This article first appeared in the January 2018 issue of iScot Magazine.
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We are all the products of small changes. That’s the way evolution works. All life is a testament to the power of tiny, incremental change. Seemingly insignificant incidents can alter the course of history. Apparently minor scientific and technological innovations can turn out to have huge implications.
An organic soup has been transformed into a bewildering diversity of life-forms. The fate of nations and their populations has turned on a single momentary act. Basic implements fashioned from elementary materials and crude procedures based on scant knowledge have developed into the dazzling complexity of modern technology and science that is unlocking every secret of nature. All of this by the power of small changes.
We are probably all familiar with the concept of the ‘butterfly effect’. The term first coined by mathematician and meteorologist, Edward Lorenz, to describe how infinitesimal variations in the initial conditions of climate models produce massive differences in outcomes. The origins of a tornado may be traced back to a single flap of a butterfly’s wing at some distant point on the planet. Or, to put it another way, a butterfly twitches in Brazil and, some time later, entire towns are flattened in Kansas.
It is a concept that is being milked by the ‘life-coaching’ industry. A quick web search will discover countless offers to explain (usually for a price) how your entire life can be transformed with the absolute minimum of effort simply by harnessing the power of small changes. Do these three things every day and you will be the person you always thought you should be! You’d be well-advised to put avoiding the pedlars of ‘personal excellence’ at the top of that list of things to do every day. You’re already excellent. Succumbing to the blandishments of snake-oil merchants can only make you less so.
It is curious, given the widespread recognition of the power of small changes, that we so often fail to appreciate this concept in the context of our politics. Largely, we might reasonably suppose, due to the dumbing-down effect of media sensationalism and over-simplification, there’s a tendency to focus on the ‘Big Fix!’. The one marvellous policy innovation that will transform the nation. The nature of ‘traditional’ politics is such that this big idea will rarely amount to more than a snappy slogan behind which lies nothing but a reformulation of the old orthodoxies – threadbare, ill-thought and all too familiar from past failures.
Wouldn’t it be refreshing if there were a political culture in which the limitations of government power are recognised? Even embraced. A political culture in which notions of a ‘Big Fix!’ are, for the most part, eschewed. A political culture in which the power of small changes is genuinely appreciated and applied in the process of formulating public policy. A political culture in which doing the right things at the right time and in the right order is considered more important than finding the most media-friendly sound-bite or the most expedient political gesture.
If you find the thought of such a political culture attractive then you may, like me, be heartened by the behaviour of Scotland’s SNP administration.
I must, at this point, register a personal interest. I am a long-time member, and life-long supporter, of the Scottish National Party (SNP). So readers might be forgiven for thinking ‘he would say that, wouldn’t he? But my support for the SNP has, until fairly recently, been entirely on account of this being the party of independence. Since the SNP took power in 2007, a new facet of the party has emerged and developed. As well as being the political arm of the independence movement, the SNP is now a party of government. It must be assessed as such quite separately from its role as the sharp end of a campaign to restore Scotland’s independence.
Leaving aside the constitutional issue and as much of our political prejudice as possible, the way the Scottish Government is conducting the nation’s affairs is certainly interesting. The Baby Box is one of those small things that can potentially have a major impact on society. Unit pricing of alcohol, for all the fuss that was made about it, is actually just one small part of a strategy that has over forty elements. Likewise, the named person measure is actually no more than a relatively small tweak to the substantial child protection system.
What is significant is that the SNP administration seems to have been intent on finding the measures which might be effective regardless of dogma or popularity. No ‘focus groups’. Just expert panels. And no ‘Big Fix!” hype. No suggestion of simple solutions. No suggestions of solutions at all. Just the idea of progressive change – over time-scales that pay scant regard to the kind of electoral imperatives that drive other parties.
Finance Secretary, Derek Mackay’s recent budget proposals seem perfectly in keeping with this idea of bringing about significant reform by way of small changes. Some have thoughtlessly dismissed his tax reforms as mere tinkering at the edges. But these are changes of a kind which have apparently been beyond the capacities of successive British Chancellors, despite them having powers which are denied to Mr Mackay by the stultifying constraints of devolution. They are progressive changes. No ‘Big Fix!’. No promise of immediate gratification. Just the assurance that, given time and careful nurturing, this ‘tinkering’ might produce an outcome out of proportion to the changes being implemented.
The tax changes have already produced a reaction from the British parties at Holyrood and Westminster which is out of all proportion to their actual effect on incomes. But that’s just political posturing and can safely – not to say wisely – be ignored by any rational analysis.
The reaction from the media has also been depressingly predictable – echoing and exaggerating and amplifying the hysteria of those British politicians. Common complaints included the SNP’s failure to do more and/or their failure to do it sooner. The shallowness is woeful. Quite apart from the obvious impossibility of altering the tax regime before they had the necessary powers and/or beyond the scope of those powers, there is the wider question of the economic and political readiness of the nation. In a representative democracy, we elect governments precisely for the purpose of making such judgement calls. And, going by the reaction of the Scottish public, rather than the British establishment, Derek Mackay got that just right.
Another part of the media spin on the budget, as with other new measures introduced by the Scottish Government, is the assertion that the SNP was forced into some kind of policy shift by pressure from this or that quarter, depending on the allegiance and agenda of whoever is making the claim. This, too, is nonsense. Looking back through the past ten years of SNP administration one can discern a pattern of small changes building on one another. Undoubtedly, continuity has helped. But continuity means nothing if a governing party is looking no further than the next election. The fact that we can make out this continuity with hindsight certainly suggests that SNP administrations have not been prioritising elections in quite the manner or to quite the extent that we’re accustomed to.
So the SNP is different. Maybe. A bit. It’s not like other political parties. Not entirely. To whatever extent that this is so. to what might we attribute this difference? Is it that the SNP is new to the job? Is it that it hasn’t (yet?) fallen into bad habits?
Is it that the party is different due to its size and its structure and the influence of members?
Is it that the party leadership are working to plan? That this difference is intentional and purposeful?
Probably all of these things play a part. But more important than all of this, I believe, is Scotland’s electoral system. Our method of ensuring proportional representation (PR) in the Scottish Parliament isn’t without its critics. The perfect PR system has yet to be devised. But it works. The Scottish Parliament is more representative of the electorate than it would be without a PR voting system – however imperfect. It is certainly has greater democratic legitimacy than Westminster. But that, perhaps, is not such a huge achievement.
It’s another example of small things producing good outcomes. The PR system need only very, very slightly enhance the tendency for the government to reflect the needs, priorities and aspirations of the electorate for this to trigger a positive feedback loop in which this responsiveness to the electorate makes voters more likely to vote in the expectation of responsiveness. This, in turn, creates an imperative for the political parties to be more responsive. And so it continues. A process of positive improvement.
The SNP has enjoyed electoral success – winning every election for ten years – because, as a party new to government, it is open to a new political culture in a way that the British parties cannot be – due to historical factors and the intrinsic nature of the British political system within which they are embedded.
In isolation, individual changes may seem inconsequential and ineffectual. But the cumulative effect may reward patience. We know the power of small changes. Be encouraged by the fact that Scotland seems to be developing a political culture which takes its lead from the people. The steps may be small. But we’re headed in the right direction.
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