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The future of Scotland in the UK: does the remarkable popularity of the SNP make independence inevitable (version 2)?

This is an updated blog post. The original post provided notes for my lecture on the 15th June at the Centre for British Studies, Humboldt University of Berlin, as part of the  Ringvorlesung: The Future of the UK: Between Internal and External Divisions. I had written it before the vote in the UK to leave the EU, which provided the only realistic chance of a second referendum on Scottish independence. So, the background sections remain the same, but I update the contemporary section with reference to Brexit and its consequences.

The advertised abstract read:

The vote to remain in the UK, in the Scottish independence referendum in 2014, did not settle the matter. Nor did it harm the fortunes of the pro-independence party, the Scottish National Party. Instead, its popularity has risen remarkably, and major constitutional change remains high on the agenda, particularly during the run up to a referendum on the UK’s exit from the EU. This continued fascination with the constitution overshadows the day-to-day business of Scottish politics. Cairney highlights one aspect in particular: the tendency for limited public and parliamentary scrutiny of substantive policy issues when they are viewed through a constitutional (rather than substantive policy) lens, producing an image of weak accountability.

My aim is to:

  • Explain why the Scottish National Party’s popularity is remarkable
  • Note that none of us have predicted it – or indeed much of the short history of devolution – too well, and use this point as a cautionary tale
  • Describe why independence is not inevitable (even though it often seems likely)
  • Shoehorn in some analysis of the links between our fascination with the constitution and the more humdrum world of actual policy.
  • Provide a brief update on the impact of the EU referendum, bearing in mind that I am no less hopeless than anyone else about predicting the future.

The remarkable popularity of the SNP

The SNP’s popularity is remarkable in two main ways:

  1. In 1999, the main party was Scottish Labour

Scottish Labour had dominated Westminster and local elections in Scotland for decades before the first Scottish Parliament election in 1999 (it also won a plurality of European Parliament seats, but with far lower margins):

  • Westminster (plurality electoral system). Labour won most Scottish seats in every election from 1959-2010. In 1997, it won 46% of the vote and 56 (78%) of 72 Scottish Westminster seats (Cairney and McGarvey, 2013: 45). The SNP won 22% of the vote and 6 (8%) seats. A similar pattern continued until 2010: Labour dominated Scottish Westminster seats even when the SNP began to win Holyrood elections.
  • Local elections (plurality until 2003, single transferable vote from 2007). In 1995, its 44% of the vote translated into 613 (53%) of 1155 seats and it remained the largest party until 2007 (Cairney and McGarvey, 2013: 51).

This dominance produced an expectation that Scottish Labour would become the largest party in the Scottish Parliament for the foreseeable future. In that context, the fortunes of Labour and the SNP changed remarkably quickly (see table 3). In 1999 and 2003, the main limit to Labour dominance was the electoral system: it won the majority of constituency seats comfortably but few regional seats (it also won most constituency seats in 2007). By 2011, this position had reversed and, by 2016, the regional list was the only thing standing between Scottish Labour and electoral oblivion.

In contrast, by 2011 the SNP achieved a majority of Scottish Parliament seats because the regional element of the mixed-member proportional system (56 of 129 seats) was not large enough to offset SNP dominance of constituency seats. This is a remarkable outcome if we accept the well-shared story that Holyrood’s electoral system was ‘chosen by Labour to stop the SNP ever the getting the majority it needed to push hard on the independence agenda’ (Cairney, 2011: 28).

  1. The SNP’s popularity did not dip after the 2014 referendum

You could be forgiven for thinking that a No vote in the referendum on Scottish independence would damage the SNP. If it is a single issue party, and most voters rejected its position on the issue, wouldn’t you expect it to suffer? Yet, here is what happened instead:

It’s not so remarkable if you know that the SNP is not a single issue party. Instead, it is a highly professional organisation which has won elections on the back of valence politics as well as identity.

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 national identify and support for independence).

So, (a) it’s worth noting that the SNP is doing well partly because 45% of the vote will not win you a referendum, but it (plus a bit more) will do very nicely in a not-super-proportional election system, but (b) there is far more to the SNP’s story than a translation of national identity into support for independence into support for the SNP.

None of us predicted it well: a cautionary tale

You’ll always find someone who claims that they predicted these developments correctly, but that’s because of the immense number and range of hyperbolic predictions – from the claim that devolution provided a ‘stepping stone’ to independence, to the claim that it would kill nationalism ‘stone dead’ – rather than the predictability of politics.

So, for example, in retrospect we can say that devolution provided an important new platform for the SNP, but at the time we did not know that it would use this platform so effectively from the mid-2000s.

Similarly, maybe some people in the future will look back to argue that Scottish independence was inevitable, but without being able to predict the detailed mechanisms of decisions and events.

Scottish independence is not inevitable (even though it often seems likely)

Before the Brexit vote, I tried to sell the idea that 10 years is the magic figure between Scottish referendums (2014 and 2024): a short enough distance to keep pro-independence actors content, and long enough to hope that enough people have changed their minds. In the meantime, the SNP and Greens would produce some vague triggers (like a surge in opinion poll support).

Now, if a second referendum is to happen, it is because of the constitutional crisis prompted by Brexit. Overall, most UK voters chose to leave the European Union, but most voters in Scotland chose to remain. The SNP and its allies will push for a second referendum on that basis, with reference to a ‘democratic outrage’. It possesses the votes to pass a bill to that effect in the Scottish Parliament, and needs some cooperation from a UK Government led by the party that just used a referendum to justify major constitutional change. It is difficult to see why the Conservative government would oppose a referendum under those circumstances (rather than allow it to take place and argue for the Union) even though UK government ministers have rejected the idea so far.

If a second referendum happens, it could happen before 2020. I am hesitant to say when exactly, partly because there is so much uncertainty, which too many people try to fill with needless speculation. For example, Sturgeon confirmed that it could happen as early as 2017, but only because the BBC asked her what she would do if the UK government behaved unreasonably.  In the same interview, Sturgeon also suggested that it may take a long time for the UK to invoke ‘Article 50’, which triggers a notional two-year negotiation period before the UK leaves the EU.

Before we know if a second referendum is likely, and the likely date, we need clarity on two things: (1) the extent to which the UK can (and is willing to) negotiate a deal with the EU which satisfies the SNP and Scottish voters (by becoming Brexit-lite or providing Scotland-specific provisions on key issues like free movement of people); and, (2) the timing of Brexit, since a Scottish referendum would hopefully not take place until we know what we are voting for (which might not happen until near the end of the notional two-year negotiations). Still, it is likely that the vote would be binary, as some version of: stay in the UK out of the EU, or leave the UK and stay in the EU.

Dissatisfaction with devolution is not the same as support for independence

Recent events reinforce the sense that Scottish devolution will never seem like a ‘settlement’. Instead, until recently, we have had a routine process in which: (a) there is a proposed devolution settlement, (b) it sticks for a while, (c) there is a rise in support for independence or further devolution, (d) there is another settlement.

So far, this has happened in 1999 (the first modern settlement), from the SNP’s first Holyrood win in 2007 (producing the Scotland Act 2011), and during the referendum itself (producing the Scotland Act 2016).

The difference this time is the sense – often generated by supporters and opponents of independence – that the 2016 Act is the final offer. If so, before Brexit, we had two key scenarios:

  1. This offer proves to be too unpopular to maintain support for devolution, there is a further referendum, and no-one can offer more devolution in exchange for a No vote.
  2. The 2016 Act finally helps address the idea of a ‘democratic deficit’ in which (a) most people in Scotland vote for one party in a UK General election (usually Labour, now SNP) but get another (often Conservative), and (b) this problem helps produce the sense that the UK Government is imposing unpopular policies on Scotland. For the new Act to work, you would need to generate the widespread sense, among the public, that a Scottish Government could choose to mitigate the effects of a UK Government (perhaps without raising taxes).

Now, things are a bit more complicated, since devolution is no longer simply about Scotland’s position in the UK. Scenario two now has to be accompanied by the sense (however true) that the Scottish Government is able to negotiate a distinctive relationship with the EU while remaining in the UK.

What happens in the meantime? The humdrum world of scrutiny and policymaking

In the meantime, Scottish politics exhibits an unusual twist on the usual tale of Westminster politics:

  1. We have the familiar disconnect between two understandings of politics, in which (a) we use elections and some parliamentary scrutiny to praise or blame governments, but also (b) recognise the limits to central control, which undermine a meaningful sense of accountability.
  2. This confusion is complicated by devolution and ‘multi-level governance’ in which we are not always sure about which level of government is responsible for which policy (although Brexit will remove a level from many of those relationships!)
  3. It is complicated further by the 2016 Act, in which there are many new shared responsibilities between the Scottish and UK Governments.
  4. So, politicians tell very different stories about what the Scottish Government can do, who is in charge, and who should take the blame for policy outcomes.
  5. And the Scottish Parliament continues to struggle to know how best to try to hold the Scottish Government to account (and it might soon struggle a bit more).

Perhaps one possible exception is the new debate on educational attainment. First Minister Nicola Sturgeon staked a large part of her reputation on reducing the gap in attainment between students in the most and least deprived areas of Scotland. Before the election, she promised to ‘close the attainment gap completely’.

Although the SNP manifesto in 2016 presents more equivocal language (reflecting the sense that it does not know how much it can reduce the gap), it remains significant: as an issue in which there are constitutional complications (the Scottish Government does not control fully the economic and social security ‘levers’ affecting levels of deprivation), but the SNP is not using them to qualify its aims.

This example supplements several ongoing debates of high party political importance, in which there is not a constitutional element (on, for example, the Scottish Government’s ‘named person’ policy and legislation on ‘offensive behaviour’ in relation to football).

In the original version of this post, I signed off by speculating: ‘maybe such cases suggest that, for at least the next few years, we will pretend that there is a Scottish devolution settlement that that we are not just killing time until the next referendum’. It already seems like an out of date hope: the constitution is back at the top of our agenda, and I can’t remember the last time I read a story about domestic policy in Scotland.

 

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The future of Scotland in the UK: does the remarkable popularity of the SNP make independence inevitable?

This post provides notes for my lecture on the 15th June at the Centre for British Studies, Humboldt University of Berlin, as part of the Ringvorlesung: The Future of the UK: Between Internal and External Divisions.

The advertised abstract reads:

The vote to remain in the UK, in the Scottish independence referendum in 2014, did not settle the matter. Nor did it harm the fortunes of the pro-independence party, the Scottish National Party. Instead, its popularity has risen remarkably, and major constitutional change remains high on the agenda, particularly during the run up to a referendum on the UK’s exit from the EU. This continued fascination with the constitution overshadows the day-to-day business of Scottish politics. Cairney highlights one aspect in particular: the tendency for limited public and parliamentary scrutiny of substantive policy issues when they are viewed through a constitutional (rather than substantive policy) lens, producing an image of weak accountability.

I’ll begin my talk by apologising passive-aggressively for not being a specialist in this field. I know some things about Scottish politics, but specialise in public policy rather than elections, referendums, social attitudes, and the future. On that basis, I’ll:

  • Explain why the Scottish National Party’s popularity is remarkable
  • Note that none of us have predicted it – or indeed much of the short history of devolution – too well, and use this point as a cautionary tale
  • Describe why independence is not inevitable (even though it often seems likely)
  • Shoehorn in some analysis of the links between our fascination with the constitution and the more humdrum world of actual policy.

The remarkable popularity of the SNP

The SNP’s popularity is remarkable in two main ways:

  1. In 1999, the main party was Scottish Labour

Scottish Labour had dominated Westminster and local elections in Scotland for decades before the first Scottish Parliament election in 1999 (it also won a plurality of European Parliament seats, but with far lower margins):

  • Westminster (plurality electoral system). Labour won most Scottish seats in every election from 1959-2010. In 1997, it won 46% of the vote and 56 (78%) of 72 Scottish Westminster seats (Cairney and McGarvey, 2013: 45). The SNP won 22% of the vote and 6 (8%) seats. A similar pattern continued until 2010: Labour dominated Scottish Westminster seats even when the SNP began to win Holyrood elections.
  • Local elections (plurality until 2003, single transferable vote from 2007). In 1995, its 44% of the vote translated into 613 (53%) of 1155 seats and it remained the largest party until 2007 (Cairney and McGarvey, 2013: 51).

This dominance produced an expectation that Scottish Labour would become the largest party in the Scottish Parliament for the foreseeable future. In that context, the fortunes of Labour and the SNP changed remarkably quickly (see table 3). In 1999 and 2003, the main limit to Labour dominance was the electoral system: it won the majority of constituency seats comfortably but few regional seats (it also won most constituency seats in 2007). By 2011, this position had reversed and, by 2016, the regional list was the only thing standing between Scottish Labour and electoral oblivion.

In contrast, by 2011 the SNP achieved a majority of Scottish Parliament seats because the regional element of the mixed-member proportional system (56 of 129 seats) was not large enough to offset SNP dominance of constituency seats. This is a remarkable outcome if we accept the well-shared story that Holyrood’s electoral system was ‘chosen by Labour to stop the SNP ever the getting the majority it needed to push hard on the independence agenda’ (Cairney, 2011: 28).

  1. The SNP’s popularity did not dip after the 2014 referendum

You could be forgiven for thinking that a No vote in the referendum on Scottish independence would damage the SNP. If it is a single issue party, and most voters rejected its position on the issue, wouldn’t you expect it to suffer? Yet, here is what happened instead:

It’s not so remarkable if you know that the SNP is not a single issue party. Instead, it is a highly professional organisation which has won elections on the back of valence politics as well as identity.

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 national identify and support for independence).

So, (a) it’s worth noting that the SNP is doing well partly because 45% of the vote will not win you a referendum, but it (plus a bit more) will do very nicely in a not-super-proportional election system, but (b) there is far more to the SNP’s story than a translation of national identity into support for independence into support for the SNP.

None of us predicted it well: a cautionary tale

You’ll always find someone who claims that they predicted these developments correctly, but that’s because of the immense number and range of hyperbolic predictions – from the claim that devolution provided a ‘stepping stone’ to independence, to the claim that it would kill nationalism ‘stone dead’ – rather than the predictability of politics.

So, for example, in retrospect we can say that devolution provided an important new platform for the SNP, but at the time we did not know that it would use this platform so effectively from the mid-2000s.

Similarly, maybe some people in the future will look back to argue that Scottish independence was inevitable, but without being able to predict the detailed mechanisms of decisions and events.

Scottish independence is not inevitable (even though it often seems likely)

I’ll try to sell you the idea that 10 years is the magic figure between Scottish referendums: a short enough distance to keep pro-independence actors content, and long enough to hope that enough people have changed their minds. We now have 5-yearly elections, so it would be a commitment in the 2021 Holyrood election to hold it in 2024.

However, it’s no more than an idea because nothing about this process is inevitable:

Even a second referendum is not inevitable

In the short term, the only event that matters is the ‘Brexit’ vote this 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 main 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.

In the absence of this constitutional crisis, is difficult to see how the SNP could justify – and, more importantly, expect to win – another referendum within five years of the first. This problem is reflected in the SNP’s manifesto and Sturgeon’s defence of its vague position. It appears to want to keep independence on the agenda for the long term without proposing a referendum within five years. So, its idea is that, in the absence of a Brexit crisis, the only other prompt is a major and sustained upswing in support for independence:

the Scottish Parliament should have the right to hold another referendum if there is clear and sustained evidence that independence has become the preferred option of a majority of the Scottish people’ (Scottish National Party, 2016: 23).

Sturgeon confirmed that this measure would be from opinion polls – ‘We would have to see, in a range of polls over a period of time, that independence had become the preferred option of the majority’ – but without stating how many polls, what level of support, or how sustained (BBC News, 2016b).

The unsatisfactory nature of this position seems reinforced by the SNP’s electoral position in 2016: the last referendum was fairly recent, it lacks a strong statement of intent in its manifesto, it now relies on the Scottish Greens (2016: 35) to produce a pro-independence majority in the Scottish Parliament, and the Greens’ trigger for a second referendum – a petition by maybe 100,000 voters – seems equally vague and problematic.

Don’t assume that we can predict the future (revisited)

These limitations are not problematic in the longer term: the SNP can afford to wait until the time is right for a second referendum. Yet, think about some of the other conditions that need to be met before a second vote is worthwhile:

  1. There is a sustained rise in support for Scottish independence. From opinion polls, the SNP would be looking for levels of sustained support (high 50s, low 60s?) that are not present even in single surveys.
  2. The SNP sustains a Holyrood majority, or it has enough pro-independence allies in Holyrood. At the heart of our short-term discussion is the assumption that the SNP continues to do remarkably well in elections. Yet, Scottish Labour provides a cautionary tale, or the evidence of how quickly a party’s support can disappear. Further, the SNP wouldn’t even have to lose much support to give the sense that it lost ‘momentum’.
  3. The SNP can recreate 2011. Instead, it would just have to lose the sense of moral victory that it secured in 2011: the appearance of its Holyrood ‘avalanche’ election victory made a referendum difficult to oppose; its opposition lost ground, and the UK Government struggled to explain why it would not support a referendum. This feeling is difficult to recreate even if (as in 2016) it secures a similar proportion of votes.

Dissatisfaction with devolution is not the same as support for independence

It is possible that Scottish devolution will never seem like a ‘settlement’. Instead, we have had a routine process in which: (a) there is a proposed devolution settlement, (b) it sticks for a while, (c) there is a rise in support for independence or further devolution, (d) there is another settlement.

So far, this has happened in 1999 (the first modern settlement), from the SNP’s first Holyrood win in 2007 (producing the Scotland Act 2011), and during the referendum itself (producing the Scotland Act 2016).

The difference this time is the sense – often generated by supporters and opponents of independence – that the 2016 Act is the final offer. If so, we have two key scenarios:

  1. This offer proves to be too unpopular to maintain support for devolution, there is a further referendum, and no-one can offer more devolution in exchange for a No vote.
  2. The 2016 Act finally helps address the idea of a ‘democratic deficit’ in which (a) most people in Scotland vote for one party in a UK General election (usually Labour, now SNP) but get another (often Conservative), and (b) this problem helps produce the sense that the UK Government is imposing unpopular policies on Scotland. For the new Act to work, you would need to generate the widespread sense, among the public, that a Scottish Government could choose to mitigate the effects of a UK Government (perhaps without raising taxes).

What happens in the meantime? The humdrum world of scrutiny and policymaking

In the meantime, Scottish politics exhibits an unusual twist on the usual tale of Westminster politics:

  1. We have the familiar disconnect between two understandings of politics, in which (a) we use elections and some parliamentary scrutiny to praise or blame governments, but also (b) recognise the limits to central control, which undermine a meaningful sense of accountability.
  2. This confusion is complicated by devolution and ‘multi-level governance’ in which we are not always sure about which level of government is responsible for which policy.
  3. It is complicated further by the 2016 Act, in which there are many new shared responsibilities between the Scottish and UK Governments.
  4. So, politicians tell very different stories about what the Scottish Government can do, who is in charge, and who should take the blame for policy outcomes.
  5. And the Scottish Parliament continues to struggle to know how best to try to hold the Scottish Government to account (and it might soon struggle a bit more).

Perhaps one possible exception is the new debate on educational attainment. First Minister Nicola Sturgeon staked a large part of her reputation on reducing the gap in attainment between students in the most and least deprived areas of Scotland. Before the election, she promised to ‘close the attainment gap completely’.

Although the SNP manifesto in 2016 presents more equivocal language (reflecting the sense that it does not know how much it can reduce the gap), it remains significant: as an issue in which there are constitutional complications (the Scottish Government does not control fully the economic and social security ‘levers’ affecting levels of deprivation), but the SNP is not using them to qualify its aims.

This example supplements several ongoing debates of high party political importance, in which there is not a constitutional element (on, for example, the Scottish Government’s ‘named person’ policy and legislation on ‘offensive behaviour’ in relation to football).

So, maybe such cases suggest that, for at least the next few years, we will pretend that there is a Scottish devolution settlement, and that we are not just killing time until the next referendum.

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What happens when we are too distracted by referendums to pay attention to policy?

It is common for people to argue that our obsession with the UK constitution distracts us from the day to day business of policymaking. It was a feature of the Scottish independence referendum and seems to be a feature of the Brexit debate. There are a few variations of the argument, but they seem to relate to two general concerns plus (now) an extra concern for the devolved governments:

(1) central government ministers indulge their obsession with a referendum instead of solving policy problems

(2) other actors (the media, parliament, the interested public) will pay attention to the referendum instead of keeping pressure on ministers to solve policy problems.

(3) the Brexit referendum will overshadow devolved elections.

The Scottish referendum suggests that some of these concerns were misplaced because it provided an opportunity to debate the ‘big questions’ of policy (such as, for example, should Scotland become a social democratic state?) and attracted the interest of parts of the public that usually don’t engage in (party) politics.

Still, some people retained the sense that we were talking about post-independence public services while the services themselves were going to crap (the usual examples relate to education attainment, the NHS, and Police Scotland).

All I want to add to this discussion is this point:

Such arguments presuppose that ministers make a big difference when they pay attention to policy problems, particularly when many potentially-critical audiences are watching them like hawks. In other words, they have the resources (including money, staffing, ideas, cognitive skills, and ‘political will’) to turn around services and close inequalities in outcomes.

There are two main reasons to qualify this assumption.

  1. Policymakers can only pay attention to a tiny fraction of their responsibilities anyway

There are 101 theories and concepts in policy studies which describe the limits to ministerial and central government control. The big message is that policymakers already ignore almost all of the issues for which they could take responsibility (and the ‘semi-sovereign public’ ignores far more). This is not to say that more distractions won’t make a difference. Rather, my point is to reject the binary distinction between total and zero policymaker attention.

  1. Elections can be bigger distractions than referendums

High stakes elections tend to prompt political parties to make promises that are achievable and easy to explain with simple stories. There is not much incentive to tell voters that policy problems (and policymaking systems) are complex, central governments can only do so much to solve them (especially within 5 year electoral terms), and maybe they should delegate a lot of this responsibility to local actors. So, the short term promises often provide far bigger distractions to long term aims.  This is not to say that more distractions won’t make things worse. Rather, my point is to reject the idea that we were half-way to solving life’s big problems before people got obsessed with the constitution. Or maybe my point is that a lot of media and public attention prompts policymakers to do silly things, to try to look like they are trying to solve policy problems. A distraction is not always unwelcome.

I expand on both points in this post, so won’t repeat them here. Still, if you have read a few of my posts now, you might be getting the impression that I just make these same points in each one. If so, my message to you is: thank you for reading a few of my posts. I enjoy the hits.

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The Scottish Parliament election 2016: the talking points so far

It would be tempting to ignore the Scottish Parliament election campaigns in 2016 because the result seems like a foregone conclusion: the SNP will form a majority government for the next 5 years. Yet, let’s not give in to that temptation by confusing the boring predictability of the result with its monumental nature. It will represent the peak of a transformation in Scottish electoral politics since 1999 that almost no-one predicted (apart from the Nostradamus-style harbingers of doom and wild optimists). As a result, it presents an intriguing mix of talking points: some of them relate to the specific issues that have arisen so far, while others are bubbling under the surface.

The big talking point: the likely result 

The SNP’s victory will happen despite an electoral system (‘mixed-member proportional’) designed to be far more proportional than the plurality system of Westminster: 56 seats from regional lists, using the d’Hondt divisor, offset some of the distribution of the 73 constituency seats determined by a plurality vote. Yet, they only make it more proportional. The SNP’s 50% share of the vote secured 56 of 59 MPs (95%) in the 2015 UK General election. If, as seems likely from the polls, it can maintain that level of support in constituency votes, it might already secure a majority before the regional votes are counted (one forecast is a total of 72, or 56%, of seats, compared to Labour’s 32 and Conservatives’ 18).

The likelihood of an SNP majority has produced a weird game of chicken in which we all know what will happen regardless of the campaign but the party leaders still dare each other to declare the result, knowing that admitting defeat opens you to claims of defeatism (as with Conservative leader Ruth Davidson) while hinting at victory wins you the most ‘arrogant’ prize. Further, while the smaller parties mattered in 2003, they have now become a sideshow. The most consistently serious party remains the Scottish Greens which may secure as many (4) seats as the former-coalition-government Scottish Liberal Democrats, with the increasingly comic UKIP likely to receive none.

Talking points in the election so far

The main talking point is that the Scottish independence referendum in 2014 did not settle the constitutional debate. Instead, the main opposition parties (and Scottish Labour in particular) have woven into their 2015 and 2016 campaigns the idea that the SNP will use any election victory to push for a second referendum. Yet, the only plausible trigger (in the short term) relates to the referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU: if most voters in Scotland vote to stay in, and most voters in the UK overall vote to leave, it would ‘almost certainly’ prompt SNP demands for the second vote.

The prospect of a Yes vote in the Scottish referendum also prompted the main UK parties to promise substantially greater devolution (before the May 2016 election) to secure a No vote. So, the Scotland Act 2016 contains provisions to enhance the Scottish Government’s powers, including a greater ability to modify income tax rates and bands and reform some aspects of social security.

Greater devolution has prompted much debate but no resolution on how to use the so-called ‘Scottish rate of income tax’. What could have been a values-driven discussion about the benefits and costs of raising income tax to fund services, or about who should win and lose from taxation changes, has generally turned into a pedantic and (perhaps deliberately) confusing debate about the meaning of ‘progressive’ taxation (David Eiser describes a rise in SRIT as ‘slightly progressive’), the likely income from each 1p change in taxation, and the unintended consequences of greater higher-rate taxation in Scotland.  Further, since we all know the SNP will win the election, it is relatively hard to take seriously the tax plans of the other parties, including Scottish Labour’s planned 1p rise and the Scottish Conservatives’ unfulfilled hopes to reduce it (alongside its proposal to reintroduce tuition fees). Similarly, gone are the days when the Scottish Greens’ more radical income and land tax plans had any chance of success.

The lack of a settled constitution has also contributed to the lack of a proper debate on the SNP’s record in office – which is weird if you consider that, until recently, the main factor in the SNP’s electoral success in 2007 and 2011 is ‘valence politics’, which describes the tendency for political parties to promise similar things and run campaigns on things like the image of their leader, their vision for the future, and their image of governing competence. The SNP did particularly well to maintain an image of competence in 2011, but it is tempting to think that the popularity of Nicola Sturgeon, and the post-referendum bump for the SNP, has made this less of an issue in 2016. Opposition parties have been trying to maximise concerns about the performance of the NHS and Police Scotland, and the SNP’s failure to reduce the ‘attainment gap’, but there is little evidence to suggest that anything sticks – particularly when crises like the Edinburgh schools closures can generate attention but call into question Labour’s record on capital finance up to 2007.

Some important points are often not talking points …

One issue which could have hurt the SNP is ‘fracking’ because there is some internal division in the SNP about the Scottish Government’s decision to maintain a moratorium rather than complete ban on shale oil and gas development (Scottish Labour now supports a ban). Yet, the moratorium, along with with Sturgeon’s recent description of her position as ‘highly sceptical about fracking’ and the decision of the SNP’s leadership not to debate the issue at its annual conference, has meant that it can remain a non-talking point until after the election.

… but sometimes that’s a good thing

Perhaps the most promising non-talking point was Kezia Dugdale’s decision to ‘share with the world that I’m in love with a woman’, generally receive praise, and establish the Scottish Parliament as the home to an unusually large number of LGB party leaders. There is also some evidence to suggest that gender-based equality of selection is ‘catching on’ again (and reinforced by the high number of women in party leadership roles) after a few false dawns. Although the SNP will dominate party politics for years to come, some issues like ‘microcosmic representation’ are bigger than parties.

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The big accountability lie: in Scottish Parliament elections you have to pretend that you’ll succeed (part 1)

The Scottish Conservatives took some grief for campaigning to become the opposition party in Holyrood. We all know they won’t come close to winning, but many people would like them to go through the ridiculous charade of pretending to try. Yet, this is only the second most ridiculous pretence in Scottish politics. The first is that the governing party is in control of Scottish government and can therefore be held to account in a meaningful way in Holyrood elections. While one problem will go away next month, the other is a fundamental flaw in our political system that will rip us apart at the seams.

For the people who read beyond the first paragraph, let me lay this out in a less dramatic way by highlighting the gulf between two ways of thinking about Scottish government.

  1. The language of Scottish elections.

The language of elections is one of ambition, high stakes competition, central government control, and accountability through elections:

  • Parties compete to tell you the tantalizing transformations they can deliver with Scottish Government powers.
  • The elections are high stakes because much power is held in Scottish central government.
  • If there is high central control, with major ‘levers’ of policy change, you know who is in charge and therefore who to praise or blame. Education doing well? Praise the SNP. NHS in a slump? Blame the SNP. Police Scotland having a nightmare? Blame the SNP. Wee Jimmy tripped and fell over a wonky slab in Largs? Blame the SNP.

So, the underlying message of Scottish Parliament elections is: let’s blame or praise the central government because it is in control and has the levers to make things happen. It’s much the same, only more so, in Westminster elections.

  1. The language of governance and policy studies

Most policy studies suggest that central government can achieve far less than you’d care to think. We use many phrases to highlight the limits to central control and the pragmatic ways in which the centre shares policymaking responsibility with other actors such as local public bodies and ‘stakeholders’. Key concepts include:

  • Policy communities. Ministers can only pay attention to a fraction of the things for which they are formally in charge. So, they pay disproportionate attention to a small number of issues and ignore the rest. They delegate responsibility for those tasks to civil servants, who consult with stakeholders to produce policy.
  • Governance (not government). There is a blurry boundary between formal responsibility and informal influence. A huge number of actors are involved in the policy process and it is difficult to separate their effects. Instead, we often think of policy outcomes as the product of collective action, only some of which is coordinated by central government.
  • Complexity, or complex government. In complex policymaking systems, policy outcomes seem to ‘emerge’ from local practices and rules, often despite central government attempts to control them. Consequently, there is a large literature which tries to produce pragmatic responses to deal with the limits to central government control.

The language of accountability does not mix well with the language of complexity

I want you to imagine that you’ve put new denim jeans in with your whites wash: one part of the wash has really messed up the other. Now, I want you to think of this as a clever analogy: the language of elections is the denim and it’s really messing up your governance whites.

There are good reasons for central governments to share power and responsibility with other actors, including:

  • civil servants have the capacity, knowledge, and networks to research and make detailed policies;
  • many public bodies like ‘quangos’ need to be at ‘arm’s length’ from ministers to achieve legitimacy in the eyes of their public;
  • local governments have their own mandates, often possess a keener sense of the needs of local communities, and can work in partnership with local stakeholders and public bodies to produce long term strategies for their areas
  • stakeholders provide knowledge and advice on how to deliver policies in specialised areas
  • service users often have profound insights on the public services they receive

So, alongside fighting elections, the Scottish Government tries to produce pragmatic ways to share policymaking responsibility and encourage new mechanisms of accountability: institutional, local, community, service user.

The only problem is this: almost no one buys these forms of accountability, partly because it looks like the central government is trying to shirk responsibility for its actions. Come election time, you have to pretend that you are in charge of all of it. So, it’s difficult to argue during the rest of the time – for example, when ‘being held to account’ by the Scottish Parliament, or criticised in the media – that things are really not your fault.

The worst of it comes when governments try to adapt to both of those things, producing highly contradictory strategies:

  • On the one hand, they pursue thinks like ‘prevention’ strategies which encourage relatively hands-off policymaking for the long term in cooperation with local bodies.
  • On the other, they make election promises – e.g. on the numbers of police officers, teachers, and nurses they’ll employ – and maintain performance management systems to show that they are in charge and making some progress. These actions to achieve short term electoral success can really mess up the long term strategies.

So what?

The upshot is this: we could use our knowledge of this contradiction in language to get beyond simplistic debates in which the elected central government gets all the praise or blame for outcomes in devolved areas in Scotland. It might help produce more honest and sensible policymaking. However, can you imagine any big party ever willing to try? When the Scottish Conservatives get this much shit for admitting they won’t win office, can you imagine a larger party admitting that it won’t achieve that much in office because it’s one part of a complex system?

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5 Rules for Westminster Elections

  1. Tell people why they shouldn’t vote for their favourite party: if you vote for X, you really get Y, so vote for Z, even though you want X.
  2. Deny that you would enter a coalition with any other party, even if you have no chance of being in government on your own.
  3. Promise to lower taxes and increase public spending. Or, only promise to tax rich people to pay for low paid public servants.
  4. Suggest that your opponents are making promises that they can’t afford, or making the campaign too personal, then make some of your own promises and keep it personal.
  5. If you are not campaigning, be cynical about the tactics of political parties, and suggest that all politicians are corrupt and unelectable. Give the impression that you are above it all, without suggesting a useful alternative to representative democracy.

I forgot number 6: object whenever a party agrees with an idea that you claim is yours. You don’t want their support; you want to exploit the fact that they don’t support you.

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