Election experts

Five things to learn from Scotland’s journey towards greater powers

The truth about Scots is sometimes surprising. PromesaArtStudio

A group of top political scientists from around Scotland has produced a series of essays for a forthcoming special issue of The Political Quarterly. They consider where next for Scotland on the back of last year’s independence referendum and the subsequent proposals for extending devolution that came out of the Smith Commission.

Having edited the series and written one of the essays myself (on Scotland’s future political system), I thought it would be worth devoting a little space to some of the conclusions:

1. Beware the idea of policy distinctiveness in Scotland

Scottish policymaking claims to have strong social-democrat ideals and a high amount of participation from civil society, but this is highly debatable in practice. It either provides a convenient veneer to mask the similarities between UK and Scottish politics or a long-term purpose to provide a space in which to debate politics and policies in a way that is conducive to distinctive Scottish policies.

In either case, devolution may continue to produce policies that are very similar to those in the rest of the UK (such as in social care) or diverge in ways that you might not expect (such as in higher education, which may produce lower student debt but greater inequality).

*2. Beware notions that Scotland is left-wing *

A related point is that Scotland often sees itself as different from the rest of the UK. Its social attitudes may sometimes be more “left-wing” and more conducive to social democratic policies, but it might be that its political system is more responsive to such demands (compared to the “government-knows-best” approach in Westminster).

And the reality is that people tend to support the differences they already have (such as free tuition fees and prescriptions) but not a larger shift from UK-wide levels of social security.

3. Links between UK and Scottish governments could be stronger

The existing devolution settlement sets out relatively separate powers, which has generally allowed the UK and Scottish governments to consult with each other infrequently and informally. Formal measures to co-ordinate policy and resolve disputes are rare.

This will change with further devolution, which promotes shared responsibilities in key areas such as taxation, welfare and energy. It also involves vague conditions on policy making, including the idea that policy for one area will have “no detriment” for the other.

It may also change if Scotland’s role in the EU increases to reflect its changing status in the UK, although this remains very uncertain. This takes place at a time when attitudes in the rest of the UK seem to be hardening and people are looking harder at Scotland’s often privileged position in the union.

4. Constitutional reform did not go hand in hand with political reform

The original push for Scottish devolution in the 1990s came with high hopes for political reform. It sought to introduce a new voting system, encourage co-operation between parties and produce new forms of participatory and deliberative democracy.

The lack of progress since devolution towards alternatives to Westminster-style representative democracy received minimal attention in the referendum debate. And as we move ever further away from the invigorating referendum debate back to frustrations with party politics, we may still find ourselves with a system in which popular participation is low – certainly not much higher than the rest of the UK. The Scottish parliament may also be further marginalised as it faces the need to scrutinise more areas with the same resources.

5. Scotland’s experience is a model for other countries – up to a point

Lord Smith: no time to reflect. Andrew Miligan/PA

It is easy to overlook the major achievement that Scotland produced a referendum with the rules agreed by both governments. This prompted a very large voting turnout and a lengthy period of debate in which an unusually large part of the public played a role. This contrasts heavily with Smith Commission process, in which the opportunity for open debate and public involvement has been curtailed by an unrealistic timetable, followed by a return to party politics.