It is common in policy studies to state that policymakers or governments have many potentially-contradictory objectives:
- When we focus on ‘complex government’ we note their large size, tendency to break functions down into specialist departments and units, and for those units to produce policies which undermine those of others.
- When we focus on policymakers, we question their ability to produce a consistent set of rank-ordered preferences.
Indeed, Lindblom’s famous suggestion is that policymakers only know how to rank their preferences when they are forced to choose between them.
Yet, in the case of Scotland’s finances, the other option is to defer those choices (perhaps indefinitely, perhaps until events supersede the original problem).
In that sense, the deferment of a key part of Scotland’s ‘fiscal framework’ is part of a fine tradition in Scottish politics to try one’s hardest not to talk about the size of the Scottish Government budget. The mythical ‘Barnett formula’ served this purpose well by providing an almost automatic way to adjust the size of the grant that the Treasury gives to the Scottish Government.
Here is the curious bit
Then came the famous ‘Vow’ which promised to maintain Barnett, and then came the new fiscal framework to deliver greater Scottish Government fiscal autonomy while also protecting the Barnett formula.
The problem is that these developments are starting to show how contradictory Scotland’s devolution settlement is becoming:
- The ‘Barnett formula’ is a way to adjust the Treasury’s allocation of funds to the Scottish Government. Giving the Scottish Government a greater ability to control taxation reduces the role of the Barnett formula that the party leaders vowed to protect (in part, this only seems like such a contradiction because ‘Barnett’ is often used to describe Scotland’s good financial settlement, not the formula itself).
- The two key principles underpinning the new fiscal framework – neither government should be disadvantaged by the decision to devolve (the Smith Commission’s ‘no detriment’ principle) and the reforms should not provide greater public services for one area without an equivalent rise in its taxes (‘taxpayer fairness’) – do not get along. As Bell, Eiser, and Phillips argue:
it is impossible to design a block grant adjustment system that satisfies the spirit of the ‘no detriment from the decision to devolve’ principle at the same time as fully achieving the ‘taxpayer fairness’ principle: at least while the Barnett Formula remains in place.
Instead, they present three main options which come closer to one principle and further from the other.
So, to resolve this issue once and for all, the UK Government needs to form an agreement with the Scottish Government (or make a decision based on the extent to which it wants to please the Scottish Government), knowing that it will likely satisfy one policy aim at the expense of the other.
What seems to have happened is (a) an agreement between governments that neither government wants (a ‘compromise’), secured by (b) an agreement to see how it goes for 5 years before revisiting the issue again. In part, this allows the UK Government and the Conservative party to argue that it has delivered ‘the vow’ and put off the big fiscal decision until after the 2016 election.
So, the new framework no longer delivers the advantage of the Barnett formula (the ability to continue for a long period with minimal attention, combining a generous block settlement sort-of-adjusted according to population). Instead, we may be treated to the same tense negotiation and ‘compromise’ every run up to a Scottish Parliament election.