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Policymaking in an independent Scotland: profound change is possible but unlikely

Published: 1 April 2021
Author: Paul Cairney

In a new blog from the ebook ‘Scotland’s new choice: Independence after Brexit’, Paul Cairney reflects on policy-making in an independent Scotland, concluding that independence would likely be a remarkable event with an unremarkable impact on policy.

Scottish independence could have a major effect on political reforms, to boost the role of the Scottish Parliament and change the Scottish Government’s policy style. Indeed, independence presents a new opportunity for reformers to argue that the Scottish political tradition has more in common with consensus democracies - often associated with Nordic states - than the ‘winner takes all’ and adversarial tradition that is such as part of Westminster politics.

However, I don’t think that independence will have that effect. Major political reform has not been a central feature of the push for independence. Rather, the SNP and the Scottish Government emphasised the adequacy of the Scottish Parliament and the competence of the Scottish Government, suggesting that independence would be built primarily on the existing policymaking processes that have a close resemblance to Westminster politics.

If so, what does the devolution experience since 1999 tell us about what will happen next?

The future of Scottish parliamentary democracy

The Scottish Parliament will continue in a mildly modified form. It will:

  1. Hold the Scottish Government to account rather than share the power to make policy.

The Scottish Parliament delegates policymaking responsibility to the Scottish Government then holds minsters to account for how they carry out that responsibility. In most cases, policy is humdrum and routine, with little partisan competition or committee interest. In some, policy is more exciting and contested, with parties competing for committee power and civil servants anticipating parliamentary reactions.

  1. Encourage mild innovations on participatory and deliberative democracy.

The movement for Scottish devolution raised the prospect of new and innovative forms of democracy. Yet, the main result was the temporary experimentation with new deliberative forums and a petitions process that relies entirely on parliamentary support and energy. The Commission on Parliamentary Reform encouraged the trial of democratic innovation (such as mini publics), but focused most of its energy on the scrutiny of government policy.

The future of Scottish policymaking

Scottish independence would cause a major change to the spread of responsibilities of the Scottish Government, particularly in areas such as economic and foreign policies. However, this increase of powers would not change how it makes policy.

The latter is often dubbed the Scottish ‘policy style’ to emphasise two elements:

  1. Consensus-seeking. To encourage widespread consultation with interest groups, professional bodies, unions, and third sector groups, and place high trust in public sector bodies.
  2. Anticipatory policymaking. To produce ‘preventive’ policies that help reduce social and economic inequalities or public service costs by intervening as early as possible in people’s lives.

Yet, these elements are not as distinctive as they first appear. An emphasis on consensus-seeking ‘behind the scenes’ has long been a common feature of policy styles in the UK.  The UK and Scottish government’s policy styles look remarkably different because commentators focus on high stakes policies in which governments are intensely involved. Yet, most policy is processed out of the public spotlight in similar ways. Further, there is a large gap between the rhetoric and reality of ‘preventive’ policymaking. There is a strong desire to address the ‘root causes’ of policy problems over the long-term, but a stronger electoral imperative to demonstrate governing competence in relation to short term targets and in reaction to crises.

A remarkable event with an unremarkable impact

Representative democracy and party competition is where the action is, and innovations in participatory and deliberative democracy are destined to apply to a tiny proportion of government and parliamentary business.

We should expect more changes to Scottish Government responsibilities, causing the greater need to make the ‘hard choices’ associated previously with UK governments. Consensus-seeking is straightforward during an initial era of devolution and rising public expenditure. It is more difficult when governments hold full responsibility for the choices that help some groups win at the expense of others.



Read: Scotland's New Choice: Independence after Brexit >>


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