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Scotland and Wales aren’t ready for further powers
Devolved government is in crisis. The arrest of former First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, near unprecedented in British politics, is only the latest calamity to hit the Scottish government. In a recent cover story, the Economist magazine blamed low growth on the governing Scottish National Party (SNP).
Whilst devolution has several achievements, such events provide an opportunity to highlight an element of Scottish and Welsh devolution which is less discussed: these polities suffer from lack of public attention, compromising their ability to govern transparently and effectively.
Usefully, the Oxford political scientist Pepper Culpepper developed the concept of ‘quiet politics’. When voters pay limited attention to issues, the preferences of organized interests and/or political classes tend to predominate.
Though Culpepper applied this concept to corporate governance, we can extend it to devolution, Scottish and Welsh governance suffering from a long-term deficit of public interest and scrutiny. Policy failures are associated with this. In areas such as gender and race, Scottish and Welsh governments have introduced extreme measures which are unpopular with voters. Given lack of public attention, radical policy entrepreneurs have hijacked agendas, encouraged by the desire of devolved authorities to differentiate themselves from the UK government in Westminster. As publics have become wiser to these issues, governments have made embarrassing U-turns.
Quiet politics entails potential for corruption. When voters pay little attention to political classes, opportunities for impropriety expand. Westminster is scarcely free of this problem, the Conservative government having a poor record during the pandemic, yet the SNP affair may be more serious, going to the heart of the party. In Wales, anti-corruption campaigners have long criticized the Welsh government. Problems with the press exacerbate this, Scottish and Welsh newspapers either being poorly resourced or uncomfortably close to the government.
Of course, problems reflect other factors. Aside from the natural propensity of small countries to fall victim to corruption, many regret the domination of single parties. The Welsh case is egregious, the Labour Party holding power for a quarter of a century and the prospect of change being remote.
But such phenomena also reflect the quietness of devolved politics. Historically, Scottish and Welsh elections are second-order ones, the electorate paying limited attention to relevant issues and voting in reaction to developments in Westminster. Whilst things have improved – the pandemic was a watershed, alerting voters to the powers of devolved governments - this is still a problem, name recognition of Scottish and Welsh politicians remaining inferior to Westminster counterparts.
This entails lack of democratic accountability. If voters know little about the record of Welsh Labour, instead concentrating on the Conservative government in Westminster, it entails lack of scrutiny of the Welsh government, exacerbating problems.
Caveats are important. This problem has improved in recent years, Covid being a watershed in Wales. Devolved polities are on the right track, name recognition improving and medias being developed. Nor is noisy politics a panacea. Since Brexit, UK politics has become noisier – Brexit restored sovereignty in several areas which had been dominated by the technocratic EU – yet this creates other problems; in technical spheres, quiet politics can optimize outcomes.
But we should worry about the volume of devolved politics, particularly since further devolution seems likely. Should it win the next UK election, Labour has pledged to cede more powers to devolved governments.
This may be a mistake. For centuries, Westminster has been the focal point of UK politics, the attention of Scottish and Welsh voters gravitating towards it. Indeed, independence supporters emphasize the long-term emasculation of Scottish and Welsh civil society at the hands of Westminster. If this true – and to some extent, I agree – one might conclude that these polities require long-term reconstruction, prior to the further powers/independence which such movements advocate.
In a quarter of a century, devolution has many achievements; it may be time to consolidate these.
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