Update 1A: Issues in Scottish Politics, September 2008 – January 2009
A report originally written for The Devolution Monitoring Programme. This programme is a major research project into the functioning of devolution, led by University College London’s Constitution Unit and funded by the UK and devolved Governments. It has produced over 150 reports and five books since 1999, including over 30 reports on post-devolution trends in Scottish Politics. The Scotland team is now led by Paul Cairney, Lecturer in Politics, University of Aberdeen.
The January 2009 report covers events from September to January. This is a period dominated by the effect of economic crisis which serves to show that it is difficult to predict which issues will dominate the political agenda. A range of issues which had the potential to dominate the headlines for days or weeks on end have been downgraded to second place following heightened sensitivity to the prospect of recession and unemployment. This includes: the decision to delay Jack McConnell’s departure from the Scottish Parliament (to avoid a potentially damaging bye-election for the UK Labour Government); the prospect of an end to the detention of children of asylum seekers at Dungavel (a long-term practice which brooked considerable opposition from ‘civil society’ in Scotland and put pressure on the relationship between UK and Scottish Labour ministers); reports of a rise in the number of people employed by Scottish quangos when the Scottish Government (like all governments) has promised to reduce their number; the approval of (but continued uncertainty over) Donald Trump’s golf course in Aberdeenshire; the likelihood of a public inquiry into the deaths related to C. difficile at the Vale of Leven Hospital; David Cameron’s non-rejection of Scottish independence (combined with what appears to be a ban on Conservative MSPs making a contribution to the devolution debate); and, the decision not to transfer responsibility for Scottish Parliament elections to the Scottish Parliament.
Much more could also have been made about the first (interim) report of the Commission on Scottish Devolution, led by Professor Kenneth Calman and supported by the UK government civil service (as well as a motion passed by Labour, Conservative and Liberal Democrat MSPs). Yet, in this case the problem may have been the report’s contents. As Charlie Jeffery argues in The Scottish Constitutional Debate, although the report’s publication overshadowed the National Conversation conducted by the Scottish Government, very few commentators found much ‘meat’ to chew. Jeffery argues that this disinterest is unfortunate because the report discusses the principles behind potentially profound constitutional changes. First, its Independent Expert Group of Finance makes clear that any system of territorial finance which addresses the ‘right’ to fiscal autonomy but also the requirement to redistribute funding by ‘need’ has no ‘technical’ solution. Second, it entertains the prospect of establishing: ‘a distinctive welfare state in Scotland funded by resources raised in Scotland. The devolution-max option would not look out of place in the … SNP Government’s White Paper’.
For a brief period, the scale of the economic problem also produced an unusual level of consensus between the parties in Westminster and Holyrood. However, the Glenrothes bye-election subsequently heightened their differences, before Labour retained its seat and marked the end of the SNP’s remarkable honeymoon period in office and popularity. While the personalisation of politics and Gordon Brown’s premiership were key factors in previous Labour defeats, they worked in Labour’s favour this time. Brown became a ‘safe pair of hands’ and took centre stage in world politics by promoting a financial rescue plan that many countries welcomed. This allowed Labour to build on the message that small countries are vulnerable during global crises, that only the UK government could have bailed out the big banks and that the Union was crucial to Scotland’s economic stability. The ‘arc of prosperity’ - Salmond’s famous description of a range of small but successful independent nations (including Iceland) that Scotland could emulate if it became independent - was replaced in the headlines by Labour’s phrase ‘arc of insolvency’. This shifting mix of consensus and partisanship is mirrored in the actions of Jim Murphy, the new Secretary of State for Scotland. As Alan Trench discusses in Intergovernmental Relations, one of Murphy’s first statements was to assure the SNP that he was in the post to represent Scotland’s interests, as ‘Scotland's man in the cabinet rather than the cabinet's man in Scotland’. Murphy is also comfortable with the term 'Scottish Government' and became involved quickly in a number of joint meetings with Scottish Government ministers about issues such as the economic crisis and the future of Dungavel. Yet, Murphy was also a key figure during Labour’s defence of the Union and criticism of the SNP during the Glenrothes campaign.
As John Curtice argues in Public Attitudes and Elections, Labour’s win does not reflect a fundamental change in public opinion. The proportion backing independence ‘is still no lower now than it was in August 2007’ (but is still not high enough to win a referendum on independence). Similarly, although more people trust Brown (42%) over Salmond (23%) to ‘steer Scotland through the current financial crisis’, many more would prefer Salmond (38%) as First Minister than new Scottish Labour leader Iain Gray (13%). The SNP still commands ‘a larger lead over Labour than the party secured in the ballot box in May 2007’, and even enjoys popular support for its move to replace council tax with a local income tax (discussed at length by David Scott in Government Beyond the Centre).
There is also some evidence of consensus in parliamentary proceedings. As Paul Cairney argues in The Scottish Parliament and Parties, the post-2007 committees are finally showing some willingness to work together (on issues such as community policing, sexual offences, hate crimes and asbestos-related damages), while a wide range of plenary motions (on issues such as agriculture, forced marriages and child protection) passed with a promising degree of party cohesion. There may also still be hope for the bill introducing direct elections to health boards if the pilots prove to be a success. Perhaps ironically, the main exception is in finance, with parliament passing a motion (by 65 to 60) to discourage the introduction of a local income tax, heated debates in the Finance committee about the use of public private partnerships to fund major capital projects (most notably the Forth crossing) and the annual budget bill falling at the ‘final’ hurdle (before being reintroduced soon after). Much has been made about the unprecedented nature of the SNP’s budget defeat and that this was a crisis of epic proportions. Yet, this is to give the proceedings a sense of drama that they do not deserve: Alex Salmond does not want to resign; few MSPs would welcome an impromptu election (which is not in the gift of the First Minister anyway); and, most demands made by opposition MSPs only affect the budget at the margins. Indeed, doesn’t it seem bizarre that we could still end up with cross-party support for a bill that will be almost identical to the one that failed to pass? These proceedings have also been made worse by the increased use of parliamentary procedures to make party political points. This culminated in Presiding Officer Alex Fergusson’s decision to refer the ‘veracity’ of statements made in plenary to the Standards Committee. Although this has been spun by some opposition MSPs as proof that Scottish ministers have been making misleading statements, the premise of the review is to examine the use by MSPs of points of order to make such claims!
In Scottish Government and Public Policy, Paul Cairney argues that much of the SNP’s strategy to date has been to perform a balancing act between: (a) trying to demonstrate a high level of governing competence; and (b) exposing the limits of devolution (‘think how much better we could do in an independent state’); but (c) only in a way that keeps the constitutional question on the agenda without damaging the image of Scottish ministers (by making them seem parochial and powerless rather than the best people to defend Scotland’s interests). Recent developments have shown this to be a difficult task, with perceived delays in the funding of major capital projects highlighting the limits to Scottish Government borrowing (discussed at length by David Scott in Government Beyond the Centre), negotiations with major employers on the future of Scottish jobs exposing their need to persuade rather than coerce, and issues such as fuel poverty highlighting their control of only a small part of the solution. This is on top of the usual party political constraints that we would associate with minority government (for example, undermining moves to ban alcohol sales to under-21s or replace short prison terms with community sentences), problems of implementation (on issues such as class sizes and free school meals), unpredictable crises producing criticisms of ministerial decision-making (for example, centring on Nicol Sturgeon’s handling of the C. difficile related deaths at the Vale of Leven), unfortunate criticism (such as the Council of Economic Adviser’s decision to question the SNP’s stance on nuclear power) and the occasional piece of administrative difficulty which delays seemingly straightforward legislation (as with the set-up of Creative Scotland, discussed by David Scott). One ‘quick win’ has been to transform a UK Government mistake into a positive Scottish policy initiative (by promising to maintain pension overpayments for former workers in the Scottish public sector), while more long term success by can perhaps be maintained with more visionary initiatives, such as the proposed electricity grid between Scotland and northern Europe and taking the UK lead on emissions targets, combined with policy distance between the Scottish and UK Governments (such as the ‘battle of ideas’ between public and private healthcare, the decision to allow NHS ‘top-up’ payments notwithstanding). The SNP may also further the ‘Scottish Policy Style’ through consultation and negotiation rather than ‘top-down diktat’. This may mean that, in time, ‘problems of implementation’ become ‘opportunities for local discretion’.