems to trump all else. For others, it is about a principle that is more important than a guaranteed outcome.
  3. Identify your ‘gut feeling’ about which way to vote and ask yourself why you feel that way.
  4. Don’t be too annoyed. It is easy to decide to vote one way or another because someone in the Leave or Remain camp annoys you, or they appear to present misleading material, or give you a message in a patronising way. It’s not about them – otherwise, I think that most of us would spoil our ballot papers.

Then vote. It really is that simple.


Filed under UK politics and policy

Two ways to understand policymaking in the UK

This is the introduction to the concluding chapter of my hubris book, Policy and Policymaking in the UK:

Let me give you a useful but potentially confusing way to understand policymaking. It involves the ability to generate and compare more than one way in which to interpret the world. So, we consider the advantages of different stories or ‘narratives’ of policymaking.

These stories are simple enough to generate research questions, answers, and profound insights, but each one does not give you the full picture.

It may be tempting to combine their insights to get that complete account of policymaking, but we will likely produce a more complicated, and sometimes contradictory, account without necessarily improving our knowledge (Cairney, 2013). So, instead of getting at the complete truth, we settle for juggling many simple stories and use them to interpret the world in different ways.

If these stories are only told between academics, they do not affect our object of study too much. We can focus on debating their relative merits with reference to a set of well-defined concepts, methods, and case studies.

However, if we find that policymakers and other participants tell similar or competing stories, we need to describe how we and they interpret this process, to determine if their story influences actual decisions and our understanding of them. To put it most simply, their decision to act according to one particular (and possibly mistaken) interpretation of their situation may not solve the problem they set, but it will affect the policy process, its outcomes, and the ways in which we interpret that process. In turn, our conversations with policymakers can produce some debate about the context, meaning, and impact of their decisions.
In the UK, this approach helps produce two main stories which may both be true and seem to contradict each other. Further the elements of each story may appear to be internally inconsistent because they are told by different people in different ways (box 16.1).

How can we make sense of such a situation? We demonstrate why it is valuable to entertain both stories. One represents the scale of the task of policymakers, while the other represents the ways in which policymakers interpret their world and try to operate within it. One is important to help explain the environment in which they operate, and another to explain the ways in which they navigate that environment, using simple stories and rules to turn complex government into manageable strategies. Their stories may not always reflect the reality we describe, but they become a form of reality as soon as they articulate and act on them. Policymakers might present a misleading gloss on their ability to control the policy process, but such stories are often necessary, resistant to change, and have an effect on policymaking and our perception of that process.

This dynamic influences the ways in which we can study and draw conclusions from UK policymaking: simultaneously, we identify cases which demonstrate the limits to and importance of central influence, as policymakers try in vain to exert control over the policy process and outcomes, but often have more success in describing their influence positively, to maintain a strong image of governing competence.
I use this storytelling approach to sum up the insights of the book. I begin by restating the two stories which tend to dominate UK political science in one form or another: a focus on electing a strong and decisive government in a Westminster system which tends to centralise power; qualified by the identification of complex government which limits the effects of that power.

I then discuss what happens when those stories collide: when policymakers need to find a way to balance a pragmatic approach to complexity and the need to describe their activities in a way that the public can understand and support. For example, do they try to take less responsibility for policy outcomes, to reflect their limited role in complex government, and/ or try to reassert central control, on the assumption that they may as well be more influential if they will be held responsible?
Finally, I discuss the implications for the study of UK public policy. Will we ever go beyond the same old phrases, such as that ministers are important but not the only important policymakers, that multi-level governance matters, that Parliament is more important than you think (if you don’t think much of its importance), and that policy dynamics vary markedly from issue to issue?

Full chapter: Cairney CONCLUSION Policy Policymaking UK 13.5.16

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Policy in 500 Words: if the policy cycle does not exist, what do we do?

It is easy to reject the empirical value of the policy cycle, but difficult to replace it as a practical tool. I identify the implications for students, policymakers, and the actors seeking influence in the policy process.


A policy cycle divides the policy process into a series of stages:

  • Agenda setting. Identifying problems that require government attention, deciding which issues deserve the most attention and defining the nature of the problem.
  • Policy formulation. Setting objectives, identifying the cost and estimating the effect of solutions, choosing from a list of solutions and selecting policy instruments.
  • Legitimation. Ensuring that the chosen policy instruments have support. It can involve one or a combination of: legislative approval, executive approval, seeking consent through consultation with interest groups, and referenda.
  • Implementation. Establishing or employing an organization to take responsibility for implementation, ensuring that the organization has the resources (such as staffing, money and legal authority) to do so, and making sure that policy decisions are carried out as planned.
  • Evaluation. Assessing the extent to which the policy was successful or the policy decision was the correct one; if it was implemented correctly and, if so, had the desired effect.
  • Policy maintenance, succession or termination. Considering if the policy should be continued, modified or discontinued.

Most academics (and many practitioners) reject it because it oversimplifies, and does not explain, a complex policymaking system in which: these stages may not occur (or occur in this order), or we are better to imagine thousands of policy cycles interacting with each other to produce less orderly behaviour and predictable outputs.

But what do we do about it?

The implications for students are relatively simple: we have dozens of concepts and theories which serve as better ways to understand policymaking. In the 1000 Words series, I give you 25 to get you started.

The implications for policymakers are less simple because they cycle may be unrealistic and useful. Stages can be used to organise policymaking in a simple way: identify policymaker aims, identify policies to achieve those aims, select a policy measure, ensure that the selection is legitimised by the population or its legislature, identify the necessary resources, implement and then evaluate the policy. The idea is simple and the consequent advice to policy practitioners is straightforward.  A major unresolved challenge for scholars and practitioners is to describe a more meaningful, more realistic, analytical model to policymakers and give advice on how to act and justify action in the same straightforward way. So, in this article, I discuss how to reconcile policy advice based on complexity and pragmatism with public and policymaker expectations.

The implications for actors trying to influence policymaking can be dispiriting: how can we engage effectively in the policy process if we struggle to understand it? So, in this page (scroll down – it’s long!), I discuss how to present evidence in complex policymaking systems.

Take home message for students. It is easy to describe then assess the policy cycle as an empirical tool, but don’t stop there. Consider how to turn this insight into action. First, examine the many ways in which we use concepts to provide better descriptions and explanations. Then, think about the practical implications. What useful advice could you give an elected policymaker, trying to juggle pragmatism with accountability? What strategies would you recommend to actors trying to influence the policy process?


Filed under 500 words, public policy

We are looking for a PhD student in politics & policy to study fracking

Hannes Stephan and I have secured internal funding for a 3-year PhD which pays £14,296 per year. The details of the advert are here and the wording of the bid is  here.

If you plan to apply, please pay close attention to the list of tasks that we identify. We are looking for someone with advanced training in more than one method, including survey design/ administration, social networks analysis, and discourse analysis. Ideally, you would also have a political (or, at least, social) science background. If not, have a think about the relevant perspectives or skills that you can bring from another discipline.

Of course, you would not be expected to be an expert already, and we (plus some of our colleagues at Stirling and elsewhere) will be there to help you develop your skills. However, we’d still be looking for someone with demonstrable training at a postgraduate level (rather than someone about to embark on an MSc).

You will also see that we describe the PhD in terms of ‘hitting the ground running’: we have an interest in the topic, have already done some work on it, and have set out many of our expectations (this is unusual for PhDs that I supervise, but not for PhDs in other sciences). This is a good thing in many ways, since you will already have a research question and a set of methods to adapt (something that otherwise takes a remarkable amount of time), but also something that limits your ambitions in the short term (certainly, when I did a PhD I pretty much chose something on my own, according to what interested me at the time).

To make up for the latter, I think it’s safe to say that (all going well, if we all live up to expectations, without prejudice, etc.) you will end up in an excellent position to further your career by 2019. All going well, I would expect us to publish together and make enough of an ‘impact’ to make you highly employable in academia (and beyond).

I can also teach you how to say a lot about something without revealing your personal/ political preferences, or to state stubbornly that they are not relevant/ anyone’s business (this will come in handy when people ask you if you are for/ against fracking). People get annoyed when you keep these things to yourself, but this is not the only benefit: there are some practical and intellectual advantages too.

If you have further questions, please feel free to email me or Dr Stephan.

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The ‘Scottish Approach to Policy Making’: Implications for Public Service Delivery

The Scottish Government’s former Permanent Secretary Sir Peter Housden (2013) labelled the ‘Scottish Approach to Policymaking’ (SATP) as an alternative to the UK model of government. He described in broad terms the rejection of command-and-control policymaking and many elements of New Public Management driven delivery. Central to this approach is the potentially distinctive way in which it uses evidence to inform policy and policymaking and, therefore, a distinctive approach to leadership and public service delivery. Yet, there are three different models of evidence-driven policy delivery within the Scottish Government, and they compete with the centralist model, associated with democratic accountability, that must endure despite a Scottish Government commitment to its replacement. In this paper, I describe these models, identify their different implications for leadership and public service delivery, and highlight the enduring tensions in public service delivery when governments must pursue very different and potentially contradictory aims. Overall, the SATP may represent a shift from the UK model, but it is not a radical one.

Cairney QMU Leadership and SATP 11.5.16

The paper is to a workshop called ‘Leading Change in Public Services’, at Queen Margaret University, 13th June 2016.


Filed under ESRC Scottish Centre for Constitutional Change, Evidence Based Policymaking (EBPM), public policy, Scottish politics

Let’s have another debate on Scottish independence just in case the hermits missed all the others

It did not take long for political parties and commentators to explain the Holyrood election result and state with incredible certainty what it means for the future of the Union. Yet, the election result did not really tell us anything more about the two things we already know:

First, in the short term, the only event that matters is the ‘Brexit’ vote next month. If most UK voters choose to leave the European Union, and most voters in Scotland vote to remain, we will have a constitutional crisis. The SNP and its allies will push for a second referendum on Scottish independence, it will have the votes to pass a bill to that effect in the Scottish Parliament, and the only obstacle will be a UK Government led by the party that just used a referendum to justify major constitutional change! It is difficult to see why the Conservatives would bother to oppose a referendum under those circumstances.

Second, in the absence of this event and its consequences, we know that we are just killing a horrible amount of time until the next meaningful opportunity to vote on Scottish independence. In my mind, and assuming that the SNP continues to win elections in Scotland, the gap has always been about ten years: enough to give the sense that time has passed since the last vote, and see if you can produce a ‘generational’ change in attitudes; and, not too long for an independence-friendly party trying to keep it off the top of the agenda and its supporters happy.

So, if the main political parties were being completely honest, they would say that they are pretty much forced to (a) tread water until the referendum next month, then (b) wait for a very long time. Instead, we have the usual political posturing. Equal first prize must go to the Scottish Conservatives, now arguing that its ability to command 24% of Holyrood seats gives it a mandate as the protector of the Union, and the SNP which has signalled its intention to keep the debate going just in case ‘the leopard man’ has not heard about the issue. The parties know that the only other triggers of an early referendum – the SNP’s idea of checking the opinion polls, and the Scottish Greens’ mention of a petition with maybe 100,000 votes – are weak, and yet they feel they have to keep up the longest game of chicken in Scottish political history.

Similarly, it is too soon for commentators to argue that this election marks the complete transformation to identity politics in Scotland. It must be very tempting to argue simply that people vote SNP for independence and the Conservatives for the union, particularly since we all know that we are speculating just now anyway. Still, longer term, more detailed, analysis of trends in SNP support since 2007 suggests, very strongly, that the biggest factor has been ‘valence politics’. The SNP did well in 2007, and very well in 2011, because ‘most voters thought that the party would do a better job in office than its rivals’. People vote for a party when they respect its leader, its vision for the future, and have a high expectation of its competence while in office – and the SNP has benefited from being a party that looks highly professional (although one’s belief in the competence of the SNP may be linked strongly to one’s belief in independence).

Similarly, the Conservatives went big on their leader (many of their promotional materials did not even mention the party) and used a proxy for governing competence – strong opposition – in the absence of the likelihood of them being in government. Labour may also have suffered because, compared to the SNP and Conservatives, its party and strategy seems shambolic. So, identity politics matters, as the factor which underpins core attitudes, but valence politics may better explain the trends in support for each party.

Still, perhaps the biggest lesson from this election is that if you are determined to make and act on this argument about identity politics you should do it well. The SNP and Conservatives did it well. In contrast, too many senior people in Scottish Labour – including Kezia Dugdale on Good Morning Scotland, and Anas Sarwar – expressed disappointment that the electorate did not think like them (a position criticised by people like John McTernan). The two biggest parties in the Scottish Parliament might be annoyingly narrow-minded, but at least they know what they are doing.




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Policy in 500 Words: applying economics to politics

Rational choice theory can be defined as the application of economic methods and insights to the study of politics. It can help inform major questions in public policy, including:

  • Should we try to get people to change their behaviour, perhaps ‘for their own good’ or to act in the ‘collective’ rather than their own narrow self-interest?
  • If so, how? Should we rely on the state to address ‘collective action problems’?
  • If so, should we use incentives, coercion, and/ or ‘nudges’ to change behaviour?

In other words, we ask if it is appropriate to change public behaviour and, if so, what means are most effective.

A classic approach is to make some simplifying assumptions – for example, about people’s ability to process information and rank their preferences when making choices – to help us imagine how they might act in particular situations.

For example, people might ‘free ride’ if they can benefit from a good or service without paying for it. This insight underpins the argument that the state must intervene to solve ‘market failure’, such as in the provision of ‘public goods’ (which are ‘non-excludable’, i.e. no-one can be excluded from enjoying their benefits, and ‘non-rival’, i.e. their use by one person does not diminish their value to another).

Or, people might contribute to Hardin’s ‘tragedy of the commons’: the potentially catastrophic, cumulative effect of individual choices regarding scarce ‘common pool resources’ such as fertile land, unpolluted water, clean air, and fishing stocks. It is in our collective interest to act collectively to manage such resources, but individual interest to take a little bit more. So, if we all act individually, not collectively, the scarce resource is ruined.

Hardin’s solution to this problem is ‘mutual coercion, mutually agreed upon’, such as state intervention. He recommends taxation as a good example of a coercive device. However, state intervention is not a panacea and it produces major unintended consequences. So, this recommendation prompts two key discussions that are central to contemporary studies of public policy:

  1. The Institutional Analysis and Development Framework (IAD) is a key development

Elinor Ostrom’s Nobel prize-winning work challenges the idea that state intervention is necessarily the best solution to collective action problems. It demonstrates the potential for non-market solutions based on a combination of trust and less coercive means to minimize the costs of monitoring and enforcing collective agreements. This approach involves individuals seeking agreements with each other that could be enshrined in a set of meaningful rules (institution). The rules may be enforced by a private authority, and the ‘commons’ would remain common and actors would observe each other’s behaviour and report rule-breaking to the third party that everyone pays for and agrees to respect.

  1. Should we nudge instead of coerce?

Behavioural economics takes insights from psychology to identify the cognitive biases that influence human choice. It has become associated with the idea of ‘nudge’, in which we influence people’s behaviour by exploiting their biases (such as by having them opt-out-of rather than opt-into services, or making it easier to process the information required to make choices).

Take home message for students: don’t just reject rational choice because you read that it uses wackily unrealistic assumptions. Instead, focus on the practical benefits of different ways of thinking. In this case, what issues do these simple models raise? Then note the links between classic and modern studies. Behavioural economics draws insights from psychology to get a better understanding of ‘rational choice’ but you can see the same broad aim to understand how people might act and if we should try to change such action. The IAD also informs the study of state and market failure: can we say with any certainty what governing set-up is best?

500 words series

1000 words series

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Scottish Parliament committees: when radical change isn’t radical change

You can find some very useful suggestions for Scottish Parliament committee reform in the summary and full speech (2015) by former Presiding Officer Tricia Marwick. They follow some useful suggestions by the Consultative Steering Group, which set out its plans for the committees in 1998.

The theme in both cases is: let’s find a way for the Scottish Parliament to be important, and for business-like committees (not partisan plenary debate) to be at the heart of its operation. Put more critically: let’s produce some good structures or reforms in the hope that political parties don’t act like political parties.

So, while the CSG expressed some hopes that the committees would perform a new role consistent with Scottish Constitutional Convention’s hopes for ‘new politics’ (‘more participative, more creative, less needlessly confrontational’), Marwick perhaps expresses some disappointment that it didn’t work out too well.

That said, Marwick’s suggestions get to the heart of many practical limits to the operation of committees. To demonstrate, look first at the way I summarised parliamentary life so far (for the Sunday Post):

“The Scottish Parliament’s committees have always suffered from a gap between expectations and reality. When the Scottish Parliament was introduced, there were high hopes that it would function far more effectively than Westminster. The architects of devolution rejected a second chamber in favour of a powerful unicameral Parliament with committees at the heart. To make up for the lack of a revising chamber, they front-loaded the legislative scrutiny process, with committees tasked first to consider the principles, then amend, draft bills. To reinforce committee power, they made many of them permanent, and gave committees the functions of two different kinds of Westminster committee – Standing (to scrutinise legislation) and Select (to monitor government departments and ministers). They have the ability to hold agenda setting inquiries, monitor the quality of Scottish Government consultation, and initiate legislation. The idea is that committees become specialist and business-like (leave your party membership at the door) and their members become experts, able to hold the government to account, and provide alternative ideas if dissatisfied with the government’s response.

The reality rarely lives up to the rhetoric. The party system still dominates, with MSPs whipped to ensure government control of parliamentary business (apart from the brief period of minority government from 2007-11). Parties control committee membership and have overseen a large turnover, which undermines MSP expertise. The committees are ill-resourced, and they struggle to generate the amount of information they need to perform scrutiny well. So, it is no surprise that committees struggle to keep on top of the evidence given to them. They have the ability to do little more than one piece of work before moving on to the next”.

Marwick’s suggestions at least address the latter points

Scottish Parliament committees are ill-resourced and their MSPs are spread too thin. They will often serve more than one committee and move between committees – which, if combined with high MSP turnover in every election, undermines their ability to become specialists in their field. So, Marwick recommended a smaller number of larger committees to reduce that thin spread and encourage more effective scrutiny.

Marwick also pushed for elected convenors to address the problem of committee/ government distance. Right now, the governing party can appoint its share of convenors (and members) and ensure that there is little distance between the governing/ scrutiny roles. The Scottish Parliament is also small and there is not the same chance (as in Westminster) to make a career out of being a backbencher/ convenor of committee. Electing those roles would make convenors ‘directly accountable to Parliament’ rather than subject to the whims of parties (maybe).

These moves would represent radical reforms in the Scottish Parliament, but …

I wonder if anyone outside of Holyrood would notice the difference. Certainly, they would not radically change the fairly traditional Westminster-style relationship between government and parliament in which the government governs and the parliament struggles to provide scrutiny with limited resources. Nor would they change the very strong tendency for MSPs to act along party lines. You can train new MSPs in the ways of the parliament (an abstract concept that takes time to appreciate), but also expect them to be socialised and whipped by their parties (a concrete process that you’ll be expected to recognise immediately).

These reforms would take place during a time of diminishing parliamentary influence

In a Political Quarterly article, I identify two aspects of devolution that may diminish the Scottish Parliament’s role in the near future:

  1. further devolution from the UK to Scotland will see the Scottish Parliament scrutinise more issues with the same paltry resources
  2. further devolution from the Scottish Government to local public bodies will see the Scottish Parliament less able to gather enough information to perform effective scrutiny.

Both issues highlight the further potential for the Scottish Parliament, heralded as a body to ‘share power’ with the government and ‘the people’, to play a peripheral role in the policy process. To all intents and purposes, the new Scotland Act will devolve more responsibilities to Scottish ministers, without a proportionate increase in parliamentary resources to keep tabs on what ministers do with those powers.

Perhaps more importantly, the Scottish Parliament can only really keep tabs on broad Scottish Government strategies. What happens when it devolves more policymaking powers to local public bodies, such as the health boards that give limited information to committees and the local authorities that claim their own electoral mandate?

In other words, the proposed reforms address the practical limits to parliamentary influence at a time when those limits are being further tested.

Are there any issues on which the parties can agree?

They also don’t really solve the problem of partisanship, which means (for example) that it will be difficult to get the parties to agree about the kinds of issues they should examine in depth. To be effective as a group, MSPs really need to prompt the Scottish Government to do something (perhaps more quickly) that it already wants to do, or find an issue that transcends party politics (perhaps such as the representation of women in the Scottish Parliament, as part of an inquiry into the extent to which it represents important social groups). In most cases, this won’t happen.

So, let’s welcome some parliamentary reform but be realistic about its effect.

[I discussed these issues briefly on Good Morning Scotland, 10.5.16 at 7.07am. It’s true – ask my cousin. He heard the whole thing.]


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In the Scottish Parliament election, the only clear majority was secured by men

Although the symbolic representation of women in the Scottish Parliament was a key plank of the ‘new politics’ of Scottish devolution, women continue to secure just over one-third of seats. In 2016, women secured 45 of 129 seats (35%), which compares with 37% in 1999, 40% in 2003, 33% in 2007, and 35% in 2011.

The number of women in the Scottish Parliament used to depend strongly on the fate of Scottish Labour: the high point of 40% in 2003 was on the back of 28 Labour MSPs representing 56% of its group and accounting for 55% of women MSPs (Cairney and McGarvey, 2013: 106; Cairney et al, 2015). At the time, it was the only party to ‘twin’ constituencies and alternate women/ men candidates on the regional list (Mackay and Kenny, 2007: 86-7).

Other parties pursued less systematic or effective measures: the Liberal Democrats’ were ‘half hearted’ (Kenny and MacKay, 2013: 8; Cairney, 2011, 30); the SNP had ‘an informal rule of thumb that [regional] lists should be more-or less gender balanced’ (Mackay and Kenny, 2007: 87), the Conservatives sometimes ensured that women ‘were generally placed in favourable positions on the party lists’, and the Greens alternated men and women on party lists with uncertain effect (Kenny and MacKay, 2013: 9).

Now, as Labour’s fortunes have dropped, the decision by the SNP to use stronger measures – including All Women Shortlists for seats vacated by retiring MSPs – seems particularly important (Kenny and Mackay, 2013; Kenny, 2015; Swann, 2016a; on the substantive representation of women, see Engender 2016a; 2016b).

You can see the difference in the membership of the parties that really try …

Women MSPs, by Party, 1999-2016

1999 2003 2007 2011 2016
SNP 15 (42.9%) 9 (33.3%) 12 (25.5%) 19 (27.5%) 27 (42.9%)
Conservative 3 (16.7%) 4 (22.2%) 5 (31.2%) 6 (40.0%) 6 (19.4%)
Labour 28 (50.0%) 28 (56.0%) 23 (50.0%) 17 (45.9%) 11 (45.8%)
Greens 0 (0%) 2 (28.6%) 0 (0%) 1 (50%) 1 (16.7%)
Lib Dems 2   (11.8%) 2   (11.8%) 2   (12.5%) 1   (20.0%) 0 (0%)
Total 48 (37.2%) 51 (39.5%) 43 (33.3%) 45 (34.9%) 45 (34.9%)


Source: adapted and updated (using figures from Gender Politics, 2016 and Swann, 2016b) from Cairney et al (2015: 9). Table does not include ‘other’ parties/ independents.

table 3 women

Apologies for the Harvard versus weblink referencing. This is a short section  copy/pasted from an article  that I am writing for Scottish Affairs (to be published in August 2016). You can find the full paper here:  Cairney 2016 Scottish Parliament election 2016 in Scottish Affairs 11.5.16

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The Scottish Parliament Election 2016: another momentous event but dull campaign

Abstract. The Scottish Parliament election in 2016 produced two surprising results: it represents a reversal of SNP/ Labour party fortunes so complete that we now take it for granted, but the SNP did not achieve a widely-expected majority; and, the huge surge of support for the Scottish Conservatives was enough to make it (easily) the second largest party. A mistaken sense of inevitability of the result – another SNP majority – helped produce a dull campaign and keep alive the prospect of a second referendum on Scottish independence. This article has four main sections: putting the 2016 election in recent historical context; considering the implications of consistently high SNP support on the constitution; highlighting key issues in the election campaign; and, examining the SNP’s policy agenda from 2016.


The Scottish Parliament election in 2016 was momentous, but not entirely for the reasons we expected. The main outcome is the SNP’s third victory in a row since 2007, which is likely to keep it in office until at least 2021. The results eclipse the former record by Scottish Labour, which governed Scotland in coalition with the Scottish Liberal Democrats from 1999-2007. The SNP also improved its constituency votes and seats, but lost enough ground in the regional list to deprive it of a second outright majority in a row. Consequently, given such high expectations for the SNP – on the back of its ‘landslide’ victory in 2011 and thumping win in the UK General Election in 2015 – its third Holyrood election victory in a row can be interpreted as a further indicator of its success but also a sign that its dominance should not be taken for granted. Its circa-45% share of the vote was enough to produce a majority in 2011 but not 2016.

Further, while the now-predictable decline of Scottish Labour seems almost complete, this time the main beneficiary was the Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party which became the main opposition in Holyrood for the first time. The Liberal Democrats have also seen their fall from grace confirmed by a second poor showing which relegates them to the fifth and smallest party in Holyrood.

The historical significance of these trends is difficult to overstate. In the first Holyrood election in 1999 it seemed inevitable that Scottish Labour would be the largest party, with the SNP likely to represent an opposition party well off the pace. The early years were premised on the idea that, with devolution secure, the biggest party could focus on the political reforms associated with ‘new politics’, combining key measures associated with symbolic politics (including the greater representation of women and participation in politics beyond the ‘usual suspects’) and substantive policy change.

This expectation continued in 2003 but ended in 2007 when the SNP became the largest party by one seat. In 2011, its ‘landslide’ victory to secure a majority of seats – and trigger a process which led to a referendum on Scottish independence in 2014 – seemed extraordinary (particularly since Holyrood uses a mixed-member-proportional, not plurality, system).

Now, in 2016, the SNP has become so dominant of Scottish politics that its majority seemed inevitable. This sense of inevitability was bolstered by its showing in the UK General election 2015, when the party that always previously secured a small minority of seats – its highest ever number of seats was 11 (of 71, from 30% of the vote in October 1974) – won 56 of 59 (aided by a plurality system which exaggerated the effect of its 50% share of the vote). By 2016, on the back of several opinion polls, many expected its electoral dominance to be complete (although compare Philip, 2016 with Carrell and Brooks, 2016a).

Consequently, although the change over 17 years is phenomenal, this recent sense of inevitability helped produce a dull campaign. In all other Holyrood elections there was either the promise of novelty (from 1999) or high competition between the two main parties (from 2007), to produce a sense of the high stakes involved. So, we saw meaningful competition to accentuate important differences between parties on key policy issues or portray a party’s better vision and image of governing competence. This time, we knew that, for the most part, one manifesto counted far more than the rest.

It is also difficult to find evidence of success when the other parties have tried to interrogate the SNP’s record in government on issues such as health, education, and policing (Cairney, 2016b). This limitation helped produce, in early post-election commentary, a feeling (albeit with limited evidence) that the SNP didn’t need to rely as much on this image of governing competence, since so many of its new members and high number of voters seem to remain enthused more by the implications of SNP electoral success (more constitutional change) than its record in office. SNP spokespeople countered with the argument that the election represents a public vindication of its record.

So, we need to wait for detailed analysis on the role of valence politics and, in particular the parties’ images of governing competence, which was so central to SNP success in 2007 and 2011 (‘most voters thought that the party would do a better job in office than its rivals’ – Johns et al, 2013: 158).

Still, this legacy of the 2014 referendum can be found in the election debates in 2016. While the SNP has been looking for ways to keep alive, but postpone, a second referendum, the three main opposition parties continue to describe the SNP as a one issue party or extol the possibilities for policy change already afforded by further devolution in 2015. Of the few substantive issues to be discussed without a referendum frame, perhaps only educational attainment stands out because it is the issue on which First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has asked to be judged (while ‘fracking’ remains the issue that many in the SNP leadership would like to ignore).

Overall, this election comes with a strong sense of unfinished business elsewhere. In the short term, it has been overshadowed either by UK party politics (in the run up to local and mayoral elections) or the ‘Brexit’ referendum (June 2016) on the UK’s future in or out of the European Union. In the longer term, the SNP’s continued dominance keeps the issue of Scottish independence high on the agenda.

This has been the introduction to an article  that I am writing for Scottish Affairs (to be published in August 2016). You can find the full paper here:  Cairney 2016 Scottish Parliament election 2016 in Scottish Affairs 11.5.16


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Would the Scottish Conservatives provide ‘strong opposition’? Not really

The Scottish Conservatives are running with the idea that they would provide strong opposition to the SNP. What does this really mean?

  1. We know we won’t win, but we might come second. It’s a decent way to turn a quite-low-but-maybe-rising share of the vote into a huge moral victory. It’s a good slogan that might sway some people if they don’t think too much about the details.
  2. We will hold the SNP to account in the Scottish Parliament. No, it won’t. The Conservatives will have a small representation in committee and plenary votes and won’t be able to do more than it did from 2011 (can you think of any examples of its strong opposition since then?). The only difference is that it would go first in First Minister’s Questions every week. FMQs has always been the Scottish Parliament’s equivalent of theatre. It is not an arena for ‘strong’ opposition. It’s there for some very poor entertainment.
  3. We could replace the SNP. This is the least convincing element of ‘strong opposition’. Usually, the implicit opposition message is that, if the government has a shocker, and the opposition is on top of things, the latter might get elected in the former’s place. This will not happen. So, in that sense, and however badly they are doing just now, it seems more realistic to favour Scottish Labour as the most realistic opposition party. In these terms, you might say that Scottish Labour would offer a bit less weak opposition.

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