Tag Archives: Member of the Scottish Parliament

Addressing Academic Assumptions: Revisiting That Presentation (on the Scottish Parliament)

Presenting to colleagues in other disciplines is interesting because it makes you think about your disciplinary assumptions – what you often take for granted and would assume that your home audience knows too. This came up at a workshop led by legal academics. A small group of us sort of pointed out that we were political scientists and would approach the same topic (in this case, constitutional design) in different way. By the time it got to my talk, I felt that the paper I had prepared was incomplete because, from a policy studies perspective, I had my own starting point and my audience would not know about it:

  • Most policy is made in policy networks/ communities/ subsystems
  • The state is so large that it may become unmanageable. So, policymakers divide administration into departments and policymaking into sectors and subsector
  • Ministers can only pay attention to a tiny proportion of issues for which they are responsible. So, they delegate almost all policymaking to civil servants. Senior civil servants do the same to relatively junior civil servants.
  • Civil servants rely on participants such as interest group for information and advice. They may also seek a degree of group ‘ownership’ of policy. Civil servants and groups may form fairly close relationships over time.
  • The key point regards ‘parallel and serial processing’. Policymakers can only engage in serial (considering one issue at a time) while governments as a whole engage in parallel (processing many issues at once).

So, this is the context for a consideration of Parliament. An ill resourced Parliament can engage in serial processing but will struggle to engage in parallel – and therefore to hold the Government to account. The attention of ministers and parliamentarians will lurch from issue to issue, often with important consequences, but their attention to one issue means that they must ignore the others.

This context is so familiar to many policy/ politics scholars that they may be surprised if one takes Parliaments seriously. In fact, when I gave my presentation for a lectureship at Aberdeen in 2004, one audience member pretty much said ‘since parliaments are peripheral to the policy process, why are you bothering with this topic?’. I have two answers:

  1. Parliaments perform other functions – deliberative, participatory, symbolic and, most importantly, they legitimize the outputs of government. Without Parliament, the government would struggle to maintain a wider sense of public legitimacy for its decisions. Consequently, a parliament can appear, simultaneously, to be highly ineffective (in relation to scrutiny) and profoundly effective (at legitimization).
  2. The Scottish Parliament was sold as a powerful institution at the centre of a range of ‘new politics’ initiatives.

So that is the context for the rest of my talk here –


UPDATE: Questions from the audience

(1) What would you do about these weaknesses in scrutiny. Potential remedies?

I gave three main solutions: (a) lower your expectations about what can happen; (b) increase parliamentary resources (permanent staff seem like better value than elected MSPs in this context) to increase MSP incentives to engage in scrutiny; and (c) learn from other countries and decide if you want to transfer their practices. As I discuss with colleagues in a comparison with Sweden, we may not be willing to give up what we have (clear lines of accountability) to secure what they have (more cross-party cooperation).

(2) Should there be a ‘big bang’ reform of the Scottish political system to address these problems? I tried very much not to answer this question. It doesn’t seem likely to happen or to change the fundamental relationship between government and parliament.


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Filed under Academic innovation or navel gazing, public policy, Scottish politics, UK politics and policy

If the Vote is Yes: What Will Be the Size of the Scottish Parliament?

comrehensive rationalitybounded rationality

One truism in policy studies is that the messy real world of policymaking contrasts markedly with the ideal of comprehensive rationality. The size of the Scottish Parliament in an independent Scotland could become a good example. Consider the extreme, ‘comprehensively rational’, process in which there are no limits to the gathering and consideration of information. We would: search the globe for comparable systems; look at their experiences in area such as representation and scrutiny; consider how best to design staffing levels and the use of their time; learn from over a decade of devolution; think about the size of Scotland and its level of responsibilities; debate the proper role of the Scottish Parliament (scrutinising government, setting the agenda with inquiries, becoming a hub for popular participation, informing the public, etc.) and use that sort of information to decide how many MSPs (and parliamentary staff) we should have.

Now, compare that to the real world in which we have limited information, limited time in which to consider information, and limited cognitive skills. We need some major shortcuts, to gather a sufficient amount of the right kind of information; the information that we don’t have, but we know we want to know. The real stuff.

I reckon that the main considerations (at least before the vote, if it is discussed at all) are:

  • What do we think the public will wear? This is not a good time to be talking about more MSPs and the greater cost of representation. So, I reckon that, if we simply have more devolution, the Scottish Parliament will stay at 129 MSPs and there will be a lot of talk about being more efficient. Only independence gives us that ‘window of opportunity’ to think bigger.
  • What is the back-of-the-envelope figure? It is probably just 129 MSPs plus 59 MPs equals 184 mega-MSPs (see here for something more sophisticated).
  • How much will change cost and how visible will the cost be? Few people pay attention to the details of Scottish politics, but loads of people remember the humdinging cost of the Scottish Parliament. Few will want to see a repeat. There is not enough room in the Scottish Parliament to accommodate 59 or more MSPs. Something has to give.

So, there may be a big decision to make in the future. For now, it’s probably best if we don’t think about these little things when the big matters of principle are to be discussed. Or, you can try raising the issue then wish you hadn’t:




See also: What if you could only win an online argument if you were great at those cartoons where people are explaining things while magically drawing something?


compare with:

Scott’s answer was Yes (no surprises there) at 4m50s

UPDATE 2: based on a question from @loveandgarbage, I should say that the same issues arises in the Scottish Government civil service. You would think that, in many areas, the size of the Scottish Government would have to be really beefed up. However, we are currently in the ‘age of austerity’ which may be pushing down civil service numbers in many areas. People are leaving, and other people are taking on more jobs. So, by 2016, ‘beefed up’ may mean more than the day before but not a huge amount more than a few years before. The difficulty is that, since the Thatcher Governments started getting creative about calling civil servants something else, it has often been difficult to track consistent numbers over the years. Still, here is what Neil McGarvey and I produced in 2008:

box 6.4 2008

and here is what we produced in 2013:

box 6.4 2013

At least we can use these for comparison if the time comes.

In both cases – Parliament and Government – one suggestion is that we won’t need to beef up existing national institutions because, instead, we can beef up local institutions. This is discussed at length by the Jimmy Reid Foundation’s report The Silent Crisis, ERS Scotland’s Democracy Max , COSLA’s Local Matters and its new Commission on Strengthening Local Democracy (also discussed here).

I have already been a bit sarcastic about this idea in a different post (here), so all I will say is this: the argument I’m getting at still holds. We often think we are discussing something of high principle – constitutional change and democracy – but at some point someone will cobble something together based on what they inherit and what they feel they can get away with in the current climate. All I ask is that, if the magic number remains 129, we all recognise how we came to it – a bog standard political decision, not a highfalutin principled one. For example, if the Scottish Government recommends 129 MSPs in an independent Scotland, the proposal should be followed by a full smiley face or one of those winky 😉 faces.

Update 4.12.13
p45 of the White Paper says ‘The Scottish Parliament will become the Parliament of an independent Scotland. It will continue to have 129 members’. There is no winky face.

Then I’ll finish with this table outlining the options so far, with the third column outlining the implicit messages in the limited debate so far:

table 129 msps

You might have to look hard, but there are some parallels with current debates on regionalism in Japan: https://paulcairney.wordpress.com/2013/10/11/policy-transfer-in-theory-and-practice-what-can-japan-learn-from-regionalism-and-devolution-in-the-uk/


Filed under Scottish politics

What if you could only win an online argument if you were great at those cartoons where people are explaining things while magically drawing something?

Or, what if you put two of those arguments head to head to see if the shorter discussion/ picture won the day? To put this to the test, the case study here is this question: Should we have more Members of the Scottish Parliament?

As you can see, the ‘against’ argument is punchier and easier to make (Politicians …) :

The ‘for’ argument is more equivocal and takes more time to make (We *talk* about direct democracy …):

So, the ‘against’ argument wins, right? I’m not saying that we should have more MSPs – maybe it would be a waste of time without a cultural shift in party politics (towards the sort of behaviours we might associate, rather vaguely indeed, with the much lauded Nordic countries – and the made up Borgen in particular). But it does mean that we should have a think about it while we can. The ‘against’ case is generally so strong that it doesn’t occur to people to challenge it. Maybe our focus on constitutional change will give us that chance.


Filed under Academic innovation or navel gazing, agenda setting, Scottish politics