Scotland's lack of think tank scrutiny is leading to weak, conservative policies – John McLaren

Without strong ideas and analysis, the quality of policymaking can easily slide from ‘evidence based’ to ‘prejudice based’

The Health Foundation has just published a report that predicts the number of people living with a major illness in England will increase by 2.5 million by 2040, that is by more than a third. No such analysis was undertaken for Scotland. It’s not that the foundation does no work on Scotland, as a recent paper on the state of health and health inequalities in Scotland shows, it’s just that too often key analysis of UK-wide issues considers only the English situation.

Analysis by other UK health think tanks paints a similar picture. Both the Nuffield Trust and the King’s Fund think tanks also suffer from an English-centric approach. While there is some devolved analysis, the majority of publications look at the system as it applies south of the Border, despite the stated mission of both the Health Foundation and the Nuffield being to improve the health of the UK as a whole.

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The reasons for this are probably a mixture of cost – analysis of four different systems costs around four times as much – and expertise, where finding the informed researchers to do the work can be an issue. The latter point was highlighted in a major devolved report in 2013 by the Nuffield which was rightly criticised for obvious errors. Things will have improved since then but a lack of understanding of the non-English systems probably remains.

Whether this situation is due to the think tanks being based in London or a lack of engagement by the devolved parliaments is open for debate. Regardless, the outcome is a health system in Scotland that is less understood and less held to account than it is in England and a similar situation exists in relation to analysis of the education systems, and beyond, across the UK.

There is greater think tank-related capacity concerned with economic and fiscal matters in Scotland, where the Fraser of Allander Institute, the Scottish Fiscal Commission and analysis by David Phillips at the Institute of Fiscal Studies can be called upon. Not comprehensive but a big improvement on what was in place even a decade ago. Unfortunately, such analysis and advice are still largely ignored, as politicians remain mostly unengaged on the subject.

Elsewhere there are patches of light amongst the darkness. On health, Scotland has the Glasgow Centre for Population Health, which undertakes good work in its area, but that area is relatively narrow compared to the three big UK bodies. Reform Scotland and IPPR Scotland do good work but their funding is severely limited.

Common Weal and Gordon Brown’s ‘Our Scottish Future’ both provide interesting takes on a variety of issues. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation is more diligent than other UK-wide bodies in its devolved responsibilities, in particular in its analysis of poverty, and the Scottish Parliament Information Centre (SPICe) provides informed analysis across a wide range of policy areas. But even with these resources, the level of information still falls well short of what is needed.

Why does any of this matter? The role of such bodies is crucial to a working democracy in two ways. First, such bodies hold governments to account by analysing the outcomes of their policies. This information can be used by the public, the media, politicians, parliamentary committees and pressure groups to assess whether a change in direction is needed, especially when compared with outcomes in other parts of the UK.

Second, they provide political parties with new ideas. Political parties of any persuasion are usually beholden to think tanks – who can act as halfway houses between academic research and the world of politics – to provide them with new ideas and fill in their manifestos. Without such engagement, the quality of policymaking can easily slide from ‘evidence based’ to ‘prejudice based’. This point was well illustrated in the past by Scottish political parties’ obsession with reducing class sizes – now thankfully less prevalent – which was never the key to improving school performance.

Furthermore, funding for political parties is considerably lower here than at the UK level and this lack of money means that ‘expert’ background staff are scarce, so think tanks can also act as training grounds for future advisors and politicians.

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How can the situation be changed? The biggest hurdle is the lack of interest from within Scotland to help fund such research. UK bodies are funded in part by large corporations as well as through government sources and research councils. When I worked for a now defunct think tank, Fiscal Affairs Scotland, we went to virtually every big corporation in Scotland we could think of to seek funding and got no takers. If you want financial support for rugby or golf in Scotland – no problem. For a better understanding of health and education – forget it.

The Scottish Parliament and other devolved governments could put pressure on UK-wide bodies, whose balance sheets are substantial – the Health Foundation’s being more than £1 billion – and demand a proportionate share of analysis for each constituent country. Why they don’t already do this is bizarre, certainly in the case of the pro-UK parties.

But accessing the research is just step one. The second, equally important, step is for political parties in Scotland to engage more with the evidence, in order to come up with better policy. This remains one of the biggest failings of devolution and helps explain why policymaking by the Scottish Parliament has been weak and conservative in its nature. Such schemes are testament to the need for more ideas, best realised via the creation of a supporting network of bodies, first and foremost through well-funded think tanks.

John McLaren is a political economist who has worked in the Treasury, the Scottish Office and for a variety of economic think tanks



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