WHO shapes the policies our governments implement? This is one of the questions raised by the investigation “Who runs Scotland?” published this week in The National’s sister paper, The Herald.
The investigation by Ferret Scotland claimed industry and big business dominate access to the UK Government’s Scotland Office Ministers while professional lobbyists, including former politicians, advisers and a former minister have ready access to Scottish Government representatives, whom they seek to influence on behalf of clients including business, charity and industry bodies.
Of course, there is nothing wrong in this if it’s done transparently, but does it make for better policy making? Without proper scrutiny and due process there is a risk of policy capture – meaning decision-making in a particular policy area is directed towards the interests of specific groups without due consideration for the potential impact on other groups and the wider population.
At Westminster, some of the think tanks with the greatest influence on the Tory Government’s policy agenda are ruthless organisations dominated by right-wing free marketeers and libertarians who are secretive about their funding. This does not make for a healthy democracy.
In Scotland, the independent policy analysis collective MurrayBlackburnMackenzie has raised questions about the adequacy of institutional safeguards against well-organised and highly purposeful lobbying, particularly where groups who may be detrimentally affected do not have the same level of representation.
In Germany, party-affiliated think tanks such as the Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung, the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung and the Heinrich Boll Stiftung develop centre-right, centre-left and Green policy. I would love to see something like this in Scotland.
While we don’t have the same phenomenon on a UK level, a plethora of think tanks surrounds the Westminster machinery of government but Scotland, with a parliament reconvened only two decades ago, is less well served. And, sadly, this week we lost one of our most hard working and productive think tanks due to a lack of funding.
The independent Scottish Centre for European Relations founded and run by Dr Kirsty Hughes has had a prodigious output over the last four years, providing research and analysis on EU and international affairs with a particular focus on Scotland’s European interests and policies.
As Brexit has played out, SCER’s contribution to understanding what’s going on in the EU, how best to exercise paradiplomacy and how, why and whether an independent Scotland could join the EU has been unsurpassed. So why on Earth can such an invaluable resource not find the funding it needs to continue?
Fortunately, the work done by SCER to date will be archived and available, but it is concerning that, as distinguished former diplomat Mariot Leslie commented, there is no obvious successor on the Scottish scene at present.
SCER’s work was helpful in informing the policy choices that need to be made around Scotland’s economic and trading future and in which our relationship with the EU will be crucial. These choices are important whether or not Scotland becomes independent but for those of us who support independence they are pivotal.
Along with others, I have repeatedly emphasised that Scotland needs a new prospectus for independence. One that fits the world we live in now which is a very different from the one in which the 2014 referendum took place.
THE three questions we need most to focus on are the economic prospectus, our trading relationship with the rest of the UK post-Brexit and the route to accession to the EU. These are the questions which repeatedly come up on the doorstep, which are repeatedly put to our leaders and spokespersons and which they are not yet sufficiently well-equipped to answer satisfactorily.
Our new Cabinet Secretary for the Constitution, Angus Robertson, has welcomed the appointment of party president Michael Russell to head up SNP preparations for the independence campaign and said he looks forward to working with him to deliver what the public voted for when they elected a majority of MSPs committed to a second independence referendum.
However, it would be unreasonable to expect Mike Russell to come up with the answers to these big policy questions on his own. The work needed to fund policy development can be costly and beyond the reach of already stretched party funding.
That’s why the Germans have their model. Besides, the SNP party constitution mandates the involvement of conference and the membership in policy formulation, as Mike would be the first to recognise.
The Scottish Government was elected with a mandate to deliver not just a second independence referendum but independence itself. Ultimately a heavy weight of responsibility lies on those who hold the brief for the constitution.
I am sure they are mindful of the need to have the arguments required to persuade those not yet convinced of the case for independence.
The reality which must be recognised is that support for independence has fallen back from a high watermark of 58% to about 50%. A net increase of 5% in support for independence is a poor return for the last seven years, which have seen three Tory governments elected, Brexit delivered in the face of overwhelming resistance in Scotland and the rebarbative Boris Johnson become Prime Minister.
But all is not lost. I have no doubt that with a lucid new prospectus for independence and a plan for the transition to statehood we could surpass 60% support for independence and build on that to a firm victory in a second vote.
It is the role of the civil service to develop and implement the policies of the government of the day as effectively as possible.
The paper Scotland’s Place in Europe was an outstanding piece of work and now we need more of the same concerning the current landscape.
Prior to the Covid pandemic, on Brexit Day on January 31, 2020, Scottish Government policy papers on some of the issues I have identified were promised. Understandably, these were put on pause during the pandemic, but, as we move forward and recover from the pandemic, I would expect this work to have resumed, particularly given that the UK Government is steaming ahead with its constitutional agenda and did not, as we have discovered thanks to the Good Law Project, pause its work on propping up the Union during the pandemic.
The announcement that a new council has been tasked with drawing up a 10-year national strategy for the “economic transformation” of Scotland does rather beg the question of where independence sits in this plan.
Some clarity on this is needed. As others have commented, things have gone awfully quiet on the independence front since the election. That does not mean there is no activity, but I would expect the Scottish Parliament to be favoured with a detailed update on this work in the autumn.