You Talkin’ to Me?

Published: 26 June 2015
Author: Paul Cairney
The Scottish Government just launched a National Conversation on how the new powers contained in the Scotland Bill 2015 should be used. Paul Cairney suggests that there are two ways of looking at the exercise. 
This week, the Scottish Government launched a new national discussion. Unlike in 2007, it is not a vehicle to promote Scottish independence. Rather, it is a way to ask people what the Scottish Government should be doing with the new powers that it will receive under the Scotland Act 2015. Does further devolution allow it to better promote both a ‘strong competitive economy and a fairer, more equal society’? The launch document lists some of the aims it wants to promote, including a reduction in gender inequality, as well as new ways to address the link between poverty and poorer outcomes relating to physical and mental health, educational attainment and crime. If you are not the cynical sort, it is an uplifting read, outlining progress since devolution and a range of aspirations consistent with the idea that the Scottish population would entertain social democracy if given the chance. Or, as my colleague at the University of Stirling, Kirstein Rummery has put it, ‘Scotland has long maintained that it is different and fairer to the rest of the UK … now it has the means to prove it’.
There are two, equally plausible, ways to describe this discussion. The first, articulated by commentators such as Kevin McKenna and David Torrance, is that the discussion is primarily a cynical exercise designed to kill time and avoid the big decisions – including major public service reforms and tax rises - that would help make Scotland fairer but make its government less popular. We know what the Scottish Government needs to do, and it is time that they stopped talking and started doing. Instead, they are putting things off until at least the next Scottish Parliament election. The second, articulated by the Scottish Government, is that the talking is the most important part of the doing. The way we make policy matters. It’s time to stop just making decisions for people or, at least, first ask them what we should do. It’s time to stop making policy from the top down. Let’s involve people and communities in policymaking, make the big decisions together, then invite local communities to make sense of broad aims in specific areas. That way, some of the decisions may be controversial, but you can demonstrate that you listened to people’s concerns, responded to their suggestions, and made sure that plenty of people are behind you.
Somewhere in between those positions you have people like me, who remain optimistic, but want to talk through the problems before getting too excited. 
Here are my top three. 
First, the new devolution settlement, produced after ‘negotiations’ between elected politicians and government departments, is a horrible mess. I genuinely don’t understand the settlement or know what the Scottish Government can do with it. 
Second, anyone who tells you that public sector reform makes complex government simpler and saves you money is selling you snake oil. Instead, it’s a long term investment for the future, at a time when the government’s main driver is to spend less to balance the books. 
Third, we have not resolved the central / local question. Instead, this discussion should reinvigorate a debate about how national we want policy to be, to ensure uniform entitlement to benefits and services, and how local it should be, to allow governments to tailor policies to local needs. We want both, but we shouldn’t pretend that life is that simple or that the dichotomy is false. 
At the end of the day, my gut tells me that the Scottish Government will try to make a difference but will start with the low hanging fruit. Some modest reforms, addressing the hot button topics like the bedroom tax, and based on trying to see the system through a service user’s eyes, can make a genuine difference and help maintain the SNP’s reputation for governing competence. It will not, however, produce the fundamental change that some might associate with a ‘fairer Scotland’.    

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