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Parliamentary practices in the devolved institutions: the case of Scotland

Parliamentary practices in Holyrood: ‘new politics’ and the SNP

Les pratiques parlementaires au Parlement écossais de Holyrood : renouveau politique et nationalisme en Écosse
Fiona Simpkins

Résumés

Lorsqu’il fut créé à la fin des années 1990, le Parlement écossais devait révolutionner la façon dont les Écossais étaient gouvernés. Ses concepteurs exprimaient alors l’espoir qu’il s’agirait d’un nouveau type d’institution, distinct du modèle de Westminster, qui représenterait une nouvelle approche à la gouvernance du pays. Le Parlement qui émergea du travail de la Convention constitutionnelle écossaise fut le fruit d’un consensus historique et fut conçu comme un corps politique plus inclusif, représentatif, transparent et collégial qui devait introduire un renouveau politique en Écosse. Il s’agira donc d’analyser en quoi cet objectif d’ouverture, de représentativité et de participation a été atteint par le nouveau modèle parlementaire écossais et de questionner l’impact de son succès relatif sur le nationalisme en Écosse.

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1The Scottish Parliament was meant to represent a revolution in the way that Scots were governed and raised such extraordinary expectations that perhaps some degree of disappointment was ultimately unavoidable. The supporters of a new Parliament in Scotland frequently expressed the hope that such a body would be a new type of institution, with a new approach to the way that the business of government is carried on. They wished to move away from the adversarial politics and one-party government that characterises Westminster politics and to ensure better representation for all Scots. The political arena that emerged out of the blueprint produced by the Scottish Constitutional Convention in the 1990s was the result of a historic consensus and was designed as a more inclusive, representative, transparent and collegial body which was to usher in ‘new politics’ for Scotland. The Scottish Parliament was also meant to represent “the settled will of the Scottish people” and fulfill Scotland’s needs and aspirations. The threat that Scotland’s nationalist movement presented to the Union was meant to be defused and the question of Scotland’s constitutional status – as a devolved nation within the United Kingdom rather than an independent state – settled once and for all. However, the first two decades of existence of the Scottish Parliament have shown that Scotland’s political landscape is no longer divided along a partisan divide but over the lingering question of its constitutional status and that the Scottish National Party (SNP) has come to dominate Holyrood after being elected in government four consecutive times.

2Holyrood has appeared to provide an ideal political platform for the SNP in several respects which shall be examined in turn. Sound governance has been key to the SNP’s strategy in government since 2007 as it has sought to assert its competence over key economic and social issues in Scotland whilst attempting to develop a support base for its flagship separatist policy. This paper will therefore seek to examine to what extent the Scottish Constitutional Convention’s initial goal of a more open, representative and participative approach to politics has been met and question the impact of its relative success on the surge of nationalism in Scotland.

The Scottish Parliament: blueprint for a new democracy?

  • 1 The Conservative Party obtained 31.4% of the vote in Scotland and 47.2% in England in the 1979 gene (...)

3The impetus for devolution in Scotland was given by the increasingly widespread idea that there was a “democratic deficit” in Britain and that Scotland’s interests failed to be represented by the Westminster system of governance. Indeed, England’s electoral lurch to the right during the 1980s and 1990s was not followed by Scotland, whose electorate then predominantly voted for Labour. By 1987, the Conservatives in power in Westminster were only supported by less than a seventh of all Scottish MPs and the difference between Conservative electoral scores in Scotland and England rose from 16 points in 1979 to 22 points in 1987.1 A wider consensus thus emerged throughout Scotland’s political circles and across Scottish civil society on the need for a new Scottish political arena that would be more representative of the Scottish population and would better answer its distinct economic and social needs.

  • 2 Sir Robert Grieve, professor at Glasgow University, was nominated as chairman of this new board, wh (...)
  • 3 Under the terms of the Treaty of Union of 1707, Scotland was to keep its law and judicial system, i (...)
  • 4 Scottish Constitutional Steering Committee, A Claim of Right for Scotland, Edinburgh: Polygon, 1989 (...)
  • 5 Ibid, 1.

4A cross-partisan Campaign for a Scottish Assembly was formed soon after the Callaghan government’s 1979 devolution project fiasco, but it had a limited impact until the Conservatives’ third consecutive election in 1987 when it nominated a Constitutional Steering Committee, composed of prominent Scots and working under the chairmanship of Sir Robert Grieve.2 The Committee was in charge of reporting on the practical steps required to set up a Scottish constitutional convention which would in turn work on a blueprint for a Scottish assembly. Its report, significantly entitled A Claim of Right for Scotland and published on 6th July 1988, was strongly critical of the British constitutional system. It was indeed considered obsolete and in contradiction with the original Treaty of Union of 1707 that intended to guarantee a large degree of autonomy in Scotland through the preservation of institutions which originally covered most of the civil and administrative issues in Scotland.3 The report claimed that successive governments had failed to pay attention to the evolution of governing in Scotland and that the degree of autonomy enjoyed by Scotland was now limited to domains – such as religion, for instance – that had lost their paramount importance in Scots’ daily lives. It added that the current institution was an “illusion of democracy”4 that was exacerbated by the First-Past-The-Post system used for general elections as it enabled political parties to govern without necessarily obtaining a majority of the votes. The Claim of Right thus argued for the need to create new institutions in Scotland which would guarantee the political representation of all Scots and work towards defending Scotland’s political and economic interests. Despite its nationalist tone, it did not defend independence but, on the contrary, argued that it was precisely the refusal to give Scotland its own assembly that fuelled nationalism. It thus recommended the establishment of a Scottish Constitutional Convention representative of the entire Scottish political spectrum and civil society “to agree a scheme for an Assembly or Parliament for Scotland; to mobilise Scottish opinion and ensure the approval of the Scottish people for that scheme; and to assert the right of the Scottish people to secure implementation of that scheme.”5

  • 6 The Convention included: Labour members, Liberal-Democrat members, Scottish Green Party members, Co (...)

5These calls were only partly heard as the Conservative Party immediately refused to join and the SNP renounced to take part after the first meeting of January 1988, once the party realised the Convention would be dominated by Labour. The nationalists feared that they would have little option but to support a Labour project, a prospect far too reminiscent of the 1979 Assembly referendum debacle that had tarnished the SNP’s political credibility and affected its electoral scores for almost a decade. Yet, all other opposition parties were represented in the Scottish Constitutional Convention, together with representatives from non-governmental organisations, local authorities and Scottish civil society.6 The Convention came to represent a historic model for political consensus as it produced a blueprint for a future Scottish Parliament that strove to answer the calls for representativity, transparency and accountability of the Claim of Right and to differentiate Scotland’s political arena from the Westminster model. Devolution to Scotland was not only presented as a way to transfer policy making responsibilities but also as a way to reform parliamentary practices, introducing a new form of politics.

  • 7 Scottish Constitutional Convention, Scotland’s Parliament, Scotland’s Right, Edinburgh: Scottish Co (...)
  • 8 Emily St Denny, “The Scottish Parliament and ‘New Politics’ at Twenty” in Gerry Hassan, The Story o (...)

6The Convention’s second report of 1995, Scotland’s Parliament, Scotland’s Right, thus argued that the Westminster model “denies Scotland responsive and effective democracy” and called for a more open, accessible and representative Scottish Parliament which would “usher in a way of politics that is radically different from the rituals of Westminster: more participative, more creative, less needlessly confrontational.”7 The ‘old politics’ of Westminster served as a negative for the ‘new politics’ which the Scottish Parliament was to embody: the Convention aimed to reject the centralised, majoritarian and adversarial policymaking of Westminster in favour of a more inclusive and representative political body which would ensure democratic renewal and develop policies tailored to Scotland’s needs. The ‘new politics’ introduced with the Scottish Parliament would solve Scotland’s perceived democratic deficit at a political level, an institutional level and a legislative level: first, by introducing a subnational level of democratic representation, then by allowing for a space in which Scotland’s interests could be exclusively debated and acted upon, and finally in providing a democratic forum which could lead to the introduction of more suitable laws and programmes that addressed the specific needs of the people of Scotland.8

  • 9 A governmental action introduced beyond the scope of its powers and legal boundaries.
  • 10 Jean McFadden and Mark Lazarowitz, The Scottish Parliament, An Introduction, Edinburgh: T&T Clark L (...)

7After the unequivocal approval of devolution to Scotland in the 1997 referendum, the Labour government’s Scotland Act 1998 gave the new institution much leeway in deciding how it should work as it did not include any detailed requirements for its method of operation but merely stated that its proceedings should be regulated by Standing Orders. Few of these are considered in detail in the Scotland Act 1998, yet those that are regulated concern a small number of areas linked to legislative procedure and meant to ensure that legislation is not made ultra vires.9 The Scotland Act 1998 only brings a few fundamental rules to the Parliament’s standing orders to provide for the preservation of order, the opening of Parliament proceedings to the public except in extraordinary circumstances, the need for the Presiding Officer and his or her deputies to be from different political parties and for committees and sub-committees to reflect the party composition of the Parliament. It therefore gives broad guidelines for the way the Parliament should function but provides no details on legislative procedure or committee work.10

  • 11 Bernard Crick and David Miller, To Make the Parliament of Scotland a Model for Democracy, Centre fo (...)
  • 12 Consultative Steering Group on the Scottish Parliament, Shaping Scotland’s Parliament: Report of th (...)

8In fact, the broad principles of inclusivity, accessibility, accountability and modernity that underpinned the work of the Scottish Constitutional Convention are to be found in the Scottish Parliament’s founding documents, the Standing Orders for the Scottish Parliament and the Code of Conduct for MSPs which were voted by the Scottish Parliament in the first few months of its inaugural session and were devised by the Consultative Steering Group set up by the Labour government early in 1998 to make proposals for how the Parliament should carry out its business. The CSG’s membership included representatives of all the major parties in Scotland as well as members of a wide range of civic groups and interests. It attempted to bring together a broad range of views on the operational needs and working methods of the Scottish Parliament by leading public consultations and expert panels on specific issues such as parliamentary procedure, ethics and information technology. Much of its work was also based on a set of proposals published in 1995 by two academics, Bernard Crick and David Millar, who were highly critical of the British parliamentary system and defended a more open, consensual and balanced approach to politics in a future Scottish Parliament.11 They denounced an operation system that was incompatible with family life and deterred women from standing as MPs, an excessive control of the executive over the legislative branch of government, a confrontational approach to politics that was exacerbated by the system of Whips and the Shadow Cabinet, as well as a lack of openness and accessibility to members of the public. Many of their proposals were adopted by the CSG as it favoured a more consensual approach to politics and strove to reinforce the legislative branch of government and facilitate public participation. Its recommendations were published in its report of January 1999, Shaping Scotland’s Parliament, and followed four founding principles: the Scottish Parliament should embody and reflect the sharing of power between the people of Scotland, the legislators and the Scottish Executive; the Scottish Executive should be accountable to the Scottish Parliament and the Parliament and Executive should be accountable to the people of Scotland; the Scottish Parliament should be accessible, open, responsive and develop procedures which make possible a participative approach to the development, consideration, and scrutiny of policy and legislation; and the Scottish Parliament in its operation and its appointments should recognise the need to promote equal opportunities for all.12

  • 13 Committees in Holyrood include between 5 and 15 members and combine both the functions of standing (...)

9The procedural operation of the Scottish Parliament thus marked a break away from the Westminster model in several respects, chief amongst which were the introduction of a proportional voting system to elect MSPs who would better reflect the diversity of the Scottish population in terms of demographics and partisanship, a powerful committee system to carry out effective scrutiny and legislative proposals, and a formal requirement for both Government and Parliament to systematically consult the public and civil society in its pre-legislative phase through the committees’ extensive consultation work and a system of public petitions specifically managed by the Public Petitions Committee. Proceedings were meant to be more flexible: contrary to Westminster where standing orders can only be modified by the government, any MSP in Holyrood can suggest a modification to standing orders which will be examined by a Procedures Committee and submitted to a vote in Parliament. Similarly, parliamentary committees in Holyrood were to enjoy more powers than their Westminster counterparts and be given a greater role in the legislative procedure. They were conceived not only as the main instruments for effective scrutiny of government action but also as important policy initiators.13

  • 14 Paul Cairney and Jordan Grant, “What is the ‘dominant model’ of British policymaking? Comparing maj (...)
  • 15 Arend Lijphart, Patterns of Democracy, Government Forms and Performance in Thirty-Six Countries, Ne (...)

10As it heralded the idea of ‘new politics’, the Scottish Parliament therefore rose extraordinary expectations and much of the literature devoted to devolution in Scotland has attempted to assess to what extent Scotland’s new political arena has lived up to these. Paul Cairney and Jordan Grant have noted that the debate which identified devolution to Scotland as ‘new politics’ in contrast to the ‘old politics’ of Westminster is very similar to the dichotomy between majoritarian and consensus democracies as described by Arend Lijphart.14 A. Lijphart argues that there are two basic models of electoral and political systems: those that concentrate power in the hands of the few and which can be described as belonging to a majoritarian model, and those that “share, disperse and limit power in a variety of ways”15 and can be defined as belonging to the consensus model. Majoritarian democracies are characterised by an “exclusive, competitive and adversarial” mentality which is often exacerbated by a majority voting system such as the First-Past-The-Post which grants large majorities to parties that may only command a relative majority of the vote. Parties tend to compete within Parliament and governments are more likely to hold a top-down approach to policy decisions rather than seek cooperation and consensus. This model is therefore strongly reminiscent of the Westminster model. On the other hand, consensus democracies are elected through proportional electoral systems that generally produce no majorities but encourage the formation of coalition agreements and are conducive to bargaining and compromise. This precisely corresponds to the model sought by the Scottish Constitutional Convention in the mid-1990s as it adopted a semi-proportional electoral system for the future Scottish Parliament. By mixing both a majority system through the use of the First-Past-The-Post system to elect constituency MSPs and an element of proportionality with the Additional Member System used to elect regional list MSPs, the Convention sought to avoid the formation of strong majorities in the Scottish Parliament (and more specifically nationalist majorities) but favoured coalition governments and agreements that would be more conducive to compromise and consensus. The type of politics that would result from such a consensus model was therefore widely expected to represent a break with the past and differ sharply from Westminster politics.

  • 16 David Arter, The Scottish Parliament: a Scandinavian Style Assembly?, London: Routledge, 2004; Paul (...)
  • 17 Emily St Denny, “The Scottish Parliament and ‘New Politics’ at Twenty”, op. cit., 77.

11Similarly, some commentators have compared the ‘new politics’ of Scotland to a ‘Nordic-style’ assembly based on three main elements of comparison: first, the legislative function of Holyrood’s parliamentary committees endowed them with the ability to counterbalance the executive in driving the policy agenda as they are able to initiate legislation and recommend amendments; secondly, the executive is drawn from among the ranks of MSPs and is therefore accountable to the people via the Scottish Parliament; finally, the semi-proportional electoral system adopted for Holyrood elections is meant to prevent parties from winning outright majorities but makes the formation of minority or coalition governments more likely.16 These characteristics have therefore been expected to engender a more collegial type of politics comparable to that of Scandinavian countries such as Denmark, Sweden or Iceland. This was seen as desirable because consensus politics were believed to be necessary to the development of policies that would reflect the full range of interests of a diverse modern Scottish society.17

Not so ‘new politics’ after all?

  • 18 James Mitchell, “The narcissism of small differences”, Parliamentary Affairs, vol. 63, n° 1, 2010, (...)
  • 19 Klaus Stolz, “Emergence of a Scottish political class” in Gerry Hassan, The Story of the Scottish P (...)
  • 20 The share of BAME Scots is estimated at 4% of the population.
  • 21 Michael Keating and Paul Cairney, “A new elite? Politicians and civil servants in Scotland after de (...)
  • 22 Klaus Stolz, “Emergence of a Scottish political class”, op. cit.

12In reality, similarities between Scotland and Scandinavian countries have tended to be exaggerated and James Mitchell notes that the architects of devolution were perhaps more influenced by Westminster than is commonly acknowledged as they effectively adopted some Westminster styles and practices.18 Indeed, contrary to expectations that the Scottish Parliament would somehow avoid becoming a chamber filled with professional politicians selected by their political parties, there is little evidence that the Scottish Parliament has been able to be fully representative and inclusive of the population at large.19 The representation of women and ethnic minorities has admittedly been higher than in Westminster and most other Western democracies, as 40% of MSPs on average have been women between 1999 and 2021. A record 58 female MSPs were elected in the May 2021 Scottish Parliament election (45%), among whom were the first female MSP from an Indian Sikh background (Pam Gosal) and the first female wheelchair user MSP (Pam Duncan-Glancy). Before 2021, there had been only four MSPs in total from Black, Asian and minority-ethnic (BAME) backgrounds and all of them were men of Scots-Pakistani heritage.20 However, studies of the educational and occupational background of MSPs have shown that university-educated professionals from the education, health, social welfare and legal services sectors were over-represented while an almost complete absence of working-class representatives was to be noted.21 Besides, most MSPs have had extensive prior experience in parliamentary and party politics, local government or political staff positions (such as researchers or advisers for instance), leading some commentators to suggest the emergence of a Scottish political class and the political professionalisation of Holyrood.22 While it can be considered as a sign of maturity and stability for the devolution settlement as well as a way for the Scottish Parliament to gain more political clout in the UK, this political professionalisation of the chamber can also be detrimental to the democratic process as it excludes external challenges and nonconformist voices.

  • 23 Rhys Williams and Akash Paun, Party People, How do – and how should – British political parties sel (...)

13Scotland’s semi-proportional system has also had some unexpected adverse effects on its intended objective of collegiality. The constituency candidate selection process for constituency MSPs has remained very similar to that of Westminster MPs and broadly followed similar reforms to those introduced in the rest of the UK. Candidate selection has indeed recently been reassessed and reformed by the main parties in the UK due to the lack of representativity it often entails.23 Regional list MSPs elected with the Additional Member System were therefore meant to add an element of proportionality and ensure better representativity in Holyrood. Much like their Westminster counterparts, MSPs have a dual role as representatives of their constituency or region in the Scottish Parliament but also as representatives of their party or government in their constituency or region. Yet, regional list MSPs are less likely to forge a special relationship with their constituency and are much more reliant on their party and its electoral success to keep their positions. They are therefore more accountable to party selection committees, activists and party members rather than to their constituents. This encourages more party tribalism within the chamber as list MSPs are more likely to introduce motions supportive of their party and engage in the policy-making process to advance their party’s legislative agenda.

  • 24 Paul Cairney and Anders Widfelt , “Is Scotland a Westminster-style majoritarian democracy? A compar (...)
  • 25 Mark Shepard, “The committee system of the Scottish Parliament” in Gerry Hassan, The Story of the S (...)

14Moreover, the Scottish Parliament retains many elements of the Westminster model and power tends to be increasingly centralised, with the government exerting greater control.24 The committee system which was meant to serve as the main engine to policymaking in its capacity to initiate legislation as well as scrutinise has failed to live up to expectations.25 The committee’s untapped potential was noted by the Procedures Committee as early as 2003 as it criticised how committees had become “a conveyer belt” for government legislation. Indeed, a great majority of bills introduced in the Scottish Parliament since its creation in 1999 have been government bills (80% on average), even when the government was in minority. Mark Shepard notes that committee scrutiny has also been criticized for the emphasis it has given to consideration of government bills. He suggests that the Scottish government’s domination of what goes on in Parliament is due to four concomitant factors. The first factor is the government’s strong level of control over the parliamentary agenda; the second is linked to the high level of discipline maintained by parties over their MSPs meaning that votes are shaped much less by building an informed consensus than by strict adherence to the party line; thirdly, the lack of policy initiation and proactive committee work is itself the result of the fact that government legislation dominates the agenda; finally, the relatively small size of the Parliament and consequent high rotation of committee members affects committees’ capacity to develop subject expertise and institutional memory which would enable them to become more influential and build more political clout to counterbalance that of the government.

  • 26 Alan Convery and David Parker, “The MSP’s Role” in Jim Johnston and James Mitchell (eds), The Scott (...)

15Governmental domination is particularly visible at First Minister Questions (FMQs) where the effectiveness of parliamentary questions, written and oral, to scrutinise government action is debatable, just as PMQs in Westminster are frequently criticized for being a media show rather than an opportunity to engage in meaningful debate and effective scrutiny of government and policy. In fact, although the time allotted to FMQs has been extended (from 30 to 45 minutes), it remains inferior to the amount of time devoted to PMQs in Westminster. Alan Convery and David Parker note that MSPs from the majority party are less likely to lodge written questions and ask critical or neutral questions than helpful ones during FMQs26. Besides, as MSPs sit in their party groups in the chamber of the Scottish Parliament, they are encouraged to behave in a partisan manner at events such as FMQs and display loyalty to their political party rather than question and improve the policy-making process.

  • 27 The Scottish Greens are also a pro-independence party and have sided with the SNP in Parliament, pa (...)
  • 28 Michael Keating, “Why Scotland’s election result is unlikely to hasten a referendum”, The Guardian(...)

16Given that Scotland’s political landscape is broadly limited to a wide centre-left consensus, with the Scottish Conservatives representing the only dissident voices of the centre-right in Holyrood, the main point of contention has become Scotland’s constitutional status and possible independence. Disagreement over policy has been limited and differences between the main parties’ political programmes remain subtle, particularly among the three main parties of the centre-left (Labour, the Liberal-Democrats and the SNP). As the only big party in favour of independence,27 the SNP’s position over the constitutional issue has been the main focus of debate in Parliament and the party’s dominance of the chamber – particularly when it enjoyed a majority in 2011-2016 – has contributed to the hardened polarisation of Scottish politics over Scotland’s independence. If anything, the May 2021 Scottish Parliament election showed that Scotland’s electorate was now no longer split along partisan lines as Scotland’s constitutional future appeared to determine voter choice and turnout. The record turnout suggested that the SNP’s plans for a second independence referendum had encouraged more Scots to vote and the amount of tactical voting apparent in constituencies held by one of the main unionist parties – with voters switching their votes to the best placed unionist party in a given constituency – showed a deeper divide over independence than policy.28 Far from being the collegial ‘Nordic-like’ Parliament that the architects of devolution had imagined, the Scottish Parliament has now become much more adversarial, thus closer to the Westminster model, as it has become deeply divided between a pro-independence majority and a unionist opposition.

  • 29 Malcom Harvey, “Scotland as a potential small state” in Harald Baldersheim and Michael Keating, Sma (...)
  • 30 Scottish Constitutional Convention, Scotland’s Parliament, Scotland’s Right, op. cit.

17Moreover, there remain considerable barriers to the establishment of the social investment model that is a feature of Scandinavian politics due to a Scottish political culture still sceptical of the high taxes which such models require.29 The Scottish Parliament was endowed with modest financial powers as the 1998 Scotland Act provided for a Scottish Variable Rate which allowed Holyrood to vary the basic rate of earned income by 3 pence in a pound. Despite the limited scope of the Scottish Parliament’s financial powers, they were subjected to a separate question in the devolution referendum of September 1997, suggesting just how controversial setting a separate rate of income tax for Scotland might be. In its 1995 report, Scotland’s Parliament, Scotland’s Right, the Scottish Constitutional Convention had argued that “the power to vary the rate of tax is vital if the Parliament is to be properly accountable” and “ensure a strong sense of financial responsibility”. Aware that the issue might be potentially explosive political material, it had concluded by admitting that “tough decisions will have to be made, but these will be the decisions of the people of Scotland, made by their elected representatives.”30 The Conservatives were particularly vocal in their criticism of a “tartan tax” – a stance which remained coherent with their overall opposition to devolution –, and all parties undoubtedly noted the discrepancy of 11 points between the results of the two devolution referendum questions: while 74.3% of Scots voted ‘yes’ to the creation of a Scottish Parliament, only 63.5% voted in favour of financial powers for that Scottish Parliament. Notwithstanding the potential unpopularity with voters of setting higher income tax rates in Scotland, there was little incentive to use these tax-varying powers due to the administrative complexity and extra costs they entailed on the one hand, and the limited fraction of overall Scottish expenditure (estimated at 1.5%) they might represent if used on the other hand.

18During the first Scottish Parliament election campaign of 1999, the SNP were very much alone in arguing for the use of these tax-varying powers with their “Penny for Scotland” campaign. They advocated a modest penny per pound rise in income tax in order to increase spending on public services in Scotland. This had both positive and adverse effects on their campaign: while they could be seen as offering a positive alternative to Labour through more investments in public services, they were also easily cast as a tax-raising party by their political opponents and much of the media. The circumstances of the 2000s meant that the Labour-Liberal Democrat coalition governments in the early years of the Scottish Parliament were saved from facing any controversial use of Holyrood’s tax-varying powers. The high levels of public spending across the UK were translated into generous increases to Scotland’s revenues through the Barnett Formula and there was little incentive to raise money through alternative forms of taxation until the 2008 financial crash dramatically changed the trajectory of government actions in Westminster. As the UK Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government’s austerity programme took effect, new discussions about the possible financial competences took place: a Scottish rate of income tax and powers over stamp duty land tax and landfill tax were transferred to Holyrood in the Scotland Act 2012. Further powers over some aspects of earned income taxation, air passenger duty and some social security powers were devolved in the Scotland Act 2016.

  • 31 Jim Cuthbert and Margaret Cuthbert, “SNP economic-policy: neo-liberalism with a heart” in Gerry Has (...)

19SNP governments have thus enjoyed much greater financial powers than their predecessors in office but these were only first used in former Finance Minister Derek Mackay’s 2018 budget to make minor alterations to income tax rates that aimed to reduce the tax burden for those on lower incomes and increase it for those on higher incomes. While this stirred up much comment about the impact of Scottish tax rates on high earners and business investments in Scotland, it partly fulfilled the more radical rhetoric the SNP has used to describe its policy objectives and political programmes for much of its recent history. Yet, Holyrood’s financial powers have been used sparingly so far by all SNP governments, partly due to the SNP’s economic strategy for independence which has sought to renew the focus on the economic benefits of independence, counter the criticisms of its opponents and reassure undecided voters through its sound management of the economy. This cautious approach is also symptomatic of the paradox in the SNP’s attitude to fiscal policy which has been described by some commentators as “neo-liberalism with a heart”:31 while SNP policies have been broadly ‘business-friendly’ through their lighter-touch regulatory framework and low taxes, the party has aspired to tackle social exclusion through increased funding to specific social services. The tension between these two aims explains to a degree why policy divergence has remained more subdued than might have been expected under SNP governments. The Nationalists have indeed been striving to reassure voters from both sides of the political spectrum to advance the case for independence.

From ‘new politics’ to a new political divide

  • 32 Scottish Social Attitudes Surveys (ScotCen) asked people between 1999 and 2020 whether they believe (...)
  • 33 Scottish Government, Scottish Social Attitudes 2019: attitudes to government and political engageme (...)

20Mitchell has argued that the “myth of the Westminster model” as an institution which refuses to reform itself as opposed to the ‘new politics’ heralded by the creation of the Scottish Parliament was useful to mobilise opinion and project a strong sense of Scottish distinctiveness. Indeed, this may have come into play in the much higher levels of trust that have been witnessed by opinion polls and Scottish attitudes surveys since the introduction of devolution in Scotland. Polls showed that 70% of Scots believed that the Scottish Parliament would give Scots a greater say in the UK after it was first created in 1999 and, although figures have tended to slip a little during its first few years of existence, they have steadily increased since 2007 when the SNP was first elected in office and reached similar levels in the aftermath of the 2014 independence referendum.32 The figure below shows how attitudes have evolved towards both Holyrood and Westminster since the introduction of devolution in 1999 based on the proportion of people who said they trust the Scottish and UK Governments “just about always” or “most of the time” in Scottish Social Attitudes Surveys between 1999 and 2019 (last survey published at the time of writing).33 Expectations ran particularly high in 1999 as just over four fifths of respondents answered that they would “trust a Scottish Parliament to work in Scotland’s best interests” “just about always” or “most of the time” and levels of trust have since then fluctuated between a low of just over half in 2006 to a high of 72% in 2015. Although higher levels of trust in the Scottish Parliament have admittedly been recorded in election years, they have nonetheless been consistently higher than those recorded for the UK Government. Trust in the UK Government has not experienced similar variations in election years but has overall been characterised by a downward trend. Indeed, levels of trust in the UK Government peaked at 35% in 2007 but have steadily declined since then to the latest recorded figure of 15%.

Figure 1: Trust in Scottish Parliament and UK Government to work in Scotland’s best interests “just about always” or “most of the time”

Figure 1: Trust in Scottish Parliament and UK Government to work in Scotland’s best interests “just about always” or “most of the time”

Source: Scottish Government, Scottish Social Attitudes 2019: attitudes to government and political engagement, An Official Statistics publication for Scotland, Scottish Government, September 2020, 12.

21These figures show that the rhetoric used to describe the Scottish Parliament as a distinctive Scottish political institution ushering ‘new politics’ to better represent the Scottish population and answer its needs has been very effective in building trust. The higher levels of trust in a Scottish Parliament to provide answers to Scotland’s distinctive identity, needs, and aspirations have been used as a springboard to power by the SNP, which has in turn imposed the constitutional issue as the focal point of Scottish politics. Indeed, after having remained on the fringes of political power for decades, the SNP has greatly benefited from devolution, which soon came to be seen as an effective platform to hold an independence referendum. With the introduction of a Scottish Parliament elected on a semi-proportional electoral system and the prospect of an electoral majority thus made much more likely, the SNP’s strategy for independence came to rest upon government office in Edinburgh. Once in government in Edinburgh, the SNP has been able to use the powers and responsibilities held by the Scottish Parliament to articulate a policy agenda that fit well in Scotland’s centre-left political landscape and offered distinctive policies for Scotland with an emphasis on public services, such as free prescription charges or the abolition of the Graduate Endowment Grant for instance. As the sole Scottish party with no UK counterpart, the SNP has also benefited from a unique position in Scotland’s devolved polity which allowed it to argue that it was the only party that could speak for Scotland and defend its distinctive interests. This has been key to winning over voters in Holyrood elections which most voters view as elections primarily concerned with Scottish issues as opposed to Westminster elections where wider UK concerns determine the basis of most people’s votes.34 Perceptions of parties as being able to specifically defend Scottish interests are therefore paramount in Holyrood elections and this has greatly advantaged the SNP. Scottish Social Attitudes Surveys have shown that between 71% and 75% of respondents believed that the SNP looked after Scotland’s interests “very closely” or “somewhat closely” between 2001 and 2010 when the question was last asked.35

22Besides, contrary to the main unionist parties, whose cohorts of MSPs were relatively unknown before they were elected, the SNP’s parliamentary force in Holyrood has always been high profile. When devolution was first introduced in 1999, the vast majority of senior Scottish Labour figures – such as Gordon Brown, Robin Cook or Alistair Darling, for instance – remained in Westminster and the Labour benches in Holyrood were thus filled with relatively inexperienced and uncharismatic MSPs. In contrast, all six of the SNP’s MPs decided to stand for a Scottish parliamentary seat in 1999 while only five of Labour’s 56 MPs did so (one of whom, Donald Dewar, died the following year). This has meant that Scottish Labour figures and leaders have suffered from a lack of recognition while positive perceptions of SNP leadership and competence have been bolstered by the charisma and professionalism of senior SNP figures such as Alex Salmond (although he did resign the leadership between 2000 and 2004 to focus on his role as MP in Westminster), Nicola Sturgeon, or Mike Russell for instance.

  • 36 John Curtice, “The Electorate and Elections”, op. cit., 39.

23The limits of Scotland’s devolved powers have also provided opportunities for the SNP to argue in favour of further autonomy for Scotland, short of full independence. This strategy allowed the nationalists to decouple voting SNP from independence as voters felt that they could safely vote for a party that better defended Scotland’s interests without necessarily supporting independence. Their success in the 2007 and 2011 Scottish Parliament elections provided evidence that this objective had been successfully achieved. In 2007, when the SNP was first elected in office and formed a minority government, it obtained 32.9% of the constituency vote while support for independence then stood at only 23% according to the Scottish Social Attitudes Surveys. In 2011, when the nationalists obtained an overall majority of seats in Holyrood with 45.6% of the constituency vote, support for independence stood at 32%. The formation of a minority government in 2007 also provided the nationalists with an opportunity to prove their competence over key economic and social issues whilst attempting to develop a support base for independence. John Curtice notes that favourable perceptions of the SNP were largely found among those who supported independence in 2007 but that by 2011 as many as 38% of those who supported the Union (compared to 22% in 2007) voted SNP.36

24It was only when the SNP managed to win an overall majority of seats at Holyrood, despite an electoral system explicitly designed to avoid such a scenario, that Scotland’s other political parties recognised the SNP’s mandate to hold a referendum on independence. Although it faced an uphill task to boost support for independence in Scotland during the referendum campaign which ran from May 2012 to September 2014, the SNP managed to transform its relatively low existing support base into a mass movement which durably transformed Scottish politics. Despite having lost the September 2014 independence referendum by a 10% margin, the SNP has since then been able to avail itself of the support of a much larger pro-independence voter base. Indeed, support for independence has surged since the early years of devolution – when it stood between 26% and 30% – as polls published after the 2014 independence referendum showed that it remained closer to 46% on average between 2014 and 2019. It was not immediately affected by the results of the European referendum of 2016, but the lengthy negotiations over Brexit and a change of Prime Ministers in Westminster saw a surge in the levels of support for independence in the summer of 2019 when a more consistent trend seemed to settle a halfway split over the constitutional issue. This deeper divide over Scotland’s constitutional future was witnessed in the results of the May 2021 Scottish Parliament election which saw the SNP elected for the fourth consecutive time after fourteen years in power. With Brexit having given more traction to the SNP government’s plans for a second referendum, the question is far from being settled and the Scottish Parliament could be durably dominated by the SNP.

Conclusion

25Contrary to the original wishes of the Scottish Constitutional Convention, the Scottish Parliament’s so-called ‘Nordic’ characteristics have been increasingly subdued by the increasing workload of the Scottish Parliament (itself exacerbated by the gradual extension of its legislative and financial powers), the influence of a deeply ingrained Westminster model over the new legislative arena, the interdependence of Holyrood and Westminster at institutional and party level entailed by their existence within a complex system of multi-level governance, and the central constitutional question which now divides Scottish politics in a halfway split. In fact, the Scottish Parliament has served as a stepping board for the nationalist movement as it provided an exclusively Scottish political environment in which it could thrive. Indeed, Holyrood’s semi-proportional electoral system allowed it to become a greater political force as the SNP’s geographically evenly spread electorate was reflected in its parliamentary representation as never before. The skill of the party’s high profile MSPs in building upon the electorate’s perceptions of the SNP as promoting Scotland’s interests was key to its election in 2007 and it benefited from the concomitant domination of Scottish issues in determining voter choices in Holyrood elections. The SNP’s strategy to assert its competence over key economic and social issues in Scotland once in government, deliver on a policy agenda that fit in well in Scotland’s centre-left political landscape and boost voter confidence has allowed it to dominate Scottish politics over the last fourteen years and impose the constitutional question as the centrepiece of political debate. The limits of its success, however, may be reached with a second independence referendum and there remains much uncertainty as to how and when the latter might be held.

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Notes

1 The Conservative Party obtained 31.4% of the vote in Scotland and 47.2% in England in the 1979 general election. By 1992, these figures were down to 24% in Scotland and 46.2% in England.

2 Sir Robert Grieve, professor at Glasgow University, was nominated as chairman of this new board, which gathered seventeen members of various backgrounds (university professors, trade-union members and Church representatives), including D. N. MacCormick, professor at Edinburgh University and James Ross, a retired civil servant of the Scottish Office who had drafted the 1978 Scotland Bill.

3 Under the terms of the Treaty of Union of 1707, Scotland was to keep its law and judicial system, its Presbyterian Church and its education system.

4 Scottish Constitutional Steering Committee, A Claim of Right for Scotland, Edinburgh: Polygon, 1989, 18.

5 Ibid, 1.

6 The Convention included: Labour members, Liberal-Democrat members, Scottish Green Party members, Communist Party members (later called Democratic Left), Social Democratic members, Co-operative Party members, as well as representatives from the Scottish Trades Union Congress, local councils, the main churches, the Federation of Small Businesses, the Scottish Convention of Women, cultural associations and ethnic minority organisations. Some representatives were also participating as observers, such as the Scottish Council for Development and Industry, the Committee of University Principals and Campaign for a Scottish Assembly. The Convention included 62 Scottish MPs (55 of whom from Westminster out of 73, and 7 from the European Parliament), 59 representatives from the local councils, and several official party representatives (6 for Labour, 11 for the Liberal-Democrats, one each for the rest).

7 Scottish Constitutional Convention, Scotland’s Parliament, Scotland’s Right, Edinburgh: Scottish Constitutional Convention, 1995.

8 Emily St Denny, “The Scottish Parliament and ‘New Politics’ at Twenty” in Gerry Hassan, The Story of the Scottish Parliament at Twenty, The First Two Decades Explained, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2019, 75.

9 A governmental action introduced beyond the scope of its powers and legal boundaries.

10 Jean McFadden and Mark Lazarowitz, The Scottish Parliament, An Introduction, Edinburgh: T&T Clark Ltd, 1999, 30.

11 Bernard Crick and David Miller, To Make the Parliament of Scotland a Model for Democracy, Centre for Scottish Public Policy, 1995.

12 Consultative Steering Group on the Scottish Parliament, Shaping Scotland’s Parliament: Report of the Consultative Steering Group, HMSO, 1999, section 2.

13 Committees in Holyrood include between 5 and 15 members and combine both the functions of standing committees and select committees in Westminster. This means that they can propose bills; examine bills within their area of competence; scrutinise policy, administration and finance; work with the government ministers from the departments they are affiliated to as well as conduct inquiries and hearings. There are two main types of committees: mandatory committees and subject committees. The former are set up at the beginning of each new parliamentary session and include the Audit Committee (charged with examining spending, public service performance, Scottish Government departments and quangos), the Finance Committee (in charge of scrutinising the budgets for the Government, Parliament and parliamentary committees), the Procedures Committee (tasked with the application of the Code of Conduct), the Equal Opportunities Committee, the Public Petitions Committee, the Delegated Powers and Law Reform Committee (charged with ensuring that any secondary legislation bill is intra vires) and the Culture, Tourism, Europe and External Relations Committee.

14 Paul Cairney and Jordan Grant, “What is the ‘dominant model’ of British policymaking? Comparing majoritarian and policy community ideas”, British Politics, vol. 8, n° 3, 2013, 233-259.

15 Arend Lijphart, Patterns of Democracy, Government Forms and Performance in Thirty-Six Countries, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999, 2.

16 David Arter, The Scottish Parliament: a Scandinavian Style Assembly?, London: Routledge, 2004; Paul Cairney and Anders Widfelt, “Is Scotland a Westminster-style majoritarian democracy? A comparison of Scotland, the UK and Sweden”, Regional and Federal Studies, vol. 25, n° 1, 2015, 1-18.

17 Emily St Denny, “The Scottish Parliament and ‘New Politics’ at Twenty”, op. cit., 77.

18 James Mitchell, “The narcissism of small differences”, Parliamentary Affairs, vol. 63, n° 1, 2010, 98-116.

19 Klaus Stolz, “Emergence of a Scottish political class” in Gerry Hassan, The Story of the Scottish Parliament at Twenty, The First Two Decades Explained, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2019, 86.

20 The share of BAME Scots is estimated at 4% of the population.

21 Michael Keating and Paul Cairney, “A new elite? Politicians and civil servants in Scotland after devolution”, Parliamentary Affairs, vol. 59, 2006, 43-59.

22 Klaus Stolz, “Emergence of a Scottish political class”, op. cit.

23 Rhys Williams and Akash Paun, Party People, How do – and how should – British political parties select their parliamentary candidates?, Institute for Government, 2011.

24 Paul Cairney and Anders Widfelt , “Is Scotland a Westminster-style majoritarian democracy? A comparison of Scotland, the UK and Sweden”, op. cit.

25 Mark Shepard, “The committee system of the Scottish Parliament” in Gerry Hassan, The Story of the Scottish Parliament at Twenty, The First Two Decades Explained, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2019, 98.

26 Alan Convery and David Parker, “The MSP’s Role” in Jim Johnston and James Mitchell (eds), The Scottish Parliament at Twenty, Edinburgh: Luath Press, 2019, 60.

27 The Scottish Greens are also a pro-independence party and have sided with the SNP in Parliament, particularly when they were coalition partners. Their political weight in Parliament remains limited, however, as they never had more than 8 MSPs.

28 Michael Keating, “Why Scotland’s election result is unlikely to hasten a referendum”, The Guardian, 10 May 2021, <https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2021/may/10/scotland-election-result-referendum-independence>, accessed June 21, 2021.

29 Malcom Harvey, “Scotland as a potential small state” in Harald Baldersheim and Michael Keating, Small States in the Modern World, Cheltenham: Edward Edgar Publishing Ltd, 2015, 145-165.

30 Scottish Constitutional Convention, Scotland’s Parliament, Scotland’s Right, op. cit.

31 Jim Cuthbert and Margaret Cuthbert, “SNP economic-policy: neo-liberalism with a heart” in Gerry Hassan (ed.), The Modern SNP: from Protest to Power, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2009.

32 Scottish Social Attitudes Surveys (ScotCen) asked people between 1999 and 2020 whether they believed that the Scottish Parliament gave Scotland a stronger voice or a weaker voice in the UK. While 70% believed it gave a stronger voice to Scotland in the UK in 1999, this figure fell to 52% in 2001, then down to an all-time low of 35% in 2004. It significantly increased back to 61% in 2007 after the SNP was first elected in Holyrood and 69% in 2011 after the nationalists won an overall majority in the Scottish Parliament election that year. It has remained high ever since and has tended to peak in election years. All figures are available on WhatScotlandThinks, <https://whatscotlandthinks.org/questions/willis-the-scottish-parliament-giving-scotland-stronger-or-weaker-voice-in-uk-5/>, accessed July 1, 2021.

33 Scottish Government, Scottish Social Attitudes 2019: attitudes to government and political engagement, An Official Statistics publication for Scotland, Scottish Government, September 2020, 12.

34 John Curtice, “The Electorate and Elections” in Gerry Hassan, The Story of the Scottish Parliament at Twenty, The First Two Decades Explained, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2019, 35.

35 WhatScotlandThinks, blog, ScotCen, <https://whatscotlandthinks.org/questions/how-well-do-the-snp-look-after-interests-of-scottish-people-in-general-6/>, last access July 1, 2021.

36 John Curtice, “The Electorate and Elections”, op. cit., 39.

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Titre Figure 1: Trust in Scottish Parliament and UK Government to work in Scotland’s best interests “just about always” or “most of the time”
Légende Source: Scottish Government, Scottish Social Attitudes 2019: attitudes to government and political engagement, An Official Statistics publication for Scotland, Scottish Government, September 2020, 12.
URL http://journals.openedition.org/lisa/docannexe/image/14599/img-1.png
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Fiona Simpkins, « Parliamentary practices in Holyrood: ‘new politics’ and the SNP »Revue LISA/LISA e-journal [En ligne], vol. 20-n°54 | 2022, mis en ligne le 18 octobre 2022, consulté le 01 décembre 2022. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/lisa/14599 ; DOI : https://doi.org/10.4000/lisa.14599

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Auteur

Fiona Simpkins

Fiona Simpkins is Associate Professor in Contemporary British History, Politics and Society at the University Lumière of Lyon, France. Her main areas of research are devolution, nationalism, unionism and the constitutional debate in Scotland. Her latest publications include “Brexit, sovereignty and Conservative unionism in Scotland” in Observatoire de la Société Britannique and “Scotland’s SNP Government and the management of the Covid-19 pandemic” in Covid-19 in Europe and North America (Molinari & Beylier, De Gruyter).

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