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Collective ministerial responsibility is being applied oddly in the Scottish Government

Collective ministerial responsibility is being applied oddly in the Scottish Government

We need to put Ash Regan’s resignation into perspective. Losing a minister may be a misfortune, losing two careless, and Boris Johnson’s loss of the full 57 varieties of Tory ministers was catastrophic. But Ash Regan’s resignation does raise important issues about the operation of the Scottish Government.

Cabinet manuals and ministerial codes in Westminster-style systems describe collective responsibility similarly, and implementation varies from rigid adherence to more relaxed interpretations. Flexibility has been permitted for various reasons.

There are issues on which a more relaxed attitude has prevailed with no damage to effective governance. In the past, reference was often made to “matters of conscience”.

Differences were permitted, not least as these were matters which had little or no implications across government

Consultation needs to be meaningful from the start of the policy-making process. If a minister has attempted to convey concerns but been excluded or ignored, then collective responsibility has been abandoned but not by the minister who resigns.

Contrary to some claims, the SNP manifesto was not committed to the reforms that Ash Regan and other SNP MSPs voted against. There needs to be more honesty and less heat in the interests of good decision making on this as so many other issues.

The bill does reflect government policy but prior consultation was inadequate. The first minister’s rather graceless response to the resignation inadvertently highlighted this along with her incorrect claim that Ash Regan had not approached her on the matter.

But there are none so blind as those who will not see. It was the first minister who abandoned the operational values of collective responsibility through failure to allow adequate consultation.  
Labour home secretary Jim Callaghan was excluded from Cabinet discussions on trade union reform in the late 1960s. But as a member of Labour’s NEC, he voted against the government’s white paper In Place of Strife.

He was dismissed from the Cabinet’s management committee, ie the inner Cabinet, but continued to serve as home secretary. This is an example of what was described in a similar case in Australia in 1983 as a “half resignation” (though half sacking would be more accurate) when a minister resigned from the Cabinet over uranium mining but remained a minister.

The precedent was subsequently incorporated into the Cabinet handbook. Ministers who had been excluded from decision making were allowed to oppose decisions in closed party meetings so long as they then fell into line in public thereafter.

As was noted at the time, the cooperation agreement between the Scottish Government and the Scottish Greens drew on experience from New Zealand.

The New Zealand Cabinet manual provides for coalitions and requires ministers to “show careful judgement when referring to party policy that differs from government policy”.

Coalition government may “establish ‘agree to disagree’ processes” to allow for different positions on policies but requiring that ministers “must implement the resulting decision or legislation regardless of their position throughout the decision-making process”. This produces Selective Collective Responsibility and makes sense especially from a party management perspective, but creates problems for good government.

Flexibility must have limits. This becomes clear when we consider the reasons for collective responsibility. The most commented-upon purpose is least important for good government. A united front is concerned with presentation and more important for campaigning than effective government.

The Scottish Greens are getting used to having ministers, though party activists were shocked when Lorna Slater admitted at a recent internal party online meeting that until the SNP/Green agreement she had not known the difference between the parliament and government.

Calls to separate party leadership positions from ministerial office are an attempt to create clear green water between the party and government decisions where necessary. SNP members will wonder why there is such special treatment for members of another party who show scant understanding of the political system.

But there are important public policy considerations. Many policy decisions require strategic coordination. Effective government becomes difficult if not impossible when collective responsibility breaks down over fundamental cross-cutting issues.

Cabinet government provides strategic coordination to ensure that ministers and departments do not push and pull in different directions. Collective decision making is recognition that departmentalism and silo decision making are ineffective.

Tensions cannot be avoided but can be addressed through consultation, confidentiality and agreement on decisions reached.

The most revealing part of the SNP/Green deal is the exclusion of the “role of Gross Domestic Product measures, and economic principles related to concepts of sustainable growth and inclusive growth”. If that does not get to the heart of the Scottish Government’s responsibilities, with implications for public finance and public services, then nothing does.

This exclusion tells much about the level of commitment to economic development and public finances. The inability or lack of priority attached to reaching agreement in this crucial area ought to be a concern.

Collective ministerial responsibility is being applied oddly in the Scottish Government. A minister is forced out on a matter of conscience on an issue in which inadequate consultation occurred. Other ministers are given the privileges of office without the responsibilities that collective responsibility requires on crucial areas of public policy. 

Little wonder that murmurings of discontent inside the SNP are growing.

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