Tag Archives: Scottish Parliament

We have a window of opportunity to improve Scottish devolution, so let’s start with parliamentary reform

Now is the perfect time to think about maximising the benefits of Scottish devolution. The first independence referendum produced important new constitutional changes, enshrined in the Scotland Act 2016. It now seems unlikely that there will be a second referendum any time soon. So, we have a window of opportunity to take a step back, understand the Scottish Government’s new powers, and consider how the Scottish Parliament can best hold it to account, encourage new voices in politics, and represent the views of the public. In other words, to think about how devolution’s original aims, summed up by the phrase ‘new politics’ (as compared at the time to ‘old Westminster’).

The Scottish Parliament is now a mature institution, supported strongly by the public, and here to stay. In the early years of devolution, it is understandable that there was more concern about public support and the financial cost of enhanced Scottish democracy. Now, it is time to start looking to the future, to note the Parliament’s success to date, and build on examples of good practice to make it as effective as possible as it takes on new responsibilities.

Commission report

The Commission on Parliamentary Reform has been doing just that. It was set up by the Presiding Officer, Ken Macintosh MSP, with John McCormick its chair and consisting of representatives of all main parties. Although asked to give the Parliament an ‘MOT’, a metaphor which might suggest that the fewer issues raised the better, the Commission came up with a series of measures to turbo boost the Parliament.

To strengthen the role of the Scottish Parliament, it recommends:

  • A more assertive role for the Presiding Officer, to control parliamentary business and encourage more effective scrutiny and debate.
  • Leaner and stronger committees, led by elected convenors, and more able to set the political agenda rather than simply respond to the government.
  • More independent MSPs, trained to be parliamentarians first and representatives of political parties second.

To enhance the Parliament’s equality and diversity principles, it recommends:

  • Establishing a vision for an equal and diverse parliament, setting benchmarks for MSP recruitment from under-represented groups, backed up by measures to influence political party recruitment.

To engage in new ways with the public and give ‘the people’ a voice, it recommends:

  • That the Parliament becomes a world leader in public engagement, experimenting with new ways to gather views and evidence, identifying the most excluded groups and ways to overcome barriers to engagement, and working with schools to encourage greater knowledge of the Scottish Parliament.

A big part of this shift of thinking should be about the ways in which we describe and appreciate MSPs. If elected politics should not be the part-time occupation of people with independent wealth and a larger income from other jobs, we should make sure it provides the kinds of pay and conditions that we’d take for granted in other parts of the public sector. If politics is a profession that requires particular skills which improve with experience, we should be more hesitant about complaining about a political class full of MSPs that never had a ‘proper job’. If we expect MSPs to work incredibly hard for their constituents and engage fully in Parliament, we should note that they routinely work well over the 35 hours we’d associate with most other public sector jobs, often at the expense of their long term health and life outside work. We should also be realistic about what we can expect from MSPs if the Scottish Parliament is to retain its ‘family friendly’ aims and allow MSPs to balance work and life.

This argument about appreciating MSPs should help us take an interesting story from the report. It doesn’t say that we should trade responsibilities and rights, but that we should place as much emphasis on their rights as we should their responsibilities.

So, it provides a series of recommendations which ask MSPs to reconsider their responsibilities to the Scottish Parliament, to focus a little bit less on partisanship and a bit more on the Parliament as an institution. We should expect MSPs to honour their responsibilities to the Parliament, to engage in parliamentary work as parliamentarians (particularly in committees), not simply representatives of their parties, and to help improve the quality of Scottish policy, not simply criticise policy from the Scottish Government.

It also suggests that MSPs deserve comparable employment rights to any other public employees, including the positive moves – such as parental leave and workplace flexibility – that help us remain effective at work and practice ‘self care’ and care for others. In fact, as a beacon for Scottish democracy, the Scottish Parliament should also be a beacon of progressiveness, turning its founding commitment to a ‘family friendly’ culture into best practice for all MSPs with caring and other personal responsibilities.  Further, MSPs should not have to apologise for being paid fairly while working hard for the Parliament or when claiming legitimate funds to support their work.

It is in that spirit that I’d suggest reading key parts of the report. Yes, the commission makes strong recommendations for important reforms in parliamentary rules and MSP behaviour. However, it also invites us to remember that the Parliament is here to stay, and a lot of the credit for its success should go to the people who work there.

The full report can be found here: https://parliamentaryreform.scot/

Paul Cairney is Professor of Politics and Public Policy at the University of Stirling. From January to June 2017 he was the advisor to the Commission on Parliamentary Reform, but these are his personal thoughts on the report.

 

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The Scottish Parliament would be a bit less crap in an independent Scotland and some people care

See also: The Scottish Parliament would be crap in an independent Scotland and almost no-one cares

The Scottish Government made a recent amendment to the Scottish Ministerial Code to restrict the role of MSPs while ‘Parliamentary Liaison Officers’ (PLOs) in the Scottish Parliament. PLOs are not members or the Scottish Government, but they work closely with ministers and sit on committees scrutinising ministers, which blurs the boundary between policymaking and scrutiny.

While previous Labour-led governments made a decent effort to deny that this is a problem (1999-2007), the SNP (from 2007) perfected that denial by allowing PLOs to sit on the very committees scrutinising their ministers.

Now, after some (social and traditional) media and opposition party pressure, its revised guidelines in the 2016 Scottish Ministerial Code – remove a large part of the problem:

PLOs may serve on Parliamentary Committees, but they should not serve on Committees with a substantial direct link to their Cabinet Secretary’s portfolio … At the beginning of each Parliamentary session, or when changes to PLO appointments are made, the Minister for Parliamentary Business will advise Parliament which MSPs have been appointed as PLOs. The Minister for Parliamentary Business will also ensure that PLO appointments are brought to the attention of Committee Conveners. PLOs should ensure that they declare their appointment as a PLO on the first occasion they are participating in Parliamentary business related to the portfolio of their Cabinet Secretary.

The only thing that (I think) remains missing is the stipulation in the 2003 code that PLOs ‘should not table oral Parliamentary Questions on issues for which their minister is responsible’. So, we should still expect the odd question along the lines of, ‘Minister, why are you so great?’.

PLOs in 2016 ministerial code

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The Scottish Parliament would be crap in an independent Scotland and almost no-one cares

Here is a four-step plan to avoid having to talk about how powerless the Scottish Parliament tends to be, in comparison to the old idea of ‘power sharing’ with the Scottish Government:

  1. Find something the SNP Government is doing and point out how wrong it is.
  2. Have the opposition parties pile in, taking their chance to bemoan the SNP’s power hoarding.
  3. Have the SNP point out that Labour used to do this sort of thing, so it’s hypocritical to complain now.
  4. Convince the public that it’s OK as long as all of the parties would have done it, or if they have been doing it for a long time.

This pretty much sums up the reaction to the SNP’s use of Parliamentary Liaison Officers (PLOs) on Scottish parliamentary committees: the MSP works closely with a minister and sits on the committee that is supposed to hold the minister to account. The practice ensures that there is no meaningful dividing line between government and parliament, and reinforces the sense that the parliament is not there to provide effective scrutiny and robust challenge to the government. Instead, plenary is there for the pantomime discussion and committees are there to have run-of-the-mill humdrum scrutiny with minimal effect on ministers.

The use of PLOs on parliamentary committees has become yet another example in which the political parties – or, at least, any party with a chance of being in government – put themselves first before the principles of the Scottish Parliament (set out in the run up to devolution). Since devolution, the party of government has gone further than you might expect to establish its influence on parliament: controlling who convenes (its share of) committees and which of its MSPs sit on committees, and moving them around if they get too good at holding ministers to account or asking too-difficult questions. An MSP on the side of government might get a name for themselves if they ask a follow-up question to a minister in a committee instead of nodding appreciatively – and you don’t want that sort of thing to develop. Better to keep it safe and ask your MSPs not to rock the boat, or move them on if they cause a ripple.

So, maybe the early founders of devolution wanted MSPs to sit on the same committees for long periods, to help them develop expertise, build up a good relationship with MSPs from other parties, and therefore work effectively to hold the government to account. Yet, no Scottish government has been willing to let go, to allow that independent role to develop. Instead, they make sure that they have at least one key MSP on each committee to help them agree the party line that all their MSPs are expected to follow. So, this development, of parliamentary aides to ministers corresponding almost exactly with committee membership, might look new, but it is really an extension of longstanding practices to curb the independent power of parliaments and their committees – and the party in government has generally resisted any reforms (including those proposed by the former Presiding Officer Tricia Marwick) to challenge its position.

Maybe the only surprise is that ‘new politics’ seems worse than old Westminster. In Westminster committees, some MPs can make a career as a chair, and their independence from government is far clearer – something that it is keen to reinforce with initiatives such as MPs electing chairs in secret ballots. In comparison, the Scottish Parliament seems like a far poorer relation to its Scottish Government counterpart – partly because of complacency and a lack of continuous reform.

Almost no-one cares about this sort of thing

What is not surprising is the general reaction to the Herald piece on the 15th August – and the follow up on the 16th – which pointed out that the SNP was going further than the use of PLOs it criticised while in opposition.

So, future Scottish Cabinet Secretary Fiona Hyslop – quite rightly – criticised this practice in 2002, arguing that it went against the government’s Scottish Ministerial Code. Note the Labour-led government’s ridiculous defense, which it got away with because (a) almost no-one cares, and (b) the governing parties dominate the parliament.

hyslop 2

Then, in 2007, the SNP government’s solution was to remove the offending section from that Code. Problem solved!

MPAs to PLOs 2003 and 2007

Now, its defence is that Labour used to do it and the SNP has been doing it for 9 years, so why complain now? It can get away with it because almost no-one cares. Of those who might care, most only care if it embarrasses one of the parties at the expense of another. When it looks like they might all be at it, it’s OK. Almost no-one pays attention to the principle that the Scottish Parliament should have a strong role independent of government, and that this role should not be subject to the whims of self-interested political parties.

So, I feel the need to provide a reason for SNP and independence supporters to care more about this, and here goes:

  1. Most people voted No in the 1st referendum on Scottish independence.
  2. There might be a 2nd referendum but it would be silly to expect a Yes vote this time without new and better arguments built more on actual plans rather than the generation of positivity and hope. For a political project to work, you really need to tell people what you will do if you win.
  3. One of those arguments needs to be about political reform. The ‘architects of devolution’ recognised this need to offer political alongside constitutional reform, producing the sense of ‘new politics’ that we now use to show that Scottish politics fell quite short of expectations. The mistake was to assume that they had cracked it in 1999 and never needed to reform again. Instead, institutions need to be changing continuously in light of experience. So, the previous SNP White Paper (p355) was rubbish on this issue because it pretty much said that it would keep things as they were because they were working OK.

p355 Scotland's Future

It is complacent nonsense, treating the Scottish political system as an afterthought, and it might just come back to bite the SNP in the bum. The implicit argument that The Scottish Parliament would be just as crap in an independent Scotland as it is now, and almost no-one cares is poor. Or, to put it in terms of the standard of partisan debate on twitter: shitey whataboutery might make you feel good on twitter, but it won’t win you any votes in the next referendum.

 

See also: Lucy Hunter Blackburn’s Patrick Harvie highlights close links between ministerial aides and parliamentary committees

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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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Politics and law-making in the Scottish Parliament

These are some notes for my short talk to the Scottish Public Law Group Annual Conference on the 13th June 2016. My session includes Andy Beattie, Chief Parliamentary Counsel (role includes drafting Scottish Government legislation) and Lynda Towers (former solicitor to the Scottish Parliament). So, as the only non-lawyer in the building, I am largely there as the entertainment. Or, in the more formal legal language of the invite, providing ‘reflections on the influence/impact of minority government on law/policy making, in addition to a more general policy/political studies perspective on law-making at Holyrood’.

I’d like to keep my discussion short, so will make a small number of points:

  1. The uncertain importance of new politics.

In the olden days (1999), people talked about the Scottish Parliament and its committees representing the heart of ‘new Scottish Politics’. The phrase accompanied a vague suggestion about ‘power sharing’ and the committees having a more important role than their Westminster counterparts. Some of this related to necessity, and you can see the results (e.g. there is no second chamber, so they ‘front loaded’ the legislative process). Some of it related to vague hopes for a new culture of policymaking, and you struggle to see the results.

  1. The importance of draft Acts.

The old literature on UK politics (on ‘policy communities’) talks about the political importance of draft Acts: by the time a bill gets to Parliament, the government (and its allies, involved in negotiating the policy in the draft) does not want to change it. It can modify at the margins, but a major change to the bill will necessitate more negotiation as well as more drafting. I think you can see this play out under ‘normal’ conditions: a government will signal which parts of the bill it can be flexible with, and the parts it will try to protect almost unchanged.

  1. The meaning of high quality legislation.

I was struck by Andy Beattie’s reference (in his slides) to ‘Drafting legislation to: deliver Scottish Government policy; and, secure the Scottish Parliament’s reputation for making high quality law which serves the people of Scotland well’. We might discuss two criteria for ‘high quality’ which don’t always mix well: one is the professional/ technical criteria reflecting the skill in turning broad policy aims into specific laws and regulations; another is the political criteria reflecting the chance for Parliament to debate and change legislation when introduced. Maybe they don’t always rub up badly against each other, but the thing that would possibly help – ‘pre-legislative scrutiny’ or engagement – often seems as or more visible in ‘old Westminster’.

  1. The impact of minority government.

Put simply, I didn’t see much difference during the last phase of minority government. There were two clear examples of major legislation not brought forward (on a referendum on independence, and on local income tax) and one important rejected section (on the minimum unit price of alcohol), but these examples related largely to temporary party politics rather than the more enduring government-legislature relationship.

  1. The importance of ‘anticipated reactions’.

A key argument (made most strongly about Westminster) is that the power of Parliaments comes in the actions of ministers and civil servants. We talk of ‘anticipated reactions’ to describe the lengths that the government takes to ensure that the legislation it drafts will not be vulnerable to too much parliamentary opposition. This seems important, but so too does the need for government and parliament actors to tell that story because it suits almost everyone involved.

 

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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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Scottish Parliament committees: when radical change isn’t radical change

You can find some very useful suggestions for Scottish Parliament committee reform in the summary and full speech (2015) by former Presiding Officer Tricia Marwick. They follow some useful suggestions by the Consultative Steering Group, which set out its plans for the committees in 1998.

The theme in both cases is: let’s find a way for the Scottish Parliament to be important, and for business-like committees (not partisan plenary debate) to be at the heart of its operation. Put more critically: let’s produce some good structures or reforms in the hope that political parties don’t act like political parties.

So, while the CSG expressed some hopes that the committees would perform a new role consistent with Scottish Constitutional Convention’s hopes for ‘new politics’ (‘more participative, more creative, less needlessly confrontational’), Marwick perhaps expresses some disappointment that it didn’t work out too well.

That said, Marwick’s suggestions get to the heart of many practical limits to the operation of committees. To demonstrate, look first at the way I summarised parliamentary life so far (for the Sunday Post):

“The Scottish Parliament’s committees have always suffered from a gap between expectations and reality. When the Scottish Parliament was introduced, there were high hopes that it would function far more effectively than Westminster. The architects of devolution rejected a second chamber in favour of a powerful unicameral Parliament with committees at the heart. To make up for the lack of a revising chamber, they front-loaded the legislative scrutiny process, with committees tasked first to consider the principles, then amend, draft bills. To reinforce committee power, they made many of them permanent, and gave committees the functions of two different kinds of Westminster committee – Standing (to scrutinise legislation) and Select (to monitor government departments and ministers). They have the ability to hold agenda setting inquiries, monitor the quality of Scottish Government consultation, and initiate legislation. 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, and provide alternative ideas if dissatisfied with the government’s response.

The reality rarely lives up to the rhetoric. The party system still dominates, with MSPs whipped to ensure government control of parliamentary business (apart from the brief period of minority government from 2007-11). Parties control committee membership and have overseen a large turnover, which undermines MSP expertise. The committees are ill-resourced, and they struggle to generate the amount of information they need to perform scrutiny well. So, it is no surprise that committees struggle to keep on top of the evidence given to them. They have the ability to do little more than one piece of work before moving on to the next”.

Marwick’s suggestions at least address the latter points

Scottish Parliament committees are ill-resourced and their MSPs are spread too thin. They will often serve more than one committee and move between committees – which, if combined with high MSP turnover in every election, undermines their ability to become specialists in their field. So, Marwick recommended a smaller number of larger committees to reduce that thin spread and encourage more effective scrutiny.

Marwick also pushed for elected convenors to address the problem of committee/ government distance. Right now, the governing party can appoint its share of convenors (and members) and ensure that there is little distance between the governing/ scrutiny roles. The Scottish Parliament is also small and there is not the same chance (as in Westminster) to make a career out of being a backbencher/ convenor of committee. Electing those roles would make convenors ‘directly accountable to Parliament’ rather than subject to the whims of parties (maybe).

These moves would represent radical reforms in the Scottish Parliament, but …

I wonder if anyone outside of Holyrood would notice the difference. Certainly, they would not radically change the fairly traditional Westminster-style relationship between government and parliament in which the government governs and the parliament struggles to provide scrutiny with limited resources. Nor would they change the very strong tendency for MSPs to act along party lines. You can train new MSPs in the ways of the parliament (an abstract concept that takes time to appreciate), but also expect them to be socialised and whipped by their parties (a concrete process that you’ll be expected to recognise immediately).

These reforms would take place during a time of diminishing parliamentary influence

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?

In other words, the proposed reforms address the practical limits to parliamentary influence at a time when those limits are being further tested.

Are there any issues on which the parties can agree?

They also don’t really solve the problem of partisanship, which means (for example) that it will be difficult to get the parties to agree about the kinds of issues they should examine in depth. To be effective as a group, MSPs really need to prompt the Scottish Government to do something (perhaps more quickly) that it already wants to do, or find an issue that transcends party politics (perhaps such as the representation of women in the Scottish Parliament, as part of an inquiry into the extent to which it represents important social groups). In most cases, this won’t happen.

So, let’s welcome some parliamentary reform but be realistic about its effect.

[I discussed these issues briefly on Good Morning Scotland, 10.5.16 at 7.07am. It’s true – ask my cousin. He heard the whole thing.]

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