Scottish devolution has been a disaster and Tony Blair’s biggest mistake

So said the UK Prime Minister recently in a call to Conservative MPs according to news reports. This comment has sparked considerable debate over the relative successes or merits of Scottish devolution and the growing calls for a second independence referendum.

I’ve spent the last twenty years or so researching issues of public management and administration. More recently I have focused on aspects of public services in Scotland including health and social care integration, community empowerment and the Scottish Government. Given the current discussions over what the UK Prime Minister is reported to have said I thought it might be useful to consider some of the evidence.

Scottish devolution has led to increasing policy divergence from the rest of the UK (rUK). This has created some challenges and tensions within the devolution settlement itself; for example, in Scottish higher education (which is devolved) the Scottish Government continue to provide free education to Scottish students but many other aspects of policy which also affect Scottish universities (such as immigration policy, REF and research funding) remain under the auspices of the UK Government (reserved powers). This, as with many other tensions in the devolution settlement, is becoming increasingly sensitive as the impact of Brexit becomes clear and debates continue around use of the Sewel Convention.

In my research I have shown how the Scottish Government have, since devolution, developed a more strategic approach to governance. The evidence I have collected through my studies suggests that this has made a positive difference to the inner workings of the Scottish Government. Further evidence shows how confidence in the Scottish Government remains high. Trust in the Scottish Government has fluctuated between just over 50% in 2006 (directly before the development of the strategic approach) to 72% in 2016.

Figure 2.1: Trust in Scottish Government and UK Government to work in Scotland’s best interests ‘just about always’ or ‘most of the time’ (1999-2019)^

Figure 2.1: Line chart showing levels of trust in the Scottish Government and UK Government to work in Scotland’s best interests (1999-2019)
https://www.gov.scot/publications/scottish-social-attitudes-2019-attitudes-government-political-engagement/pages/4/#Tab2.1

There are also a number of polls and surveys which indicate high levels of popularity and approval for Nicola Sturgeon and for the Scottish Government – particularly in how they have handled the Covid-19 crisis. It is hard to see how this would be possible without a competent and well functioning administration.

What remains less clear is the extent to which these changes have had a positive impact on the daily lives of the people of Scotland. For example, a different approach has been adopted in with community empowerment it remains unclear how effective this policy has been in practice. Equally cuts to local government have created significant pressure and adversely affected the working lives of those who deliver these vital services.

The fact remains that there simply isn’t sufficient evidence to either support or rebuke the claims of the UK Prime Minister that Scottish devolution has been a disaster. One of the biggest challenges here is the general lack of academic research. Of course there is some excellent research on public policy and administration taking place in Scotland. My point though is that there are relatively few public administration scholars or university departments in Scottish universities.

Assuming we consider the teaching of public administration as a barometer for the health of the subject. Previously there were many departments of public management and administration in Scottish universities and many degree programmes. Currently there is only one Master of Public Administration (MPA) programme in Scotland and no undergraduate degrees in the subject. Taking a comparative approach, in the US states of Minnesota and South Carolina, which both have comparable population size to Scotland, there are 6 and 5 Master of Public Administration (MPA) programmes respectively. Does it follow that there are more public administration scholars across the US and therefore more public administration research taking place? I think so.

Pressures to publish internationally relevant research and to generate income from degree programmes have arguably contributed to a steady decline of public administration scholarship in Scotland (and indeed across the UK). The consequence of this is that there is a relative lack of independent data with which to explore the impacts of devolution over time. There is also arguably a lack of development of future public administration leaders and managers (including in comparison with rUK).

Has devolution been a disaster? My research would not support this statement. But if Scotland is to gain further devolved powers, or even full independence, we need more academic research in Scottish public administration in order to continue to address this question.

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