Meta-governance and the uk nuclear Industry: a limiting Case

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Meta-governance and the UK Nuclear Industry: A Limiting Case

Paper for the 2009 European Consortium for Political Research (ECPR) Conference, Potsdam, Germany.

Keith Baker *

Gerry Stoker

School of Social Sciences, University of Southampton, Southampton, UK

*corresponding author:

This work was carried out as part of the SPRIng project, aimed at developing a decision-support framework for assessing the sustainability of nuclear power, led by the University of Manchester and carried out in collaboration with City and Southampton Universities. The authors acknowledge gratefully the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) and the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) for supporting this work. The views expressed in the paper are those of the authors and not necessarily those of the SPRIng project.

Meta-governance and the UK Nuclear Industry: A Limiting Case


Case studies can be used to make inferences against theories providing that are they selected on appropriate criteria. The state-centric theory of effective metagovernance when specified and stated with clarity is subject to test by way of a “least-likely” case. If it proves itself in this context the theory could claim to be both robust and widely applicable. By examing the prospects for a restoration of a significant role for the nuclear delivering of the UK’s energy needs we cast doubt on claim that that state through metagovernance can achieve greater effectiveness in achieving its goals. The state-centric theory of metagovernance needs to be qualified and may be more open to challenge from society-centred accounts of metagovernance than its advocates allow. Our research suggests that there is, further, a need to rethink the policy framework if the drive to a nuclear renaissance is to be delivered.


The subject of governance has become the focus of much academic debate (Rhodes, 1997; Sørensen and Torfing, 2008; Chhotray and Stoker 2009). This interest in governance is due to the realisation that organizations in both the public and private sectors increasingly operate within complex interdependent networks in which decision-making is decentred (Kickert, Klijn and Koppenjan, 1997; Rhodes, 1997; Koppenjan and Klijn, 2004). Furthermore, these networks are vertical as well as horizontal and decision-making authority is held at various spatial levels within and across national boundaries (Hooghe and Marks, 2001; Bache 2004). In the early work on governance much was made of the idea of ‘governance without government’ (Rhodes, 1996). In so far as government played a role, it was seen as having to operate in a different way. As Stoker (1998: 24) put it: ‘Government in the context of governance has to learn an appropriate operating code which challenges past hierarchical modes of thinking.’ This society-centred view of governance has found itself challenged by the later developing state-centric approach. The trend in the debate has been to recognise a strong and effective role for the state in governance (Scharpf, 1994; Dunsire, 1996; Jessop, 1997; 2002; Bell and Hindmoor, 2009). States achieve their goals by governing governance through what has become known as the practice of metagovernance. Moreover while those who took a society- centred view were doubtful of the capacity of the state to exercise influence those that take a more state-centric perspective have a more positive view of the state’s capacity. The state is viewed as the primary metagovernor and the only actor likely or able to be equal to the task (Bell and Hindmoor, 2009: Ch 3). The argument is that the state has become more powerful as it has developed a capacity to work with and through non-state actors. Power is not about the extent of autonomy of the state from civil society but rather about its capacity to get things done, to achieve public policy purposes. It is this state-centric focus on metagovernance that is the focus of attention here.

We propose to develop and specify the emerging theory of metagovernance. We hope on the way to demonstrate the value of appropriately selected single cases studies in providing illuminating insights for social scientists and policy-makers (George and Bennett, 2005; Flyvbjerg 2006). In order to achieve these goals we need to express metagovernance theory in a form that gives it sharpness and focus (Gerring, 2007:116). We then plan to test the theory of metagovernance using a single case study of the prospects for the UK state to ‘metagovernance’ its way to a revival of nuclear power in the UK. We are proposing that this case constitutes a ‘least likely’ (most difficult) test for effective metagovernance to emerge (George and Bennett, 2005; Gerring, 2007:118). Much of the existing work on metagovernance tends to make claims about the capability of the state to metagovern using evidence from cases where the state has had a chance to learn new tactics and techniques and where its resources tend to dwarf those around it. Neither of these conditions applies in the case of nuclear policy given that Britain has not had a nuclear industry since the late 1970s (Williams, 1980) and has privatised its electricity supply industry. If we can conclude the prospects for success, nevertheless, remain high we can suggest that those that hold out for a state-centric view for effective metagovernance have a strong theory applicable to all conditions. If on the other hand we show serious doubts about the UK’s capacity to metagovern effectively in this area, we can refute or at the very least cast doubt upon the claims of those who take a positive state-centric perspective on the metagovernance capacities of states.

The reasons why the proposals to reinvigorate nuclear power in Britain constitutes a ‘most difficult’ test case for the metagovernance capacity of a medium-sized government such as Britain are primarily to do with the degree of public scepticism about the plans, the scale and novelty of the outcome demanded and the structure of existing energy arrangements. The British government has that it believes that nuclear power should be used to meet Britain’s energy needs and provide a secure, low carbon source of electricity (Department of Trade and Industry [DTI], 2007; Department of Business Enterprise and Regulatory Reform [BERR], 2008). However, public opinion on this policy remains at best equivocal (Poortinga, Pidgeon and Lorenzoni, 2006; Pidgeon, Lorenzoni and Poortinga, 2008) and there is active opposition from a number of environmental groups (Carter, 2007). Moreover, Britain has not developed a nuclear power station since Sizewell B was completed in 1995. It will be a major feat of investment to provide the new nuclear power capacity for the UK. This process will have to take place in the context of a state that has ‘divested itself of control of the energy industry’ to a degree and extent greater than its European partners (The Economist, 8th August, 2009). In the late 1980’s, the then Conservative government privatised most of the energy industry. As such, energy generation and distribution is owned and managed by a variety of private sector businesses. These companies are embedded within a complex network of suppliers, trading partners, engineering contractors and technical specialists and operate within a national and international regulatory framework. Therefore, the governing the world of governance is the only option open to a British government if it is to promote a nuclear renaissance but that is a world where their metagovernance has to operate alongside powerful private sector actors, an international regulator regime and the actions of other governments.

We propose therefore to test metagovernance against the case of the renaissance of Britain’s nuclear industry and subject it to what Jack Levy refers to as the ‘Sinatra inference: if it can make it here, it can make it anywhere’ (quoted in Gerring, 2007:119). But the first contribution is to develop metagovernance into a theory that can be tested by re-specifying earlier work on the tools of government. Thereafter we clarify our data collection practices before presenting our case findings. The conclusion dwells on what can be learnt from a single-case study that might be of value to academics seeking understanding and policy makers attempting to improve the effectiveness of their interventions.
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