How voters rated Blair affected Holyrood votes much more than attitudes to McConnell


Scottish votes for the Assembly reflected voters' concerns about Westminster leaders and issues far more than they did those of Holyrood, an Edinburgh conference will hear today. And voters in 2003 were far more influenced by their attitudes to Prime Minister Tony Blair than their views of First Minister Jack McConnell.

The conference "Governing Scotland" at the city's Carlton Hotel, is being organised as part of the Economic and Social Research Council's Devolution and Constitutional Change programme. Other research to be presented to the conference will suggest that devolution may be a mixed economic blessing for Scotland.

An analysis of the 2003 Scottish election will show that voters' attitudes to the performance of their Tony Blair affected their vote far more than their attitudes to First Minister Jack McConnell. Many voters made their minds up based on their views of how the UK government rather than the Scottish Parliament had performed on issues such as the NHS, education and their standard of living.

"One aim of an elected Scottish Parliament was to put Scots themselves in charge of deciding who runs their government," says Prof John Curtice of Strathclyde University, who will present his research to today's conference. "But this means that elections to the Parliament should also be elections about the work of the Parliament. And the evidence is that most voters still believe Westminster affects their lives far more than Holyrood."

At the time of the 2003 election, only 17% of people believed the Scottish Parliament had most influence over what happened in Scotland, whereas 64% thought that the UK government did. And Prof Curtice's research shows that Labour voters who gave Tony Blair a good mark in 1999 – seven or more on a 1-10 scale –were ten times more likely to back him again in 2003 than voters who gave him a bad mark (three or below). Those who gave Jack McConnell a good mark in 1999 were twice as likely to back him again in 2003, suggesting that while 2003 voters held the First Minister to account to some degree, their vote was much more likely to reflect their judgement of the Prime Minister.

Prof Curtice's analysis, based on the 2003 Scottish Social Attitudes Survey, also finds that voters were largely unmoved by key party promises unique to Scotland such as free bus passes, free school meals or lower business taxes. But their votes were affected much more by issues over which the Scottish parliament had no control, including the Iraq war and the asylum question.

"The evidence of the 2003 election is that Scottish Parliament elections do not look like an effective mechanism for holding devolved politicians accountable for their actions," adds Prof Curtice. "Nor are they very good at registering the policy preferences of Scottish voters on devolved matters. Indeed, the 2003 election seems to have been rather more successful at registering voters' views of the performance of Westminster government than that in Holyrood. This raises real doubts about the extent to which Holyrood politicians have a clear independent mandate."

In a separate paper to the Edinburgh conference, researchers from the Fraser of Allander Institute and Department of Economics, University of Strathclyde will argue for a clearer framework to measure the economic impact of devolution. Professor Peter McGregor will argue that such a framework should look at the whole range of both benefits and costs.

"On the one hand, devolution should mean greater local accountability, more informed policy-making and lower compliance costs," said Prof McGregor. "But on the other, the Parliament itself may have incurred costs in addition to the widely publicised costs of construction. Such costs may be due to lost economies of scale and the growth of Scottish lobbying and pressure groups with easier access to decision-makers, which can reduce efficiency where their interests run contrary to those of voters."

Devolution has focussed attention on the funding mechanism for public expenditure in Scotland. The Barnett formula – which determines the budget assigned by the UK government to the Scottish Parliament – has potential efficiency benefits because it imposes a strict limit on discretionary spending. However, the implied relative tightening of the budget may have adverse consequences over time. A funding mechanism that links government spending to local tax revenues, unlike Barnett, would offer an additional incentive to economic growth.

Prof McGregor will argue for more detailed economic evaluation of the impact of devolution on the Scottish economy. On the basis of the limited available evidence devolution appears, on balance, to have had a positive impact on the Scottish economy to date. "However, to maximise the potential economic benefits to Scotland from devolution, it is important for the institutional arrangements to be fashioned with due consideration for their economic impacts, particularly on efficiency," he says. "Small improvements in growth will have important – and increasing – impacts over time."

Today's conference will bring together academics, civil servants and other senior government figures to consider key issues including:

  • Scotland's relationship with the rest of the United Kingdom
  • Scottish elections and the openness of Scottish decision-making
  • Whether Scotland produces more innovative policies and better laws
  • Whether devolution is good for Scotland's economy

    The conference will be opened by the Presiding Officer of the Scottish Parliament, the Rt Hon George Reid MSP.

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    Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 21 Feb 2009
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