Monday, 25 March 2013

The Scottish Independence Debate (Stirling)

This is a blog to accompany my involvement in Let Scotland Decide: The University of Stirling Debate on Scottish Independence (6.30pm Monday 25th March 2013).

The blog starts with an important health warning: if you follow a large number of yes/ no people on Twitter, it really grinds you down.  Wouldn’t it be good if we could focus on the issues that we think are most important and at least have a common agenda before we start to bicker about the likelihood of independence costing everyone in Scotland £1 or saving them £500? Or, wouldn’t it be good to have a debate that goes beyond the, overly pedantic, focus on how much Scotland contributes to, and receives from, the UK?  Wouldn’t it be good if we focused almost exclusively on the battle of ideas rather than often personal digs at personalities? Wouldn’t it be good if people didn’t try to characterise you as a yes or no person based on your blog (although please let me know if you think that my points appear to have a yes/ no bias; an equal number of each would suggest I got the balance right).

The arguments most interesting to me are the ones that form part of the legacy of the old Yes campaign in the mid to late 1990s – a campaign that brought together, briefly, the main political parties in Scotland (bar, of course, the Conservatives). In my opinion, the prospect of further constitutional change should force both the yes and no camps to come to a clear view on the effect that 14 years of devolution has had on these arguments:

1. Devolution will address the democratic deficit.

The ‘democratic deficit’ refers to the extent to which Scots vote for one party, in a UK General election, but receive a government from another party. Attention to the democratic deficit was high in the 1990s because Scotland elected a very small and diminishing number of Conservative MPs but remained governed by the Conservatives (from 1970-4 and 1979-97). Attention to the deficit fell from 1997-2010 because the Scottish part of UK elections continued to produce a large number of Labour MPs at a time of UK Labour Government. However, it is now firmly back in the spotlight following the election in 2010 that produced a Conservative-led coalition government.

In this light, it would be good to hear Better Together supporters talk about what they think of the democratic deficit in this context (we know the Yes campaign answer). Is the current devolution settlement enough to produce a sense of accurate representation in Scotland?

2. Devolution would have saved Scotland from Thatcherism

Thatcherism was often associated, particularly in Scotland, with (a) a top-down, impositional style of policy making; (b) a critical attitude to the public sector, in favour of market based reforms; and, (c) the introduction of unpopular policies – as symbolised by the reaction in Scotland to the poll tax.  The referendum agenda in the 1990s was often underpinned by an implicit or explicit feeling that devolution could have saved Scotland from the worst excesses of Thatcherism. Indeed, the Scottish Constitutional Convention’s vision was developed at the same time that many of its participants were acting as the unelected opposition to Conservative government rule.

In this light, it would be good to hear both camps discuss the extent to which devolution currently allows the Scottish Government to challenge or change major UK policies that may be relatively unpopular in Scotland. To a large extent, we know the Yes campaign answer (although the current ability of the SNP to ‘stand up for Scotland’ may be a key part of its popularity). Indeed, attention to welfare reform and policies such as the ‘bedroom tax’ are used to show the limits to devolution. It would be good to hear a range of views within Better Together about the balance between Scottish and UK powers. Perhaps, if the referendum debate was not build on a binary yes/ no vote, more of its membership would feel able to speak out about the need for the further devolution of responsibilities in area such as welfare policy.

3. Devolution will produce new politics

The 1990s campaign was accompanied by a focus on the idea of ‘new politics’, in which Scottish political practices, procedures and institutions would be radically different from those in ‘old Westminster’. Yet, by these high expectations, new politics has largely failed to deliver. The Scottish Government makes most policy without substantial Scottish Parliament involvement, and measures to include the wider public in politics had a limited impact. Most notably, there does not seem to be a new party political culture despite the hope that coalition and minority government (largely produced by a proportional electoral system) would foster consensus building. If anything, minority government in 2007 was accompanied by a rise in petty partisanship in plenary discussions (there was certainly a rise in points of order to suggest that Scottish ministers were lying in Parliament) and an apparent reduction in meaningful cross-party cooperation in committees. Perhaps the only clear, relative, success was the initial rise in the representation of women (but not ethnic minorities) in the Scottish Parliament.

In this light, it would be good to hear both camps discuss the extent to which the agenda on independence allows us to reconsider the importance of new politics. Is this the sort of political culture that we want in Scotland (it is often entertaining and it helps us rehearse important arguments)? Are there changes that could be made to institutions to foster new relationships, or is it na├»ve to expect such changes to have a short-term effect on party politics?  Again, the binary referendum makes this difficult, if only because few people are now reflecting on the devolution experience so far.

4. The type of devolution proposed in the 1990s largely solved the problems associated with proposals in the 1970s.

The proposals put forward by the Scottish Constitutional Convention were, in part, made in response to the argument that the details of 1970s devolution were ill thought out. Yet, some issues still remain. Most notably, attention to the ‘West Lothian Question’ and any perceived demand for English-votes-for-English-laws in Westminster will be heightened if there are further devolved powers in Scotland. This issue would largely be addressed by Scottish independence, but the focus on independence alone does not allow us to consider the broader relationship between Scotland and the rest of the UK if there is a no vote.

In this light, it would be good to hear both camps discuss in more detail how that Scotland-rUk relationship would and should develop after 2014.

5. Use the powers you have before you ask for more (this is a more recent argument; in the 1990s devolution was often sold as a settlement, not a process).

There is something intuitively appealing about this argument before you really think about it. However, when you do think about, it is reasonable to point out: (a) that successive Scottish Governments *have* used their powers to promote different policy agendas in areas such as compulsory education (note the relative emphasis in England on school testing, competition and league tables), higher education (note their diverging tuition fees policies), healthcare (note the relative emphasis in England on internal markets and the promotion of the private sector) and local government (note the generally less centralist relationship with local government in Scotland). Further, successive Scottish Governments have expressed their frustrations with the limitations to the devolved settlement, in specific areas such as airguns (addressed by the Scotland Act 2012) and broader areas such as child poverty (the Scottish Government can provide additional education and health related services, but not determine benefit levels) and fuel poverty (the Scottish Government can insulate homes and provide radiators but not influence the price of fuel or level of benefits).

In this light, it would be good to hear both camps discuss the extent to which the devolution settlement is fit for purpose. Again, we know the Yes argument, but this may yet be further developed in a more positive sense, beyond the abolition of the bedroom tax (for example, the SNP recently signalled a broad commitment to reform policy on childcare policy after independence – a point linked instantly by opponents to a relative lack of SNP support among women). We also know that the Scotland Act 2012, following the Calman Report, addressed some of these issues. However, there is still a sense of unresolved business here – partly because no one really ever designed Scotland’s responsibilities from scratch. Rather, the Scottish Government largely inherited the responsibilities of the old Scottish Office and the Scotland Act 2012 made some reforms at the margins. If Better Together supporters could redesign the devolution settlement from scratch, what would they devolve and what would they keep reserved?

However, I doubt that many of these issues will receive much attention. Part of the problem here is that the debate has now officially become polarised by the decision to have a simple yes/ no vote on independence rather than some sort of multi-option ballot paper that also allows people to express a preference for further devolution short of independence (devo max is not always well defined, but we could take it to refer broadly to devolution short of responsibility for foreign and defence policy, many aspects of monetary policy and relations with the EU). The debate has become ‘yes or no?’ rather than a wider discussion of what further devolved powers could improve policy and policymaking in a Scottish political system. Perhaps ironically to some, the main party to be open to that wider discussion was the SNP, which recognised the importance of devo max in its National Conversation (even if it was used largely to show that it would be less preferable to independence). In contrast, the UK Government has begun to reject the idea that constitutional change is on a spectrum from no to complete powers, arguing that independence versus devolution are binary choices (perhaps contributing to the tendency among many people, not just in the yes camp, to describe the ‘no campaign’ rather than the less catchy Better Together). In my opinion, it is an untenable position, and it will seem even less defendable if there is a ‘no’ vote followed by a promise from the UK political parties to extend devolution even further (to the point that devolution and independence become even more difficult to distinguish from each other).

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