Scottish Politics

Second edition

by Paul Cairney

Chapter 8: Inter-Governmental Relations and Multi-Level Governance


This chapter explores the issues which arise from the Scottish Government’s external relations. It outlines and assesses the processes of intergovernmental relations and multi-level governance, exploring the most common areas of overlap between devolved, reserved and EU powers. It also examines the means used to address the areas of overlap. This includes discussion of formal measures such as concordats, Sewel motions and Joint Ministerial Committees (JMCs), as well as informal channels through the civil service and political parties. For Scotland in Europe there is a combination of low formal status (since Scotland is not a Member State) and a variety of informal mechanisms to exert policy influence. The chapter also discusses the strategies of interest groups in Scotland who are faced with uncertainty surrounding the locus of power and decision-making in the era of multi-level governance.

Key Points

8.1 While political devolution has now strengthened the legitimacy of the Scottish Government, the resources and ultimate constitutional legitimacy still reside in London.

8.2 In common with other devolved and federal systems there exists a range of intergovernmental relations (IGR) mechanisms to manage both the devolution of policy responsibilities and the maintenance of central control in key areas.

8.3 Since 1999 there have been issues which have highlighted blurred boundaries between the policy competences of the Scottish and UK Governments. Most issues of blurred boundaries between reserved UK and devolved Scottish policies have been addressed informally within the civil service and, more importantly, within the Labour party. Legislative issues were largely addressed using Sewel (Legislative Consent) motions.

8.4 There are still many areas with blurred boundaries between Scottish and UK powers which are often complicated by the EU dimension. For example, devolution of environmental and agricultural policies to Scotland has come at a time when the responsibility for policy formulation is transferring to the EU.

8.5 From 1999 to 2007 policy boundary issues were addressed informally between executives (with a key role for civil servants) within the UK with little resort to formal intergovernmental relations channels.

8.6 Since the election of a minority SNP government in 2007, not surprisingly, the Scottish Government has amplified territorial concerns over many of these longstanding disputes. However, the ‘day-to-day’ relations are much better than the headlines suggest, and most issues are dealt with quietly.

Essay Questions

  1. Evaluate the suggestion that Scottish politics operates in an era of multi-level governance.
  2. Assess the impact that asymmetrical devolution has had on UK politics.
  3. Critically assess the contention that the imprint of unionism remains evident in Scotland’s political institutions post-devolution.

Self-test questions

  1. What mechanisms of intergovernmental relations exist?
  2. What is a Sewel motion?
  3. Outline policy areas with devolved and reserved ‘boundary’ issues.
  4. What is the ‘West Lothian question’?
  5. Why were formal intergovernmental mechanisms so rarely used in the early years of devolution?
  6. What impact does the EU have on Scottish politics?
  7. How do interest groups lobby in an era of multi level governance?

Further Reading

There is an eclectic mix of literature dealing with issues of multi-level governance and inter-governmental relations in Scotland. On intergovernmental relations see Bulpitt (1983), Mitchell (2003a, 2003b), Agranoff (2004), Horgan (2004). Keating (2005a) as well as the annual publications from the Constitution Unit – Hazell (2000; 2003), Trench (2001; 2004; 2005). On multi-level governance see Bache and Flinders (2004a, 2004b). On Sewel motions see Winetrobe (2001, 2005) and Cairney and Keating (2004). For a history of the regions in Europe with reference to Scotland see Mazey and Mitchell (1993), Harvie (1994), Kellas (1991a). On EU policymaking and funding see Burrows (2000), Bache and Bristow (2003), Bulmer et al (2002; 2006). On the Scottish Parliament and Europe see Salmon (2000), Baker et al (2002), Heggie (2003), European and External Relations Committee (2007). On Europe’s impact on the Scottish Office/Executive see Smith (2003).


See David Cairns (Minister of State at the Scotland Office) 11.1.08 ‘How Holyrood and Westminster make devolution work’ The Herald

Local income tax plans are further mired in multi-level governance arrangements – D. Maddox 27.5.08 The Scotsman

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