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Why are the Celtic nations so progressive?
To an unusual degree, governments in Celtic nations (Ireland, Scotland and Wales) are more progressive than Celtic voters. Relevant measures reflect social justice ideology – recently, the Irish hate speech law has been controversial – yet have a wider basis than social justice ideology, the Welsh government regulating speeding and plastic bag use. This phenomenon is fascinating, shedding light on divisions between elites and voters which occur across the West.
Small countries have long been vulnerable to policy capture. Decades ago, neoliberal experiments took place in smaller polities, despite unpopularity among publics. As progressive cultural policies have become fashionable among Anglosphere elites, small countries have been at the vanguard.
Admittedly, the relationship between size and progressiveness is not straightforward. Despite its medium to large size, Canada is renowned for progressive policies, some arguing that this reflects the endurance of the imperial-periphery relationship. Regional governments are also small – many countries have deeper devolution than the United Kingdom – yet, in most contexts, there is no relationship between decentralization and progressive governance.
But when agendas enjoy support among global and internal elites, small countries seem prone to radicalism. The Baltic states (Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania) were famous for extreme neoliberalism, reflecting the popularity of neoliberalism in Central and Eastern Europe and internal support. In small countries, civil societies tend to be underdeveloped and less adversarial, entailing weak opposition. Policy communities tend to be tightknit and insular, encouraging groupthink. By contrast, Polish neoliberalism was restrained, resulting from the country’s larger size.
In the Celtic nations, internal conditions encourage progressivism. Notwithstanding significant opposition, progressive measures have fair support among populations, reflecting postmaterial political conditions. Of course, support is strong among elites. In Ireland, reliance upon international organizations and American capital encourages such measures. This external pressure follows historical patterns, the Catholic Church having traditional influence, albeit conservative.
In Scotland and Wales, the contested extent of devolution encourages policymakers to pursue distinctive policies, such measures increasing the profile of devolved governments and making further powers more likely. Devolved elections are second-order ones, the electorate paying limited attention to relevant issues and voting in reaction to developments in Westminster. This entails lack of democratic accountability. If voters know little about the record of Scottish and Welsh governments, instead concentrating on the Conservative government in Westminster, public scrutiny is limited.
Radical policy entrepreneurs are crucial, activists having unusual influence on Celtic politicians. Reflecting on the introduction of transgender self-identification in Ireland, the infamous Denton’s Document was frank; ‘activists… directly lobbied individual politicians and tried to keep press coverage to a minimum’. This reflects size – radicals find it easier to penetrate small polities – and the profile of the Scottish and Welsh governments, lobbying being easier when public attention is lower.
How will the Celtic nations develop? In Scotland and Wales, some place hope in the UK Labour Party, the Starmer leadership adopting sensible positions which reflect public opinion. Potentially, these will restrain the Welsh Labour government and change debate in Scotland.
But this may have limited influence; as we have seen, devolved policymakers aim for differentiation from Westminster. As Ireland shows, settled constitutions will not end these trends; small countries may always be vulnerable to radical ideologies.
Of course, ideologies have lifecycles. Neoliberalism has faded, its influence on small countries diminishing correspondingly. Eventually, progressivism will ebb. Recently, there have been signs of this, loss of corporate enthusiasm being significant.
Some are thankful for Celtic progressivism. Historically, these countries are conservative, particularly Ireland, and parts of society have been overdue a shakeup. But democracies must reflect voter preferences. Like neoliberalism, progressivism has a problem with this, elites favouring measures which are at odds with public opinion.
Small countries can develop immunity against policy capture, vibrant medias and civic organizations enhancing pluralism. Wales and Scotland have much work to do, reflecting the younger profile of devolution. We cannot anticipate the next fad and the Celtic nations may not succumb to it, yet capacity building would benefit them.
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