Most politicians aspire to enter government and to have the opportunity to change the country. Since 1999, Scottish and Welsh politicians have had the chance to become ministers in the new devolved institutions in Edinburgh and Cardiff, as well as at Westminster.
To inform aspiring politicians, future ministers and others with an interest in how devolution works, we interviewed 13 former Cabinet ministers from Scotland and Wales about their experience of governing and the challenges they faced, extending our existing archive of Ministers Reflect interviews with Westminster politicians.
This sample of interviewees is not fully representative of all those who have held office since 1999, but it does include ministers from every party of government in Scotland and Wales and from every session since 1999 [i]. One, Jane Hutt, has been a minister in every year of devolution [ii]. Our interviewees have collectively served 93 years in Cabinet, and they include holders of all the most senior posts, including three First Ministers, three Deputy First Ministers and former Finance, Health and Education Ministers. In this report we discuss their key insights on what it takes to succeed in the job.
In the two decades of devolution, a total of 48 people have served in the Scottish Cabinet and 36 in the Welsh Cabinet. Five people have held the role of First Minister of Scotland, and four that of First Minister of Wales. The Scottish and Welsh Cabinets have comprised members of four different political parties. Of these, only Labour had past governmental experience. The remaining three parties – the Liberal Democrats, Scottish National Party (SNP) and Plaid Cymru – had never previously been in government.
Of the total of 84 Scottish and Welsh Cabinet ministers since 1999, 53 have been men and 31 women. Their average age on entering their first Cabinet post was 49. Only 11 had previous experience as an elected politician at Westminster. Four of these, including the initial First Ministers of both Scotland and Wales, had served as ministers in the post-1997 Labour Government. Just three former Members of Parliament (MPs), and no former ministers, have served in the Scottish or Welsh Government since 2007: two from the SNP and one from Plaid Cymru.
On average, these Cabinet ministers have lasted for two years and eight months in each particular job, and for four years and three months in Cabinet in total [iv]. Of the 84 ministers, 44 had served previously as junior ministers at the devolved level before entering Cabinet [v].
The charts summarise the characteristics of Cabinet ministers in the Scottish and Welsh Governments respectively in the two decades since the start of devolution.
The experience of Scottish and Welsh ministers has much in common with that of their UK counterparts [vi]. There is no training programme or induction period, and ministers must learn on the job how to be effective, often in portfolios of which they have little prior knowledge. But from the moment they take office, they must stand prepared to take important decisions and be held accountable.
Ministers find immediately that their time is a scarce resource, with numerous unavoidable day-to-day obligations and demands on their attention. Dealing with the tide of paperwork, as well as media and parliamentary responsibilities, can threaten to leave no time for anything else, but to be effective, ministers must identify clear priorities of what they wish to achieve, and maintain a consistent focus on these ultimate objectives. Ministers inevitably also have to deal with unexpected events and crises that can make or break reputations and careers. For our interviewees, these included dealing with foot and mouth disease, serious information technology (IT) failures, bad exam results, rising waiting times in hospitals and terror attacks.
But there are also several distinct features in the context in which devolved ministers work and some important differences in the challenges they therefore face in achieving their objectives. These are the areas on which we focus in this report.
Chapter 1, on governing without a single-party majority, explores the lessons learnt by our interviewees about how to make a success of cross-party working. The Scottish Parliament and the National Assembly for Wales use proportional electoral systems that make single-party majorities a rare exception rather than the norm. As a result, Scottish and Welsh ministers negotiate and form alliances with members of other parties to pass legislation and Budgets, and even to survive in office.
Chapter 2 explores both the difficulties and the opportunities that our interviewees have faced in governing in a context of constant institutional change. The devolved institutions were newly created in 1999 and, particularly in the early period, ministers faced pressure simply to demonstrate that devolution could work. Ministers also inherited a civil service that in certain respects lacked the capacity to fulfil the requirements of the new era. For instance, some found that there was insufficient capacity to develop policy and set budgets independently from Westminster. These functions had to be built up. In addition, devolution has evolved significantly since 1999 as further powers have been transferred. But along with these challenges, governing in a new institution has given ministers the opportunity to innovate in terms of both governance and policy.
Chapter 3 discusses the main lessons that our interviewees have learnt about how to deal with Westminster, and also how to have an impact at the European Union (EU) level. Scottish and Welsh ministers must learn how to govern in the shadow of decisions made at Westminster – including those relating to budgets, international and EU affairs, and welfare policy – that have substantial knock-on consequences at the devolved level. Our interviewees reported that UK ministers neglect to consider devolution issues and place pressure on them to follow UK Government policy, even in fully devolved policy areas.
We conclude by looking at how the main lessons identified in the report will be relevant for future generations of ministers.
All our interviews were on the record and have been transcribed and published on our website, as part of our existing Ministers Reflect archive,  to add to the 86 interviews we have conducted previously with former ministers from Westminster. We also conducted one Northern Ireland interview, but this report looks only at the Scottish and Welsh experience [vii]. We are very grateful to all those who agreed to be interviewed for this project.
i As in Westminster, ministers in the top posts in Scotland and Wales are disproportionately men. So are our interviewees. This is something we will try to correct in future rounds of interviews.
ii Continuously from May 1999 to November 2017 and again from December 2018 to the present.
iii All figures are as of 1 February 2019. We included all full members of Cabinet, including law officers, chief whips and leaders of the House for the periods they were in Cabinet.
iv For these figures, we have excluded ministers appointed to their current post since the 2016 elections.
v This was, of course, not possible for those appointed to the first Cabinets in 1999, nor for those from the three parties that had never been in power before.
vi For more on the experiences of UK ministers, see Hughes N, How to Be an Effective Minister: What ministers do and how to do it well, Institute for Government, 2017, retrieved 7 March 2019, www.instituteforgovernment.org.uk/ publications/how-be-effective-minister
vii On 23 May 2018 we interviewed Mark Durkan, Finance Minister and Deputy First Minister in the early years of devolution to Belfast. The transcript of that interview can be found at: www.instituteforgovernment.org.uk/ ministers-reflect/person/mark-durkan
1. BBC News, ‘Welsh Government Cabinet reshuffle’, BBC News website, 3 November 2017, retrieved 7 March 2019, www.bbc.co.uk/news/live/uk-wales-41862076; BBC News, ‘Welsh Government includes Lib Dem Williams at education’, BBC News website, 19 May 2016, retrieved 7 March 2019, www.bbc.co.uk/news/ uk-wales-politics-36326335; National Assembly for Wales, ‘Key events in the development of the National Assembly for Wales’, National Assembly for Wales website, 1999–2016, retrieved 7 March 2019, www. assembly.wales/en/bus-home/research/bus-assembly-publications-monitoring-services/Pages/Key-Events- Home.aspx; Scottish Parliament Information Centre, Ministers, Law Officers and Parliamentary Liaison Officers by Cabinet, Sessions 1–5, Scottish Parliament, retrieved 7 March 2019, www.parliament.scot/ parliamentarybusiness/15446.aspx; Welsh Government, ‘First Minister announces new Cabinet’, Welsh Government website, 13 December 2018, retrieved 7 March 2019, www.gov.wales/newsroom/ firstminister/2018/181213-first-minister-announces-new-cabinet/?lang=en
2. Hughes N, Ministers Reflect: How to handle a crisis, Institute for Government, 2016, retrieved 7 March 2019, Ministers Reflect, www.instituteforgovernment.org.uk/publications/ministers-reflect-how-handle-crisis