Politics of Scotland

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Scotland is a country which is part of the United Kingdom (UK). As the UK is de jure a unitary state, the Parliament of the United Kingdom, located at Westminster, London is sovereign over the whole state. However, since the late 1990s, a system of devolution has emerged in the UK, whereby Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have each been granted some measure of self-government whilst remaining within the UK.

Scotland entered into a political union with England in 1707, and since then has sent representatives to the parliament in London, which became the British parliament. Currently, 59 Members of Parliament (MPs) represent Scottish constituencies at Westminster, and issues such as the constitution, foreign affairs, defence, social security, pensions, issues of medical ethics, and fiscal, economic and monetary policy are decided on at Westminster. In 1999, an 129-member Scottish Parliament was established in Edinburgh, which has full power to make law in Scotland, except in certain reserved matters. In the UK government, Scottish affairs are represented by the Secretary of State for Scotland, currently David Mundell MP, and the Scottish Government is headed by a First Minister, who is the leader of the political party with the most support in the Scottish Parliament, currently Nicola Sturgeon MSP. The head of state in Scotland is the British monarch, currently Queen Elizabeth II (since 1952). As the UK is part of the European Union, Scotland also elects 6 Members to sit in the European Parliament.

Scotland can best be described as having a multi-party system. In the Scottish Parliament, the centre-left pro-independence Scottish National Party (SNP) is the party which forms government, currently holding a majority of seats in the parliament (65 out of 129). Opposition parties include the Scottish Labour Party (centre-left, social democratic), the Scottish Conservative Party (centre-right, conservative), the Scottish Liberal Democrats (centrist, social liberal), and the Scottish Green Party (left-wing, eco socialist). Elections are held once every four years, with 73 Members being elected to represent constituencies, and the remaining 56 elected via a system of proportional representation. At Westminster, Scotland is represented by 56 MPs from the Scottish National Party, 1 MP from the Labour Party, 1 MP from the Conservative Party and 1 MP from the Liberal Democrats.

Today, the creation of an independent Scotland outside the United Kingdom remains a prominent issue. On 18 September 2014, the people of Scotland voted in a referendum on whether to become independent, however the majority opted to stay in the union.

Current situation

Scottish results at UK general elections
Year Labour Conservative Lib Dems/Liberals SNP
2015 1 Seat 24.3% 1 Seat 14.9% 1 Seat 7.5% 56 Seats 50.0%
2010 41 Seats 42.0% 1 Seat 16.7% 11 Seats 18.9% 6 Seats 19.9%
2005 41 Seats 39.5% 1 Seat 15.8% 11 Seats 22.6% 6 Seats 17.7%
2001 56 Seats 43.9% 1 Seat 15.6% 10 Seats 16.4% 5 Seats 20.1%
1997 56 Seats 41.0% 0 Seats 17.5% 10 Seats 13.0% 6 Seats 22.0%
1992 49 Seats 34.4% 11 Seats 25.7% 9 Seats 13.1% 3 Seats 21.5%
1987 50 Seats 38.7% 10 Seats 24.0% 9 Seats 19.3% 3 Seats 14.0%
1983 40 Seats 33.2% 21 Seats 28.4% 8 Seats 24.5% 2 Seats 11.8%
1979 44 Seats 38.6% 22 Seats 31.4% 3 Seats 9.0% 2 Seats 17.3%
Oct 1974 41 Seats 33.1% 16 Seats 24.7% 3 Seats 8.3% 11 Seats 30.4%
Feb 1974 40 Seats 34.6% 21 Seats 32.9% 3 Seats 7.9% 7 Seats 21.9%
1970 44 Seats 44.5% 23 Seats 38.0% 3 Seats 5.5% 1 Seat 11.4%
1966 46 Seats 47.7% 20 Seats 37.6% 5 Seats 6.7% 0 Seats 5.0%
1964 43 Seats 46.9% 24 Seats 37.3% 4 Seats 7.6% 0 Seats 2.4%
1959 38 Seats 46.7% 31 Seats 47.3% 1 Seat 4.8% 0 Seats 0.8%
1955 34 Seats 46.7% 36 Seats 50.1% 1 Seat 1.9% 0 Seats 0.5%
1951 35 Seats 48.0% 35 Seats 48.6% 1 Seat 2.8% 0 Seats 0.3%

The party with the largest number of seats in the Scottish Parliament is the Scottish National Party (SNP), which campaigns for Scottish independence. The current First Minister of Scotland is SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon, who has led a majority government since November 2014. The previous First Minister, Alex Salmond led the SNP to an overall majority victory in the May 2011 general election. Other parties represented in the parliament are the Labour Party, Conservative Party, Liberal Democrats and the Scottish Green Party. The next Scottish Parliament general election is due to be held in May 2016.

Under devolution Scotland is represented by 59 MPs in the House of Commons of the United Kingdom elected from territory-based Scottish constituencies, out of a total of 650 MPs in the House of Commons. A Secretary of State for Scotland, who prior to devolution headed the system of government in Scotland, sits in the Cabinet of the United Kingdom and is responsible for the limited number of powers the office retains since devolution, as well as relations with other Whitehall Ministers who have power over reserved matters. The Scottish Parliament can refer devolved matters back to Westminster to be considered as part of United Kingdom-wide legislation by passing a Legislative Consent Motion — usually referred to as a Sewel Motion. This has been done on a number of occasions where it has been seen as either more efficient, or more politically expedient to have the legislation considered by Westminster. The Scotland Office is a department of the United Kingdom government, responsible for reserved Scottish affairs. The current Secretary of State for Scotland is David Mundell MP, a Conservative. Until 1999, Scottish peers were entitled to sit in the House of Lords.

The main political debate in Scotland tends to revolve around attitudes to the constitutional question. Under the pressure of growing support for Scottish independence a policy of devolution had been advocated by all three GB-wide parties to some degree during their history (although Labour and the Conservatives have also at times opposed it). This question dominated the Scottish political scene in the latter half of the 20th century with Labour leader John Smith describing the revival of a Scottish parliament as the "settled will of the Scottish people".[1] Now that devolution has occurred, the main argument about Scotland's constitutional status is over whether the Scottish Parliament should accrue additional powers (for example over fiscal policy), or seek to obtain full independence. Ultimately the long term question is: should the Scottish parliament continue to be a subsidiary assembly created and potentially abolished by the constitutionally dominant and sovereign parliament of the United Kingdom (as in devolution) or should it have an independent existence as of right, with full sovereign powers (either through independence, a federal United Kingdom or a confederal arrangement)? To clarify these issues, the SNP-led Scottish Executive published Choosing Scotland's Future, a consultation document directed to the electorate under the National Conversation exercise.

The programmes of legislation enacted by the Scottish Parliament have seen the divergence in the provision of public services compared to the rest of the United Kingdom.[2] While the costs of a university education, and care services for the elderly are free at point of use in Scotland, fees are paid in the rest of the UK. Scotland was the first country in the UK to ban smoking in public places.[3]

The Scottish Parliament

The debating chamber of the Scottish Parliament Building.

The election of the Labour government in 1997 was followed by a referendum on establishing a devolved Scottish Parliament. 74.3% of voters agreed with the establishment of the parliament and 63.5% agreed it should have tax-varying powers, which meant that it could adjust income taxes by up to 3%.[4][5]

The Parliament was then created by the Scotland Act 1998 of the Parliament of the United Kingdom (Westminster Parliament). This act sets out the subjects still dealt at Westminster, referred to as reserved matters, including Defence, International Relations, Fiscal and Economic Policy, Drugs Law and Broadcasting. Anything not mentioned as a specific reserved matter is automatically devolved to Scotland, including health, education, local government, Scots law and all other issues. This is one of the key differences between the successful Scotland Act 1998 and the failed Scotland Act 1978.

The Parliament is elected with a mixture of the first past the post and proportional representation electoral systems, namely, the additional members system. Thus the Parliament is unlike the Westminster Parliament, which is still elected solely by the first past the post method. The Scottish Parliament is elected every four years and contains 129 members, referred to as Members of the Scottish Parliament (MSPs). Of the 129 MSPs, 73 are elected to represent first past the post constituencies, whilst the remaining 56 are elected by the additional member system.

The proportional representation system has resulted in the election of a number of candidates from parties that would not have been expected to get representation through the first past the post system.

To replace the Scottish Office, a devolved government called the Scottish Executive (latterly to be known as The Scottish Government) was established, with the First Minister of Scotland at its head. The secretariat of the Executive is part of the UK Civil Service and the head of the Executive, the Permanent Secretary (presently Sir Peter Housden), is the equivalent of the Permanent Secretary of a Whitehall department.

Scotland in the Parliament of the United Kingdom

The House of Commons

The effect of the Boundary Commission's reform and the 2005 general election upon Scottish seats

Until the 2005 general election, Scotland elected 72 MPs from 72 single-member constituencies to serve in the House of Commons. As this over-represented Scotland in relation to the other components of the UK, Clause 81 of the Scotland Act 1998 equalised the English and Scottish electoral quota. As a result, the Boundary Commission for Scotland's recommendations were adopted, reducing Scottish representation in the House of Commons to 59 MPs from the 2005 general election. In order to facilitate this reduction in the number of MPs from Scottish constituencies, the necessary amendment to the Scotland Act 1998, was passed by the Parliament of the United Kingdom as the Scottish Parliament (Constituencies) Act 2004. The previous over-representation was widely accepted before to allow for a greater Scottish voice in the Commons, but since the establishment of a Scottish Parliament it has been felt that this is not necessary.

Scottish MPs are elected at the same time as the rest of the UK's MPs.

Scotland was historically represented in the UK government by the Secretary of State for Scotland. This post was established in the 1880s but recently it has been the topic of much speculation. Many believe that since devolution there is no need for such a role to exist. The Secretary of State's department, the Scotland Office, created in 1999, liaises with other Whitehall departments about devolution matters.

Current Scottish Representation in the Commons is :

The House of Lords

At one stage, Scottish peers were entitled to elect sixteen representative peers to the House of Lords. In 1963, the Peerage Act was passed, allowing every Scottish peer to sit in the House of Lords. However, since the previous Labour government's reforms of that house this is no longer the case and hereditary Scottish peers have to stand for election from amongst all eligible peers to sit in the house as part of a group of 92 entitled to do so.

Scotland in Europe

Scotland constitutes a single European Parliament constituency. See Scotland (European Parliament constituency).

It is also represented in the Committee of the Regions.

Local government

Local government in Scotland is organised into 32 unitary authorities. Each local authority is governed by a council consisting of elected councillors, who are elected every four years by registered voters in each of the council areas.

Scottish councils co-operate through, and are represented collectively by, the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities (COSLA).

There are currently 1,222 councillors in total, each paid a part-time salary for the undertaking of their duties. Each authority elects a Convener or Provost to chair meetings of the authority's council and act as a figurehead for the area. The four main cities of Scotland, Glasgow, Edinburgh, Aberdeen and Dundee have a Lord Provost who is also, ex officio, Lord Lieutenant for that city.

There are in total 32 councils, the largest being the City of Glasgow with more than 600,000 inhabitants, the smallest, Orkney, with fewer than 20,000 people. See Subdivisions of Scotland for a list of the council areas.

Community councils

Community councils represent the interests of local people. Local authorities have a statutory duty to consult community councils on planning, development and other issues directly affecting that local community. However, the community council has no direct say in the delivery of services. In many areas they do not function at all, but some work very effectively at improving their local area.[6]

Elections for Community Councils are determined by the local authority and the law states that candidates cannot stand on a party-political ticket[citation needed].


Pro-independence graffiti in Edinburgh

Until 1832 Scottish politics remained very much in the control of landowners in the country, and of small cliques of merchants in the burghs. Agitation against this position through the Friends of the People Society in the 1790s met with Lord Braxfield's explicit repression on behalf of the landed interests.[7] The Scottish Reform Act 1832 rearranged the constituencies and increased the electorate from under 5,000 to 65,000.[8] The Representation of the People (Scotland) Act 1868 extended the electorate to 232,000 but with "residential qualifications peculiar to Scotland".[9] However, by 1885 around 50% of the male population had the vote, the secret ballot had become established, and the modern political era had started.

From 1885 to 1918 the Liberal Party almost totally dominated Scottish politics. Only in the general election of 1955 did the Unionist Party, together with their National Liberal and Liberal Unionist allies, win a majority of votes.

In general, the Unionists achieved their best results in the Glasgow area, due to the Orange vote.

After the coupon election of 1918, 1922 saw the emergence of the Labour Party as a major force. Red Clydeside elected a number of Labour MPs. A communist gained election for Motherwell in 1924, but in essence the 1920s saw a 3-way fight between Labour, the Liberals and the Unionists. The National Party of Scotland first contested a seat in 1929. It merged with the centre-right Scottish Party in 1934 to form the Scottish National Party, but the SNP remained a peripheral force until the watershed Hamilton by-election of 1967.

The Communists won West Fife in 1935 and again in 1945 (Willie Gallacher) and several Glasgow Labour MPs joined the Independent Labour Party in the 1930s, often heavily defeating the official Labour candidates.

The National Government won the vast majority of Scottish seats in 1931 and 1935: the Liberal Party, banished to the Highlands and Islands, no longer functioned as a significant force in central Scotland.

In 1945, the SNP saw its first MP (Robert McIntyre) elected at the Motherwell by-election, but had little success during the following decade. The ILP members rejoined the Labour Party, and Scotland now had in effect a two-party system.

  • 1950: The Liberals won 2 seats - Jo Grimond winning Orkney and Shetland.
  • 1951: Labour and the Unionists won 35 seats each, the Liberals losing one seat.
  • 1955: The Unionists won a majority of both seats and votes. The SNP managed to finish second in Perth and Kinross.
  • 1959: In contrast to England, Scotland swung to Labour, which scored 4 gains at the expense of the Unionists. This marked the start of a process which in less than 40 years saw the Unionists' Scottish representation at Westminster reduced to zero. This was the last occasion when the Unionists won in Scotland: their merger with the Conservative Party of England and Wales in 1965, to become the Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party, began a long, steady decline in their support.
  • 1964: A substantial swing to Labour occurred, giving them 44 of Scotland's 71 seats. The Liberals won 4 seats, all in the Highlands.
  • 1965: David Steel won the Roxburgh, Selkirk and Peebles by-election for the Liberals.
  • 1966: Labour gained 2 more seats and the Liberals made a net gain of 1. The SNP garnered over 100,000 votes and finished second in 3 seats.
  • 1967: The SNP did well in the Glasgow Pollok by-election, but this had the effect of allowing the Conservative and Unionist candidate to win. However, in the subsequent Hamilton by-election Winnie Ewing won a sensational victory.
  • 1968: The SNP made substantial gains in local elections.
  • 1970: The SNP performed poorly in local elections and in the Ayrshire South by-election. The general election saw a small swing to the Conservative & Unionists, but Labour won a majority of seats in Scotland. The SNP made little progress in central Scotland, but took votes from the Liberals in the Highlands and in north east Scotland, and won the Western Isles.
  • 1971-1973: The SNP did well in by-elections, Margo MacDonald winning Glasgow Govan.
  • 1974: In the two general elections of 1974 (in February and October) the SNP won 7 and then 11 seats, their share of the vote rising from 11% in 1970 to 22% and then 30%. With the Labour Party winning the latter election by a narrow margin the SNP appeared in a strong position.
  • 1974-1979: Devolution dominated this period: the Labour government attempted to steer through devolution legislation, based on the recommendations of the Kilbrandon Commission, against strong opposition, not least from its own backbenchers. Finally a referendum, whilst producing a small majority in favour of an elected Scottish Assembly, failed to reach 40% of the total electorate, a target set in the legislation. In the 1979 general election the SNP fared poorly, falling to 17% of the vote and 2 seats. Labour did well in Scotland, but in the United Kingdom as a whole Margaret Thatcher led the Conservatives to a decisive victory.
  • 1979-1983: The SNP suffered severe splits as the result of the 1979 drop in support. Labour also was riven by internal strife as the Social Democratic Party split away. Despite this, the 1983 election still saw Labour remain the majority party in Scotland, with a smaller swing to the Conservatives than in England. The SNP's vote declined further, to 11%, although it managed to win 2 seats.
  • 1987: The Labour Party did well in the 1987 election, mainly at the expense of the Conservative & Unionists, who were reduced to their smallest number of Scottish seats since before World War I. The SNP made a small but significant advance.
  • 1988: Jim Sillars won the Glasgow Govan by-election for the SNP.
  • 1992: This election proved a disappointment for Labour and the SNP in Scotland. The SNP went from 14% to 21% of the vote but won only 3 seats. The Conservative and Unionist vote did not collapse, as had been widely predicted, leading to claims that their resolutely anti-devolution stance had paid dividends.
  • 1997: In common with England, a Labour landslide occurred in Scotland. The SNP doubled their number of MPs to 6, but the Conservative & Unionists failed to win a single seat. Unlike 1979, Scottish voters delivered a decisive "Yes" vote in the referendum on establishing a Scottish Parliament.
  • 1999: The Scottish Parliament is established. A coalition of Labour and Liberal Democrats led by Donald Dewar take power.
  • 2007: The SNP become Scotland's largest party in the 2007 Scottish Parliamentary election and form a minority government.
  • 2008: John Mason won the Glasgow East by-election for the SNP.
  • 2008: Lindsay Roy won the Glenrothes by-election for Labour with an increased share of the vote and a 6,737 majority over the SNP.
  • 2009: Willie Bain won the Glasgow North East by-election for Labour with 59.4% of the vote and an 8,111 majority over the SNP.
  • 2010: United Kingdom general election, 2010: Labour won 41 out of 59 Scottish seats including Glasgow East from the SNP and receiving over 1 million votes across Scotland despite Labour losing 91 seats across Britain as a whole.
  • 2011: The SNP become the first party to win an overall majority in the Scottish Parliament.
  • 2015: The SNP won 56 out of 59 Scottish seats, winning 50% of the popular vote. Labour, Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats won 1 seat each.

Political parties

The current party forming the Scottish Government is the Scottish National Party (SNP), which won a majority of seats in the May 2011 Scottish parliamentary elections. The SNP was formed in 1934 with the aim of achieving Scottish independence. They are broadly centre-left and are in the European social-democratic mould. They are the largest party in the Scottish Parliament.

In the course of the twentieth century, the Labour Party gradually rose to prominence as Scotland's main political force. The party was established to represent the interests of workers and trade unionists. From 1999 to 2007, they operated as the senior partners in a coalition Scottish Executive.

The Scottish Liberal Democrats were the junior partners in the 1999 to 2007 coalition Scottish Executive. In the 2010 Westminster election they were the second strongest party in terms of seats but third strongest party in terms of votes in Scotland. They have the fourth highest number of both MSPs and councillors.

The Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party has declined in popularity since their establishment in 1965. Their predecessor, the Unionist Party, are the only party ever to have achieved an outright majority of Scottish votes at any general election, in 1951 (they only won a majority if the votes of their National Liberal and Liberal Unionist allies are included). However at the 1997 general election they failed to get a single Scottish MP elected and at the following general election they returned only one, as they did in 2005 and in 2010. They are a centre-right party.

The Scottish Green Party have won regional additional member seats in the Scottish Parliament, as a result of the proportional representation electoral system. They won one MSP in 1999, increased their total to seven at the 2003 election but saw this drop back to 2 at the 2007 election. The Greens support Scottish independence.

The Scottish Socialist Party (SSP) were formed in 1998 to operate as a political party that could unite the majority of the far-left in Scotland. They won one MSP in 1999 and increased their total to six at the 2003 election. The SSP split in 2006 when two MSPs and a large number of activists left to form Solidarity. Both parties lost all their seats at the 2007 election, but the SSP continues to have local representation. Both the SSP and Solidarity support Scottish independence.

The Scottish Senior Citizens Unity Party (SSCUP) were formed just in time to contest the 2003 elections to the Scottish Parliament. They were formed to work for the rights of Scotland's senior citizens. Thanks to the Scottish Parliament's proportional electoral system, they managed to get one MSP elected in 2003, John Swinburne, their party founder and leader. In the 2007 election they lost their only seat.

See also


  1. Cavanagh, Michael (2001) The Campaigns for a Scottish Parliament. University of Strathclyde. Retrieved 12 April 2008.
  2. "Devolved services in Scotland" direct.gov.uk Retrieved 12 April 2008.
  3. Scotland begins pub smoking ban, BBC News Online, 26 March 2006
  4. "London Offers Scotland Its Own Parliament, With Wide Powers". The New York Times. 25 July 1997. Retrieved 24 July 2011.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  5. "Past Referendums - Scotland 1997". The Electoral Commission. Archived from the original on 7 December 2006. Retrieved 17 November 2006. Unknown parameter |deadurl= ignored (help)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  6. Stirling Council. "Community Council Info". Stirling Council Homepage. Stirling Council. Retrieved 8 May 2013.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  7. Buchan, James (2003). Crowded with Genius. Harper Collins. p. 338. ISBN 0-06-055888-1.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  8. Lynch, Michael (1992). Scotland: A New History. Pimlico. p. 391. ISBN 0-7126-9893-0.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  9. Lynch (1992), p416

External links