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Politics and International Relations (PIR): Study


The Scottish Parliament

For many years past we asserted the benefits of devolution and now we set to work to make real the promise of devolution (…) We have much to be prod of in Scotland today but we can still do much better. We will work together to build a modern, prosperous and socially just Scotland. Our people are our most precious national asset. We will work together to equip them with the new and better skills on which our future prosperity depends.

Donald Dewar, the first First Minister, in 1999.

This Parliament exists, and always will do, to serve the people and to provide national leadership that reflects their hopes, addresses their fears and raises their aspirations. It is a Parliament the people demanded; it is also a Parliament of which the people make demands.

Alex Salmond, First Minister, 30 June 2007.

Although the SNP has a majority of the seats, we don’t have a monopoly of wisdom. (…) The nation can be better, it wants to be better, I’ll do all I can as First Minister to make it better. We’ve given ourselves permission to be bold. We’ll govern fairly and wisely, with an eye to the future but a heart to forgive.

Alex Salmond, in his victory speech on 6 May 2011.

Nearly two decades into devolution, it has been an interesting, many times an exciting political journey, culminating in the Scottish Independence Referendum of 2014. But whoever expected Scottish politics to settle down after that and become boring, could not be more mistaken. Politics as usual seems simply not to be an option in Scotland – which makes for a unique political environment to study, and to get involved in.

The Road to Home Rule

From 1989 to 1995, the Scottish Constitutional Convention prepared the ground for Scottish Devolution. Its document, Scotland’s Parliament, Scotland’s Right (1995), became known as the ‘blueprint’ for the Parliament to come. After the Labour victory in the 1997 UK general elections, the Scottish people voted in a Referendum on 11 September 1997, nearly 300 years after the Union of 1707, overwhelmingly for the return of a Scottish Parliament with tax-varying powers.

Five Elections

Under its proportional electoral system, the first two elections in May 1999 and May 2003 produced a Labour-Liberal Democrat coalition government, under First Ministers Donald Dewar (1999-2000), Henry McLeish (2000-2001) and Jack McConnell (2001-2007).

By the end of its second session, the Parliament had passed well over a hundred pieces of legislation, including ‘landmark’ legislation like; Land Reform, Free Personal Care for the Elderly, Abolition of Up-front Tuition Fees, and Local Government Reform.

The May 2007 election resulted in an SNP minority government, with Alex Salmond as First Minister; and the May 2011 election saw, for the first time, one party gaining an absolute majority, the Scottish National Party (SNP) under First Minister Alex Salmond. In 2016 the SNP was again returned as by far the strongest party, albeit just short of an absolute major

Parliamentary Seats (Elections 1999-2003-2007-2011-2016)

Constituency (%) / Regional List (%) / Seats

Party 1999 2003 2007 2011 2016
Labour 38.8 / 33.6 / 56 34.6 / 29.3 / 50 32.1 / 29.2 / 46 31.7 / 26.3 / 37 22.6 / 19.1 / 24
SNP 28.7 / 27.3 / 35 23.8 / 20.9 / 27 32.9 / 31.0 / 47 45.4 / 44.0 / 69 46.5 / 41.7 / 63
Lib Dem 14.2 / 12.4 / 17 15.4 / 11.4 / 17 16.2 / 11.3 / 16  7.9 / 5.2 / 5 7.8 / 5.2 / 5 
Con 15.6 / 15.4 / 18 16.6 / 15.5 / 18 16.6 / 13.9 / 17 13.9 / 12.4 / 15 22 / 22.9 / 31 
Green ----- / 3.6 / 1 ----- / 6.9 / 7 0.1 / 4 / 2 ----- / 4.4 / 2 0.6 / 6.6 / 6 
Other 2.7 / 7.7 / 2 9.6 / 15.6 / 10 2.1 / 10.6 / 1 1.1 / 6.8 / 1 0.5 / 4.5 / 0

Gender balance in the Parliament has slightly fallen since its peak in 2003. In the latest elections, women took just 45 out of 129 seats in Holyrood (34.8 per cent), compared with previous highs of 39.5 per cent in the 2003 elections and 37.2 per cent in 1999.

1999:  37.5%

2003:  39.5%

2007:  34.8%

2011:  34.8%

2016: 34.8% 

While the Parliament for its first five years met at the Assembly Hall of the Church of Scotland on the Mound, the new building at he bottom of the Royal Mile was officially opened on 9 October 2004.

Devolved Powers

Although the UK Parliament at Westminster continues to legislate on Defence, Foreign Affairs, Social Security and Fiscal Policy, the 129 MSPs sitting in Edinburgh have assumed responsibility for much of the business of government in Scotland:
•    Health
•    Education
•    Economic Development
•    Transport
•    Law and home affairs
•    The Environment
•    Agriculture and fisheries
•    Sport and the Arts
•    Local Government

Through the Scotland Act 2016, substantial taxation (income tax) and welfare powers are coming to the Scottish Parliament. 

Independence Referendum in 2014

ref2014The Scottish Independence Referendum in September 2014 has been described as an unprecedented ‘celebration of democracy’, with huge numbers of people engaging and participating in the national conversation about Scotland’s future. 97% of the Scottish electorate registered for the vote, and the turnout was a record-breaking 84.6%.

The result was a clear majority for the No-side: 55.3% voted for Scotland to remain in the United Kingdom; 44.7% voted for an independent Scotland.

In the wake of the Referendum, the Smith Commission (with the participation of all Holyrood parties) devised a package of further powers for the Scottish Parliament, including income tax and welfare powers. These were then legislated for by Westminster after the 2015 UK election.

At the day of the Referendum the SNP had 25,000 members – by the time of the UK General Election in May 2015, membership had gone up to 110,000. The polls in the UK promised a hung parliament (i.e. that no single party would have an outright majority), in Scotland they consistently predicted a landslide for the SNP and a wipe-out for Scottish Labour. 

The polls south of the Border were completely wrong (the Conservatives under David Cameron won an overall majority at Westminster), but they got it right in Scotland. All but three of the 59 seats in Scotland went to the SNP, on a share of the vote of just under 50%. There was just one seat each for Scottish Labour, the Scottish Lib Dems and the Scottish Tories.

In 2016, the focus was on the Holyrood elections of 5 May, where the SNP was expected to repeat its landslide success of the Westminster elections, tempered slightly by the proportional electoral system, and the UK referendum on EU membership, scheduled for 23 June. 

The SNP gained an unprecedented third term at Holyrood with an increased constituency vote, but lost its absolute majority. For the fist time since Devolution, the Scottish Tories could make gains, and ended up, unexpectedly, with a group of 31 MSPs, more than doubling their number and relegating Scottish Labour into third place, with an all-time low of 24 seats. The Liberal Democrats, though not gaining in number, could take solace in taking four constituencies. The Greens profited from pro-independence voters splitting their vote between the SNP (in the constituency) and the Greens (on the list) and trebled their Holyrood team from 2 to 6 MSPs. Ukip ended among the also-rans in Scotland, having had a bizarre campaign fronted by a gaffe-prone leader.

brexitWhile the elections in the rest of the UK seemed to be overshadowed by the Brexit-debate, this was not the case in Scotland. But the campaign did not set the heather alight, either – and the turnout of 55.6% was rather disappointing.

Immediately after the Holyrood vote, attention turned to the looming EU Referendum. A UK to vote for Brexit (to leave the European Union) while Scotland voted to stay in would give a boost to those who campaign for another independence referendum.

Unique Opportunity

Placement students have a unique opportunity to be part of the evolution of devolution and of the law-making process at Holyrood. This educational programme is an incomparable hands-on experience where research skills acquired in the classroom can be applied in a real-life and politically competitive environment and invaluable insights into the world of Scottish politics can be gleaned.

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