Scottish Politics

Second edition

by Paul Cairney

Chapter 10: Public Policy in Scotland Since Devolution


This chapter explores how we identify and measure policy change in Scottish politics. For example, although this chapter focuses heavily on outputs such as legislation, it also considers outcomes following implementation. It examines why policies in Scotland may diverge or converge as well as the evidence for policy change in a range of policy areas, including ‘flagship’ policies regarding free personal care, student fees, and the smoking ban.

Key Points

10.1 Between 1999 and 2007 the overall picture is of limited (legislative) divergence – tuition fees, free personal care, mental health, local elections, NHS structures - further undermined by the process of implementation. In the relatively small number of cases where significant divergence has occurred in legislation, the incomplete implementation of policy has undermined divergence.

10.2 A number of factors suggest policy divergence will occur between Scotland and England – different social attitudes, party politics, differing civic society institutions and wider policy conditions, differing policy styles as well as parliamentary make-up.

10.3 However other factors suggest divergence may not occur – the same public finance environment, the UK single market, party linkages, the UK administrative and professional links between officials, similar policy conditions as well as the wider policy process culture of policy learning and incrementalism.

10.4 There is a widespread misconception about the amount of policy innovation that Scotland’s financial settlement can support. Care for older people was not ‘free’, student fees were not abolished (at least before 2007), and teachers are not paid significantly more than their English counterparts (with doctors often paid significantly less). The fact that the Scottish Government has to redirect money from one programme to fund another still represents the main obstacle to policy change.

10.5 Since the SNP were elected in May 2007 the ‘quick wins’ have been the abolition of graduate endowments and road tolls plus reduced prescription charges. However, the emphasis of the SNP government has been governing competence or, as Jack McConnell once promised: ‘doing less, better’.

Essay Questions

  1. To what extent has devolution resulted in ‘Scottish public policy solutions to Scottish public policy problems’?
  2. Evaluate the impact devolution has had on the different stages of public policymaking.
  3. To what extent has devolution led to increased policy divergence between Scotland and the rest of the UK?

Self-test questions

  1. Outline alternative definitions of public policy
  2. Why might policy divergence occur between Scotland and England?
  3. Has devolution resulted in ‘Scottish solutions to Scottish problems’?
  4. Outline the Scottish Government’s flagship policies from (a.) 1999-2003 and (b.) 2003-2007 and (c.) 2007-
  5. What are implementation gaps in public policy?

Further Reading

Key readings on Scottish policy change post-devolution are Adams and Robinson (2002), Greer (2004), Keating et al (2003), Keating (2005a; 2005b), McLean (2003), Stirling and Smith (2003), Mooney and Poole (2004), Mooney and Scott (2004), Mitchell (2004; 2006), Cairney (2007a). See also a special issues of the Political Quarterly journal 74(4) in 2003 with articles on Scotland, devolution and welfare reform.


  1. Centre for Scottish Public Policy
  2. Centre for Public Policy for Regions
  3. Scottish Council Foundation
  4. Comprehensive long list of online sites of Scottish Interest Groups Movements, Causes, Campaigns and Organizations

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