Tag Archives: Scottish Constitutional Convention

New politics: a central or peripheral role for the Scottish Parliament? #POLU9SP

In many ways, the Scottish Parliament became the alternative to ‘old Westminster’ described initially by the Scottish Constitutional Convention. Its electoral system is more proportional, it contains a larger proportion of women, it has a more ‘family friendly’ and constituency friendly design, and it has no House of Lords.

In other ways, Holyrood became part of the ‘Westminster family’ (to reflect the UK Government’s influence on its design). The executive resides in the legislature, it produces and amends the vast majority of legislation, and it generally controls parliamentary business with a combination of a coalition (1999-2007) or single party (2011-16) majority and a strong party ‘whip’. Scottish parliamentary committees have performed a similar scrutiny function to Westminster. Holyrood is a hub for participatory and deliberative democracy, but more in theory than practice. The Scottish Parliament enjoyed minority government from 2007-11, but this made far less of a difference than you might expect.

Overall, it is a body with unusually strong powers in relation to comparable legislatures such as Westminster, not the Scottish Government. It is often peripheral to the policy process. Further, two aspects of devolution may diminish its role in the near future: further devolution from the UK to Scotland, and from the Scottish Government to local public bodies.

Distinctive elements of the Scottish Parliament

The Scottish Parliament’s electoral system, mixed member proportional, combines 73 constituency seats elected by a plurality of the vote, plus 56 regional seats elected using the D’Hondt divisor:

4.1 D'hondt

You can see its more-but-not-completely proportional effect in Scottish Parliament electoral results since 1999. Since there are more constituency than regional seats, the system still exaggerates the size of the party which dominates the plurality vote: Scottish Labour in 1999, 2003, and 2007, and the SNP in 2011.

table 2.2 SP results

Still, from 1999-2011, the system had the desired effect. In 1999 and 2003, Labour was the largest party but it required support from the Scottish Liberal Democrats to form a coalition majority government. In 2007, the SNP was the largest party by one seat, and it formed a minority government. Only in 2011 did we see a single party SNP majority built on approximately 45% of the vote. This is likely to rise in 2016.

The representation of women

table 5.1 women MSPs

There was a clear devolution effect on the election of women in the Scottish Parliament. At its peak in 2003, 40% of MSPs were women (35% from 2011) while 18% of MPs were women (29% from 2015). This level relied heavily on Scottish Labour which, in 2003, had 50 seats, of which 28 (56%) were women.

Family and constituency friendly working

The Scottish Parliament has restricted working hours, with committee and plenary business restricted largely to business hours Tuesday to Thursday, which provides more opportunity for MSPs to (for example) combine work commitments with caring responsibilities than MPs in Westminster, which conducts business on more days and longer days. Holyrood was also designed to allow MSPs to spend a meaningful amount of time in their constituencies. We can discuss in the lecture how you think MSPs actually use their time.

A unicameral Scottish Parliament with significant powers

The SCC’s rejection of an unelected House of Lords did not come with a desire for an elected second chamber. Instead, the Scottish Parliament’s unicameral system is designed to make up for the lack of a ‘revising chamber’ by ‘front loading’ legislative scrutiny: specific committees consider the principles of a bill before it is approved, in principle, in plenary (stage 1); and, they amend a bill (stage 2) before the final amendments in plenary (stage 3).

Many of these specialist committees are permanent (such as the audit committee). All committees combine the functions of two different kinds of Westminster committee – Standing (to scrutinise legislation) and Select (to monitor government departments, including, for example, the ability to oblige ministers to report to them). They also have the ability to hold agenda setting inquiries, monitor the quality of Scottish Government consultation before they present bills to Parliament, and initiate legislation (the process for MSPs to propose bills is also simpler).

The idea is that committees become specialist and business-like (leave your party membership at the door) and their members become experts, able to hold the government to account in a meaningful way, and provide alternative ideas or legislation if dissatisfied with the government’s response.

Part of the Westminster family

Yet, the operation of the Scottish Parliament is similar to Westminster in key respects. It is set up to allow the Scottish Government to govern and for the Parliament to scrutinise its policies. It does not have the resources to act routinely as an alternative source of legislation or to routinely set the agenda with inquiries. When engaged in scrutiny, it relies heavily on the Scottish Government for information, has few resources to monitor the details of public sector delivery, and tends to focus on, for example, broad strategies and principles. Turnover is high among MSPs, who struggle to generate subject-based expertise. The party whip is strong, and a government with a majority of MSPs tends to dominate both committee and plenary proceedings.

This imbalance of resources between government and parliament is reflected in key measures of activity: the government tends to produce and amend the vast majority of legislation. Committees had a clear influence on some bills (can you give me some examples?), and MSPs have passed some of their own (what were the most important?), but we might say something similar about Westminster.

Did coalition, minority, and single party government make a difference?

box 5.5

The Labour-Liberal Democrat coalition operated, from 1999-2007, in a way that you might associate with a majority party in Westminster. It dominated the parliamentary arithmetic, produced and amended most legislation, and won almost all votes. Both parties signed up to a ‘partnership agreement’ that set a 4-year policy agenda each term, and the whip was remarkably strong (more so than in Westminster). There were many examples of cooperative working between government and parliament, bills produced by MSPs, and agenda setting inquiries – particularly during the initial ‘honeymoon’ period – but these cases should be seen in the overall context of a fairly traditional relationship.

Minority government changed things, often significantly, but not as much as you might expect. Crucially, it was unable to gain support for a bill to hold a referendum on independence (doesn’t that seem like such a long time ago?). It also had insufficient support for its legislative plans to reform local taxation and introduce a minimum unit price on alcohol (what has happened in these areas since then?). It lost more parliamentary votes, albeit mostly in relation to ‘non binding’ motions (although it responded in a major way to the motion to fund the Edinburgh trams project), and had to think harder about how to gain the support of at least one other party.

On the other hand, it continued to produce and amend the bulk of legislation. It was also able to pursue many of its aims without legislation or significant parliamentary consent (such as capital finance and public service reforms). The Scottish Parliament did not pursue a new role: it produced few memorable inquiries and very few bills.

So, the notable effect of single party majority government should be seen in this context. Clearly, the SNP has the ability to influence parliamentary proceedings in a way not enjoyed by any other single party in the Scottish Parliament’s history. However, there was not a fundamental shift of approach or relationship following the shift from minority to majority government. The government continues to govern, and the parliament maintains a traditional scrutiny role with limited resources and minimal willingness to do things differently (we can explore this point in more depth in the lecture).

Future developments: will greater devolution diminish the Scottish Parliament’s role?

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

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

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

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

Further reading: this final point about the tensions between traditional notions of democratic accountability and new forms of public service delivery are not unique to Scotland.

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Devolution and ‘new politics’ in Scotland: the implications for policymaking #POLU9SP

The phrases ‘new Scottish politics’ or ‘new politics’ should be understood with reference to ‘old Westminster’. They represented important reference points for the ‘architects of devolution’, or the reformers keen to present devolution as a way to transfer policymaking responsibilities and reform political practices.

These aims can be associated with two documents specific to Scotland. The first is the Scottish Constitutional Convention’s (1995) Scotland’s Parliament: Scotland’s Right, which made a general case for political reform:

the coming of a Scottish Parliament will usher in a way of politics that is radically different from the rituals of Westminster: more participative, more creative, less needlessly confrontational.

The second is the Consultative Steering Group’s (1998) Shaping Scotland’s Parliament, which designed the operation of the Scottish Parliament with regard to four key principles: ‘power sharing’, ‘accountability’, ‘equal opportunities’, and ‘openness and participation’.

However, I’ll show you that the debate links to a broader distinction between ‘majoritarian’ and ‘consensus’ democracy.

This focus on new political behaviour was an important reference point for politicians and commentators in the early years of devolution. Now, you don’t hear it so much. Yet, it gives us a reference point, to highlight limited progress towards ‘new politics’ and identify continuities in politics and policymaking despite these expectations for novelty.

In particular, I’ll show you, in a series of lectures, that Scottish devolution came with a set of measures combining new and ‘old Westminster’ elements, and it soon became a political system that would not look out of place in the ‘Westminster family’. Then, we can note that the slow or limited progress of new politics did not feature prominently in the debate on Scottish independence. Although the previous debate on constitutional change gave advocates a major opportunity to pursue political reforms, the independence debate did not. Finally, we can discuss the overall implications for policymaking: did the new politics agenda change how people make policy in Scotland?

From a ‘majoritarian’ to a ‘consensus’ democracy?

When you read some of the literature describing new Scottish politics as an alternative to old Westminster politics, note how similar it sounds to Lijphart’s discussion of majoritarian and consensus democracies. Neil McGarvey and I summarise Lijphart’s argument in Scottish Politics (see also my co-authored comparisons with the UK, Sweden, and Switzerland):

(click on them to make them bigger)

BOX 1.4 lIJPHART

box 8.2 Lijphart

These discussions suggest that, for many commentators, ‘Westminster’ represents an archetypal centralised political system with an adversarial and top-down political culture. This is an image that we should examine critically throughout the course rather than take for granted.

For now, note the link between the formalised rules to govern behaviour, such as on the style of election or the division of powers between organisations, and the informal rules or ‘cultures’ that they are alleged to promote. In particular, note that we might hesitate to expect that a shift in the voting system, from plurality to proportional, will necessarily prompt a major shift in political culture.

Scottish politics: combining new and ‘old Westminster’ elements

‘New politics’ is a meaningless phrase without a clear definition or reference to specific objectives. In Scottish politics, you can take your pick from quite a long list of ‘old Westminster’s’ alleged failings (the next section is in pages 12 and 13 of the 1st ed of Scottish Politics):

Electoral system – the first-past-the-post system exaggerates majorities and excludes small parties. It tends to result in a majority which, combined with a strong party system, ensures that one party dominates proceedings.

Executive dominance – this ‘top-down’ system, in which power is concentrated within government, is not appropriate for a Scottish system with a tradition of civic democracy and the diffusion of power. In Westminster, the centre not only has the ability for force legislation through (and ignore wider demands), but also to dominate the resources devoted to policy. Parliament does not possess the resources to hold the executive to account.

Adversarial style – most discussions in Westminster take place in plenary sessions (the whole House sits together) with a charged partisan atmosphere. There is insufficient scope for detailed and specialist scrutiny in an atmosphere conducive to consensual working practices. This extends to committees – the partisan nature of politics undermines real scrutiny and there are limited resources to investigate or monitor departments. Given the distinction between select and standing committees, there may be a problem of coordination and a lack of potential for long-term consensual styles to emerge.

Too much power is vested in the House of Lords – an unelected and unrepresentative second chamber.

Although the government may consult with interest groups, this tends to be with the ‘usual suspects’. This reliance on the most powerful and well resourced groups (such as big business) reinforces the concentration of power in a ruling class.

Since power is concentrated at the centre there are limited links between state and civic society. Outside of the voting process, there are limited means for ‘the people’ to influence government.

Parliamentary overload – Parliament is too focused on scrutinizing government legislation. This leaves MPs with too little time to devote to their constituencies.

Parliament as a whole does not reflect the people that elect it in terms of microcosmic representation. There is a particular lack of women in Parliament as well as a tendency for MPs to be drawn from a ruling class’.

These deficiencies would therefore be addressed with a number of aims:

A proportional electoral system with a strong likelihood of coalition and bargaining between parties.

A consensual style of politics with a reduced role for party conflict.

Power-sharing rather than executive dominance.

A strong role for committees to initiate legislation, scrutinize the activity of the executive and conduct inquiries

Fostering closer links between state and civic society through parliament (e.g. with a focus on the right to petition parliament and the committee role in obliging the executive to consult widely)

Ensuring that MSPs have enough time for constituency work by restricting business in the Scottish Parliament to three days per week.

Fostering equality in the selection of candidates and making the Scottish Parliament equally attractive to men and women’.

Why did so few people discuss ‘new politics’ during the independence referendum?

In this lecture, I’m going to ask what you think of this list: how many of these aims do you think have been fulfilled? For example, is the Scottish Parliament more representative in terms of social background?

We can discuss briefly why you think that an evaluation of devolution, and a discussion of further political reform, did not seem to be a central feature of the independence referendum debate. Did most people assume that a Yes vote was – yet againa rejection of ‘Westminster politics’ without thinking about the extent to which it was different from Holyrood politics? Or, if it didn’t come up much, what were people talking about instead?

We can then go into some detail on participation, the role of the Scottish Parliament, and ‘pluralist democracy’ in subsequent lectures.

What can we conclude about the distinctiveness of Scottish policymaking?

Finally, we will come back to the main theme or guiding question of the course: what difference do these things make to policymaking in Scotland?

In particular, let’s see what you think of these two arguments:

  1. The argument specific to Scotland. Despite these hopes for greater ‘power sharing’ between the government, parliament, and ‘the people’, Scottish government largely operates in the same way as UK government. Most policy is processed by governments who consult with ‘pressure participants’ such as interest groups.
  2. The more general argument. There is a ‘universal’ logic to this kind of policymaking in majoritarian and consensus democracies. Although they look different, they engage in very similar policy processes.

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Scottish constitutional change always seems one step behind the national mood – but we finally have a chance to get it right

DD-and-others-SF-campaign1997-resized-image-450x270

It is 19 years since George Robertson declared famously that Scottish devolution would ‘kill nationalism stone dead’. It remains one of the most important, symbolic, phrases because it sums up one of the worst sentiments in British politics: constitutional change seems, too often, to be a stitch up by one or more political parties at the expense of the others.  Too often, we have seen unionist parties produce deals amongst themselves rather than engage meaningfully with nationalist parties like the SNP.

The main result is that Scottish constitutional change often seems out of step with the national mood. The Calman Commission, established in 2007 by Labour, the Liberal Democrats and Conservatives, produced the Scotland Act 2012 that seemed out of date before it was implemented. The Smith Commission was established in 2014 and, although it produced its recommendations in a ridiculously short space of time, they already seem like the starting point for discussion, not a new devolved settlement.

Yet, it was not always this way. For a brief period, from devolution in 1999, we talked more about ‘new politics’ than independence. This is partly because many of the parties involved were more inclined to do the right thing than Robertson’s comment suggests. Scottish Labour didn’t hold hands with the SNP, but it made sure that it got SNP support during the Yes to devolution campaign in 1997. The parties (including Scottish Labour, Liberal Democrats and what would become the Scottish Greens) also thought about how political reforms would go hand in hand with constitutional reform, encouraging some debate about new forms of deliberative and participatory democracy.  They engaged ‘civil society’ groups, and the campaign for devolution had a strong focus on gender and the participation of women in public life. In short, they had a Scottish Constitutional Convention. This period of reform in the 1990s should provide some lessons today.

It is too tempting to argue that the incredible rise of the SNP, and its likely dominance of Scottish seats in Westminster, will produce a constitutional crisis – a UK party only governing with the consent of the SNP will reinforce a broad sense that ‘The Scots appear fed up with the English, and the English with the Scots’. Simon Jenkins suggests, rather provocatively, that the current union is dying and that ‘Some new format is required that must embrace parliamentary disengagement, devo-max or indie-lite or whatever. The task for Cameron or Miliband is to be architect of that format’.

Yet, this conclusion is not inevitable and the solution is not quite right. In particular, we do need to rethink the plans for further constitutional change that were produced so hastily by the Smith Commission for the sake of party politics rather than sensible constitutional redesign. However, a new constitutional convention should be the architect, not the leader of one political party doing a deal with another.

If you look at the rhetoric of the main parties, a new convention in Scotland is just the ticket. It suits Labour’s ‘no deals with the SNP’ stance, since a convention is a way out: it could be portrayed as an attempt to go beyond party politics and engage Scottish civil society. It suits the SNP, looking to maximise its influence but not be stuck with the idea that all it wants is ‘devo max’ or ‘full fiscal autonomy’ as a stepping stone to independence.  It might even suit the Conservative party if it squeaks into government again with the Liberal Democrats, since a convention may be the only way to generate a sense of legitimacy in Scotland if it has few or no MPs in Scotland.

The alternative for the UK parties (apart from the UK-wide convention proposed by Labour, which seems separate from Scottish reforms) is to stick with Smith and exclude the SNP, which seems like an untenable position for parties that claim to want to reform the Union to protect it. Only the SNP benefits from the stand-off, and only a constitutional convention provides anything close to a competing story of Scottish legitimacy to the one crafted so well by the SNP.

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The Scottish Independence Debate: a missed opportunity for political reform?

This post appears on the Crick Centre Blog: http://www.crickcentre.org/blog/scottish-independence-debate-missed-opportunity-political-reform/

It is commonplace to argue that the Scottish independence referendum has reinvigorated political debate: grabbing the attention of people who would normally not engage; producing high TV audiences for debates; and packing the town halls with people hungry for information. Yet, two problems should give us pause for thought. First, public knowledge of the issues is patchy – as expressed in polls as general uncertainty or incorrect answers to specific questions. Second, public attention to a small number of issues – including the future of a currency Union, Scotland’s membership of the EU, Scotland’s NHS, and Trident – comes at the expense of attention to political and policy processes. The referendum on Scottish independence has not produced the same focus on political reform as the referendum on Scottish devolution.

In the lead up to the referendum in 1997, the proposed Scottish Parliament was at the heart of debates on political reform. Elite support for devolution – articulated by political parties, local governments, and ‘civil society’ groups, via the Scottish Constitutional Convention – was built on the idea of a crisis of legitimation, linked to an image of top-down Westminster politics based on the concentration of government power and marginalisation of Parliament and ‘civil society’. Devolution was accompanied by an electoral system designed to diffuse power among parties, and some measures to help put the Scottish Parliament at the centre of new forms of participative and deliberative democracy. The Consultative Steering Group, a cross-party group with members drawn from ‘civil society’, articulated the principles it would seek to uphold: ‘the sharing of power’ between government, parliament and ‘the people’; accountability of government to parliament and the people; accessibility; and, equal opportunity.

Scottish devolution had an important impact in key areas: producing a more transparent legislature, coalition and minority governments, and increasing the representation of women. Yet, it had a limited impact on ‘power sharing’ and accountability. The Scottish system remains part of the ‘Westminster family’, with a traditional focus on the accountability of ministers to the public via Parliament. This outcome became problematic in several respects: Scottish Parliament committees have limited resources to scrutinise policy and question ministers effectively; they rarely engage in meaningful or direct contact with civil servants; they struggle to gather information on the work of public bodies; and, local authorities generally argue that they are accountable to their electorates, not Parliament. Periods of coalition majority (1999-2007), minority (2007-11) and single party majority (2011-) government have reinforced this image of an often-peripheral body. The Scottish Parliament is a powerful body at the heart of accountability on paper, but not in practice.

Nevertheless, there has been no major debate on the role of the Scottish Parliament since it was established in 1999, and no major reforms have taken place. There have been some individual reports, such as ERS Scotland’s Democracy Max, but nothing like the scale of the SCC. This lack of attention seems significant for three reasons. First, other Parliaments, such as Westminster, have engaged in modernisation during this period. Second, the lead up to the referendum on independence in 2014 seemed like the perfect opportunity to revisit its role within Scotland’s independent or further-devolved political system. Yet, if people have discussed the Scottish Parliament, it is largely to confirm that they have no plans to reform (see footnote 2, citing the Scottish Government’s Scotland’s Future).

Third, the Scottish policy process has changed. The focus of the Scottish Government and its partners has changed markedly, towards the importance of ‘outcomes’, rather than ‘inputs’, as the key measure of government success. The Scottish Government plays an overarching role in policymaking: it sets a broad strategy and invites a large number of public bodies to carry it out. Ministers devolve most day to day policymaking to civil servants. The Scottish Government has also moved from the production of short term targets to long term outcomes measures which go beyond the five-year terms of elected office. It encourages localism, respecting the competing mandate of elected local authorities and encouraging them to work with other public bodies through community planning partnerships. This is not a recent event; it has been the approach of the Scottish Government at least as far back as the National Performance Framework, established in 2007, to provide a strategic framework for policy outcomes and invite a range of public bodies to meet its aims.

Until recently, the Scottish Parliament did not respond to these changes. Its procedures and activities are generally focused on inputs to the political system. Its main role is to scrutinise draft Scottish Government legislation as it is introduced. Its committees have devoted two to three months per year to the scrutiny of the annual budget bill. In general, this scrutiny has a very narrow focus, with a limited emphasis on pre- or post-legislative scrutiny, and its value is unclear. In many ways, its activities do not seem to match the hopes of the Consultative Steering Group.

Consequently, like Westminster, the Scottish Parliament is part of an apparently simple accountability process: power is concentrated in the hands of ministers, who are accountable to the public through Parliament. Yet, as in Westminster, this simple picture of ministerial accountability is increasingly misleading. The Scottish Government oversees a complex public sector, with a large number of accountability mechanisms, most of which do not involve the Scottish Parliament. As things stand, this will continue regardless of the vote in the referendum. Policy will continue to be made out of the public and parliamentary spotlight.

 

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What is the Future of Scotland’s Political System?

Referendums on constitutional change in Scotland produce ‘windows of opportunity’ to discuss the future of Scottish politics and policymaking. For example, the Scottish Constitutional Convention – an organization comprising political parties, interest groups, civic and religious leaders – formed in 1989 to promote the principle, and operation, of devolved government. It set much of the agenda during the devolution debates in the 1990s, promoting ‘new politics’, or widespread reform based on a rejection of political practices in ‘old Westminster’. Some of the SCC’s broad aims were met, including a mixed-member proportional system designed to reduce the chance of single party majorities, and encourage some bargaining between parties.

However, the Scottish political system is still part of the ‘Westminster family’, producing a Scottish Government which processes the vast majority of policy, a Scottish Parliament that is generally peripheral to that day-to-day policy process, and a public with limited opportunities for direct influence. As in most countries, most policy is processed in ‘policy communities’ or ‘subsystems’, which bring together civil servants, interest groups, and representatives of an extensive public sector landscape, including local, health, police, fire service and other service-specific bodies. This generally takes place out of the public spotlight and often with minimal parliamentary involvement. Indeed, few non-specialists could describe how these bodies interact and where key decisions on Scottish policy are being made.

Further, the Scottish public sector landscape is changing. The Scottish Government has, since 2007, produced a National Performance Framework and rejected the idea that it can, or should, micromanage public sector bodies using performance measures combined with short term targets. Instead, it encourages them to cooperate to produce long term outcomes consistent with the Framework, through vehicles such as Community Planning Partnerships. Further, following its commitment to a ‘decisive shift to prevention’, it has begun to encourage reforms designed to harness greater community and service-user design of public services.

This is important background which should inform the current independence debate, most of which focuses on external relations and neglects Scotland’s internal dynamics. The independence agenda gives us a chance to evaluate the devolution experience so far, and consider what might change if there is independence or further devolution. As far as possible, we should focus on the Scottish political system as a whole, including the relationship between the Scottish Parliament, public participation, the Scottish Government, and a wide range of public sector bodies, most of which are unelected.

Consider, for example, if the system follows its current trajectory, towards a greater reliance on local governance. This development has great potential to undermine traditional forms of parliamentary scrutiny. The Scottish Parliament already lacks the ability to gather information independently – it tends to rely on bodies such as the Scottish Government to provide that information. It does not get enough information from the Scottish Government about what is going on locally. Scotland lacks the top-down performance management system that we associate with the UK Government, and a greater focus on long term outcomes removes an important and regular source of information on public sector performance. Local and health authorities also push back against calls for detailed information. More devolution to local authorities would exacerbate this tension between local and national accountability.

Local decision-making also has the potential to change the ‘subsystem’ landscape. Currently, most Scottish policy is processed by civil servants who consult regularly with pressure participants. Most ‘lobbying’ to the Scottish Government is done by (a) other parts or types of Government and (b) professional and interest groups. Civil servants rely on groups for information and advice, and they often form long term, efficient and productive relationships based on trust and regular exchange. When policy is made at the Scottish level, those groups organise at the Scottish level. The Scottish Government is a key hub for policy relationships; it coordinates networks, referees disputes, and gathers information and advice at a central level.

One consequence of devolving more power locally is that these groups must reorganise, to shift from lobbying one national government to 32 local governments. Such a shift would produce new winners and losers. The well-resourced professional groups can adapt their multi-level lobbying strategies, while the groups working on a small budget, only able to lobby the Scottish Government, will struggle.

Such developments may prompt discussions about three types of reform. The first relates to a greater need to develop local participatory capacity, to take on the functions performed less by these national organisations. For example, the ERS Scotland’s suggestion is that more local devolution could produce a more active local population. Even so, we still need to know more about how and why people organise. For example, local communities may organise in an ad hoc way to address major issues in their area as they arise; to engage in a small part of the policy process at a particular time. They do not have the resources to engage in a more meaningful way, compared to a Parliament and collection of established groups which maintain a constant presence and develop knowledge of the details of policies over time.

The second relates to governance reforms which focus primarily on the relationship between elected local authorities, a wide range of unelected public bodies, and service users. There is some potential to establish a form of legitimacy through local elections but, as things stand, local authorities are expected to work in partnership with unelected bodies – not hold them to account. There is also some scope to develop a form of user-driven public service accountability, but separate from the electoral process and with an uncertain focus on how that process fits into the wider picture.

The third relates to parliamentary reform. So far, the Scottish Parliament has not responded significantly to governance trends and a shift to outcomes focused policymaking. Its main role is to scrutinise draft Scottish Government legislation as it is introduced. Its committees devote two to three months per year to the scrutiny of the annual budget bill. In general, this scrutiny has a very narrow focus, with a limited emphasis on pre- or post-legislative scrutiny, and its value is unclear. It has the potential to change its role. It can shift its activities towards a focus on Scottish Government policy in broader terms, through the work of inquiries in general and its finance and audit functions in particular.

Yet, while there are many issues still to be resolved, they are unlikely to be addressed before the referendum in September. Proposals for political reform only make sporadic appearances on the referendum agenda, and developments in governance tend to take place beyond the public spotlight. Scotland has its own political system, but it is one which is developing in a piecemeal way. A Yes vote in September may mark a radical shift in constitutional politics, but not in the way Scotland does politics.

Full paper: Cairney 2015 Political Quarterly Scotland Future

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The Role of the Scottish Parliament in a Devolved or Independent Scotland

Scottish Constitutional Forums Scotland Workshop: ‘After the Referendum: A Constitution for an Independent Scotland’

Session 3: Constitutional institutions in an independent Scotland

Professor Paul Cairney, University of Stirling p.a.cairney@stir.ac.uk

The Role of the Scottish Parliament in a Devolved or Independent Scotland

My brief for this talk was to consider, ‘how the Scottish Parliament might be enhanced to make it a more effective legislature and check on executive power’. This seems too optimistic for me, so I am going to focus on two slightly different statements:

  1. The Scottish Parliament has not been an effective legislature and check on executive power.
  2. In an independent or further devolved Scotland, the Scottish Parliament will not be an effective legislature and check on executive power.

At least that way, with our expectations suitably low, we can be pleasantly surprised if things work out.

We should also note that the Scottish Parliament is not just there to scrutinise and legitimise legislation:

  • It has a deliberative role, to encourage debate, inform the public, and mediate the demands and concerns of constituents.
  • It has a participative role, to encourage people to bring petition-based initiatives and act as a hub for groups seeking to influence the policy process.
  • It has a symbolic (in the good sense of the word) role, as a representative of ‘the people’, which includes its ability to adequately represent major social groups and promote equality (on grounds of gender, race, ethnicity, disability, age, and so on).
  • It has a role in informing the public about the Scottish Parliament and its role in Scottish Politics; in promoting the visibility of politics (beyond party conflicts).

The Scottish Parliament has not been an effective legislature and check on executive power.

In How Can the Scottish Parliament Be Improved as a Legislature? I explore five main points ‘derived from discussions with practitioners and extrapolated from debates on the Scottish Parliament since devolution’:

1. The Scottish Parliament did not live up to expectations. We used to talk about Scottish Parliament committees being the ‘motor of new politics’. Scotland has a unicameral system, with the absence of a second chamber offset by a ‘front-loaded’ legislative process with ‘powerful committees’ (which combine standing and select committee functions) at the centre.  This power (for example, to consider the principle and details of bills before plenary) was to be supplemented by the promotion of a ‘businesslike’ attitude of committee members when scrutinising government policy and raising new issues through inquiries. Committees would operate in the context of an electoral system expected to minimise the chance of majority single party government.  At the same time, the Scottish Parliament was designed to be part of the ‘Westminster family’, with the government there to govern and the parliament to perform a traditional scrutiny function.

So, by not living up to expectations, I mean the expectations of devolution reformers such as the Scottish Constitutional Convention, not the UK Government or associated bodies (Jim Johnston and I compare their expectations in What is the Role of the Scottish Parliament?). The latter can point to an unprecedented level of visible parliamentary scrutiny of Scottish government.

2. The Scottish Parliament does not scrutinise government legislation sufficiently

We can point to four main gaps in scrutiny:

  • The Scottish Government dominates a punishing legislative agenda and committees are part of a sausage machine/ conveyor belt with limited change to scrutinise. This point was made most strongly from 1999-2003 and 2003-2007 when Labour and the LibDems formed a majority coalition government and passed 50/ 53 bills per 4-year session. The SNP minority government 2007-11 passed 41 (and dropped bills on a local income tax, and the referendum).
  • From 1999-2007, committees argued that they had minimal time to produce agenda setting inquiries. From 2007-11, they had more time but did not fill the gap.
  • Governments can pursue many policy aims without the need for parliamentary approval of legislation.
  • The Scottish Parliament has struggled to get enough information to scrutinise effectively – particularly from public bodies out of immediate Scottish Government control (local authorities, health boards and non-departmental public bodies).

3. The Scottish Parliament does not have a sufficiently large professionally trained staff

Committee MSPs are supported by a few dozen staff, overseeing the work of a Scottish Government spending around £30bn and employing around half a million employees, including over 16,000 civil servants and over 10,000 in quangos. The trend has been to reduce those parliamentary numbers in the ‘age of austerity’.

4. The party whip undermines independent scrutiny, or parties do not engage with the legislative process

Since 1999, the main parties have been remarkably well whipped. So, the majority coalition government was able to dominate the legislative timetable, votes and even the decisions on committee size and membership. Minority government did not cause a profound shift in the parliament-government relationship (although the SNP was obliged to seek coalitions with some parties, particularly to secure the vote on its annual budget bill, and it worked well with the Conservatives). Politics often became more adversarial, with much debate moving from committees to plenary. If this is what Nordic-style minority party consensualism looks like, we have been sold a dud.

5. The Scottish Parliament would benefit from an upper chamber

An independent Scottish political system will, almost certainly, be unicameral. So, the more realistic discussion is about how to make up for the absence of a second chamber. The experience of Scottish devolution since 1999 is that a ‘front-loaded’ system, with committees at its heart, does not provide anything like the ‘checks and balances culture that we might associate with the diffusion of power between legislative arenas and institutions’. Majority single party government, combined with a strong party whip and the limitations of Scottish Parliament resources, does not fit the bill. Although there are additional financial/ audit checks on Scottish Government activity, and wider checks such as membership of the EU (and a commitment to the ECHR), the unicameral Scottish Parliament experience points to the need for something like a written constitution outlining the new roles and responsibilities of institutions.

In an independent or further devolved Scotland, the Scottish Parliament will not be an effective legislature and check on executive power.

I don’t think it would surprise many people if further devolution produced no change in the size of the Scottish Parliament and its relationship with the Scottish Government. Even in the absence of an ‘age of austerity’, it is difficult to argue for more parliamentary resources and very few are willing to do so. Only independence, and a sense of major change, produces the ‘window of opportunity’ to reconsider the role of policymaking institutions fundamentally. Yet, I haven’t seen any major group making a serious push in this direction (although see this thread on Better Nation). Of greater note is that idea that local bodies will take on more political and policymaking responsibilities and that the Scottish Parliament could even remain almost untouched. You can follow this in a related post, in which I try to sum up those positions. Each position would, I think, either produce the same or reduced levels of Scottish Parliament involvement in the politics and policymaking of the Scottish Government and the public sector:

table 129 msps

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Scotland’s Policy-Making Capacity: Background and Summary

I am part of the new ESRC Scottish Centre for Constitutional Change which begins work from Monday for two years on a large set of projects relating to constitutional change in Scotland. Here is a brief outline of part of its focus:

Constitutional change agendas in Scotland produce ‘windows of opportunity’ to discuss the future of Scottish politics and policymaking. In the 1990s, the devolution agenda was used by organisations such as the Scottish Constitutional Convention to propose major political reforms – associated with the phrase ‘new politics’ – regarding the role of government, parliament, interest groups and the public in politics. The independence agenda has prompted similar proposals from organisations such as the Electoral Reform Society, recommending more local forms of public participation, and the ‘Common Weal’ project, recommending corporatism (close cooperation between government, business groups and unions) and greater popular participation, as part of radical reforms of Scotland’s social and economic organisation. The common theme is the idea that a Scottish government can produce a distinctive ‘policy style’ (the way that it makes and implements policy). This style may be used to pursue an alleged social and democratic tradition in Scotland that has much more in common with the ‘consensualism’ of the Nordic countries than the ‘majoritarianism’ of the UK. Yet, the experience of devolution suggests that Scottish politics shares many features with its Westminster counterpart. Both systems are driven by government, with Parliaments performing a limited scrutiny role. Public participation is limited largely to Scottish Parliament and UK General elections. Many of the differences between Scottish and UK practices – such as a more ‘bottom up’ approach to public service delivery, in which local authorities are given more autonomy – may result from the Scottish Government’s size and policy capacity rather than its distinctive culture.

In this context, we examine a future Scottish Government’s ability to make policy in a distinctive way, in partnership with the main social partners (business, unions, the third sector), public sector bodies and professions, the public and the Scottish Parliament to elaborate shared long-term goals. We identify policymaking constraints which are specific to Scotland (including its size and responsibilities) and common to all systems (including the limited resources of policymakers and a challenging economic context which may undermine some types of policy innovation). We draw on the experience of devolution to paint a realistic picture of potential changes in policy and policymaking and use these insights to examine the Government’s ability to pursue major reforms. We focus on socioeconomic policies which rely on its ability to link taxation policy to spending priorities and policy outcomes. We use ‘preventative spending’ as a case study, examining policy outcomes and linking them to the policies of governments. This area is a key test of the ability of a small government to pursue ‘holistic’ government by bringing together a range of departments and organisations to consider the reinforcing (or undermining) effect of a range of policies on each other – and the need to cooperate in a meaningful way, with a range of organizations, to secure shared policy aims.

 

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