Local Government and the EU: the impact of Brexit

Evidence from Professor James Mitchell, Academy of Government, University of Edinburgh to Local Government and Communities Committee, December 14th 2016.

 

Understanding EU-Local government relations

 

The European Union, and its antecedents, was insinuated into the activities and responsibilities of local government in multifarious ways. Just as it has been difficult to estimate the proportion of law that has been determined ‘in Brussels’[1], so too is it difficult to estimate the extent to which the EU affects public policy and local government, either directly or indirectly. It is clear, however, that 44 years of membership has resulted in considerable interdependencies.

 

These relationships have been complex and are not easily summarised. The more appropriate metaphor is that of the ‘marble cake’ rather than the ‘layered cake’ ie the EU and local government relations are linked in complex, inter-connected ways. Often enough neither has exclusive or even dominant status. An emphasis has long been placed on partnership in the operation of EC-local government relations. In part this reflected what scholars have referred to as resource dependency, ie each sphere of government requires the resources of others to successfully make and implement a policy. The importance of other spheres of government (devolved and UK central government in the UK and similar across the EU) complicate matters further. Local government has usually been at the delivery end of the process.

 

The Audit Commission for England and Wales published A Rough Guide to Europe: local authorities and the EC, a useful summary of EC-local government relations in 1991.[2] Up until that time, most emphasis had been placed on ‘grantsmanship’ ie the tendency to focus on gaining financial support for local government and related projects from the European Communities.[3] Much of the early lobbying work was focused on influencing early decisions and identifying pockets of EC funding. Local authorities were increasingly aware of the importance of the European dimension and developing direct links with European institutions including the Commission. But considerable effort was devoted to information gathering, seeking to be ahead of the game in identifying likely impacts of European policy making.

 

The prospect of a single market – Project 1992 – was an important development[4] for local government as well as member state governments, the private sector and other bodies. The Audit Commission identified three main ways in which Europe affects local authorities:

Ÿ Euro-regulation imposes unavoidable obligations to implement, enforce and monitor EC legislation;

Ÿ European economic integration creates new opportunities for (and pressures on) the local economic base; and

Ÿ Euro-funds offer potential support for the local economy and for a range of local authority projects.[5]

 

Scottish local authorities, in common with others elsewhere, established office. Dumfries and Galloway was the first Scottish local authority to establish a European Liaison Officer. A process of Europeanisation of local government[6] occurred. Within tw decades of membership, no local authority could afford to be without intelligence on European affairs. By 1995, CoSLA had identified the EC as a ‘high priority’ for local government.[7]

 

EU policies directly affecting local government range across policy sectors from social and environmental protection, education, health and consumer protection, working time directives, the transfer of undertakings, procurement and state aid, transport policies, and rural and maritime policies. European networks of local authorities have been established allowing for shared understanding of best practice and permitting the articulation of common interests. Just as important have been the indirect effects of EU policies. The economic consequences of EU membership (and thereby Brexit) have had a considerable impact on local government. The EU’s four freedoms – in goods, labour, capital, and services – are difficult to quantify but the impact has been felt by local government.

 

Brexit means Brexit

 

The combination of the complexity of the relationship and uncertainty as to the precise nature of Brexit creates challenges for local government. Local authorities are keenly aware that Brexit will have both direct and indirect impacts and these will likely have different short, medium and long-term implications. The only certainty is that Brexit presents an additional challenge to local authorities at a difficult time

 

Early research on local government and the EC found that while much activity was often described as lobbying, the reality was often more focused on information-gathering, identifying new policies, opportunities and challenges as early as possible. The same approach seems as necessary now and in the foreseeable future for local government. Brexit may eventually mean a loosening of relations with the EU (it is difficult to conceive of a time when relations would be completely severed even if the UK is no longer a member of the EU), but in the short-medium term local government may need to focus even more than it has to date on developments to gather information, monitor and prepare for the likely outcome of Article 50 negotiations. Brexit will require even greater engagement with EU developments than at present in the short-medium term to monitor and prepare for the nature and consequences of Brexit.

 

A Scottish Voice

 

While there may be differences between Scottish central and local government – exaggerated in the context of local elections in May 2017 – there is ample scope for cooperation and collaborative working in preparing for Brexit. It would, however, be difficult to see how the Scotland Office – at Ministerial or civil servants – could be involved in any such articulation given that the UK Government is the principal in negotiations. It would be unrealistic to expect the Scotland Office to adopt a public position different from other parts of UK Government.

 

Early preparations by local authorities and Scottish Government might focus on the broad outline of Brexit. Expressed in terms of the spectrum from hard to soft Brexit, both Scottish central and local government agree that the best option lies with soft Brexit though the precise nature of this will require elaboration. Given local government’s role in delivering services and with its own democratic mandate, direct involvement of local government in helping formulate the Scottish response to Brexit would seem appropriate. Much of the work will continue to be information gathering. It seems most likely that the Scottish voice will stand outside the process of negotiations though every effort to gain access to negotiations between UK Government and the EU. As progress is made in negotiations and the shape of Brexit becomes clearer, a more focused approach should be possible including identifying opportunities as well as the obvious challenges resulting from Brexit. Such opportunities are likely to be limited and care will need to be taken to consider the implications of any effort to alter existing policy and law emanating from the EU. The unintended consequences of staking out a distinct policy position need to be considered and the response of EU27 considered.

 

[1] Estimates vary (Bill Cask Oct 2011: 50% of ‘economic laws’; Chuka Umunna Oct 2011 ‘around half of all new regulation’; see House of Commons library Research paper 10/62 Oct 2010.

[2] Audit Commission for England and Wales, A Rough Guide to Europe: local authorities and the EC, London, HMSO.

[3] This was not restricted to local government or local government in the UK. See Brigid Laffan’s “While you’re over there in Brussels, get us a grant”: The management of the structural funds in Ireland’, Irish Political Studies, vol.4, 1989, pp.43-57.

[4] The Single European Act was the first major revision of the 1957 Treaty Of Rome and set out the objective of a single European market by 1992 and was signed in February 1986 and came into effect in July 1987 and gave considerable impetus to the process of European integration. It had the strong support of the then UK Government.

[5] Audit Commission for England and Wales 1992, Op Cit., p.7.

[6] Amongst the best work on this process is a doctoral thesis by Stephen Herbert, ‘The Europeanisation of Local Government in Western Scotland, 1975-97’, Glasgow University PhD, 2000.

[7] Convention of Scottish local Government, The European Union – a key relationship with the new unitary authorities’, Edinburgh, CoSLA.

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Heading for the Half-Way House? Scotland after Brexit

by Lesley Riddoch and Paddy Bort

The Nordic countries’ experience with their particular relationships with the European Union ranges from full membership (including Euro and Schengen) in the case of Finland to Sweden (outside the Euro), Denmark (outside the Euro, and with the autonomous Faroes and Greenland outside the EU), Norway (outside the EU but inside the Single Market, and in Schengen) and Iceland (outside the EU, having dallied with the idea of joining after the banking crash) – and all square these relationships with membership of the Nordic Council.

Post-Brexit, considering the options for Scotland, are Scots eyeing up the wrong European prize? Might the halfway house of the European Economic Area (EEA) suit Scotland better than full EU membership? That question was posed at the ‘Scotland after Brexit’ conference on 29 October at the George Square Theatre by speakers from five Nordic nations at an event organised by policy group Nordic Horizons in cooperation with the Academy of Government and attended by 300 people, including the Cabinet Secretary for Cultural and External Relations, Fiona Hyslop.

The Norwegian environmentalist Duncan Halley explained that in 1992 Norway joined the EEA (essentially the EU’s single market mechanism) as a precursor to full membership after a referendum in 1994. But fierce debate produced a no vote and the halfway house of the EEA became Norway’s permanent home.

Iceland’s EEA entry the same year had a slightly different genesis. According to the former Social Democrat leader Jón Baldvin Hannibalsson who masterminded EEA membership, access to the European single market looked like a good way to liberalise a 1960s economy “more rigid than the Soviet Union.” But because of Iceland’s reliance on fishing and relatively recent independence from Denmark, a complete transfer of sovereignty to the EU through membership was not on the cards. “People said: ‘We’ve had 600 years of European colonialism – no more.” It took 5 years to negotiate the EEA agreement but, according to Hannibalsson, it happened because an interim solution was mutually beneficial for the EU and small countries. EFTA (European Free Trade Association – Iceland, Norway, Liechtenstein) members then conducted more trade with the EU than the USA and Japan combined.

From Iceland’s point of view, EEA membership has proved more useful than the full deal. EEA members are in the internal market but can opt out of the Common Fisheries or Agriculture Policies, Maastricht, the customs union or the Euro. They can opt in in areas like justice or home affairs and they do have free movement in Europe and useful educational and research funds in exchange for a financial contribution.

So might Brexiting Britain beat Scotland to the chase? Hannibalsson thinks not: “One, Britain is too big for the EEA; two, its government isn’t keen and, three, EU members would have to approve Britain joining the EEA and they are not best pleased with Britain right now.”

It would be a different story for an independent Scotland, he thinks and maybe – with negotiations and the possibility of a second independence referendum ahead – more desirable.

Opting out of the Common Fisheries Policy would not just please Scotland’s fishing communities, it could help ensure Scotland’s portion of the North Sea is as well protected as Norway’s portion of the North Atlantic.

Duncan Halley says the Common Fisheries Policy has a terrible record protecting fish stocks in EU waters. Presently 30 per cent of stocks in the North Sea are outside safe biological limits and 93 per cent of cod are fished before they can breed.  Meanwhile, according to the OECD, “stocks in Norway are good,” and 73 per cent of caught fish come from protected stocks – the highest proportion in the world.

Fishing boats in Norway must be owned by registered fishermen actively working at sea or actively administering boats on land. If Scotland was free to jettison the CFP, the practice known as “slipper fishing” (where owners of EU quotas trade them and receive income without actively fishing at all) could be stopped, and better conservation of stocks could be achieved by having complete control over Scottish fishing waters – like Iceland, Norway and the Faroes.

Fishing matters in Norway not just because its valuable – its second biggest export after oil and gas – but because fishing is the backbone of rural Norway and the industry is of vital importance for continued settlement of the Northern seaboard.

Perhaps Scots should consider such long-term interests before deciding which European club best suits our needs. And perhaps membership of a club dominated by small Nordic players could help Scotland shift from a market-dominated, top-down social and economic model towards a more cooperative and decentralised Nordic one.

According to Professor Mary Hilson of Denmark’s Aarhus University, Nordic cooperation flourished in areas like culture, welfare and the arts while Europe was divided during the Cold War. Proposals for a Scandinavian defence and customs union failed in the 1950s but, since the reunification of Germany created a Baltic dimension in Northern Europe, they are back on the table again. There is even talk of a Nordic Federation, to give those nations a seat at the G20.

Of course, the majority of Nordic nations are EU members. But perhaps the EEA is a closer fit for Scotland than the EU? Perhaps, too, a viable halfway option would boost support for Scottish independence? Especially since Holyrood may not automatically retrieve powers from Europe post Brexit.

Professor Drew Scott, a member of Nicola Sturgeon’s Brexit advisory committee, speaking in a personal capacity, said Scotland might not automatically regain powers over fishing, forestry and farming, even though they are devolved. “Scotland has no international legal identity so the First Minister currently can’t sign international agreements – and fishing agreements are most definitely international.” Equally, he suggested, the World Trade Organisation might object if the structure of tariffs was different within a member state, and that could stymy attempts to have a different regime for farming or fishing north of the border within new legislation.

According to Professor Scott, there might be a lot to be said for joining the EEA rather than the EU. There’s no customs union, so no worry about borders with England should Scotland become independent post Brexit. The EEA won’t change in the next five years – the EU most certainly will, and inside the EEA an independent Scotland could straddle two internal markets – the UK and the EEA.

The counter argument was made strongly by Tuomas Iso-Markku from the Finnish Institute of International Affairs. He explained why Finland decided, after one year of membership of the EEA, not just to join the EU but to be at the heart of it, playing a constructive role in all EU institutions. Like many policy experts – that species despised my Michael Gove – in Norway, his biggest criticism of the EEA solution is that, yes, you have full access to the Single Market, but you have next to no say about the rules that govern it. EU membership, he argued, helped strengthen Finland’s western identity (given the geographical and political situation as a neighbour of Russia) and gave Finland more influence. He described how 56.9 per cent voted for EU membership, and how quick a political consensus emerged to place Finland “close to the core” of the EU, involved “in all the decision-making.” Finland, he said, wanted to be “part of the solution, rather than part of the problem.”

Scotland has different interests to the fishing-led economies of the North Atlantic, closer proximity to Europe and a history of EU membership. It may also seem politically unwise to rock the boat by offering a different vision of Scotland’s future in Europe to the one so recently supported by 62 per cent in the Brexit referendum. But a mature democracy takes the long view – and, in time, might that perhaps be EEA membership as a first or a permanent halfway home for an independent Scotland?

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Nicola Sturgeon’s lonely decision

by James Mitchell 

One issue will dominate discussion at the SNP conference in Glasgow this week, though not on the floor of the conference. The decision on when a second independence referendum is held is in the hands of Nicola Sturgeon alone. The SNP leader has no intention of allowing party members to make that decision. She will listen and consult, consider evidence and then make her decision. She has the strength to resist being rushed into a decision against her better judgment and she will, no doubt, have evidence (including polling) to which her party and the wider public are not privy.

The problem is that no evidence can ever be foolproof. There is always a gamble in calling an election or referendum. Polls currently give an indication of current public opinion but campaigns matter as recent referendums have demonstrated. One difficult question for her to ponder is whether the odds are likely to improve or deteriorate over the course of time.

The odds of victory may be greater now than they were when she was given responsibility for leading the SNP’s case for independence in September 2012 but that does not make victory certain. Support for independence was then sitting at just over 30%. The long campaign saw a significant increase in support of independence. But there can be no certainty that this will be repeated. The most difficult calculation for the First Minster may be assessing the likelihood of the campaign effect. Polls suggest opinion has hardened and the next referendum would be a form of trench warfare with little movement at considerable cost. But under the surface, there is evidence of substantial soft support both for and against independence. The conflicting evidence does not make a decision easy.

In 2014, supporters of independence were doubly blessed by an impressive Yes campaign and a divided and relatively hapless, if better resourced, opposition. Next time it may be very different. Supporters of independence may struggle to repeat the levels of public engagement and high turnout achieved two years ago. Their opponents may have learned lessons (though pro-EU campaigners appeared to have adopted many of the same crass Project Fear tactics adopted by Better Together despite evidence that support for the Union won despite these tactics). While some commentators view the prospect of Ruth Davidson leading the campaign for the union as a gift for the SNP, it would be wrong to underestimate her campaigning abilities. If it was battle for the office of First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon would likely win easily but a referendum is different. Ruth Davidson is weak when having to defend a position and would seek to avoid having to defend the union. Her strength lies in being on the offensive and she would have most of the Scottish media giving her uncritical support. Governing requires subtlety and nuance but campaigning is best done by crude, relentless focus.

The implications of Brexit for the debate are not straightforward. While the Scottish vote for Remain might feed the notion that Scotland is different, the result creates a new set of problems. As outlined just before the referendum, it would have been far easier for supporters of independence had the UK voted to remain in the EU and thus minimize the border problem.

Independence in Europe was an idea that acknowledged that economic integration could be combined with constitutional independence. The prospect of an independent Scotland would be looked upon more favourably today than two years ago across the EU member states but still raises the prospect of some serious negotiations on the Anglo-Scottish border. An independent Scotland and the rest of the UK (rUK) would want a soft border but the EU would be a third party to such negotiations if Scotland remained a member of the EU. Supporters of independence must hope that a soft Brexit is the outcome of the Brexit negotiations. Hard Brexit would be economically and socially damaging and might well incline many Scots to support continued membership of the UK simply for fear of a hard border with rUK. The real prospect exists that the case for the union would be won because many voters felt trapped inside an unpalatable shriveled UK but fearful that independence might leave Scotland facing a hard border with the rUK. There would be no winners in such a scenario.

A soft Brexit would create much more favourable conditions for supporters of independence. But Nicola Sturgeon will have little impact on this question. Many commentators have called on the First Minister to lead the case for a soft Brexit but ignore the political realities involved. The nature of Brexit is in the hands of Theresa May’s Government which is being pushed and pulled in different directions. Mrs May has little reason to listen to the SNP Government especially when it comes to creating conditions that would make independence easier to sell to the Scottish electorate. A hard Brexit might even appeal to Unionist fundamentalists who care more for the union than the welfare of its people. The harsh reality is that Scotland is largely shut out of the debate on the form Brexit takes just as it was outvoted on the principle of Brexit.

It is possible to conceive of a situation in which a soft border between Scotland and rUK exists (paralleling that promised by the UK Government between Northern Ireland and the Republic) while rUK maintains a hard border with the rest of the EU. But it would test the most experienced campaigners to translate this into a suitable sound bite for a referendum.

This adds to the problem of timing. It is unclear what form Brexit will take not least as the Prime Minister appears to have been captured for the moment by the hard Brexiteers but pressure is building from traditional bastions of Conservative pushing her towards a soft Brexit. This uncertainty does not help Nicola Sturgeon though it may be the only positive aspect of Mrs May’s current travails. The scenario in which any future independence referendum takes place and, more importantly, from which independence itself might emerge is far from clear. An early referendum that took place while London negotiated Brexit would reduce Whitehall’s ability to contribute to the Scottish referendum to the extent witnessed last time but would make it difficult for the First Minister to know the context in which independence would emerge. It is difficult to assess how this might play into a referendum.

Nicola Sturgeon’s decision on the timing of the independence referendum is likely to be the most important of her leadership. If she gets it right her place in Scottish history is assured but if she gets it wrong her time as First Minster would be over. It can be very lonely at the top.

James Mitchell is Co-Director of the Academy of Government.

Rob Johns and James Mitchell, Takeover: explaining the extraordinary rise of the SNP was published in May. James Mitchell and Gerry Hassan co-edited, Scottish National Party Leaders, also published by Biteback this month.

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The future of the Scottish Tories: more than theatricals…

by  James Mitchell

 

For three decades, senior Tories in London were perplexed by political developments in Scotland. As they saw it, the party’s support receded as Scots embraced their policies. Scots bought their council houses but showed little gratitude to the party that had made this possible. Margaret Thatcher reflected that her legacy had been one of economic success but political failure.

 

The tables appear to have been turned. Tories in London look to Scotland and Ruth Davidson for inspiration. There has been no shortage of plaudits for Ruth Davidson following her performance in May’s Holyrood election when the Tories overtook Labour as Scotland’s second party and during the Brexit referendum when her debating prowess was on show in the BBC’s ‘Great Debate’ at Wembley. The Scottish Tories are today more buoyant than at any time since 1979, even if much of the praise for Ruth Davidson’s leadership may have been orchestrated and overtaking Labour owed most to the decline of Labour and playing down the Conservative brand.

 

Nonetheless, in May the Tories fought the most disciplined campaign witnessed in Scotland. Not even New Labour at its apogee managed to combine obeisance to the leader with an unrelenting focus on a simple message. Ruth Davidson, we were told repeatedly, would provide strong opposition to the SNP, independence and an independence referendum and Labour and the Liberal Democrats could not be trusted to do this. Party literature was repetitive – often almost identical leaflets posted in some areas on a daily basis in the final stages of the campaign.

 

Ironically, the Tories need the union to be under threat. Their current appeal is heavily dependent on the prospect of an independence referendum. Hence, Ruth Davidson and the Tories constantly raise the issue. They hope to force the electorate to make a choice between true blue Unionists and Scottish nationalists, removing the centre ground. They run the risk that if forced to choose many more voters might chose independence. It is a high risk strategy but the only one available to the Tories.

 

Labour and LibDem opponents stand on the outside of this polarized debate, excluded by erstwhile colleagues in Better Together. A generation ago, SNP activists dreamed of a scenario in which the SNP would replace Labour and confront a Tory Government in Westminster with little support in Scotland. Even then few in the SNP imagined that support for independence would be as high as it is today.

 

It is unclear where the Tories can pick up sufficient votes to close the massive gap with the SNP. Voters who switched to the SNP from Labour did so because they saw the SNP as a more effective vehicle for championing their values and views – central to which is opposing the Tories. These voters have not in essence so much altered their core beliefs. When the SNP falters and voters become disillusioned, Labour are more likely to be the beneficiary. But the polarized nature of the debate may make such a return less likely.

 

And while the SNP Government does not have to look far for challenges ahead, this is even more true for the Scottish Tories. Ruth Davidson will have to confront the same painful problems her Labour opposite numbers faced. The Scottish Tories under Ruth Davidson look even more like a branch office than Labour ever did. She promised to draw a ‘line in the sand’ – no more devolution – when she stood as Scottish Tory leader but soon backed down when London insisted that more powers had to be granted to Holyrood. Similarly, vehement denunciation of Brexit before the EU referendum has melted away. Her record suggests that this lady is for turning.

 

Claiming to have the ear of the Prime Minister is far from demonstrating that she speaks for Scotland especially when the Scottish Tories are out of step with Scottish public opinion. The Scottish electorate have fairly unambiguously decided who they want to speak for Scotland and it is not Ruth Davidson. Unless Ruth Davidson can demonstrate that she stands firmly with majority of Scots on a major issue, and is willing to challenge her party colleagues in London and win then she will face the inevitable accusation that she is London’s poodle.

 

Ruth Davidson’s response to the problem that Scottish Labour grappled with has been to fall into line with London. Picking fights with Boris Johnson, her mirror image as a celebrity politician in London, will be welcomed by the Prime Minister and leaves the impression that she is there to do Prime Minister’s May’s dirty work. She may well find she needs to adopt more than Murdo Fraser’s idea of abandoning the Conservative label, which was done so effectively back in May, and create a truly independent Scottish Tory Party.

 

The emphasis today is on the leader. Though Ruth Davidson had fiercely opposed the idea of changing the party’s name during the Tory leadership contest in 2011, she showed a remarkable willingness to ignore her own strictures in demoting the ‘Conservative’ brand in favour of Brand Ruth. The tight campaign message eschewed any ambition to govern and thus discouraged any unwelcome scrutiny of Tory policies. Her Labour opponents may have stood little chance of governing but at least presented themselves as an alternative party of government.

 

In the event, the Scottish Tories bask in the honeymoon of victory having achieved their goal. But Ruth Davidson’s favourable popular standing as an effective leader of her party is not matched in her standing as a potential First Minister. Being top of a lower league does not equate with being near the top of the premier league. The Scottish Tories have not begun to play in the premier league and appear reluctant to take up promotion while insisting they will win the championship.

 

The Tories first need to secure their position as Scotland’s second party. This is far from secure at present. The electoral system worked for the Tories in May but Labour won more constituency votes and are not far behind on the list. Last year’s UK election saw the electoral system cheat Labour of representation leaving it with a solitary Scottish MP on a par with the Tories but with 24.3% of the vote to the Tories 14.9%. The Scottish Tories can’t play the ‘strong opposition’ card at the next UK general election.

 

Labour’s base in local government looks likely to erode in next year’s local elections and the Tories can hardly fall below the 13% of first preferences won in 2012 but closing the gap on Labour will prove difficult. Inexperienced Tory councillors may be returned across Scotland in reasonable numbers and may even play a part in administrations but that can be a very mixed blessing. There can be no certainty that the Scottish Tories will remain in second place at the next Holyrood elections. Having declared her desire to be First Minister, Ruth Davidson invites more scrutiny and a much more substantive policy programme.

 

The greatest danger facing the Scottish Tories may prove to be unrealistic expectations. The party is far from secure in its position as Scotland’s second party and has a long way to go before it can claim to have even won over what many see as its ‘natural level of support’. If Ruth Davidson’s ambition to become First Minister is serious – and there remains a suspicion that politics is just another joust in a debating society for her – then she needs to develop skills beyond spin and political theatricals.

 

Professor James Mitchell is Director of the Academy of Government, Edinburgh University.

 

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He is co-author with Rob Johns of Takeover: explaining the extraordinary rise of the SNP, published earlier this year by Biteback.

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SNP Depute Leadership contest

by James Mitchell

 

The public could be excused for being unaware that the SNP is currently electing a new depute leader. Past SNP leadership contests have been significant events when the party has confronted major choices in strategy and style. But this is not such a contest despite the arty facing some challenging strategic issues including the timing of a future independence referendum.

Valiant efforts have been made in the press to portray this campaign as significant – falling back on the observation that the last five SNP leaders had been depute. But this ignores the fact that not all deputies have become leader (under 30% of those who were depute went on to become leader since the post’s establishment) and the SNP has had a habit of electing deputies who it is difficult to imagine become leaders. And the office of depute leader in the SNP is little different from that in most parties or the depute chief executive in government. One American Vice President crudely described the office as ‘not worth a bucket of warm piss’. Whether that is true of any depute post depends largely on what the incumbent makes of it.

Margo MacDonald was one of the most notable depute leaders (1974-79) of the SNP who did not become leader. Her media profile was far higher than that of Billy Wolfe, the party leader at the time though Wolfe was an unusual leader. He had no qualms about being eclipsed by his depute and interpreted the role – formally ‘chair’, later ‘convenor’ before becoming ‘leader’ in 2004 – in keeping with what we would now call ‘shared’, ‘collaborative’ or ‘distributive’ leadership. Indeed, the party’s constitution had been designed to create such a collegiate leadership. It made sense when the SNP was essentially an ‘amateur activist’ party and relied on leaders who were not full-time politicians. Spreading the leadership load was not only sensible but necessary. Gordon Wilson (1979-1990) was the first full-time politician to hold the most senior office in the SNP and that was burdensome enough given that much of his time as an MP was spent in Westminster while his party was based in Scotland. In 1960, Arthur Donaldson was able to devote himself to the leadership from retirement, replacing James Halliday who had been elected aged 29 four years before.

Alex Salmond redefined the role and assumed the more typical leadership approach evident in other parties even before the formal change occurred in 2004. But he was still constrained by the party’s constitution and the array of leadership offices elected annually by SNP conference. The prospect of at least one of the many national vice convenors having a very different view on policy and strategy from the party leader was considerable – there were few occasions when the annual conference returned an unambiguous message of support for the party leader in these elections. One of the few occasions was in 1990, the year in which Salmond was first elected leader and even then one of the vice chairs was anything but ‘on-message’. The reform of the SNP’s constitution under John Swinney’s leadership saw the most significant shift in power in favour of the leader inside the party since the early 1960s. It came too late for the Swinney himself but his successors have been major beneficiaries.

It is notable that no candidate for depute comes from within the group of SNP MSPs. To all intents and purposes the real depute leader is likely to prove to be John Swinney operating as Deputy First Minister given his role in government and access to the party leader/First Minister.   In common with other parties, the office of party depute leader tells us little about where real power lies. Sturgeon was unusual in her dual roles as depute leader and Deputy First Minister.

Past leadership contests have witnessed serious policy and strategy debates – Salmond vs Ewing (1990); Swinney vs Neil (2000); Salmond vs Russell vs Cunningham (2004). Nobody was willing to take on the current incumbent not least as the party was more at ease with itself despite suffering defeat in the independence referendum. A contest following resignation after an electoral defeat can usually be expected to provoke soul-searching and debate on the way forward. The last time the SNP had a serious internal debate on strategy was in 2004 though it has had a few significant battles – on NATO membership most notably in recent years. And the party does not appear to be using this contest for soul searching and debating strategy. The reason is simple: the membership and parties elected members are generally fairly content.

It is possible in the SNP for the party membership to return a depute who differed significantly from the leader but that appears unlikely in this contest as none of the candidates appear to be offering anything approaching a challenge to Nicola Sturgeon. Indeed, they compete with each other to show their loyalty.

The outcome of this depute leadership contest is unlikely to tell us much about the SNP given the lack of major divisions. It appears to be more about style than substance. It will be interesting to see how many members are willing to support a candidate (Tommy Sheppard) who is relatively new to the party. It will be difficult (until the findings of a major new ESRC study of party membership are published in late Autumn) to assess the views of members who joined since the referendum compared with those who have been members for much longer. Such evidence as exists suggests we should not expect much of a difference between new and older members.

Turnout will be interesting. The candidates have attended hustings across Scotland that have attracted large numbers of people but still only a tiny fraction of the party’s total membership. The absence of major divisions and relative (and understandable) lack of media interest point to a low turnout. Two key considerations follow from this. Hustings often make little difference to the outcome of a contest as a small proportion who have a vote attend these and of those who attend hustings have already made up their minds and are often unlikely to be swayed. But on this occasion, the hustings might make a difference – the candidate perceived to have performed best, assuming a clear and consistent best performer emerges, will have an advantage. But the key will lie with those who have a vote but who do not attend these hustings or even engage much with the party (the largest proportion of members in almost all parties). These are the members who will determine who becomes SNP depute leader and for them the choice is likely to come down to familiarity.

Cllr Chris McEleny, SNP Group leader on Inverclyde Council, is at a clear disadvantage and he has done well to have made it onto the ballot. This has given him a platform and if SNP history tells us anything this could be a good base for building a future at national level in the SNP (assuming he performs well in hustings even if he does not win many votes). He is likely to attract support from those who may not expect him to win but see his candidacy as a means of sending a message that the party needs to shift to the left.

Alyn Smith damaged himself in 2012 with his contribution to the debate on NATO, despite being on the winning side (winning and losing, as the SNP knows well enough, are not always straightforward). But his powerful speech in the European Parliament will have helped him enormously and the centrality of Brexit over the coming years gives him added relevance.

Tommy Sheppard has been a breath of fresh air both in the SNP and Scottish politics but he is still relatively unknown amongst the SNP’s large membership. There is a precedent for a relatively new member being elected to major national office in the SNP. Jim Sillars became SNP Vice Chair for Policy in 1982 having joined the party the year before. But the SNP was a very different party then and Sillars was a very well known figure. The contest was also then restricted to delegates to the party’s annual conference rather than the wider membership. But his message that he can appeal to a wider electorate will have some traction.

But the favourite is Angus Robertson. Robertson was an SNP foot soldier back in the mid 1980s when still at school and has worked his way up the party. He stumbled badly during the debate on NATO but the SNP members can be forgiving especially when someone has put in the time as he has. But it is his performances at Prime Minister’s Questions that give him an advantage over the others. In his capacity as leader of the group of SNP MPs, he has taken on the Prime Minister at these weekly jousts and is widely acknowledged to have performed very well. The membership will likely agree with commentators, even those who oppose the party, who describe him as the ‘unofficial leader of the Opposition’. The members want to believe it and get sufficient evidence to believe it.

The probability is that whoever is elected depute leader will not go on to become party leader. At present Nicola Sturgeon’s standing in her party is such that she has little to fear from any of those competing for depute. If she was to be replaced – perhaps following an unsuccessful second independence referendum – she would be replaced by an MSP.

This contest is about finding someone who complements her and can reach parts she cannot. That too points towards Robertson, as the only candidate from outside the central belt.

 

Professor James Mitchell is Co-Director of the Academy of Government, Edinburgh University.

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Rob Johns and James Mitchell’s Takeover: explaining the extraordinary rise of the SNP, was published by Biteback in May. James Mitchell and Gerry Hassan’s edited volume on Scottish National Party Leaders will be published on September 15th by Biteback as part of their series on British party leaders

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The SNP Depute leadership contest

The public could be excused for being unaware that the SNP is currently electing a new depute leader. Past SNP leadership contests have been significant events when the party has confronted major choices in strategy and style. But this is not such a contest despite the arty facing some challenging strategic issues including the timing of a future independence referendum.

 

Valiant efforts have been made in the press to portray this campaign as significant – falling back on the observation that the last five SNP leaders had been depute. But this ignores the fact that not all deputies have become leader (under 30% of those who were depute went on to become leader since the post’s establishment) and the SNP has had a habit of electing deputies who it is difficult to imagine become leaders. And the office of depute leader in the SNP is little different from that in most parties or the depute chief executive in government. One American Vice President crudely described the office as ‘not worth a bucket of warm piss’. Whether that is true of any depute post depends largely on what the incumbent makes of it.

 

Margo MacDonald was one of the most notable depute leaders (1974-79) of the SNP who did not become leader. Her media profile was far higher than that of Billy Wolfe, the party leader at the time though Wolfe was an unusual leader. He had no qualms about being eclipsed by his depute and interpreted the role – formally ‘chair’, later ‘convenor’ before becoming ‘leader’ in 2004 – in keeping with what we would now call ‘shared’, ‘collaborative’ or ‘distributive’ leadership. Indeed, the party’s constitution had been designed to create such a collegiate leadership. It made sense when the SNP was essentially an ‘amateur activist’ party and relied on leaders who were not full-time politicians. Spreading the leadership load was not only sensible but necessary. Gordon Wilson (1979-1990) was the first full-time politician to hold the most senior office in the SNP and that was burdensome enough given that much of his time as an MP was spent in Westminster while his party was based in Scotland. In 1960, Arthur Donaldson was able to devote himself to the leadership from retirement, replacing James Halliday who had been elected aged 29 four years before.

 

Alex Salmond redefined the role and assumed the more typical leadership approach evident in other parties even before the formal change occurred in 2004. But he was still constrained by the party’s constitution and the array of leadership offices elected annually by SNP conference. The prospect of at least one of the many national vice convenors having a very different view on policy and strategy from the party leader was considerable – there were few occasions when the annual conference returned an unambiguous message of support for the party leader in these elections. One of the few occasions was in 1990, the year in which Salmond was first elected leader and even then one of the vice chairs was anything but ‘on-message’. The reform of the SNP’s constitution under John Swinney’s leadership saw the most significant shift in power in favour of the leader inside the party since the early 1960s. It came too late for the Swinney himself but his successors have been major beneficiaries.

 

It is notable that no candidate for depute comes from within the group of SNP MSPs. To all intents and purposes the real depute leader is likely to prove to be John Swinney operating as Deputy First Minister given his role in government and access to the party leader/First Minister.   In common with other parties, the office of party depute leader tells us little about where real power lies. Sturgeon was unusual in her dual roles as depute leader and Deputy First Minister.

 

Past leadership contests have witnessed serious policy and strategy debates – Salmond vs Ewing (1990); Swinney vs Neil (2000); Salmond vs Russell vs Cunningham (2004). Nobody was willing to take on the current incumbent not least as the party was more at ease with itself despite suffering defeat in the independence referendum. A contest following resignation after an electoral defeat can usually be expected to provoke soul-searching and debate on the way forward. The last time the SNP had a serious internal debate on strategy was in 2004 though it has had a few significant battles – on NATO membership most notably in recent years. And the party does not appear to be using this contest for soul searching and debating strategy. The reason is simple: the membership and parties elected members are generally fairly content.

 

It is possible in the SNP for the party membership to return a depute who differed significantly from the leader but that appears unlikely in this contest as none of the candidates appear to be offering anything approaching a challenge to Nicola Sturgeon. Indeed, they compete with each other to show their loyalty.

 

The outcome of this depute leadership contest is unlikely to tell us much about the SNP given the lack of major divisions. It appears to be more about style than substance. It will be interesting to see how many members are willing to support a candidate (Tommy Sheppard) who is relatively new to the party. It will be difficult (until the findings of a major new ESRC study of party membership are published in late Autumn) to assess the views of members who joined since the referendum compared with those who have been members for much longer. Such evidence as exists suggests we should not expect much of a difference between new and older members.

 

Turnout will be interesting. The candidates have attended hustings across Scotland that have attracted large numbers of people but still only a tiny fraction of the party’s total membership. The absence of major divisions and relative (and understandable) lack of media interest point to a low turnout. Two key considerations follow from this. Hustings often make little difference to the outcome of a contest as a small proportion who have a vote attend these and of those who attend hustings have already made up their minds and are often unlikely to be swayed. But on this occasion, the hustings might make a difference – the candidate perceived to have performed best, assuming a clear and consistent best performer emerges, will have an advantage. But the key will lie with those who have a vote but who do not attend these hustings or even engage much with the party (the largest proportion of members in almost all parties). These are the members who will determine who becomes SNP depute leader and for them the choice is likely to come down to familiarity.

 

Cllr Chris McEleny, SNP Group leader on Inverclyde Council, is at a clear disadvantage and he has done well to have made it onto the ballot. This has given him a platform and if SNP history tells us anything this could be a good base for building a future at national level in the SNP (assuming he performs well in hustings even if he does not win many votes). He is likely to attract support from those who may not expect him to win but see his candidacy as a means of sending a message that the party needs to shift to the left.

 

Alyn Smith damaged himself in 2012 with his contribution to the debate on NATO, despite being on the winning side (winning and losing, as the SNP knows well enough, are not always straightforward). But his powerful speech in the European Parliament will have helped him enormously and the centrality of Brexit over the coming years gives him added relevance.

 

Tommy Sheppard has been a breath of fresh air both in the SNP and Scottish politics but he is still relatively unknown amongst the SNP’s large membership. There is a precedent for a relatively new member being elected to major national office in the SNP. Jim Sillars became SNP Vice Chair for Policy in 1982 having joined the party the year before. But the SNP was a very different party then and Sillars was a very well known figure. The contest was also then restricted to delegates to the party’s annual conference rather than the wider membership. But his message that he can appeal to a wider electorate will have some traction.

 

But the favourite is Angus Robertson. Robertson was an SNP foot soldier back in the mid 1980s when still at school and has worked his way up the party. He stumbled badly during the debate on NATO but the SNP members can be forgiving especially when someone has put in the time as he has. But it is his performances at Prime Minister’s Questions that give him an advantage over the others. In his capacity as leader of the group of SNP MPs, he has taken on the Prime Minister at these weekly jousts and is widely acknowledged to have performed very well. The membership will likely agree with commentators, even those who oppose the party, who describe him as the ‘unofficial leader of the Opposition’. The members want to believe it and get sufficient evidence to believe it.

 

The probability is that whoever is elected depute leader will not go on to become party leader. At present Nicola Sturgeon’s standing in her party is such that she has little to fear from any of those competing for depute. If she was to be replaced – perhaps following an unsuccessful second independence referendum – she would be replaced by an MSP.

 

This contest is about finding someone who complements her and can reach parts she cannot. That too points towards Robertson, as the only candidate from outside the central belt.

 

Professor James Mitchell is Co-Director of the Academy of Government, Edinburgh University.

 

Rob Johns and James Mitchell’s Takeover: explaining the extraordinary rise of the SNP, was published by Biteback in May. James Mitchell and Gerry Hassan’s edited volume on Scottish National Party Leaders will be published on September 15th by Biteback as part of their series on British party leaders.

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BREXIT and local government

 

James Mitchell

 

 

Efforts during the EU referendum to put a figure on how much policy emanates from Brussels provoked wry smiles in local government. Measuring the impact on UK domestic policy, including local government, is not an exact science and counting pieces of legislation does not offer a serious understanding of the impact and nature of the EU.

 

Equally, the relationships involved are often described as multi-level, but this is something of a misnomer as it implies tiers of government, usually perceived as a hierarchy, rather than the more complex inter-relationships involved. Local government has found that European institutions have been open and receptive to local concerns. The more appropriate metaphor, borrowing from studies in federalism, was that relationships resembled a marble cake (or cooperative federalism) rather than a layered cake.

 

A quarter of a century ago, the Audit Commission for England and Wales published a ‘Rough Guide to Europe: local authorities and the EC’ when local authority engagement with the EC was increasing following the Single European Act, the first major revision of original 1957 Treaty of Rome. It noted that about a third of English and Welsh local authorities had reviewed the EC’s effect on local government and fewer had developed a strategy. It urged local authorities to ensure that there was a member of staff responsible for European strategy.

 

UK membership of the EC coincided with the reform of Scottish local government. The new regional and island councils steadily grew closer to Brussels as relations with the old Scottish Office deteriorated, though often enough Europe became an arena in which Scottish local authorities and the Scottish Office could act together constructively. By the time of the next major reorganisation of Scottish local government in 1996, each of Scotland’s regions had some foothold in Brussels. The new unitary authorities were smaller and there was concern that existing relationships with Brussels would be disrupted. In 1995, the Convention of Scottish Local Government (COSLA) produced ‘The European Union – a key relationship with the new unitary authorities’ detailing the relationships and described the EU as a ‘high priority’ for local government.

 

The first Scottish local authority to appoint a European Liaison Officer had been Dumfries and Galloway back in 1976. In common with others that followed, early activities tended to focus on gaining grants, a situation common across member states. European Commission officials were aware that many authorities were not taking advantage of existing grants, then operating on a quota basis.  Brussels was keen to enlist the support of local government in the implementation of its policies, and local government found a sympathetic ally.

 

As the EC developed into the EU, local authorities became aware of the deepening of the relationship. A process of Europeanisation of local government occurred that differed in detail from authority to authority. The EU dimension became a standard part of the gamut of local government responsibilities.

 

As the EU has developed, the complex relationship moved from being one in which local government lobbied Brussels’ institutions, to sharing responsibility over a wide range of public policy matters. Local government is at the delivery end of many policies with a European dimension. Social and environmental protection, health and consumer protection, working time directives, the transfer of undertakings, procurement and state aid, transport policies, and rural and maritime policies are among areas affected by the EU. But it has been a two-way relationship. Local government has had its voice heard and an array of European local authority bodies have emerged articulating trans-European interests. Lessons have been learned from other authorities in Europe including, most notably, in the possibilities for greater local autonomy.

 

The Brexit vote upends these relationships that have long been taken for granted and embedded in a system that has been far from conflictual compared with other forms of inter-governmental relations in the UK. Local government officers and councillors now join other policy-makers struggling to comprehend the far-reaching implications of the June 23rd vote. The absence of any plan for Brexit, or any indication as to the likely outcome of the negotiations, leave local authorities in a difficult position. Even outside the EU, the UK will be obliged to comply with many EU directives in order to gain access to European markets. It is unclear which areas will see policy continuities and which areas will be disrupted by withdrawal.

The uncertain future today requires the same European intelligence that the Audit Commission recommended a quarter of a century ago. Whether this means a person responsible for Brexit in each local authority or whether this can be done across all authorities or through some other mechanism, there is little doubt that local government will need to closely monitor and feed into negotiations.  Developing a strategy to deal with the uncertainties of Brexit will be essential.  Local authorities will not want to find themselves unable to respond to developments, without a contingency plan for whatever eventualities, in the way that UK central government now finds itself in.

 

Professor James Mitchell FAcSS, FRSE

Academy of Government

This blog originally appeared on the Local Government Information Unit website.

@ProfJMitchell

 

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