The Scottish electorate is sophisticated, distinguishing between voting at different levels of election. While this has led to divergence in party support at different levels (though this might be about to change), the bulk of that vote tends towards the centre-left.
Scotland is not inherently more left-wing than England. It does, however, tend to vote more consistently for social democratic parties. This makes the question of Scotland’s political economy pertinent.
The Scottish independence referendum provided a straightforward choice; the reality of Scotland’s position in the UK is much more complicated.
With the promise of further powers for the Scottish Parliament to be delivered by the incoming government, Holyrood is – according to some politicians negotiating the legislation – set to become “one of the most powerful sub-state legislatures in the world”.
While this claim should be taken with a pinch of salt, it suggests that much can be achieved without the powers that ‘full’ independence might have delivered.
Québec – another ‘stateless nation’ with a prominent nationalist movement – provides evidence in support of this proposition, delivering, as it does, public policy that is markedly different from neighbouring territories.
Thus, even without independence and the autonomy with which that would allow particular policy objectives to be pursued, public policy in Scotland has the potential to be different from the UK’s.
If the discussions in the referendum are anything to go by, and parties deliver upon the expectations of a centre-left voting electorate, the potential exists in Scotland to develop a public policy character which moves it closer to the Nordic idea of social investment. However, having the constitutional power to alter policy direction within a devolved legislature and actually having the ability to do so (given certain political and economic constraints placed upon actors) are two separate issues.
Indeed, while the Scottish Government’s white paper on independence focused on potential public policy divergence from the UK towards a social investment model, there was a lack of cohesion to the strategy, with an emphasis on spending and not revenue raising.
The Nordic model, a social democratic, social investment system, comes as a package. It is impossible to ‘pick and mix’ elements from the social investment model with that of a Baltic-style market liberal approach without sustaining incredibly large public debt.
The high wage economy of the Nordic states is a result of decades of tripartite bargaining, with trade unions accepting wage restraint in periods of economic decline as a trade-off for high levels of unemployment benefits.
The lack of university tuition fees and prescription charges for medication show that there is an appetite for universalism within public services in Scotland. However any expansion of such an approach into other fields would carry a cost burden, and there is little evidence that politicians want to deliver tax increases or that the public would accept them. And therein is the fundamental problem for Scottish politicians learning from the Nordic states. The Scottish public like the idea of generous universal services, but would resist any increase in taxation to fund such an expansion.
While there is the potential for policy-learning on an area-by-area basis, and indeed, some empathy with the principles of the social investment strategy, the potential to adopt the model outright is slim.
Indeed, it might be that further autonomy for Scotland does not result in substantial alteration to public policy in Scotland, with parties afraid that the cost – both political and economic – is too much to bear.
Further devolution to the Scottish Parliament might make the institution a more powerful body to be sure, but actually utilising the powers at its disposal to effect substantive social and economic changes is likely some way off.
The barriers to adoption of a social investment model in Scotland are not related to size or institutional capacity, given the likelihood of further devolved powers at the disposal of the parliament.
Rather, the political culture and social attitudes towards taxation are more influential in limiting the scope for developing such an approach.