The politics of devolution
The politics of devolution

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The politics of devolution

5.2 Devolution in Scotland

Scotland endured a long and complicated process towards self-determination. In a 1979 referendum, the Scots voted in favour of the Labour government proposals to establish a Scottish Parliament, but, thanks to a special majority provision requiring at least 40 per cent of the registered electorate to vote in favour, devolution was rejected when only 32.9 per cent of the electorate voted in favour in the referendum.

Figure 4
Figure 4 Referendum campaigners for devolution in Scotland, 1997 © Sutton-Hibbert/Rex Features

Subsequently, after 1988, a Scottish Constitutional Convention comprising political parties (Labour and the Liberal Democrats, but not the Scottish National Party), churches, unions and other civic groups began campaigning for change. Once in government, Labour organised referendums on devolution, which were held on 11 September 1997; 74.3 per cent of the Scots who voted, voted for a Scottish Parliament and 63.5 per cent voted to give it tax-raising powers. Once the devolved institutions were established, Scotland's status within the UK was transformed. In domestic policy terms it is no longer governed by the Scottish Secretary of State based at Westminster, but by a Scottish Parliament elected by the Scottish people. The Westminster Parliament retains competence over foreign and defence policy, welfare and pension benefits, European matters and, crucially, macroeconomic policy. A First Minister heads the Scottish Government, normally the leader of the party able to command majority or coalition support within the Scottish Parliament, although the SNP have ruled as a minority government (2007-11).

The 1997 referendum result has not by itself entrenched Scottish devolution (what the Westminster Parliament has created, it can still legally unmake), but it has certainly provided the Scottish Parliament with a moral and political legitimacy. Ultimately, the Scottish Parliament has secured its constitutional future by convincing the Scottish people of its relevance.

The absence of a UK written constitution able to respond to the above questions opens up a wide range of possibilities. The re-establishment of a devolved parliament in Edinburgh does not alter, in principle, the unitary character of the UK state since sovereignty continues to reside in Westminster. At the same time a Scottish National Party (SNP) majority in the Scottish Parliament has called for further autonomy and even a referendum on Scottish independence (in 2014).

The Scottish Parliament is composed of 129 members, 73 elected from single member constituencies and 56 additional members. Elections are held every four years. The first election to the Scottish Parliament took place in 1999, when turn-out was 58 per cent.In the 2003 election turn-out fell to 41.45 per cent, but rose again in 2007 and 2011. Table 1 shows the results for the 1999, 2003, 2007 and 2011 elections.

Table 1 Scottish Parliament election results: number of seats gained by different parties, 1999, 2003, 2007 and 2011

Political party 1999 2003 2007 2011
Labour Party 56 50 46 37
Scottish National Party 35 27 47 69
Conservative and Unionist Party 18 18 17 15
Liberal Democrats 17 17 16 5
Scottish Green Party 1 7 2 2
Scottish Socialist Party 1 6 - -
Scottish Senior Citizens Party 0 1 - -
Others 1 3 1 1

The establishment of the Scottish Parliament provides an asymmetric picture of the UK. It is based on the recognition of Scotland as being different from the rest of the UK in terms of having a specific culture, tradition and way of life, all of which stem from its past as an independent territory. To some extent, then, devolution has weakened the image of Scotland as a periphery within the wider UK. It remains to be seen if devolution has merely empowered an Edinburgh-Glasgow ‘centre’, leaving other, more remote areas of Scotland to be redefined as a new ‘periphery’. However, SNP governments (2007-13) have funded many capital projects aimed at integrating Scotland (for instance, duelling of the A9) which were not previously prioritised. Furthermore, the SNP fundamentally opposed the funding of the Edinburgh Trams project (which went ahead because initial costs had been paid) and scrapped central-belt schemes, like Edinburgh and Glasgow Airport rail links.

Scotland's place as a proud historic nation in the UK clearly acknowledges the multinational character of the UK state. Of course, post-devolution Scotland remains an integral part of the UK and the Queen continues to be the UK's Head of State, embracing Scotland and Wales as well as England. The Westminster Parliament currently remains sovereign even though it has devolved law-making powers over a wide range of matters concerning Scotland to the Scottish Parliament. As a result, Westminster retains many key powers and responsibilities over Scotland under the devolved settlement.


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