Tag Archives: social policy

Two myths about the politics of inequality in Scotland

The first obvious myth about Scotland is that it is a land of milk and honey inhabited by a left-wing population that demands equality at all costs – or, even, that its financial advantage combines with consistently social democratic policies to reduce socio-economic inequalities to a level far below the rest of the UK.

In fact, Scotland’s social attitudes are more subtly left-wing, its devolved policies often diverge more in headline than substance, and – crucially – its record on inequalities does not match the rhetoric, of a social democratic Scotland, that we heard so often during the referendum campaign. For example, the Christie Commission, which set the Scottish Government’s new inequality agenda in 2011, stated that:

on most key measures social and economic inequalities have remained unchanged or become more pronounced … This country is a paradoxical tapestry of rich resources, inventive humanity, gross inequalities, and persistent levels of poor health and deprivation … In education, the gap between the bottom 20 per cent and the average in learning outcomes has not changed at all since devolution. At the same time, the gap in healthy life expectancy between the 20 per cent most deprived and the 20 per cent least deprived areas has increased from 8 to 13.5 years and the percentage of life lived with poor health has increased from 12 to 15 per cent since devolution. The link between deprivation and the likelihood of being a victim of crime has also become stronger.

This set of problems receives only sporadic political attention, but there is some potential for a lack of progress on inequalities to frame the next Scottish Parliament election (if the constitutional question does not continue to dominate).

For example, high levels of inequality in school educational attainment, linked to income and poverty, and discussed at length by Dani Garavelli, have prompted Mandy Rhodes to argue that ‘Scotland’s record on closing the attainment gap is all but failing’, others to argue that ‘Scotland’s educational apartheid’ is ‘is Scotland’s greatest national disgrace’ (Alex Massie) that ‘shames the nation’ (Kevin McKenna), and John McDermott (backed by evidence from Lucy Hunter Blackburn) to argue that these inequalities are reinforced by Scotland’s free University tuition policy. The middle classes are more likely to do better at school, go to University, and leave with no debt than their working class peers. In other words, the claim is that the Scottish Government is either failing to solve the problem of inequality or making it worse – a charge that would be dynamite if the constitution did not dominate political attention so consistently for so long.*

Yet, this conclusion has produced a second, equally problematic, myth: our obsession with Scottish independence has set back the inequalities agenda for years. This story has two main elements. First, the SNP government has taken its eye off the ball because it has been able to entertain its independence obsession, at the cost of paying attention to substantive social policy, without having to worry about the effect of its governing record on its popularity: inequality has worsened but its position remains strong while it can blame Westminster for any problem. Second, there is a simple solution to educational and other inequalities in Scotland – we just need to be driven by the evidence of success (for example, in other countries) and find the political will and leadership necessary to make tough decisions and stick to them.

Both of these points can be dismissed easily. First, maybe we don’t pay much attention to relevant policies, but the Scottish Government and Parliament do. In fact, there is unusually high agreement between parties on the need for the ‘decisive shift to prevention’ prompted by the Christie Commission, accepted wholeheartedly in government, and overseen by the Finance Committee. Further, when people do pay attention – when there is party political electoral competition and public attention to policy – it undermines long term policy strategies. Bursts of attention to political issues tend to produce rushed solutions to the wrong problem – more money goes to acute hospital care to reduce waiting times or to local authorities to boost teacher numbers and reduce class sizes, taking money away from the policies designed to reduce inequalities in the long term.

Second, the key problem that we need to face, if we want to go beyond simply shaming the nation’s or the government’s record, is that we don’t know what the evidence is and what policy should be. No politician or political commentator likes to admit that they can see a huge problem but don’t have a clue about how to solve it – yet, that is the problem we face. The simple solutions of media commentators are untested and their success rests largely on assertion rather than evidence. Or, when experts are called upon to settle the matter, you find that equally eminent scholars support contradictory solutions.

My new research with Emily St Denny shows just how far this problem goes. Even if there is cross-party agreement on the need to act, no one quite knows how to do it: how to define ‘prevention’ policies, gather evidence of ‘best practice’ (from home and abroad), turn the evidence into policies that can be ‘scaled up’ across the country, and demonstrate success for long term projects in a way that helps them compete for funding with high profile and popular quick fixes. What seems like an academic discussion about the nature of evidence and the mechanics of policy delivery is actually an issue at the core of the inequality debate. We show how foolish it would be to assume that the problem can be solved by attention and political will.

The latest version of this paper is here: Cairney 2015 EBPM and best practice 22.4.15 . It underpins a talk I gave to the Scottish Government today, and an academic-practitioner workshop tomorrow, bringing together the Government, Parliament, academics, and policy practitioners, to discuss how to move on from the broad commitment to reduce inequalities to actual projects with demonstrable success.

*This is also an issue that @chrisdeerin has been discussing for some time, partly to bash the Nats and partly to advocate learning from projects such as the ‘London Challenge‘. This is a broader topic – policy learning and transfer – that needs additional discussion. I discuss it (albeit tangentially) in some separate posts – such as  on theory – and in a previous paper looking at the transfer of prevention policies.


Filed under ESRC Scottish Centre for Constitutional Change, Evidence Based Policymaking (EBPM), public policy, Scottish politics

How would Lisa Simpson and Monty Burns make progressive social policy?

Many of us may have a broad idea about how to make good, ‘progressive’, social policy. Or, we might find a lot of agreement on a collection of (albeit often-vague) terms to describe a philosophy of policy and policymaking.

This may relate to a drive to reduce inequalities, and perhaps the costs of public services, by getting to the ‘root cause’ of problems, or encouraging a focus on the ‘assets’ of individuals, encouraging people to participate and ‘co-produce’ their public services, and developing the ability of local communities to tailor national policies to their areas.

In some cases we might focus on the idea of ‘wellbeing’, to develop meaningful outcomes-based (and generally non-monetary) measures of improvement, or ‘early intervention’ and ‘prevention’, in which we address the root causes of problems by tailoring public service interventions to meet needs at the earliest point of a person’s life, rather than addressing problems as they become acute. Some of this policy may be universal, but we might also recognise that some people can be usefully targeted as ‘higher risk’ or in greater need of support.

We might also focus on the importance of employment and economic activity, as a key part of a drive to improve people’s mental health or wellbeing by encouraging them to participate (when possible) in society and develop meaningful social networks.

So far, so good. At this level of generality, this collection of ideas might generate cross party support. For those on the ‘left’, it offers a sense of social justice and reduction of inequalities. For those on the ‘right’, it offers the potential to reduce public service costs and shrink some parts of the state.

Yet, this agreement is often illusory, with the potential to break down dramatically when people turn a broad agenda into concrete policies and draw on additional ideas about, for example, the types of groups that deserve the state’s ‘benefits and burdens’.

There is an episode of The Simpsons which sums up this potential (albeit it’s totally made up and the example is to do with environmentalism): Lisa Simpson and Monty Burns agree on the nature of the problem, and both seem to be well intentioned, but they come up with fantastically different ideas about the practical solution (and how we should treat other animals).

To a large extent, this similarity and difference can be found in the mix of UK and Scottish Government policy and policymaking. If you look at key documents, they now talk in an almost-identical language, focusing on root causes, inequalities, public health, parity between mental and physical health, the importance of employability and employment, the assets-base of individuals, co-production, early intervention, the benefits of localism over central direction, and the need for central government to share policymaking responsibility with local government, public bodies, and a wide range of actors in the third and private sector. They are both making choices that often raise profound questions about the ethics of state intervention into the lives of individuals and families. They also both make the right ‘noises’ about the benefits and risks of state intervention, and this kind of language would, I think, be welcomed broadly across the public sector and in social policy circles.

Yet, what comes next is a different matter. The Scottish Government has cultivated a reputation for taking the Lisa Simpson approach, generating a sense of benevolent state intervention and making sure that its interventions receive fairly wide ‘ownership’ in key parts of the public sector – albeit while generating some dissent in key issues, such as on public health measures (most notably, a minimum unit price of alcohol) and the state guardianship of children (most notably, the idea of a ‘named’ person for each Scottish child). a regular feature of interviews with England-based interviewees is that they look fondly to Scotland and its social policies.

The UK Government, on the other hand, often looks like the Monty Burns character, by producing controversial policies on, for example, major welfare retrenchment, reducing entitlement to benefits related to unemployment, particularly for people with recognised disabilities (but based in part on the importance of employment to wellbeing) and a Troubled Families programme which is often described as punitive and stigmatising (but based in part on the principle of early intervention and the identification of the root causes of social problems).

In other words, the same basic principles can be used in a way that produces profoundly different policies.

Part of our current work is to try to explain why those differences in policy and policymaking, by the UK and Scottish Governments, might arise, and what their effects may be. It is too simple to state that the differences relate to the political parties in office: the SNP in Scotland and the Conservatives in the UK, largely because we are talking about long term trends that transcend parties. Other possible explanations include:

  • Their division of responsibilities. The UK Government still has responsibility for hot button issues such as welfare reform and employment. It still takes the ‘hard choices’ that tend to divide people politically, and produce highly visible winners and losers.
  • Their consultation and ‘governance’ processes. The Scottish Government has a reputation for inclusive and consensual policymaking (between governments and interest groups), which could relate generally to a policymaking ‘culture’ but does relate specifically to the scale of its task (its responsibilities are limited, and it is small enough for policymakers to form often-meaningful personal relationships with participants). It also has a reputation for a ‘governance’ style that values partnership with the public sector, and a relatively high acceptance of long term measures of success, compared to the UK Government which often combines a focus on ‘localism’ with short term targets and performance management to maintain central control and accountability.
  • The broader ways in which they characterise and treat ‘target populations’. We should resist the tendency to think that, in terms of political culture, Scotland is the home to left wing social democracy while England is increasingly right wing, intolerant and small state. The social attitudes surveys do not support this dichotomy of image. Yet, if we can detect a level of political competition based on these broad categories (in other words, Scottish parties may be more likely to compete using ‘left wing’ language), we might identify a tendency by their respective governments to articulate the same broad policies in very different ways.

With Emily St Denny, I am looking at these issues in a number of ways, albeit focusing primarily on the study of Scotland as part of the broader work of the Centre on Constitutional Change, and I can provide further links to these studies as we go along. Current examples include:



Filed under public policy, Scottish politics, UK politics and policy