SCOTLAND has “forgotten how to disagree”, with the “increasingly binary nature” of its constitutional politics undermining good government, according to former officials.

A report from Holyrood’s finance and public administration committee found people feared being branded “a Unionist” or a “Nationalist” in dealings with the government.

The “divisive political culture” had also worsened at the Scottish Parliament in recent years, with new MSPs “more partisan” and opposing policies on a kneejerk basis.

The upshot was less “effective decision-making”.

Eleven former special advisers and civil servants were aired at a private meeting of the committee in February as part of its inquiry into government decision-making.

The inquiry is still ongoing, but a report based on the meeting and three similar ones has now been published by the committee.

The participants said decision-making processes were “generally not consistent” and “generally unclear and unstructured”, yet they usually worked “perfectly well” in the end. 

One participant said: “We generally only hear about the ones where there were difficulties.”

The advent of rolling news meant the Government was unduly “influenced by the modern day, 24-hour news cycle and chasing headlines/avoiding bad headlines”.

The report said “a culture of firefighting had developed, rather than thinking strategically” over the last two decades”.

However the shift in the political debate had also had an effect, with some officials and stakeholders wary of challenging ministers over flawed policies. 

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The report said: “External challenge (or lack thereof) brought the discussion to the Yes/No binary nature of Scottish politics, and people feeling inhibited about speaking on certain issues in case they are ‘branded’ a ‘unionist’ or ‘nationalist’. 

“Divisive political culture was cited as more of a challenge than the composition of government.

“The Scottish Parliament came from a binary Westminster system and has been replaced with a constitutional binary divide around the yes/no approach to the issue of Scottish independence. 

“There was a feeling that the Yes/No divide has become worse in recent years with new MSPs more partisan– for example, providing opposition to policies for opposition’s sake/political polarisation.”

It added: “There was general agreement that Scotland had ‘forgotten how to disagree” and that civil servants and Ministers had perhaps lost the value of this when giving and receiving advice - ‘it’s OK to express opinions’.” 

The introduction of Freedom of Information (FOI) legislation in 2005 was also said to have had “a negative effect on how advice was provided”.

While advice could be of “jaw-dropping frankness” and “received without offence” at the start of devolution, “there was a suggestion that advice may be narrower in focus since FoI”.

One solution could be “routine transparency”, with advice published retrospectively, “which would take the heat out of advice over time as publication becomes more routine”.

The report found policy development used to take months early in devolution, but was now “expected to take days or weeks, sometimes on the back of ministerial announcements”.

There was a “huge variety in decision-making approaches, not all of it clear or structured”.

It went on: “There is also lack of structure and consistency in relation to policy development and testing. Different modes of civil service leadership and ministerial approaches have a big impact on how advice is provided and the decisions made.”