Tag Archives: brexit

Can A Government Really Take Control Of Public Policy?

This post first appeared on the MIHE blog to help sell my book.

During elections, many future leaders give the impression that they will take control of public policy. They promise major policy change and give little indication that anything might stand in their way.

This image has been a major feature of Donald Trump’s rhetoric on his US Presidency. It has also been a feature of campaigns for the UK withdrawal from the European Union (‘Brexit’) to allow its leaders to take back control of policy and policymaking. According to this narrative, Brexit would allow (a) the UK government to make profound changes to immigration and spending, and (b) Parliament and the public to hold the UK government directly to account, in contrast to a distant EU policy process less subject to direct British scrutiny.

Such promises are built on the false image of a single ‘centre’ of government, in which a small number of elected policymakers take responsibility for policy outcomes. This way of thinking is rejected continuously in the modern literature. Instead, policymaking is ‘multi-centric’: responsibility for policy outcomes is spread across many levels and types of government (‘centres’), and shared with organisations outside of government, to the extent that it is not possible to simply know who is in charge and to blame. This arrangement helps explain why leaders promise major policy change but most outcomes represent a minor departure from the status quo.

Some studies of politics relate this arrangement to the choice to share power across many centres. In the US, a written constitution ensures power sharing across different branches (executive, legislative, judicial) and between federal and state or local jurisdictions. In the UK, central government has long shared power with EU, devolved, and local policymaking organisations.

However, policy theories show that most aspects of multi-centric governance are necessary. The public policy literature provides many ways to describe such policy processes, but two are particularly useful.

The first approach is to explain the diffusion of power with reference to an enduring logic of policymaking, as follows:

  • The size and scope of the state is so large that it is always in danger of becoming unmanageable. Policymakers manage complexity by breaking the state’s component parts into policy sectors and sub-sectors, with power spread across many parts of government.
  • Elected policymakers can only pay attention to a tiny proportion of issues for which they are responsible. They pay attention to a small number and ignore the rest. They delegate policymaking responsibility to other actors such as bureaucrats, often at low levels of government.
  • At this level of government and specialisation, bureaucrats rely on specialist organisations for information and advice. Those organisations trade that information/advice and other resources for access to, and influence within, the government.
  • Most public policy is conducted primarily through small and specialist ‘policy communities’ that process issues at a level of government not particularly visible to the public, and with minimal senior policymaker involvement.

This description suggests that senior elected politicians are less important than people think, their impact on policy is questionable, and elections may not provide major changes in policy. Most decisions are taken in their name but without their intervention.

A second, more general, approach is to show that elected politicians deal with such limitations by combining cognition and emotion to make choices quickly. Although such action allows them to be decisive, they occur within a policymaking environment over which governments have limited control. Government bureaucracies only have the coordinative capacity to direct policy outcomes in a small number of high priority areas. In most other cases, policymaking is spread across many venues, each with their own rules, networks, ways of seeing the world, and ways of responding to socio-economic factors and events.

In that context, we should always be sceptical when election candidates and referendum campaigners (or, in many cases, leaders of authoritarian governments) make such promises about political leadership and government control.

A more sophisticated knowledge of policy processes allows us to identify the limits to the actions of elected policymakers, and develop a healthier sense of pragmatism about the likely impact of government policy. The question of our age is not: how can governments take back control? Rather, it is: how can we hold policymakers to account in a complex system over which they have limited knowledge and even less control?

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Can Westminster take back control after Brexit?

All going well, this discussion will be in a box in Chapter 8 of Understanding Public Policy 2nd ed.

“The ‘Brexit’ referendum was dominated by a narrative of taking back control of policy and policy making. Control of policy would allow the UK government to make profound changes to immigration and spending. Control of policymaking would allow Parliament and the public to hold the UK government directly to account, in contrast to a more complex and distant EU policy process less subject to direct British scrutiny.

Such high level political debate is built on the false image of a small number of elected policymakers – and the Prime Minister in particular – responsible for the outcomes of the policy process.

There is a strange disconnect between the ways in which elected politicians and elected policymakers describe UK policymaking. Ministers have mostly given up the language of control; modern manifestos no longer make claims – such as to secure ‘full employment’ or eradicate health inequalities – that suggest they control the economy or can solve problems by providing public services. Yet, much Brexit rhetoric suggests that a vote to leave the EU will put control back in the hands of ministers to solve major problems.

The main problem with the latter way of thinking is that it is rejected continuously in the modern literature on policymaking. Policymaking is multi-centric: responsibility for outcomes is spread across many levels and types of government, to the extent that it is not possible to simply know who is in charge and to blame.

Some multi-level governance (MLG) relates to the choice to share power with EU, devolved, and local policymaking organisations.

However, most MLG is necessary because ministers do not have the cognitive or coordinative capacity to control policy outcomes.

They can only pay attention to a tiny proportion of their responsibilities, and have to delegate the rest. Most decisions are taken in their name but without their intervention. They occur within a policymaking environment over which ministers have limited knowledge and control.

The problem with using Brexit as a lens through which to understand British politics is that it emphasises the choice to no longer spread power across a political system, without acknowledging the necessity of doing so.

Our understanding of the future of UK policy and policymaking is incomplete without a focus on the concepts and evidence that help us understand why UK ministers must accept their limitations and act accordingly.

Yet, clearly the Westminster model archetype remains important even if it does not exist (Duggett, 2009). Policy studies have challenged successfully its image of central control, but, the model’s importance resides in its rhetorical power in wider politics when people maintain a simple argument during general election and referendum debates: we know who is – or should be – in charge. This perspective has a profound effect on the ways in which policymakers defend their actions, and political actors compete for votes, even when it is ridiculously misleading (Rhodes, 2013; Bevir, 2013)”

See also Policy Concepts in 1000 Words: the Westminster Model and Multi-level Governance

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The role of evidence in UK policymaking after Brexit

We are launching a series of papers on evidence and policy in Palgrave Communications. Of course, we used Brexit as a hook, to tap into current attention to instability and major policy change. However, many of the issues we discuss are timeless and about surprising levels of stability and continuity in policy processes, despite periods of upheaval.

In my day, academics would build their careers on being annoying, and sometimes usefully annoying. This would involve developing counterintuitive insights, identifying gaps in analysis, and challenging a ‘common wisdom’ in political studies. Although not exactly common wisdom, the idea of ‘post truth’ politics, a reduction in respect for ‘experts’, and a belief that Brexit is a policymaking game-changer, are great candidates for some annoyingly contrary analysis.

In policy studies, many of us argue that things like elections, changes of government, and even constitutional changes are far less important than commonly portrayed. In media and social media accounts, we find hyperbole about the destabilising and changing impact of the latest events. In policy studies, we often stress stability and continuity.  My favourite old example regards the debates from the 1970s about electoral reform. While some were arguing that first-past-the-post was a disastrous electoral system since it produces swings of government, instability, and incoherent policy change, Richardson and Jordan would point out surprisingly high levels of stability and continuity.

Finer and Jordan Cairney

In part, this is because the state is huge, policymakers can only pay attention to a tiny part of it, and therefore most of it is processed as a low level of government, out of the public spotlight.

UPP p106

These insights still have profound relevance today, for two key reasons.

  1. The role of experts is more important than you think

This larger process provides far more opportunities for experts than we’d associate with ‘tip of the iceberg’ politics.

Some issues are salient. They command the interest of elected politicians, and those politicians often have firm beliefs that limit the ‘impact’ of any evidence that does not support their beliefs.

However, most issues are not salient. They command minimal interest, they are processed by other policymakers, and those policymakers are looking for information and advice from reliable experts.

Indeed, a lot of policy studies highlight the privileged status of certain experts, at the expense of most members of the public (which is a useful corrective to the story, associated with Brexit, that the public is too emotionally driven, too sceptical of experts, and too much in charge of the future of constitutional change).

So, Brexit will change the role of experts, but expect that change to relate to the venue in which they engage, and the networks of which they are a part, more than the practices of policymakers. Much policymaking is akin to an open door to government for people with useful information and a reputation for being reliable in their dealings with policymakers.

  1. Provide less evidence for more impact

If the problem is that policymakers can only pay attention to a tiny proportion of their responsibilities, the solution is not to bombard them with a huge amount of evidence. Instead, assume that they seek ways to ignore almost all information while still managing to make choices. The trick may be to provide just enough information to prompt demand for more, not oversupply evidence on the assumption that you have only one chance for influence.

With Richard Kwiatkoswki, I draw on policy and psychology studies to help us understand how to supply evidence to anyone using ‘rational’ and ‘irrational’ ways to limit their attention, information processing, and thought before making decisions.

Our working assumption is that policymakers need to gather information quickly and effectively, so they develop heuristics to allow them to make what they believe to be good choices. Their solutions often seem to be driven more by their emotions than a ‘rational’ analysis of the evidence, partly because we hold them to a standard that no human can reach. If so, and if they have high confidence in their heuristics, they will dismiss our criticism as biased and naïve. Under those circumstances, restating the need for ‘evidence-based policymaking’ is futile, and naively ‘speaking truth to power’ counterproductive.

Instead, try out these strategies:

  1. Develop ways to respond positively to ‘irrational’ policymaking

Instead of automatically bemoaning the irrationality of policymakers, let’s marvel at the heuristics they develop to make quick decisions despite uncertainty. Then, let’s think about how to respond pragmatically, to pursue the kinds of evidence informed policymaking that is realistic in a complex and constantly changing policymaking environment.

  1. Tailor framing strategies to policymaker cognition

The usual advice is to minimise the cognitive burden of your presentation, and use strategies tailored to the ways in which people pay attention to, and remember information.

The less usual advice includes:

  • If policymakers are combining cognitive and emotive processes, combine facts with emotional appeals.
  • If policymakers are making quick choices based on their values and simple moral judgements, tell simple stories with a hero and a clear moral.
  • If policymakers are reflecting a ‘group emotion’, based on their membership of a coalition with firmly-held beliefs, frame new evidence to be consistent with the ‘lens’ through which actors in those coalitions understand the world.
  1. Identify the right time to influence individuals and processes

Understand what it means to find the right time to exploit ‘windows of opportunity’.

‘Timing’ can refer to the right time to influence an individual, which involves how open they are to, say, new arguments and evidence.

Or, timing refers to a ‘window of opportunity’ when political conditions are aligned. I discuss the latter in a separate paper on effective ‘policy entrepreneurs’.

  1. Adapt to real-world organisations rather than waiting for an orderly process to appear

Politicians may appear confident of policy and with a grasp of facts and details, but are (a) often vulnerable and therefore defensive or closed to challenging information, and/ or (b) inadequate in organisational politics, or unable to change the rules of their organisations.

So, develop pragmatic strategies: form relationships in networks, coalitions, or organisations first, then supply challenging information second. To challenge without establishing trust may be counterproductive.

  1. Recognise that the biases we ascribe to policymakers are present in ourselves and our own groups.

Identifying only the biases in our competitors may help mask academic/ scientific examples of group-think, and it may be counterproductive to use euphemistic terms like ‘low information’ to describe actors whose views we do not respect. This is a particular problem for scholars if they assume that most people do not live up to their own imagined standards of high-information-led action (often described as a ‘deficit model’ of engagement).

It may be more effective to recognise that: (a) people’s beliefs are honestly held, and policymakers believe that their role is to serve a cause greater than themselves.; and, (b) a fundamental aspect of evolutionary psychology is that people need to get on with each other, so showing simple respect – or going further, to ‘mirror’ that person’s non-verbal signals – can be useful even if it looks facile.

This leaves open the ethical question of how far we should go to identify our biases, accept the need to work with people whose ways of thinking we do not share, and how far we should go to secure their trust without lying about one’s beliefs.

At the very least, we do not suggest these 5 strategies as a way to manipulate people for personal gain. They are better seen as ways to use psychology to communicate well. They are also likely to be as important to policy engagement regardless of Brexit. Venues may change quickly, but the ways in which people process information and make choices may not.

 

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No one will understand British politics and policymaking after Brexit

Let’s be optimistic for a few seconds, and focus on the idea that a vote for the UK to leave the European Union was a vote for UK sovereignty and ‘taking back control’ of policy and policymaking. The comparison is between an EU process that is distant and undemocratic and a UK process we can all understand and influence, following the simple phrase ‘if you know who is in charge, you know who to blame’.

The down side is that we don’t know who is in charge, and it’s often futile to try to find a named individual or role to blame. The EU certainly complicates the picture, but don’t be fooled into thinking that we will eventually produce a UK political system that anyone understands.

If giving a lecture, this is the point at which I’d pause for effect and restate the idea that no-one understands the UK policymaking system as a whole [insert meaningful looks here]. Many people know about many parts of the system, but it’s not like a jigsaw puzzle that we’ve completed by working together. At best, it’s like that Dalmatian jigsaw that we started at Christmas before getting drunk and falling out.

Top-10-Almost-Unsolvable-Worlds-Hardest-Jigsaw-Puzzles-9

Instead, policymakers and commentators tell simple stories about British politics

The dominant story of British politics relates initially to the idea of parliamentary sovereignty: we vote in constituencies to elect MPs as our representatives, and MPs as a whole represent the final arbiters on policy in the UK. This idea connects strongly to elements of the ‘Westminster model’ (WM), a shorthand phrase to describe key ways in which the UK political system is perhaps designed to work. Perhaps policymaking should reflect strongly the wishes of the public. In representative democracies, political parties engage each other in a battle of ideas, to attract the attention and support of the voting public; the public votes every 4-5 years; the winner forms a government; the government turns its manifesto into policy; and, policy choices are carried out by civil servants and other bodies. In other words, there should be a clear link between public preferences, the strategies and ideas of parties and the final result.

The WM serves this purpose in a particular way: the UK has a plurality (‘first past the post’) voting system which tends to exaggerate support for, and give a majority in Parliament to, the winning party. It has an adversarial (and majoritarian?) style of politics and a ‘winner takes all’ mentality which tends to exclude opposition parties. The executive resides in the legislature and power tends to be concentrated within government – in ministers that head government departments and the Prime Minister who heads (and determines the members of) Cabinet. The government is responsible for the vast majority of public policy and it uses its governing majority, combined with a strong party ‘whip’, to make sure that its legislation is passed by Parliament.

In other words, the ‘take home message’ of this story is that the UK policy process is centralised and that the arrangement reflects a ‘British political tradition’: the government is accountable to public on the assumption that it is powerful and responsible. So, you know who is in charge and therefore who to praise or blame, and elections every 4-5 years are supplemented by parliamentary scrutiny built on holding ministers directly to account.

These stories are more useful for our entertainment than enlightenment

Consider these five factors which challenge the ability of elected policymakers to control the policy process.

  1. Bounded rationality. Ministers only have the ability to pay attention to a tiny proportion of the issues over which have formal responsibility. So, how can they control issues if they have to ignore almost all of them?
  2. Policy communities. Ministers delegate responsibility to civil servants at a quite-low level of government. Civil servants make policy in consultation with interest groups and other participants with the ability to trade resources (such as information) for access or influence. Such relationships can endure long after particular ministers or elected governments have come and gone.
  3. Multi-level governance. The UK government shares policymaking ‘vertically’ (with international, EU, devolved, and local governments) and ‘horizontally’ (with non-governmental and quasi-non-governmental organisations).
  4. Complex government. Policymaking ‘emerges’ from the interaction between many actors, institutions, and regulations. In complex policymaking systems, people act without full knowledge of how other people act elsewhere in the system.
  5. Policy environments. Many policy conditions and events are out of policymakers’ control (including demographic, technological, and economic change)

So, for example, the UK government has to juggle two stories of British politics – on the need to be pragmatic in the face of these five challenges to their power and sense of control, versus the need to construct a strong image of governing competence with reference to control – in the knowledge that one of them is a tall tale.

Brexit will change only one part of that story

None of these factors should prompt us to minimise the influence of the EU on the UK. Rather, they should prompt us to think harder about the impact of Brexit on ‘parliamentary sovereignty’ and ministerial accountability via UK central government control. The phrase ‘you know who is in charge, and who to blame’ will become a more important rallying cry in British politics (when we can no longer blame the EU for British policy), but let’s focus on what actually happens in British politics and recognise how little of it we understand before we decide who to blame.

This post is an amended version of the introductory post for the course POLU9UK: Policy and Policymaking in the UK which draws on this ‘1000 Words’ series on public policy.

 

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Scottish Politics in Brexit Britain: is independence inevitable?

CAirney Scottish Politics Brexit Dundee CAfe 2017

This is an updated and shortened version of previous posts, designed for my talk at the Dundee Arts Café tonight. I’d like to thank First Minster Nicola Sturgeon for making me look like the best scheduler of a talk ever:

We don’t know much about the second referendum on Scottish independence, but we can be guided by three basic insights:

  1. Most people make up their mind fairly quickly and may not be swayed too much by the campaign, but there are enough undecided voters to tip the result

2. The campaign will come down to who can tell the best story (to stir the emotions, perhaps with a convincing hero and moral) rather than simply command the facts.

3. Brexit has changed the independence story dramatically, but it could support either Yes/ No campaign.

The rest is mostly gut-driven speculation: I think Yes will win, partly because it has a new way to present its case, and a better campaigner to do so, while (as ridiculous as this sounds) No may look like it is banging on about the same old arguments, and it’s less clear who will do it.

Let’s start with an updated summary of why Brexit is good for Yes:

  1. It reinforces a well-established argument for constitutional change: we voted for X but got Y because we are outnumbered by voters in England. Voting Remain but getting Leave is the latest version of voting Labour or SNP in Scotland but getting a Conservative UK government.
  2. It reinforces the same argument about the effect of that ‘democratic deficit’: ‘London’/’Westminster’ is forcing us to accept policies we did not choose. Voting Leave is the latest version of the ‘bedroom tax’ (and, for older readers, the ‘poll tax’).
  3. It helps challenge the idea that the Scottish independence aim is nationalist and parochial. Suddenly, independence is the cosmopolitan choice if we are rejecting a ‘Little England’ mentality.
  4. Some people who voted to stay in the UK and EU will prefer the EU to the UK (and think an independence vote is the best way to achieve it), or perhaps feel let down by the claim that a No vote in 2014 was to stay in the UK and EU.

Historically, the main response to 1 & 2 came from the Conservative Party, offering concessions in areas such as spending, levels of representation in Westminster, and in Scotland’s status in UK-devolved relations.

Recently, UKIP has been more critical of Scotland’s privileged position in the UK, and even the Conservative party qualifies its support of Scotland’s place in the Union.

Labour’s more recent response has been more interesting, and not what I expected. I figured Scottish Labour would encourage the equivalent of a free vote of its members. Instead, it has rejected indyref2 in favour of a ‘federal’ solution and two anti-referendum strategies:

  1. To describe indyref2 as yet another divisive and destabilising event like Brexit and the election of Trump.
  2. To challenge the idea that Scottish independence is the cosmopolitan choice. Sadiq Khan seemed to link Scottish nationalism strongly with the divisiveness of Trump and Leave campaigns, prompting some debate about how far he went to equate it with bigotry and racism.

This strategy was generally received badly among people already committed to Yes. It’s too early to gauge its durability or long term effect on the voters thinking about switching, but we already know that the SNP campaigned in indyref1 with a message – for example, ‘to make life better for the people who live here’ – that contrasts heavily with the anti-immigrant rhetoric in some parts of the Leave campaign. Indeed, I’d expect it to reinforce a pro-immigration (or, rather, a very pro-EU citizen) message to provide a deliberate contrast to parts of the Brexit campaign, making it relatively difficult for Labour to maintain an if-you-vote-Yes-you-share-the-same-aim-as-bigots argument (which didn’t work well during the Brexit debate anyway).

Let’s continue with an updated summary of why Brexit is good for No

  1. The No campaign was based on the economic harms of independence, and key symbols (like oil price volatility) have reinforced the message.
  2. We still don’t know what currency an independent Scotland would use.
  3. The Yes vote meant all things to all people, with no sense of what would be realistic.
  4. Brexit shows you that a transition to independence would be far tougher than advertised.

Point 4 is still unfolding. We’ve already seen that the £350m-for-the-NHS argument was misleading, witnessed a reduction in the value of the pound, and seen some hard talking from likely EU negotiators that might be emulated in Scotland-UK discussions (UK hard-talking was a key theme of indyref1). Yet, the effects of such developments are still open to debate (see for example the sterling issue).

More importantly, it’s hard to know how to relate these events to Scotland:

One the one hand, Yes needs a disastrous Brexit to show that it is powerless to ward off disaster. Ideally, it would wait long enough to argue that (a) Brexit is starting to ‘bite’, (b) the UK Government is stiffing Scotland in its negotiations of future devolved powers, but not so long that (c) it disrupts the (not guaranteed) continuation of its EU membership. This time may not arrive, and the date is not in the SNP’s gift.

On the other, No needs a partly-disastrous Brexit to show that separation is painful.

Who will have the best story?

If recent events have taught us anything, it’s that people are driven strongly by emotion, and might put ‘feelings over facts’. I still think that the result itself will come down to who tells the Yes/ No stories and how well they do it, and that Yes has a far better hero (Nicola Sturgeon)/villain (Nigel Farage, Boris Johnson, Theresa May?) story now than in 2014, while No has the same old boring story of economic disaster and can no longer rely on those leaflets with Salmond’s face on a pound coin. Who will become the face of No (I reckon it will be Davidson), and how can they repackage the same arguments (who knows)?

 

 

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‘Hard Brexit’ is not yet a game changer for Scottish Independence

The Herald reports that ‘Hard Brexit is not a game changer for SNP’. Based on its latest BMG poll, it describes an even split between those who want/ don’t want a second referendum on Scottish independence, and between those who want an early or late referendum.

These results don’t seem too surprising because the idea of Brexit is still too abstract and not yet related to the arguments that might win the day for a Yes vote. I think the basic story would relate to a combination of simple statements such as:

  • England is pulling Scotland out of the EU against our will
  • The Tories caused this problem
  • We want to clear up the mess that they caused
  • It’s a bit rich for the Tories to warn us about the disastrous economic consequences of Scottish independence after the havoc they just caused
  • We want to be a cosmopolitan Scotland, not little England

In each case, I don’t think we can expect to see the widespread effect of such arguments because (a) they don’t yet form part of a coherent argument linked directly to Brexit, because (b) we still don’t yet know what Brexit looks like.

If you don’t really know what something is, how it relates to your life, and who you should blame for that outcome, how can you express a view on its effect on your political preferences?

image for POLU9SP

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British politics, Brexit and UK sovereignty: what does it all mean? #POLU9UK

 This is the first of 10 blog posts for the course POLU9UK: Policy and Policymaking in the UK. They will be a fair bit longer than the blog posts I asked you to write. I have also recorded a short lecture to go with it (OK, 22 minutes isn’t short).

In week 1 we’ll identify all that we think we knew about British politics, compare notes, then throw up our hands and declare that the Brexit vote has changed what we thought we knew.

I want to focus on the idea that a vote for the UK to leave the European Union was a vote for UK sovereignty. People voted Leave/ Remain for all sorts of reasons, and bandied around all sorts of ways to justify their position, but the idea of sovereignty and ‘taking back control’ is central to the Leave argument and this module.

For our purposes, it relates to broader ideas about the images we maintain about who makes key decisions in British politics, summed up by the phrases ‘parliamentary sovereignty’ and the ‘Westminster model’, and challenged by terms such as ‘bounded rationality’, ‘policy communities’, ‘multi-level governance’, and ‘complex government’.

Parliamentary Sovereignty

UK sovereignty relates strongly to the idea of parliamentary sovereignty: we vote in constituencies to elect MPs as our representatives, and MPs as a whole represent the final arbiters on policy in the UK. In practice, one party tends to dominate Parliament, and the elected government tends to dominate that party, but the principle remains important.

So, ‘taking back control’ is about responding, finally, to the sense that (a) the UK’s entry to the European Union from 1972 (when it signed the accession treaty) involved giving up far more sovereignty than most people expected, and (b) the European Union’s role has strengthened ever since, at the further expense of parliamentary sovereignty.

The Westminster Model

This idea of parliamentary sovereignty connects strongly to elements of the ‘Westminster model’ (WM), a shorthand phrase to describe key ways in which the UK political system is designed to work.

Our main task is to examine how well the WM: (a) describes what actually happens in British politics, and (b) represents what should happen in British politics. We can separate these two elements analytically but they influence each other in practice. For example, I ask what happens when elected policymakers know their limits but have to pretend that they don’t.

What should happen in British politics?

Perhaps policymaking should reflect strongly the wishes of the public. In representative democracies, political parties engage each other in a battle of ideas, to attract the attention and support of the voting public; the public votes every 4-5 years; the winner forms a government; the government turns its manifesto into policy; and, policy choices are carried out by civil servants and other bodies. In other words, there should be a clear link between public preferences, the strategies and ideas of parties and the final result.

The WM serves this purpose in a particular way: the UK has a plurality (‘first past the post’) voting system which tends to exaggerate support for, and give a majority in Parliament to, the winning party. It has an adversarial (and majoritarian?) style of politics and a ‘winner takes all’ mentality which tends to exclude opposition parties. The executive resides in the legislature and power tends to be concentrated within government – in ministers that head government departments and the Prime Minister who heads (and determines the members of) Cabinet. The government is responsible for the vast majority of public policy and it uses its governing majority, combined with a strong party ‘whip’, to make sure that its legislation is passed by Parliament.

In other words, the WM narrative suggests that the UK policy process is centralised and that the arrangement reflects a ‘British political tradition’: the government is accountable to public on the assumption that it is powerful and responsible. So, you know who is in charge and therefore who to praise or blame, and elections every 4-5 years are supplemented by parliamentary scrutiny built on holding ministers directly to account.

Pause for further reading: at this point, consider how this WM story links to a wider discussion of centralised policymaking (in particular, read the 1000 Words post on the policy cycle).

What actually happens?

One way into this discussion is to explore modern discussions of disenchantment with distant political elites who seem to operate in a bubble and not demonstrate their accountability to the public. For example, there is a literature on the extent to which MPs are likely to share the same backgrounds: white, male, middle class, and educated in private schools and Oxford or Cambridge. Or, the idea of a ‘Westminster bubble’ and distant ‘political class’ comes up in discussions of constitutional change (including the Scottish referendum debate), and was exacerbated during the expenses scandal in 2009.

Another is to focus on the factors that undermine this WM image of central control: maybe Westminster political elites are remote, but they don’t control policy outcomes. Instead, there are many factors which challenge the ability of elected policymakers to control the policy process. We will focus on these challenges throughout the course:

Challenge 1. Bounded rationality

Ministers only have the ability to pay attention to a tiny proportion of the issues over which have formal responsibility. So, how can they control issues if they have to ignore them? Much of the ‘1000 Words’ series explores the general implications of bounded rationality.

Challenge 2. Policy communities

Ministers don’t quite ignore issues; they delegate responsibility to civil servants at a quite-low level of government. Civil servants make policy in consultation with interest groups and other participants with the ability to trade resources (such as information) for access or influence. Such relationships can endure long after particular ministers or elected governments have come and gone.

In fact, this argument developed partly in response to discussions in the 1970s about the potential for plurality elections to cause huge swings in party success, and therefore frequent changes of government and reversals of government policy. Rather, scholars such as Jordan and Richardson identified policy continuity despite changes of government (although see Richardson’s later work).

Challenge 3. Multi-level governance

‘Multi-level’ refers to a tendency for the UK government to share policymaking responsibility with international, EU, devolved, and local governments.

‘Governance’ extends the logic of policy communities to identify a tendency to delegate or share responsibility with non-governmental and quasi-non-governmental organisations (quangos).

So, MLG can describe a clear separation of powers at many levels and a fairly coherent set of responsibilities in each case. Or, it can describe a ‘patchwork quilt’ of relationships which is difficult to track and understand. In either case, we identify ‘polycentricity’ or the presence of more than one ‘centre’ in British politics.

Challenge 4. Complex government

The phrase ‘complex government’ can be used to describe the complicated world of public policy, with elements including:

    • the huge size and reach of government – most aspects of our lives are regulated by the state
    • the potential for ministerial ‘overload’ and need to simplify decision-making
    • the blurry boundaries between the actors who make policy and those who seek to influence and/ or implement it (public policy results from their relationships and interactions)
    • the multi-level nature of policymaking
  • the complicated network of interactions between policy actors and many different ‘institutions’

 

  • the complexity of the statute book and the proliferation of rules and regulations, many of which may undermine each other.

 

Overall, these factors generate a sense of complex government that challenges the Westminster-style notion of accountability. How can we hold elected ministers to account if:

  1. they seem to have no hope of paying attention to much of complex government, far less control it
  2. there is so much interaction with unpredictable effects
  3. we don’t understand enough about how this process works to know if ministers are acting effectively?

Challenge 5. The policy environment and unpredictable events

Further, such governments operate within a wider environment in which conditions and events are often out of policymakers’ control. For example, how do they deal with demographic change or global economic crisis? Policymakers have some choice about the issues to which they pay attention, and the ways in which they understand and address them. However, they do not control that agenda or policy outcomes in the way we associate with the WM image of central control.

How has the UK government addressed these challenges?

We can discuss two key themes throughout the course:

  1. UK central governments have to balance two stories of British politics. One is the need to be pragmatic in the face of these five challenges to their power and sense of control. Another is the need to construct an image of governing competence, and most governments do so by portraying an image of power and central control!
  2. This dynamic contributes to state reform. There has been a massive build-up and partial knock-down of the ‘welfare state’ in the post-war period (please have a think about the key elements). This process links strongly to that idea of pragmatism versus central control: governments often reform the state to (a) deliver key policy outcomes (the development of the welfare state and aims such as full employment), or (b) reinvigorate central control (for example, to produce a ‘lean state’ or ‘hollowing state’).

What does this discussion tell us about our initial discussion of Brexit?

None of these factors help downplay the influence of the EU on the UK. Rather, they prompt us to think harder about the meaning, in practice, of parliamentary sovereignty and the Westminster model which underpins ongoing debates about the UK-EU relationship. In short, we can explore the extent to which a return to ‘parliamentary sovereignty’ describes little more than principles not evidence in practice. Such principles are important, but let’s also focus on what actually happens in British politics.

 

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