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The politics of Scotland operate within the constitution of the United Kingdom, of which Scotland is a home nation. Scotland is a democracy, being represented in both the Scottish Parliament and the Parliament of the United Kingdom since the Scotland Act 1998. Most executive power is exercised by the Scottish Government, led by the First Minister of Scotland, the head of government in a multi-party system. The judiciary of Scotland, dealing with Scots law, is independent of the legislature and the executive. Scots law is primarily determined by the Scottish Parliament. The Scottish Government shares some executive powers with the Government of the United Kingdom's Scotland Office, a British government department led by the Secretary of State for Scotland.
The Kingdom of Scotland entered a fiscal and political union with the Kingdom of England with the Acts of Union 1707, by which the Parliament of Scotland was abolished along with its English counterpart to form the Parliament of Great Britain, and from that time Scotland has been represented by members of the House of Commons in the Palace of Westminster. The Scottish Parliament was established in 1999, as a result of the Scotland Act 1998 and the preceding 1997 Scottish devolution referendum, held under the Referendums (Scotland and Wales) Act 1997.
The issues of Scottish nationalism and Scottish independence are prominent political issues in the early 21st century. When the Scottish National Party formed a majority government after the 2011 Scottish Parliament election and passed the Scottish Independence Referendum Act 2013, the British parliament concluded the Edinburgh Agreement with the Scottish Government, enabling the 2014 Scottish independence referendum. The referendum was held on 18 September 2014, with 55.3% voting to stay in the United Kingdom and 44.7% voting for independence.
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. The Scottish Reform Act 1832 rearranged the constituencies and increased the electorate from under 5,000 to 65,000. The Representation of the People (Scotland) Act 1868 extended the electorate to 232,000 but with "residential qualifications peculiar to Scotland". 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 and the general election of 1931 did the Unionist Party, together with their National Liberal and Liberal Unionist allies, win a majority of votes.
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 was elected 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.
Main article: Monarchy of the United Kingdom
See also: Scottish republicanism
Scotland is governed under the framework of a constitutional monarchy. The head of state in Scotland is the British monarch, currently Queen Elizabeth II (since 1952). Until the early 17th century, Scotland and England were entirely separate kingdoms ruled by different royal families. However, on the death of Elizabeth I of England in 1603, the then-King of Scotland James VI became James I of England, in what is known as the Union of the Crowns. However, the two monarchies remained legally separate, albeit held by the same individual.
Scotland is no longer a Kingdom in its own right. Under the Union with England Act 1707, the Kingdoms of Scotland and England have been permanently united into "One Kingdom" (Great Britain, later the United Kingdom). A unification of Scotland and England had been debated since the Union of the Crowns, however was initially met with little enthusiasm by the administrations of both countries.
There are two bodies with the power to legislate for Scotland: the UK Parliament and the Scottish Parliament. Until 1999, the UK Parliament was the source of all legislation across the whole of the UK. Since then, devolution has meant that Scotland, as well as Wales and Northern Ireland, have had independent legislatures which pass laws on devolved responsibilities. The Scottish Parliament has had the power to pass primary legislation since 1999, and passed 282 Acts between then and the end of 2018. The Scottish Parliament can legislate on anything that is not reserved to the UK Parliament. In theory, the UK Parliament retains the ability to legislate on any matter for any part of the UK, including in Scotland, however since 1999 the UK Parliament has followed a convention (the Sewel convention) that means it will not normally legislate on devolved matters with the Scottish Parliament's consent.
Opposition parties include the Scottish Conservatives (centre-right, conservative), Scottish Labour (centre-left, social democratic), the Scottish Liberal Democrats (centrist, social liberal), and the Scottish Greens (centre-left to left-wing, green). The Scottish Socialist Party (left-wing, democratic socialist) won a seat in the first Scottish Parliament election in 1999 and increased their number of seats to 6 in the 2003 Scottish Parliament election, but then lost their seats in the 2007 election and haven't regained representation in the Scottish Parliament since. Elections were normally held once every four years from the inception of the Scottish Parliament in 1999 to 2016 (the election scheduled for 2015 was delayed for one year to 2016 after agreement by all of the main political parties). A Bill was passed by the Scottish Parliament on 25 February 2016 and received Royal Assent on 30 March 2016 increasing the term of the Parliament to five years. 73 Members are elected to represent constituencies, and the remaining 56 elected via a system of proportional representation. At Westminster, Scotland is represented by 45 MPs from the Scottish National Party, six from the Conservative Party, one from the Labour Party and four from the Liberal Democrats elected in the 2019 United Kingdom general election; as well as two MPs who were elected for SNP but have since defected to the Alba Party, and a further independent. The Secretary of State for Scotland—currently Alister Jack MP, a Scottish Conservative—is usually a member of the House of Commons representing a constituency in Scotland.
Main article: Scottish Parliament
The Scottish Parliament is the national, unicameral legislature of Scotland. The election of an Labour government in the 1997 United Kingdom general election was followed by the Referendums (Scotland and Wales) Act 1997, which legislated for the 1997 Scottish devolution referendum, 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%. The Parliament was then established by the Scotland Act 1998.
The Scottish Parliament sits in the Scottish Parliament Building at Holyrood in Edinburgh, giving it the informal name "Holyrood". In the Scottish Parliament, the inhabitants of Scotland are represented by 129 members of the Scottish Parliament (MSPs), who are elected by the additional member system, a form of proportional representation, by the Scottish Parliament constituencies and electoral regions. Thus the Parliament is unlike the UK Parliament, which is elected solely by the first past the post method. 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 from eight regional lists. In the present parliament, elected in the 2021 Scottish Parliament elections, all MSPs are members of a political party and no independents.
It enacts primary legislation through Acts of the Scottish Parliament, but cannot legislate on reserved matters, as set out by the Scotland Act 1998 and amended by the Scotland Act 2012 and the Scotland Act 2016; these include 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.
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. Various members of the House of Lords represent Scottish political parties.
The co-existence of devolution for Scotland and its continued representation in the UK Parliament, which retains full powers over matters relating to England, raised a debate known as the West Lothian question. This questions whether Scottish (and other devolved nation) representatives should continue to have a vote on affairs that do not relate directly to Scotland. This issue was exemplified in the raise in tuition fees in England in 2004. If non-English MPs, who were mostly government MPs, had not been able to vote, then the tuition fee rise would not have been able to occur, due to a rebellion on the government benches. Since 2016, this has led to the creation of the English votes for English laws process, in which Scottish MPs are not included in parts of the lawmaking process for laws that do not apply in Scotland.
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For UK general elections, Scotland is divided into 59 constituencies of broadly equal population by the Scottish Boundary Commission. Each constituency elects a single Member of Parliament (MP), who represents the constituency in the House of Commons alongside representatives from the other countries of the UK. There are 650 MPs in total. The leader of the party or coalition that makes a majority or plurality in the Commons is usually invited by the Queen to become the Prime Minister and to lead Her Majesty's Government.
Generally speaking, one party usually has a majority in Parliament because of the First Past the Post electoral system. Since 1945, Scottish seats have altered the final result of a general election four times. Without Scottish seats: in 1964, the Conservatives would have been the largest party rather than Labour; in February 1974, the Conservatives would have been the largest party but without a majority rather than Labour; in October 1974, Labour would no longer have won its majority and in 2010, the Conservatives would have won an outright majority and would not have needed to form a coalition with the Liberal Democrats.
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 comparison to the other parts 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 with effect from the 2005 general election. The necessary amendment to the Scotland Act 1998, was passed by the Parliament of the United Kingdom as the Scottish Parliament (Constituencies) Act 2004.
As of the 2021, the current representation of Scottish seats in the Commons, according to party allegiance, is:
In 2015, twelve of the 92 hereditary peers with seats in the House of Lords to which they are elected (from among themselves) under the House of Lords Act 1999 were registered as living in Scotland, as were 49 life peers appointed under the Life Peerages Act 1958, including five former Lords Advocate. James Thorne Erskine, 14th Earl of Mar and 16th Earl of Kellie, retired in 2017 having lost his seat as a hereditary peer in 1999 but regained it in 2000 as a life peer; Charles Lyell, 3rd Baron Lyell (former Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland) died the same year. One of the former Lords Advocate, Kenneth Cameron, Baron Cameron of Lochbroom, retired from the Lords in 2016, while another, Donald Mackay, Baron Mackay of Drumadoon died in 2018. Besides these 61 peers listed in 2015 are hereditary members of the Lords living outwith Scotland, but who have titles in the Peerage of Scotland, such as Margaret of Mar, 31st Countess of Mar, or Scottish titles in the peerages of Great Britain or of the United Kingdom. Apart from these, there are also Scottish life peers with titles associated with places outside Scotland, such as Michelle Mone, Baroness Mone of Mayfair.
Political appointees include:
Former Lords Advocate include:
Scottish hereditary peers include:
Between the Acts of Union 1707 and the Peerage Act 1963, peers with titles in the Peerage of Scotland were entitled to elect sixteen representative peers to the House of Lords. Between the 1963 Act and the House of Lords Act 1999 the entire hereditary Peerage of Scotland was entitled to sit in the House of Lords, alongside those with titles in the peerages of England, of Ireland, of Great Britain, and of the UK.
Executive power in Scotland is exercised by the Sovereign, Queen Elizabeth II, split between Her Majesty's Government (the UK Government) and the Scottish Government. The Queen formally appoints the First Minister of Scotland according to a nomination by the Scottish Parliament. The First Minister leads the Scottish Government and appoints members to and heads the Scottish cabinet, which consists of Cabinet Secretaries, Junior Ministers, and Law Officers. The Scottish Government governs through Scottish statutory instruments, a type of subordinate legislation, and is responsible for the Directorates of the Scottish Government, the executive agencies of the Scottish Government, and the other public bodies of the Scottish Government. The directorates include the Scottish Exchequer, the Economy Directorates, the Health and Social Care Directorates, and the Education, Communities and Justice Directorates.
Elected in the 2016 Scottish Parliament election, the centre-left pro-independence Scottish National Party (SNP) is the party which forms the devolved government; it currently holds a plurality of seats in the parliament (61 out of 129). The first minister is conventionally the leader of the political party with the most support in the Scottish Parliament, currently Nicola Sturgeon who has led a government since November 2014. The previous first minister, Alex Salmond, led the SNP to an overall majority victory in the May 2011 general election, which was then lost in 2016 and now forms a minority government. The inaugural First Minister was Donald Dewar, the leader of Scottish Labour at the time, who was Secretary of State for Scotland at its time of establishment.
Statutory instruments made by the UK Government – within which the Secretary of State for Scotland is a member of the Cabinet of the United Kingdom – may also apply to the whole of Great Britain. The Secretary of State for Scotland is appointed by the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. This Secretary of State, 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 Courts of Scotland administer justice in Scots law, the legal system in Scotland. The Lord Advocate is the chief legal officer of the Scottish Government and the Crown in Scotland for both civil and criminal matters for which Scottish Parliament has devolved responsibilities. The Lord Advocate is the chief public prosecutor for Scotland and all prosecutions on indictment are conducted by the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service, nominally in the Lord Advocate's name. The Lord Advocate's deputy, the Solicitor General for Scotland, advises the Scottish Government on legal matters. The Advocate General for Scotland advises the British Government, and leads the Office of the Advocate General for Scotland, a British government department. The High Court of Justiciary is the superior criminal court of Scotland. The Court of Session is the highest civil court and is both a court of first instance and a court of appeal. For judicial purposes, Scotland has been divided into six sheriffdoms with sheriff courts since the reform of the Local Government (Scotland) Act 1973. Appeals from the Court of Session are made to the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom, which is also the final authority for constitutional affairs.
Scotland is a constituent country of the United Kingdom. Scottish affairs are managed at a UK-wide scale by the Secretary of State for Scotland, a role which aims to "[promote] the best interests of Scotland within a stronger United Kingdom" and represent Scottish interests within the UK government. However, the Secretary of State is normally appointed by the UK Government and is from the government parties, not necessarily from the major party in Scotland. The current Secretary of State for Scotland is Alister Jack. The Scotland Office is a department of the Government of the United Kingdom, responsible for reserved Scottish affairs. The Scotland Office, created in 1999, liaises with other Whitehall departments about devolution matters. Before devolution and the Scotland Office, much of the role of the devolved Scottish Government was undertaken by the Scottish Office, the previous British ministerial department led by Scottish Secretary.
Devolution in the UK refers the process by which powers to legislate and govern are transferred from the UK Parliament in Westminster to a range of sub-UK level bodies, such as metro areas and the Home Nations. Since the establishment of the Scottish Parliament, all matters have been devolved to that body by default, except those matters explicitly reserved to Westminster, and Westminster does not by convention legislate on non-reserved matters, except by consent.
In Scotland, matters devolved to the Scottish Parliament exclusively include justice and law, police and prisons, local government, health, education, housing and student support, social welfare, food safety and standards, planning policy, economic development, agriculture, culture and sport. A number of other matters are shared such as transport, public pension and taxation. The Scottish Government receives a funding allocation from the UK Government, calculated under the Barnett Formula, but it does also have its own tax resources.
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. 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, with the ban effective from 26 March 2006. Also, on 19 October 2017, the Scottish government announced that smacking children as punishment was to be banned in Scotland, the first nation of the UK to do so.
In a further divergence from the rest of the United Kingdom from 1 January 2021 all Scottish legislation will be legally required to keep in regulatory alignment in devolved competences with future European Union law following the end of the Brexit transition period which ended on 31 December 2020 after the Scottish Parliament passed the UK Withdrawal from the European Union (Continuity) (Scotland) Act 2020 despite the United Kingdom no longer being a EU member state.
A large debate in modern Scottish politics is over the constitutional status of Scotland.
One common proposal is for the independence of Scotland from the UK; this would mean Scotland would become a sovereign state. There was an independence referendum in 2014 in which Scottish residents voted to remain within the United Kingdom, however this debate has been reignited due to the Brexit process, with the Scottish Government calling for a second independence referendum. This position is supported by the SNP and Scottish Greens, among other groupings. Independence advocates propose that independence would resolve a democratic deficit for Scottish voters and allow Scotland to rejoin the EU. Opponents argue that Scotland would be worse off economically after independence.
Other proposals include more devolution for Scotland, supported by the SNP in lieu of full independence. 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 twentieth century with Labour leader John Smith describing the revival of a Scottish parliament as the "settled will of the Scottish people".
For the purposes of local government in Scotland, the country has been divided into 32 council areas since the Local Government etc. (Scotland) Act 1994. Since the Local Government (Scotland) Act 1973, which also abolished the shires of Scotland, the country has been subdivided into community councils. Though retained for statistical purposes, the civil parishes in Scotland were abolished for administrative purposes in the Local Government (Scotland) Act 1929.
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 five 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 1,227 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 Glasgow City Council with more than 600,000 inhabitants, the smallest, Orkney Islands Council, with fewer than 20,000 people. See Subdivisions of Scotland for a list of the council areas.
The most recent local elections in Scotland were held in 2017 and the next local elections are scheduled for 2022.
Main article: Community council
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.
Main article: List of political parties in Scotland
Scottish National Party (SNP): The current party forming the Scottish Government is the Scottish National Party (SNP), which won 64 of 129 seats available in the 2021 Scottish Parliament election and 44.2% of the vote, one more seat than in 2016. 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 and have formed the Scottish Government since the 2007 Scottish Parliament election.
Conservative and Unionist Party: The Unionist Party was 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 if their National Liberal and Liberal Unionist allies are included). The Unionist Party was allied with the UK Conservative Party until 1965, when the Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party was formed. The Conservatives then entered a long-term decline in Scotland, culminating in their failure to win any Scottish seats in the 1997 UK election. At the four subsequent UK elections (2001, 2005, 2010 and 2015) the Conservatives won only one Scottish seat. The party enjoyed a revival of fortunes in the 2016 Scottish Parliament election, winning 31 seats and finishing in second place. In the 2021 Scottish Parliament elections, they got 22.8% of the vote, winning 31 seats again. The Conservatives are a centre-right party.
Labour Party: In the course of the twentieth century, Scottish Labour 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. They lost power in 2007 when the SNP won a plurality of seats and entered a period of dramatic decline, losing all but one of their seats in the 2015 UK election and falling to third place in the 2016 Scottish election. The 2017 UK election produced a mixed result for the party as it gained six seat and increased its vote by 2.8% but the party came in third behind the SNP and Scottish Conservatives. In the 2021 Scottish Parliament elections, they got 19.8% of the vote, winning 22 seats.
Liberal Democrats: The Scottish Liberal Democrats were the junior partners in the 1999 to 2007 coalition Scottish Executive. The party has lost much of its electoral presence in Scotland since the UK Liberal Democrats entered into a coalition government with the UK Conservative Party in 2010. In the 2015 UK election they were reduced from 12 seats to one seat, and since the 2016 Scottish Parliament election they have had the fifth highest number of MSPs (five), unchanged on 2011.In the 2021 Scottish Parliament elections, they got 6% of the vote, winning 4 seats.
Scottish Green Party: The Scottish Greens have won regional additional member seats in every Scottish Parliament election, 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 two at the 2007 election. They retained two seats at the 2011 election, then increased this total to six in the 2016 election. In the 2021 Scottish Parliament election they increased their representation by two seats to a total of eight members of the Scottish Parliament, however this was lowered to 7 a week later after Alison Johnson became Holyrood's Presiding Officer, a neutral role meaning she had to give up her position as a Green MSP). The Greens support Scottish independence.