Tag Archives: Smith commission

The result of the Scottish independence referendum and the future of British politics

Paul Cairney, Professor of Politics and Public Policy, University of Stirling, p.a.cairney@stir.ac.uk

Tokyo University of Foreign Studies, Tokyo 4.12.14 and Hokkaido University, Sapporo, 6.12.14

The result of the Scottish independence referendum and the future of British politics

In part one, I provide historical background to the referendum debate, identify the importance of the Scottish National Party, outline the process for further devolution, and explain why further devolution might not produce a ‘settlement’ or prevent a second independence referendum.[i]

In part two, I outline a list of topics which we might discuss further in the question and answer session.

At the heart of the ‘future of British politics’ issue is the question: will Scotland remain a part of it? In the short term, the answer is ‘yes’. On the 18th of September 2014, 55% of the voting population voted No to the question, ‘Should Scotland be an independent country?’.

In the long term, it is impossible to tell. The referendum was often described as a once-in-a-generation opportunity to vote for independence. Yet, it is realistic to expect another referendum in 10 years. This event would form part of a longer term trend, in which the constitutional changes, designed to represent a devolved settlement in Scotland, have not solved the problem – partly because the problem changes or is articulated in new ways.

The background to the initial ‘devolution settlement’ and the spectre of ‘Thatcherism’

In the 1990s, devolution was often described as a way to solve the ‘democratic deficit’. The charge was that people in Scotland voted for one party in a UK general election (Labour) but received another (Conservative) on many occasions. This occurred from 1979-97, and the problem was exacerbated by a long spell of Thatcher-led government (1979-1990). ‘Thatcherism’ had a profound and enduring effect on Scottish politics, and it can refer to several alleged developments:

  • the pursuit of ‘neoliberal’ policies that challenged a ‘social democratic consensus’ in Scotland
  • the ‘top down’ imposition of unpopular policies in Scotland by the UK central government, often before they are introduced in the rest of the UK (such as the ‘poll tax’).
  • the pursuit of economic policies to grow the economy in the south-east at the expense of the north (including the manufacturing industries)
  • the promotion of British policies without sufficiently distinctive Scottish arrangements.

Devolution represented ‘unfinished business’ (since a referendum in 1979 produced a small Yes majority which did not meet a required threshold) and subsequent opposition to Conservatism helps explain a rise in support for devolution. A frequent argument is that devolution could have ‘defended Scotland from Thatcherism’, and allowed the maintenance of Scottish traditions of participative democracy and social democracy. Yet, as we saw in the independence debate, devolution was often described as a poor solution to the democratic deficit.

Devolution became a platform for the Scottish National Party

Devolution was described famously by former Labour Shadow Scottish Secretary, George Robertson, in 1995, as the opportunity to ‘kill nationalism stone dead’. Ironically, it is more accurate to say that the independence referendum could not have happened without devolution.

The introduction of the Scottish Parliament gave an in important new platform to the Scottish National Party (SNP). In 1999 and 2003 it was the second largest party (behind Scottish Labour). In 2007 it became the largest party (47 of 129 seats – Labour had 46) and formed a minority government. From 2007-11, it had insufficient support to pass a bill to hold an independence referendum. Yet, 4 years of government allowed it to develop a strong image of governing competence, which became one of the most important explanations for its major election victory in 2011 (the other is that the Scottish Parliament’s electoral system is not fully proportional – it combines plurality and proportional elements). It secured approximately 45% of the vote, which allowed it to gain a small majority of Scottish Parliament seats (53%, or 69 of 129).

The formation of a majority SNP government in the Scottish Parliament gave it enough support to pass a referendum bill, while the appearance of a ‘landslide’ (a major electoral victory which signals a strong momentum) allowed the SNP’s leader, Alex Salmond, to argue successfully that it gave the SNP a mandate to pursue the referendum. This event became an important way to secure the UK Government’s agreement to support the process (note that this support does not exist in, for example, Catalonia/ Spain).

Further constitutional change may never produce a devolution ‘settlement’ or solve the ‘democratic deficit’

The independence agenda has prompted Scotland’s other main parties (Labour, Conservative, Liberal Democrat – all of which are part of British parties) and the UK Government to consider further devolution; to try to produce a devolved solution that will settle the matter once and for all.

The Calman Commission recommended further devolution in 2009. It prompted the Scotland Act 2012, to introduce further tax devolution (part of income, land and landfill taxes), the ability of the Scottish Government to borrow to invest in capital projects, and new powers in areas such as Scottish Parliament elections, air weapons, driving and drug treatment. The Scotland Act 2012 was designed to be implemented after the referendum, giving opposition parties the opportunity to guarantee further devolution after a No vote.

Yet, this promise of further devolution proved to be insufficient and, during the referendum period, each party produced separate plans to extend devolution further. The parties then came together, in the lead up to the referendum to make what is now called ‘The Vow’ of ‘extensive new powers’ for a devolved Scotland. The Smith Commission was set up to take this agenda forward. It reported on the 27th November 2014, and its recommendations include to:

  • make the Scottish Parliament ‘permanent’.
  • devolve some fiscal powers, including the power to: set income tax rates and bands (higher earnings are taxed at a higher rate) but not the ‘personal allowance’ (the amount to be earned before income tax applies); set air passenger duty; and to receive a share of sales tax (VAT).
  • increase the Scottish Government’s borrowing powers.
  • devolve some aspects of social security, including those which relate to disability, personal care, housing and ‘council tax’ benefits (council tax is a property tax charged by local authorities to home owners/ renters and based on the value of homes).
  • devolve policies designed to encourage a return to employment.
  • devolve the ability to license onshore oil and gas extraction (which includes hydraulic fracturing, ‘fracking’, for shale gas).
  • control the contract to run the Scottish rail network.
  • encourage greater intergovernmental relations and a more formal Scottish Government role in aspects of UK policymaking.

The UK Government now aims to produce draft legislation to take these plans forward, although the bill will not be passed before the general election in May 2015.

To a large extent, the proposals reflect the plans of the three main British parties, rather than the SNP (which requested ‘devo max’), although they go further than those parties would have proposed in the absence of the referendum agenda. Again, they are designed to represent a devolved ‘settlement’, reinforced by the knowledge that 55% voted against Scottish independence in 2014 (the turnout was 84.6%).

Yet, this sense of a ‘settled will’ is not yet apparent. Indeed, it seems just as likely that the proposals will merely postpone a second referendum, for these reasons:

  1. The new plan may represent the largest amount of devolution that is possible if Scotland is to remain in the UK. However, it does not address all of the charges associated with the ‘democratic deficit’.

The ‘spectre of Thatcherism’ is still used by proponents of independence, and a period of Conservative-led government has been used to identify the potential for the ‘top down imposition’ of ‘neoliberal’ policies to continue in some areas, and for economic policy to remain focused on the south-east. It is still used to suggest that only independence could secure a Scottish consensus democracy. This narrative has only been addressed to some extent with the devolution of symbolically important responsibilities – including the ability to remove the so-called ‘bedroom tax’ (an unpopular policy associated strongly with Conservative-led welfare reform), reform local taxes (associated first with the ‘poll tax’, then the difficulty of the SNP to abolish the ‘council tax’ in favour of a local income tax), and administer benefits related to personal social care (associated with a longstanding dispute between the Scottish and UK Governments on ‘attendance allowance’).

  1. The SNP remains remarkably popular. Its membership has risen dramatically since the referendum, from 25,000 to over 92,000 and it is now the third biggest party in the whole of the UK despite Scotland having only 8% of the UK population. Its leader, new First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, is one of the few to maintain a positive popularity rating in opinion polls. Current polls also suggest that the SNP will gain ground in the UK election in 2015 and maintain a strong position in the Scottish Parliament in 2016.
  2. There is majority support for a referendum in the future.
  3. A second referendum would have a clearer sense of what people are voting for. In 2014, the ‘Vow’ allowed people to vote No and expect further devolution. In the future, the debate would be more simply about Yes or No to independence (albeit an independence that does not mean what it used to mean).

Part two – possible Q&A topics

  • What were the most important debating points? Examples include: the use of the pound as the Scottish currency, the future economic health of Scotland, and the future of important public services such as the National Health Service.
  • What are the limits to further devolution? ‘Devo max’ is the idea of devolving everything except foreign and defence affairs. It is not possible to devolve all tax and spending responsibilities (partly because European Union rules prevent it), and was never going to happen (at least while people support the idea of a United Kingdom which keeps the pound as its currency).
  • Should we try to explain why the Yes campaign lost or why it did so well?
  • Why is the Barnett formula so controversial and important to the debate?
  • Is the referendum debate about securing powers in principle or using them for particular purposes such as social democratic?
  • Would independence have produced a new system producing policy in a different way?
  • Is the Scottish population more left wing and does this produce more demand for independence or different parties?
  • Does national identity drive support for independence?

We could also discuss how Scottish politics relates to debates in the rest of the UK, including:

[i] I have written this document in essay form to keep it short and easier to translate into Japanese. I draw on a series of posts on my blog – https://paulcairney.wordpress.com/indyref/- and books such as Cairney, P. and McGarvey, N. (2013) Scottish Politics (Basingstoke: Palgrave). My points may look descriptive and factual, but it is impossible to summarise this debate in a non-political way.


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The Smith Commission on accountability: I don’t think it means what they think it means



Other blog posts argue that the Smith proposals fall far short of ‘devo max’ or ‘federalism’ and will disappoint people looking for the extensive devolution of welfare powers. So, I will focus on its statement on accountability:

“A more accountable and responsible Parliament. Complementing the expansion of its powers will be a corresponding increase in the Parliament’s accountability and responsibility for the effects of its decisions and their resulting benefits or costs”.

This is very misleading for the following step-by-step reasons:

  1. The Scottish Parliament will ostensibly become responsible for more powers, but Scotland inherited a Westminster-style system of democratic accountability. The Scottish Parliament delegates almost all policymaking responsibility to ministers, who are accountable to the public via Parliament. So, in practice, Scottish ministers are receiving greater responsibilities.
  2. The Scottish Government balances the Westminster idea of democratic accountability with others, such as institutional accountability (e.g. the chief executives of agencies take responsibility for delivery) and shared ownership (e.g. through community planning partnerships).
  3. The Scottish Parliament struggles to hold ministers to account at the best of times. When the Scottish Government devolves powers to the wider public sector, the Scottish Parliament struggles a bit more. The devolution experience is one of limited parliamentary influence.
  4. The Scottish Parliament will not grow in tandem with growing devolution. Instead, the same number of people will oversee a growing set of Scottish Government responsibilities.
  5. So, all other things being equal, greater ministerial responsibility will DECREASE democratic accountability.

In fact, the Smith Commission recognises this point and recommends a response:

“The addition of new responsibilities over taxes, welfare and borrowing means that the Parliament’s oversight of Government will need to be strengthened. I recommend that the Scottish Parliament’s Presiding Officer continues to build on her work on parliamentary reform by undertaking an inclusive review which will produce recommendations to run alongside the timetable for the transfer of powers”.

This need to pass the buck is understandable, given the limits to Smith’s remit (the Commission also makes good noises about the need for public engagement, to help people understand what the Scottish Parliament does). What is less understandable is why the commission presents these measures as good for accountability. What it means is that the ‘Scottish Parliament’ will become more responsible for raising some of the money it spends – but, as long as it can only control one small part of a mix of taxes, that argument is misleading too. Overall, we have a vague and misleading statement, using the language of greater accountability, but it’s not greater democratic accountability. It’s the other kind of accountability. The kind where democratic accountability is further reduced.

jim my arse

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The Smith Commission: will greater powers come with greater democratic accountability?

The main focus of the Smith Commission is to decide which powers should be devolved to the Scottish Parliament. Yet, in practice, these powers are held by the Scottish Government and devolved to, or shared with, a large number of governmental, non-governmental and quasi-non-governmental bodies. As a result, no one is quite sure who is responsible for decisions made in the name of the Scottish Parliament. This makes it almost impossible to identify a democratic system in which there are meaningful levels of accountability – either through the ballot box or in our day to day scrutiny of government policy. The Smith process should not just be a means to devolve greater powers. Rather, it should consider how to make sure that, with greater responsibility, comes greater democratic accountability.

Scotland has an apparently simple accountability process: power is concentrated in the hands of ministers, who are accountable to the public through Parliament. This simple picture of ministerial accountability is increasingly misleading. 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. Most policy is processed in ‘policy communities’, 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 moved from the production of short term targets to long term outcomes measures which go beyond the five-year terms of elected office. It often encourages localism. It 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.

Most of these measures seem appropriate, particularly when they foster decision-making by local actors with greater knowledge of local areas. Yet, they are also troubling, because it is increasingly difficult to know who is responsible for policy outcomes – and, therefore, who or what to hold to account. In the Scottish political system, the Scottish Government processes the vast majority of policy, the Scottish Parliament is generally peripheral to that day-to-day policy process, and the public has limited opportunities for direct influence.

This is important background which should inform the current debate, most of which focuses on more powers and neglects the need for more accountability. The Smith agenda gives us a chance to evaluate the devolution experience so far, and consider what might change if there is 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. However, its role will remain limited as long as it has a small permanent staff. The devolution of greater responsibilities to the Scottish Government, without a proportionate increase in Scottish Parliament research capacity, could simultaneously enhance and undermine the Scottish Parliament’s powers.

The Smith Commission provides a brief ‘window of opportunity’ to consider these issues of governance, participation and accountability – and how these problems may be exacerbated by the devolution of greater powers. We face the possibility of a Scottish system, in which we already struggle to hold policymakers to account, taking on more responsibilities without a proportionate increase in accountability measures. For example, the Scottish Parliament will have to scrutinize more activity with the same, limited, resources.

The Smith agenda should already prompt us to consider how powers would be used if they were devolved. This is not about the different policy decisions that each party would make with extra powers, which Smith has, appropriately, decided is outside of his remit. Rather, it is about how, for example, new tax and welfare powers interact with already-devolved powers over public services – such as when the devolution of relevant taxes and housing benefit can be linked to housing policy.

Similarly, it is difficult to consider the devolution of greater powers without considering how they will be used – and what effect more devolution would have on Scottish democracy. People already struggle to know who to hold to account in a relatively simple system in which there is a quite-clear list of devolved powers and tax/ welfare powers stay with the UK. We should think more about how we can understand a further devolved system, in which powers are shared across levels and, for example, ministerial accountability to parliament may only scratch the surface of a complex accountability landscape. This aspect of the process may, in principle, appear to be beyond the Smith remit but, in practice, there is no way to separate the long-term constitutional question from the day-to-day democratic question.

I discuss most of these issues in this paper: Cairney Political Quarterly workshop 23.10.14

See also: Public Lecture: ‘Will life go on after the Scottish Independence referendum?’

The Scottish political system and policy process share the same ‘complex government’ features as any country



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