Devolution: A Decade On - Justice Committee Contents

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 261-279)


26 FEBRUARY 2008

  Q261 Chairman: Professor Mitchell, thank you for joining us this morning. In view of your academic credentials we thought we would treat you in a more seminar mode than our previous witnesses and invite you to say a few things by way of opening and we will throw questions at you as the spirit moves.

  Professor Mitchell: Okay. I thought I would start by talking about the achievements of devolution as I see them, because when politicians are asked about what does devolution achieve they normally list legislation and policy and such like. From my perspective, I think the key achievement of devolution is that the problem of legitimacy in Scottish politics has been removed. In the 1980s and 1990s I think there was a growing problem in Scotland, and it was also true in Wales but I will restrict my comments to Scotland here, that people perceived the government of Scotland by Conservatives through the Scottish Office as lacking legitimacy. That is not to suggest that people saw it as unlawful but there were questions as to fairness of policy, the sense of policy being imposed on Scotland against its will, and I think that was what fuelled the demand for a Scottish Parliament. There had always been support for a Scottish Parliament going back to the earliest polls in the late 1940s right through to devolution but what changed in the 1980s and 1990s was that this became a much more salient issue and it coalesced around particular issues. The Poll Tax is the one that is most obviously spoken about but, in fact, it was many, many other issues from the early 1980s onwards. What I think devolution has done is to remove the issue of legitimacy. There are clearly differences across the parties in Scotland as to how Scotland should be governed, and we have just heard Bruce Crawford who obviously advocates independence and there are others who would extend devolution, others who would leave devolution, but no-one, I think, certainly none of the mainstream parties, and I cannot think of anyone even on the fringe of politics, who today believes there is a lack of legitimacy in the system of government. That is the thing that has been a clear achievement of devolution. It is one that we rarely talk about, we do not even acknowledge, but it is one that I think is very important. The other achievement that relates to that is the fact we have now tackled to some extent a kind of debilitating politics of grievance that Scotland suffered from over many, many decades in truth. There has always been that tendency in Scotland and it is often associated with one party but, in truth, all parties have tended to blame London for this kind of debilitating politics that took place. Peter Hennessy in the election here last year in Edinburgh remarked that there were three great institutions in the UK which were persistently successful in getting money out of the Treasury: the military, doctors and the Scottish Office. In a sense, I always thought that was a good thing from Scotland's point of view but, ultimately, it is a very debilitating form of politics. We have injected a degree of responsibility into our politics, not as much as we perhaps should, but I would say that is the other achievement. However, and I will finish on this point, resolving one problem of legitimacy has created a series of others, the so-called English Question, the West Lothian Question, the question of Barnett and finance. That is one of the great problems that we have today, that in a sense we have simply shifted the problem around within the UK and, whatever is proposed into the future, we should try and ensure if there are to be further reforms that we do not simply carry on shifting the problem around and particularly we should try to avoid encouraging the politics of grievance.

  Q262  Chairman: It was you who produced the pass the parcel analogy, was it not?

  Professor Mitchell: Yes, indeed, it was.

  Q263  Chairman: You have passed the parcel to England because the legitimacy of government in England is seen as being undermined once it is possible for Scotland to decide to do other things while Scottish Members of Parliament decide different things for England.

  Professor Mitchell: I would stress the potential for a growing problem of grievance in England, a problem of legitimacy is there. We do not have it yet, the issues around the West Lothian Question and, of course, Barnett, are not so salient as the politics of grievance in Scotland in the 1980s and 1990s, but one should remember the potential for grievances that we had in Scotland in the 1980s and 1990s had always existed and it is the context of politics that will determine whether those grievances will arise. The fact that Labour is in power in London has ensured that this kind of politics has not emerged very strongly. That said, I would take Barnett, for example, and my own research has shown if you go back to the early 1980s there was a tiny handful of us, anoraks you might call us, who were interested in the Barnett Formula which was restricted really to civil servants and the academic community but now, of course, the elites in sections of England are interested in it. It is not yet a popular matter, it is not a great problem, I do not think, but it could become one. I guess the issue that I would suggest has to be addressed is whether, if this is likely to arise, it is something that ought to be addressed now in the relatively quiet time of devolution or should we wait until it really does explode. My suggestion is that it is always best to meet a problem before it becomes particularly difficult.

  Q264  Alun Michael: I think what you have said is very interesting because is it not the case that part of the problem is that the politics of grievance, as you have described, is fed by the journalism of grievance and the continual feeding of bad news and there is very rarely very accurate analysis on which that grievance is based? For instance, the English Question quite clearly ought to be described as the "England outside London Question" in order to be anywhere near accurate as identifying something. How do you see the way that coverage of politics in Scotland has developed, both in terms of coverage of Scottish politics within Scotland and the coverage of Scottish politics in the wider UK in terms of the way that people understand the changes to which you have referred?

  Professor Mitchell: There has been a big change in the media coverage of Scottish politics post-devolution. In the early years a section of the media, and it was a small section of the media, continued to campaign almost as if the referendum was still going on. The anti-devolution element was in the media. That seems to have long since gone now and certainly I think the media is more focused on the everyday issues, the bread and butter issues of devolution. There are occasions when there are bits in papers and we shake our heads and think, "Good God, what kind of coverage is this", but that is always going to happen. I think we have got very good media coverage of the Scottish Parliament and devolution. If I have one complaint about the media in Scotland it is that perhaps there is too much focus on the Scottish Parliament and I think there is so much more going on in Scotland beyond the Parliament and we are in danger, and it is not just the media, the academic community is probably more guilty of this frankly, of ignoring local government, for example, and politics beyond the Holyrood village. In a sense we are in danger, and I think we already have done this, of recreating the Westminster bubble, the media bubble that takes place down south, here in Scotland around Holyrood. That said, when one speaks to journalists there is an effort to move away from that. Saying that, I am certainly in no position to criticise journalists because there is at least some journalistic coverage of Scottish politics beyond Holyrood and I cannot think of very much, if any, academic research beyond Holyrood and Scottish politics. On the wider issue,—

  Q265  Chairman: Just before you leave that, was there not also in the early days following the first elections to the Scottish Parliament a media approach which said that coalition was impossible whenever any kind of dispute arose and it took quite some time for the media to settle down?

  Professor Mitchell: I do not think that was a media problem. I think there was a public perception and an academic perception, which is a very British perception, that coalition is alien. Similarly, I think we have been afflicted by a sense that a minority government is alien and unworkable. That is a very British view of politics. One of the interesting things we have had with minority and coalition government in Scotland and in Wales is that we are learning a great deal about how this can operate. In a sense, we ought to look beyond the UK because there are examples, and Bruce Crawford when he raised the Danish one was interesting, where minority government is seen as normal. This is one of the consequences of the electoral system rather than devolution and that is certainly the case. I do not think the media can be blamed for that in any way, that is part of our political culture and we are all guilty of buying into that. The change has forced us to look at these things again. Certainly from an academic point of view, for people like myself who have been brought up very much within the British school of political science and are having to look again at the coalition theory, minority government and such like, it has been a very exciting and interesting thing to do. I really would not blame the media at all in that respect, it is part of our culture and we have to change our culture.

  Q266  Alun Michael: The second part of the question was the coverage of Scottish politics in the rest of the UK which perhaps has a contribution to the way the England outside London grievance culture starts to develop.

  Professor Mitchell: There is a lot less media coverage of Scotland in the UK. In truth, those who follow Scottish politics, all commentators, and in this I include academics, will know all the names and faces of the MSPs but in many cases we do struggle to know who the MPs are representing Scottish constituencies. Obviously we know the Prime Minister, but for the most part we do not and part of that is because there has been a turnover post-devolution. Nonetheless, I think there has been a greater focus on the Parliament, so less interest in what is happening at Westminster. I think it is fair to say, and I am sure I could be corrected, that the media has focused their attention more on what goes on in the Parliament. That is hardly surprising, it is a very important institution. That has happened and it has had the consequence that we are probably less informed as to what is going on at Westminster. One thing that is covered frequently, of course, is the clashes, the divisions, the differences, and perhaps we are less aware of what actually happens underneath the surface. My understanding is intergovernmental relations work very well in the UK between Scotland and London. Some of the expectations that there would be these great bust-ups with the SNP in power and so on just have not happened and the everyday workings are very, very good. Of course, the theatre of politics, the huffing and puffing of politicians, will invite media coverage, and rightly so, and perhaps the public at large have a flawed view of what really is happening on a day-by-day basis as a consequence, but that is always going to be true in politics. Clashes and so on, I suppose, will be the stuff of media coverage and people are not going to want to read or hear about the fact that civil servants speak to one another and so on. I am quite relaxed about that in as much as I know it works very well under the surface. I am also pretty sure that many of the public clashes are for public consumption, for media consumption, and it seems to work.

  Q267  Julie Morgan: I was interested in the point you were making about the change in culture and the fact we are going to live in Scotland with coalitions and minority government. How widely do you think that is accepted now by political parties and by the public?

  Professor Mitchell: The public seem to accept it. As part of our research study on the Scottish elections 2007, we did a survey at the end of last year, a third wave of this, and people seem to have accepted minority government and there is no question as to its legitimacy or anything like that. Some of the parties have struggled to come to terms with it, they have all struggled to come to terms with it in different ways, and that is inevitable. You can change institutions but cultures do not change overnight. There was some naivety in the expectations of some supporters of devolution in the years leading up to the establishment of the Scottish Parliament in the sense that we would have this new politics and everyone would be consensual and such like. It was always very naive, it was never going to be like that. Also, it takes time for things to bed down and for people to change. One of the interesting things about the Scottish Parliament is that most of the politicians in the Parliament are new to full-time politics so they have not brought with them perhaps the experiences, the socialisation of having been MPs, and that may make a difference. If the Parliament consisted largely of MPs I suspect the approach to politics of MPs in a much more confrontational arena would have made for a very different type of Scottish parliamentary politics. That has been very important. One of the interesting things will be whether over time, as I suspect will happen, as the number of politicians change as politicians who were socialised under pre-devolution politics give way to a new generation of politicians, then I think we will come to accept many of the inevitable consequences of devolution, the fact that there is difference and there is diversity. Baggio made that point on the English Constitution, that you can change the institutions of the state but unless you change the politicians who worked the old system you will not feel the full benefits of institutional change.

  Q268  Julie Morgan: So you think the MPs' views are different, for example, from the MSPs' views about this culture change?

  Professor Mitchell: Yes. Take those MPs who were elected post-devolution, their whole socialisation is within the Westminster model of politics which is quite different from the Scottish Parliament and I guess that leads to some interesting tensions. I do not think tension is a bad thing, it is a creative thing, a good thing. God help us if we all had the same experience of politics. It means that we can learn from one another and I think that has to be a very healthy thing.

  Q269  Julie Morgan: What do you think is the future of Scottish MPs representing seats in Scotland when you look at the English Question and the wider issues?

  Professor Mitchell: I think there are problems for Scottish MPs in trying to cut a distinct role. Research was done back in the 1970s on the role of the Scottish MP, it was Michael Keating's thesis in fact, and Michael showed very clearly that Scottish MPs then were very Scottish, focused on Scottish issues, much more so than English MPs on English issues. That is obviously going to have to change because many of the matters which were then the focus of attention of Scottish MPs have been devolved. I think MPs are going to have to come to terms with that, and they are. The obvious role for an MP from Scotland would be to focus on the retained matters. Some of them have difficulty with this, not least because their constituents expect them to have a view on health and so on and so forth. Some of my constitutionalist colleagues think it is wrong, for example, that the Speaker should dare to speak out on a health matter concerning his constituency. I have to say, I think it would be absurd for any MP not to speak out on such a matter whether or not the Parliament to which he is elected has responsibility. One of the roles of an MP is as an advocate and I think that will always be the case. I am probably a bit more relaxed than some of my colleagues on this matter.

  Q270  Mr Turner: On the English Question, I must say my view is that in parts of the UK it is a very serious issue. Would you agree?

  Professor Mitchell: I think it is a serious issue. Whether or not the public think it is an issue, I think it is a serious issue because it has the potential to create a politics of grievance, which I have to say from a Scottish angle is very worrying. It is a problem from an English perspective but it is also a problem from a Scottish perspective. If there is to be a backlash then Scotland could suffer, so I do think there is a problem. It is certainly the case that in certain parts of England it is more of an issue than in other parts. We tend to find that border areas provoke backlashes more than other areas, so it is no great surprise that the north of England has witnessed a great deal of coverage on this. In fact, it goes way back to the 1970s. The Journal in Newcastle was arguing against devolution then and played a very significant part in encouraging Labour MPs in the north of England to oppose devolution. There are issues there and it comes down to the West Lothian Question but also Barnett and the perception, and it is important that it is a perception, whether right or wrong, that Scotland gets more resources than is justified. That is likely to be a major problem. Over the last few years it has not become as salient as it is likely to become for two reasons. First of all, Labour has been in power in London, Wales and Scotland. Secondly, it has been a period when money has been freely available, we have had rising expenditure, and the question arises what happens when money is tight. I think that will be a more problematic area to work with than simply different parties in power. The financial dimension will create more tensions than anything else, and we are now moving into that period. That is why I think it is very important that we address this question now before it really takes off and becomes difficult. Having said that, I am not entirely sure how to resolve it, that is a difficult one. The only thing I would argue very strongly for is that any resolution has to be consensual, it has to involve all parts of the UK agreeing to any change and has to involve cross-party support. If anything is done which is perceived to benefit either a party or a part of the UK at the expense of another it will simply pass the parcel around. In a sense, what I think is important is what I call losers' consent has to be found. In other words, those who are perceived to be the losers under any change have to recognise that they may be losing but they are losing because justice is being done, and we are nowhere near that position at the moment.

  Q271  Mr Turner: You are saying the fact that Labour is in power in London makes it less likely, but presumably the change to a different government would make it more likely still?

  Professor Mitchell: It would, but the financial regime is the key thing. If, for example, a Conservative Government was to come to power in London and if that government was to decide that it would throw money at Scotland, I think Scotland would be quite happy, there would not be the tensions. The problem is that the likelihood is that these two would go together, that if we moved into a period when a Conservative Government came to power, and that may happen because there are financial difficulties in the country and the Conservatives win for that reason, then we have a potentially explosive situation depending on what the Conservative Government does, of course. I do think it would be very important, whichever party was in power in London, to operate in a consensual way rather than simply pass the parcel. That is where I think English votes for English laws have the potential to simply pass the parcel around, although at this stage it is not quite clear what English votes for English laws would actually entail.

  Q272  Mrs James: You said a little earlier that you had done a lot of work in the 1970s and 1980s on the Barnett Formula. I think the Barnett Formula has come as a great revelation for lots of people in different parts of Britain, whereas in Wales and Scotland we have been very au fait with it and the question is of people in the south-east of Britain realising this. What do you think are the pros and cons of the Barnett Formula? There is a review being undertaken currently in the Welsh Assembly on the Barnett Formula.

  Professor Mitchell: The key attraction of the Barnett Formula is that it exists, it has worked, it is relatively easy to work and. in terms of changing it, bringing back some other thing is very difficult. Finding an alternative is the great difficulty. That is the key attraction of the Barnett Formula. The problems with the Barnett Formula go back to its origins. It was a quick-fix really. Contrary to much of the mythology around the Barnett Formula, it was not invented by Joel Barnett, it was not even invented when he was Chief Secretary to the Treasury, this is a great myth. When I wrote to Joel Barnett in 1985 and I was doing research on this subject to ask him about the Barnett Formula he responded by asking me, "What are you talking about, I don't even know what this is". I explained the formula, he recognised the formula, but he did not even know that we were calling it that, it was the academic community that called it the Barnett Formula. He said then that it was a civil servant, as far as he was aware, who had invented it, and he was right, it was a civil servant.

  Q273  Alun Michael: Yes, but it was nailed down at that time as part of the proposition of the then devolution settlement going forward.

  Professor Mitchell: It was and it was not. It came about before then, in fact. Even before February 1974 I came across a reference in Treasury files which showed that the 10/5/85 formula was used in certain circumstances.

  Q274  Alun Michael: With respect, that is not my point. I suspect you are creating a new mythology that it was not—

  Professor Mitchell: I was going to come on to explain how it evolved from its origins when it was used as a quick-fix.

  Q275  Alun Michael: The reason the Barnett name is there is that was the point when it became an accepted part of the—

  Professor Mitchell: Not quite.

  Q276  Alun Michael: —process towards devolution.

  Professor Mitchell: It was originally used for bits of public expenditure and then in the 1970s it got wrapped up in some of the debates on what might happen post-devolution and then it was named the Barnett Formula in 1980 in an article by David Heald. In fact, its evolution is quite murky and in essence it was a fix. It was not anything other than a fix. Currently it is not based on need and it is something which I think provokes hostility in Scotland and in England. It is one of these odd policies which seems to have very little support. Having said that, the reason it continues to exist is because it is very difficult to find an alternative and if it continues at all I think that will be the reason for it continuing to exist. The very fact that it has become a symbol of the politics of devolution is important. The key change that came about with devolution was simply that this issue became more salient. The Formula had existed throughout the 1980s and 1990s, it really only took off as an issue because we started talking about devolution and that focused attention on territorial public finance in a way that it had not previously.

  Q277  Chairman: Did it not become an issue in this sense, that devolution created a situation, which I personally would argue for, where the Government in Scotland had a totality of resource which you could then move about according to different policy priorities?

  Professor Mitchell: Yes.

  Q278  Chairman: Rather than simply having public expenditure which amounted to that amount mediated by different departments according to their own London decided policies. It is that ability to do different things with that set amount of money which has brought it into focus.

  Professor Mitchell: Absolutely. That always existed as well. You can go back to the 1960s and the Scottish Secretary was able to reallocate within his budget. George Younger used to boast frequently when he was Secretary of State for Scotland that he did that and would give examples. He would put more money into education and law and order at the expense of housing. That certainly was happening. With devolution, of course, the public focus on this and the media attention given to this issue has grown. It is not as if there has been any great change in the policy, it is the perception of the issue that has changed and it has become very much wrapped up in the politics of devolution throughout the UK.

  Q279  Chairman: You have not got a bright idea for what could be put in its place?

  Professor Mitchell: Ultimately, I think that there has to be a needs assessment of some sort. That is a highly political thing and, of course, we will all disagree on needs, but at the end of the day at least there will be a transparent formula in existence about which we can argue. After all, this is what happens in terms of local government crown distribution, it is not as if we do not do this. It is the way that territorial finance operates almost everywhere else. I cannot think of another example of a formula such as Barnett operating anywhere in the world like this. A needs based formula would be a good thing. I have to say the probability is, of course, that Scotland would lose out and that makes me kind of unusual in Scotland. I do think it would be a good thing for our politics. There is something debilitating in politics which allows Scotland to have more generous public policies but not have to pay for them. That will encourage a politics of grievance south of the border and we are seeing it in the North of England, it is understandable, who could really complain about this. Frankly, if I was living in the north of England I would be complaining about it. There is no problem with a part of the UK having more public finances if it is in response to greater need but I do not think that applies in Scotland, so I do think that needs to be addressed. The way I would square that circle is to give the Scottish Parliament powers to raise its own revenue in some measure. We would have to operate alongside a reform formula, I am not suggesting Scotland should only have its own revenues, I think there has to be a grant mechanism. All I am suggesting is the kinds of mechanisms that exist elsewhere in the world. This is not something radical or novel, whatever. Coming back to my point about the change in political culture and gaining the experience of a minority and coalition, perhaps we need to look beyond the UK because the kinds of things I am talking about here are common in intergovernmental systems of public finance.

previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2009
Prepared 24 May 2009