Welfare challenges and constitutional reform

Published: 10 October 2013

This year’s Policy and Politics conference in Bristol was focussed on the theme of Transforming Policy and Politics: the future of the State in the 21st Century. Kirstein Rummery, as a member of the editorial board of Policy and Politics and one of the researchers contributing to the ESRC funded programme of work on the Future of the UK and Scotland, organised a panel with fellow researchers Sheila Riddell and Alasdair Rutherford which was looking at the issue of welfare challenges and constitutional reform.

Sheila Riddell discussed the relationship between the devolution settlement and higher education policy in Scotland, and what this might mean for the independence referendum. She pointed out that whilst higher education has seen a stability in provision building on an arguably more universal access policy approach than the rest of the UK (for example in refusing to charge tuition fees for Scottish students), access to it and the outcomes are still highly unequal. In contrast, the further education sector, which has a higher proportion of lower income students accessing it has seen significant contraction, with potentially significantly greater social divisions emerging amongst graduates and non-graduates. She concluded that an independent Scotland would not necessarily be a more egalitarian one in terms of educational outcomes.

Alasdair Rutherford looked at the fiscal aspects of constitutional change and the potential impact it could have on spending on social and health care services, and thus the ability for Scotland to address its social welfare and health inequalities challenges. He concluded that there are various options that Scotland could chose to address spending that are not necessarily contingent on constitutional change, but that the evidence for what these might be still needs examining in the light of the significant challenges in welfare spending and austerity facing both Scotland and the UK.

Kirstein Rummery discussed the question of whether Scotland needed to be independent in order to become a ‘fairer, more caring’ nation: ie in order to address inequalities. She pointed out that care policies are a useful way to examine this issue, and how evidence needs to be gathered comparatively from other nations about the link between care policy, the ability to address gender and disability inequalities, and the ‘constitutional archictecture’ of a country. In particular, we need to know about mult-level governance – at what *level* policy needs to be set to be effective, and whether a small nation needs to be independent to have control over the kind of policies that lead to egalitarian outcomes. She also pointed out that the debate around Scottish independence has not focussed on gender issues, in contrast the policy and governance debates that accompanied the run-up to the 1999 devolution and the creation of the Scottish Parliament.

Keynote speakers included Bob Jessop, University of Lancaster on State Restructuring and Crisis Management: what future for the state? and Liesbet Hooghe’s address on Goodbye to the Nation State? The rise of multi-level governance below and above the state. The latter was particularly interesting from the perspective of debates about Scottish devolution and potential independence: how relevant is the nation state when trans-national policy bodies such as the EU, and regional bodies such as the Scottish Parliament hold so much power? Does Scotland need to be a nation-state in order to govern itself, when there are plenty of examples where governance has been effectively devolved to a region.

Of course, like all good conferences, the best discussions were happening between sessions....those who were following #pp2014 on twitter will have seem some quite lively debate about the challenges faced by female academics in the relatively patriarchal world of political science; the disappointing news that apparently Danish politics isn’t really like Borgen; the crucial importance of the ‘so what?’ question; and the role that academics, particularly social scientists, should play in policy studies in a time when the welfare state and academic freedom seem to be under increasingly ferocious attack. And, interestingly, in a conference devoted to debating the future of the State, how relatively little attention the issue of the implications of the Scottish referendum on independence received. One of the most interesting experiments in democratic governance in the UK in recent years was not the focus of any of the papers presented apart from in this panel. It does seem that policy studies does seem to be dominated by theories, research and concerns that are quite dated. Time for some of the dinosaurs to be challenged? Perhaps the evidence coming from the UK and Scotland programme will provide an interesting counterpoint to the rather stale debates about localism versus centralism in democracy: there are other policy possibilities and new forms of governance being opened up by Scotland. Watch this space....