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Devolution has meant growing policy differences between Scotland, Wales and England


Significantly different approaches to key public policy issues have emerged in Scotland and Wales since devolution, as the new administrations in Edinburgh and Cardiff have rejected consumer choice and diversity in favour of professionalism and uniformity.

This is one of the key findings in a new study by researchers from the University of Aberdeen and Cardiff University. Their research was funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, as part of its Devolution and Constitutional Change Programme.

Michael Keating, Professor of Scottish Politics at the University of Aberdeen, explains: “The Labour Party may be the dominant political force in London, Edinburgh and Cardiff. But Scotland and Wales have stuck more to the traditional social democratic model of public service delivery.

“This has led them to stress non-selectivity, professionalism and uniformity, while rejecting foundation hospitals, star-rated hospitals, school league tables, beacon councils, elite universities and selective schools. Scotland also scrapped up-front university tuition fees and rejected top-up fees. At the same time, free care for the elderly has been introduced north of the border.”

The researchers identified several factors which may explain this difference. “There’s a different policy style in Scotland and Wales, where there is a much greater emphasis on the public sector professional,” says co-researcher John Loughlin, Professor of European Studies at Cardiff University.

“And those professionals tend to be more supportive than their English counterparts of universal services. There are also different political pressures. Polling evidence suggests that Scottish voters are somewhat more supportive of redistribution than English voters. More importantly, Labour in Scotland and Wales faces more competition from the left, through nationalist parties and the Scottish Socialists. In England, the government needs to appeal to the middle classes who otherwise might opt out of the welfare state.”

A quarter of the population in the South East of England has private medical insurance, compared to just ten per cent of Scots. And eleven per cent of SE pupils go to private schools, compared with just three per cent of Scottish pupils.

The researchers looked in detail at higher education and rural policies. “In higher education, the differences extended beyond fees, particularly in Scotland,” says Prof Keating. “Scottish policy makers tend to work collaboratively with the universities. They never had the sort of ‘naming and shaming’ which the Quality Assurance Agency inspections brought in England, focusing on co-operative approaches to improving performance instead.”

Prof Loughlin adds: “And while the English approach has emphasised management, regulation and differentiation, the Scottish approach has stressed professional autonomy, consensus, egalitarianism and policy learning. Though Wales is more constrained than Scotland, it too has sought to develop a more egalitarian approach to higher education.”

Two aspects of rural policy were particularly important: reform of the Common Agricultural Policy and the response to the 2001 foot and mouth crisis.

“The presence of the Liberal Democrats in the coalition led the Scottish government to take a more pro-farmer position than England,” adds Prof Keating. “Pressure from hill farmers meant they were cool about the idea being suggested that a proportion of farmers’ payments be set aside for a rural development fund. With extra Treasury funding, it was able to develop a different approach to the new system and negotiate variations in European Union policy for Scotland.”

Prof Loughlin adds: “Welsh ministers felt constrained both by the limits of devolution and EU law from setting up their own emergency services, which they believe could have eradicated foot and mouth disease more quickly, and from treating Welsh cattle differently. However, devolution proved particularly effective in Northern Ireland, where the agriculture minister quickly closed the ports and secured cross-community co-operation to eradicate the disease more speedily than the rest of the UK.”

Becky Gammon | alfa
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