The Scottish Parliament at twenty

jim.johnston.jpg.pngIMG_20190801_195645.jpgThe Scottish Parliament is now two decades old, making it a good time to take stock of its performance and how it might seek to change its processes, behaviours and attitude following the political uncertainty of the last three years. Jim Johnston and James Mitchell have co-edited a new book, The Scottish Parliament at Twenty, which aims to answer these questions. Here, they outline how the Parliament has operated in its early years and where it might be going.

Just as the political, fiscal and economic environments have become more volatile in the twenty years since the Scottish Parliament was created, its powers have significantly increased, leaving Holyrood increasingly exposed to that volatility. Where previously it could shelter under the relative comfort of a block grant almost entirely funded through the Barnett formula, it is now much more exposed to the vagaries of economic growth, income tax receipts and demand for devolved welfare benefits. And all at the same time as dealing with the impact of Brexit. The fundamental question, therefore, is how the Parliament should respond to this increased exposure and capitalise on its new powers. 

The Parliament was not established to pursue a radically new policy programme, so much as to protect Scotland from any future Thatcher-like government. It would probably not even exist but for Margaret Thatcher. She was more successful in uniting a significant majority of Scots than any previous or (so far) subsequent politician, but that unity was based on opposition to Thatcher, her party and her policies. This opposition was then mobilised in support of a Scottish Parliament whose initial ‘logic’ was conservative, preserving well established policies and institutions and opposing innovation deemed to have been imposed on Scotland by London. But, despite this conservative reflex, commentators have focused on the extent to which the Parliament has gone its own way. 

Attention has tended to focus on flagship policies from the early years when the loose fiscal environment drove much of the policy agenda without any apparent concern for the long-term costs. Much of this agenda was static rather than innovative. The funding of higher education was, for example, not the result of the Scottish Parliament setting out on a new path but refusing to follow the introduction of tuition fees for students introduced by the Blair government. This was divergence in line with the original conservative logic of devolution. That would be a pattern evident across a range of policies as the coalition government in Edinburgh baulked at New Labour’s approach to public services.

At the same time, however, there was some Scottish-inspired divergence. The Blair government had established a Royal Commission on long-term care for the elderly that reported in 1999, the year the Scottish Parliament was first elected. Its main recommendations were rejected by Blair and, initially, by the Scottish Executive. But following the sudden death of First Minister Donald Dewar, his successor Henry McLeish reversed that decision, resulting in Scotland adopting a more generous package of support compared with elsewhere. Deeply entrenched problems persisted but were glided over in much media and public debate as attention focused on a few flagship policies.

The financial collapse in 2008 marked the end of the first stage of Holyrood’s development. The Parliament had been well looked after but a new more challenging fiscal era was about to begin. This coincided with changes in the composition of both Holyrood and the House of Commons. While the bedding in of devolution in Scotland was helped by having the same political party in power in both Edinburgh, as a coalition partner, and in London, with a substantial majority, the financial crash contributed to political change across the UK. An SNP government in Edinburgh and a Conservative government in London changed the devolution dynamic, not least in pushing the constitutional future of the UK up the political agenda. Brexit has added to this constitutional uncertainty, both internally in its impact on devolution and externally in terms of the UK’s relationship with the EU and the rest of the world.

Managing these relationships will not be easy with the increased constitutional complexity operating in a highly adversarial political environment. The extent of this complexity means there is likely to be much more scope for interpreting devolution differently in Edinburgh and London, with a high risk that this will be increasingly viewed by the public as political bickering between two governments, leading to increased dissatisfaction and frustration with our democratic institutions. Strong and robust parliamentary oversight will be needed but could prove challenging, not least because this increased complexity has led to a much greater emphasis on negotiation, including dispute resolution, between Edinburgh and London — which primarily takes place in private. While much of this confidentiality is inevitable, it also makes it more difficult to hold government to account and to deliver Holyrood’s commitment to openness and transparency which, in turn, risks public distrust.

So, a key challenge facing Holyrood post-Brexit is to develop its role in relation to the confidential negotiations and agreements between the Scottish Government and the UK government which will have a direct impact on its legislative powers, especially in devolved areas which are currently within the competence of the EU. At the same time, the Scottish Parliament has to determine its role in relation to the confidential negotiations and agreements which the UK government conducts with the EU and at an international level that impact on devolution. 

A key question here is the extent to which the Scottish Parliament wishes to have a policy-influencing role in areas which were previously EU responsibilities. This includes not only wide-ranging policy areas, such as environmental regulations and agriculture and fisheries, but also trade negotiations and the negotiation of international treaties which are reserved to the UK government but will limit the use of powers in devolved areas. This will require a willingness from both the Scottish Government and the UK government to provide sufficient information at the policy development stage to allow Holyrood to have a meaningful role. Similar challenges face Westminster.

But, as is emphasised in our book, the Scottish Parliament has yet to realise a significant role in policy-making. The Parliament has been curiously conservative with little appetite across the political parties for bold reform, especially in addressing many of the wicked problems that continue to scar Scotland. There is an undercurrent of frustration with this approach, aligned to a general feeling that the significant challenges which lie ahead require bolder and more innovative policies and policy-making processes. While the government of the day will lead in making this happen, there is nevertheless a question for the Parliament about the extent to which it wishes to influence the policy agenda. 

There is also a fundamental question about how it involves others in this process, not only insider groups and ‘well-kent’ faces, but public service users as well as public service providers. There is a strong view that there is much to be done in developing relations between Holyrood and local government and with the private sector (see chapters seven and five respectively). If the Parliament is to evolve and have more of a policy-making role, then an essential element of that approach will be to widen and deepen the range of voices from whom it hears. It is also likely that, if it succeeds in having a greater influence on policy development, this will result in greater incentives to engage with the Parliament.

This post offers a summary of some of the themes covered in The Scottish Parliament at Twenty, which is co-edited by the authors and includes contributions from the Head of the Scottish Parliament’s Committee Engagement Unit, Gillian Baxendine; Professor Sarah Childs; Auditor-General for Scotland Caroline Gardner; and Lord Wallace of Tankerness, a former Advocate General for Scotland. It also includes several segments entitled ‘Dear Scottish Parliament…’ in which young people contribute their thoughts on how Scotland and its Parliament should progress over the next 20 years. 

If you enjoy the Constitution Unit blog, sign up for updates in the left sidebar, join our mailing list for news of our events and research, and support us through a one-off or regular donation. Donations are crucial to funding the blog, and the Unit’s research.

About the authors

Jim Johnston has worked at the Scottish Parliament since 1999 and is currently Clerk to the Finance Committee. He is the co-editor of The Scottish Parliament at Twenty.

Professor James Mitchell holds the Chair of Public Policy at the University of Edinburgh. He is the co-editor of The Scottish Parliament at Twenty.