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.

Posted in Local Government, Parliament, Scottish Government, Scottish Politics | 2 Comments

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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Brexit and Indyref2

This week has once more seen protagonists and antagonists raise the prospect of a second independence referendum in the event of Brexit. The Financial Times based an article on the premise that ‘some SNP opponents suspect its leaders secretly hope the UK will vote to leave’. Jonathan Powell, Tony Blair’s former adviser, has asserted, ‘we know that one of the outcomes of a Leave vote would be the immediate demand for a referendum on Scottish independence’. Prime Minister Cameron joined two of his predecessors in warning that Brexit might lead to the break up of Britain. This is, of course, the stuff of political campaigns.

Superficially, this seems plausible but it is far from certain that a second independence referendum would follow fast after a vote for Brexit. There are serious problems ahead that the SNP leadership are well aware of when it comes to a second independence referendum in such circumstances. Brexit may lead to demands for a second referendum, assuming Scotland votes Remain. But the issue may become one of timing and we cannot assume that this means a second independence referendum any time before the end of this Parliament.

Any short-term advantage that might accrue from diverging opinions on such a crucial issue would have to be set alongside the medium term challenges of selling independence after the EU referendum. There are many imponderables, most notably the outcome of negotiations between London and the EU.

One of the best guides as to what might happen and the issues that would need to be addressed by supporters of independence has been provided in a sober assessment of the implications of Brexit produced by the Irish Government. Ireland would face similar – though not identical – challenges to those that an independent Scotland would have to confront and would need to be addressed by supporters of independence in any future referendum. The Irish Government position, outlined in a recent statement from the Taoisigh’s office, broadly conforms with thinking inside the office of Scotland’s First Minister:

1Statement from Department of Taoisigh, Republic of Ireland, 10 June 2016
Brexit would alter the terms of debate on Scottish independence. The Scottish Government’s 2013 Independence White paper was based on understandings that might become irrelevant in the event of Brexit. Much would be determined by the outcome of the twin-track negotiations that will take place between the UK Government and the EU. Withdrawal negotiations would be accompanied by negotiations on new relations with the EU. What would emerge from these processes is highly contested. Each side in this EU referendum has asserted different outcomes. Access to the single market and the extent of free moment of people lies at the heart of these negotiations with significant implications for Scotland.

Each of the four main reasons given by the Irish Government for supporting the UK to remain in the UK offer useful headings under which to consider the position of Scotland:

2

The EU provides a framework allowing for a seamless flow of goods, services, capital and people that would exist between Scotland and rest of the UK (rUK) but only if rUK and Scotland both remained in the EU. Scotland may face a disruption to the seamless flow with either the rest of Europe (rEU) or rUK in the event of Brexit. Scotland can chose to remain part of a smaller UK market with whom it trades most but with barriers to the wider European market or part of a larger European market but have barriers with its main UK trading partner. Much will depend on what kind of deal is done by the UK and EU post-Brexit. That will not be immediately clear.

3

The Common Travel Area (CTA) existed before the UK and Ireland joined the EEC in 1973 but was unaffected as both states joined simultaneously. The Irish Government fears that the CTA would be disrupted if the UK was outside the EU, especially given that one of the motives for Brexit has been an attempt to close the UK’s borders to outsiders. So long as Ireland remains in the EU, then the border between the Republic and Northern Ireland is likely to be seen as a potential point of easy entry to the UK from across the EU. The same might apply if Scotland was independent in the EU while rUK was out. The borders between Ireland and Northern Ireland and an independent Scotland and rUK would likely become ‘harder’ if rUK left the EU. Indeed, given the logic of the current debate on the EU this seems a plausible expectation.

4

This would be true to some extent for an independent Scotland though part of the argument for independence has always rested on Scotland having distinct and divergent interests, including in negotiations with the EU. The UK Government has not always been on the same side as Scotland in EU negotiations. Being part of a larger more powerful entity is only attractive so long as there are shared preferred destinations. That will remain contested and likely will divide opinion much as at present. It is more likely that Brexit will confirm more supporters of independence in their support for independence in the EU than convert many opponents of independence to the cause.

5

This has less relevance to Scotland than the other arguments but will be a matter of interest to many Scots, especially given the familial links with Ireland. EU financial subsidy of Northern Ireland has been significant and seems certain to end. Dublin has expressed this carefully, avoiding the hyperbole common in much of the debate on this side of the Irish Sea. The ever fragile peace in Northern Ireland will be a matter of considerable interest to many in Scotland.

Opportunities

6

One opportunity identified by Irish officials is the possibility of attracting Foreign Direct Investment that might otherwise have gone to a UK that was still a member of the EU or may seek to move from the UK. This applies to Scotland and may be an even more attractive place especially for companies currently in rUK seeking a base in the EU post Brexit. Much again will depend on the outcome of EU-UK negotiations.
Conclusion

The EU referendum will determine whether negotiations begin for the UK’s formal exit from the European Union. What is clear is that future relations with rEU, in the event of a vote for Brexit, are unclear and have been highly contested during this referendum. Leaving aside the usual exaggeration of campaign rhetoric, the future of UK (or rUK) relations with rEU are unknown. Such relations will depend on the outcome of a series of negotiations over a number of years. These in turn will have an impact on the opportunities and challenges that an independent Scotland would face. EU member states will be as keen as the UK Government to ensure a smooth transition. The Scottish Question is intimately linked to the European Question but the former will not be any clearer in the immediate aftermath of the EU referendum. Polls in the immediate aftermath of a vote for Brexit might initially suggest a significant rise in support for independence. This might be consolidated and enough to win a quick independence referendum. But we would move rapidly into a period when key issues would need to be addressed that would be far from unclear. Scottish public attitudes formed in the immediate aftermath of the EU referendum might easily change quickly when people focus on the uncertain outcomes of these negotiations. Bute House should be wary of jumping to a quick conclusion on the basis of a shift in public opinion evident in the immediate aftermath of the EU referendum.

Professor James Mitchell holds the Chair in Public Policy, Edinburgh University and Director of the Academy of Government. James Mitchell’s ‘A Tale of two referendums’ was published in Adam Hug (ed), Europe and the people: examining the EU’s democratic legitimacy, The Foreign Policy Centre, June 2016. http://www.fpc.org.uk. He is on an FPC panel at the Royal Society of Edinburgh, June 16.

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What will Nicola Sturgeon be hoping for on June 23rd?

There has been much speculation on the implications of the EU referendum for the unity of the UK. A list of EU supporters have suggested that a vote for BREXIT will lead to the break-up of Britain. But what logic lies behind these claims and what is the evidence that a vote for Brexit will precipitate a second referendum on Scottish independence?

Tony Blair has said that ‘if the United Kingdom votes to leave Europe, Scotland will vote to leave the United Kingdom’. Alan Johnson went further suggesting that if Scotland voted heavily to remain and he was a Scot, ‘I would be thinking again as well’ about independence. Sir John Major has warned of the ‘high probability’ of independence after BREXIT.

There is an obvious logic behind the claim that BREXIT might lead to another independence referendum and a vote for Scottish independence. There is ample evidence that Scotland will vote to REMAIN by a healthy margin. There is also some evidence that this might boost support for independence. Support for independence rose by 5% in an Ipsos MORI poll in February asking voters to imagine the scenario of another independence referendum following Brexit.

Membership of the EU was a key issue in the 2014 referendum with each side maintaining that victory was the only means of securing Scottish membership of the EU. Opposition to the EU existed on the fringe of both sides in the 2014 referendum but was rarely heard. That might have been different had the Tories had as many MSPs then as they have now. Six Tory MSPs support Brexit and two abstained in the recent debate in Holyrood. This constitutes a significant split the Scottish Tory group in Holyrood. The rise in support for Ruth Davidson’s party has brought the family feud on Europe to Scotland.

The signs remain that Scotland will vote convincingly to REMAIN in the EU. But it is a major leap to assume that this will result in a second referendum. We cannot assume that the UK will vote for BREXIT. Nicola Sturgeon was careful not to commit herself to another independence referendum on the strength of BREXIT. The 5% boost found in the Ipsos MORI poll was in response to a hypothetical question; it was a relatively small boost; and may prove ephemeral. It is unclear whether any putative increase in support for independence would be sustained. There are too many imponderables for a cautious politician to risk her career on a second referendum. Opposition to the EU has been the argument that has barely spoken its name in Scotland.

This hypothetical nature of the Ipsos MORI question should make Nicola Sturgeon cautious. It cannot take account of other contextual factors. Supporters of independence would have major headaches in a second referendum provoked by BREXIT. BREXIT might result in greater upheaval than independence, as many supporters of the latter believe. If so, this would be the backdrop against which the Scottish electorate will be asked to vote on independence. It would be easy for opponents of independence to portray Scottish independence as piling uncertainty on uncertainty in the wake of BREXIT.

Much of the opposition case against independence in 2014 would be even more potent in the event of BREXIT if Scotland wanted to remain in the EU. Arguments about borders made by unionist supporters could no longer be dismissed as absurd if, as seems likely, there was a much harder border in the event of rUK being outside the EU. The worries that Ireland has if the UK votes for BREXIT would be even more applicable for an independent Scotland. Regardless of Scotland’s constitutional status, it would be in Scotland’s best interests that its neighbour remains within the same common market and trading block as Scotland.

Nonetheless, BREXIT combined with a substantial Scottish vote for REMAIN would provide further evidence of the divergence of opinion north and south of the order and could substantially increase support for independence so long as there is not an immediate second independence referendum. Key issues would need to be addressed and much would depend on the nature of any post-BREXIT agreements reached with the EU. That will not be clear for some time after the EU referendum. But it is likely that BREXIT would contribute to increased support for independence over the long haul but BREXIT may be a slow burner for Scottish nationalists. The 5% increase in support for independence might disappear quickly in the event of an immediate second referendum but might equally grow and grow considerably if a second independence referendum was postponed for a few years.
James Mitchell is Professor of Public Policy, Edinburgh University.

His latest book, published on Tuesday May 31st with Rob Johns is Takeover: explaining the extraordinary rise of the SNP, published by Biteback.

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Orphan problems

In its report on the future delivery of public services, the Christie Commission highlighted the activities of a recovery consortium based in Hamilton as an example of good practice. Commissioners visited the initiative and had been impressed by its work. The Lanarkshire Recovery Consortium (LaRC) embodied the principles the Commission would outline. Those involved had identified a need that was not being met. Unmet needs are not uncommon in public services. One key reason is that needs are often orphans without a supporting voice in what often appears to the public, especially the vulnerable public, to be a jungle of public institutions. Everyone is sympathetic to the orphan’s plight but none is willing to take responsibility.

LaRC was able to identify a key need that was falling between the cracks and set out to address it. This third sector group understood this need because LaRC volunteers had first hand experience of drug ad alcohol problems.

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From the Christie Commission Report, p.31

Five years on and LaRC is worth revisiting. It still exists, works hard and continues to innovate. It would have been easy to continue with the work that impressed the Christie Commission but it has built on this and identified a further orphan.

The silo-based nature of public services means that those with multiple needs have to navigate themselves through an institutional jungle of public bodies, often with little support. Once more, LaRC was able to identify the problem from close involvement and came up with a solution. There was often a lack of professional advocacy support. Research had identified the considerable burden on family members affected by a relative with drug problems. Advocacy was a key form of support but this has been patchy. There have been examples of good practice across Scotland, including the Voice of Carers Across Lothian (VOCAL).

LaRC’s approach has been a classic example of tertiary prevention. It may be far downstream in the preventative approach that Christie advocated. But there was never any doubt that all negative outcomes could be avoided and late interventions are still essential. The road to recovery is long and difficult and the investment in advocacy can pay back many times over in savings to the health, justice and other sectors. The need for qualified advocates who fully understood what was involved led the to the idea of providing that was professional and personalized advocacy training. The idea was that those who had benefited from such a service might themselves go on to train as advocates ensuring maximum empathy in advocacy while offering a route forward for those in long-term recovery. LaRC took the initiative and proposed their REACH Advocacy Award for those affected by addiction and mental health. After many iterations it received Scottish Qualifications Agency (SQA) accreditation. This issue now is funding.

There are a number of arguments for embedding advocacy as a right that lie behind LaRC’s recent initiative. The aforementioned allusion to tackling negative demand should appeal to those conscious of the challenges ahead in public finances. However, this case highlights a key challenge in the funding of preventative approaches. Upfront investment is required but identifying where that should come from is far from straightforward especially when successful savings accrue across a number of institutions and to an extent that is impossible to predict and thereby measure with precision. Measuring the impact of public policy interventions is fraught with difficulties given the vast array of other factors affecting outcomes and measuring what might have been had an intervention occurred takes us into even more difficult territory.

Who pays for preventative measures? The logical answer is those who benefit but the paradox is that it becomes increasingly difficult to gain support with increasing numbers of beneficiaries. There is a free-rider problem. Everyone holds back in the hope that someone else will pay.

A strong case has been made by the Scottish Independent Advocacy Alliance (SIAA) to view advocacy as a right. Currently, those with a mental disorder have advocacy rights but this does not extend to those with addiction issues.   The SIAA powerfully relate the case for advocacy to the Human Rights legislation.

LaRC continue to be an example of an innovative group. Its latest work highlights key challenges in achieving outcomes proposed by Christie. We still have a long way to go to overcome barriers to prevention and overcome the silo-based institutional jungle. The challenge for public bodies will not only be to find a way of supporting this initiative but ensuring that such impediments are not longer systemic.

 

Professor James Mitchell, Academy of Government.

James Mitchell was a member of the Christie Commission on the Delivery of Public Services.

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