Scottish Politics

Second edition

by Paul Cairney

Chapter 1: What is Scottish Politics?


This chapter examines alternative definitions of both ‘politics’ and ‘Scottish’. It also emphasises the distinctiveness of Scottish politics, revisiting the old debate about whether a Scottish political system exists today. It outlines the key themes of the book and introduces the idea of ‘new politics’ – a phrase often heard in the early years of devolution.

Key Points

1.1 The executive, bureaucratic and legislative branches of government are usually the arenas where political control, influence and authority are located in any political system. In Scotland, however, the institutional picture is complicated by the existence of separate branches of government at both Scottish and UK levels.
1.2 Scotland is a nation, but not a state.
1.3 Decisions that impact of Scottish politics may be taken at many levels of government and in many different environments, often out-with Scotland.
1.4 Scottish politics has in recent decades developed its own agenda, separate from that of British politics.
1.5 ‘New Politics’ refers to the hopes expressed by the Scottish Constitutional Convention (SCC) report in 1995. These hopes were based on a widespread critique of the existing procedures in the UK including the the first-past-the-post electoral system, executive dominance and adversarial style of politics it engendered and weak parliamentary committees.
1.6 Scottish politics today takes place within a context shaped by history, the legacy of which is embodied in institutions such as the Scottish Government, the Parliament, political parties, quangos and local councils. Scottish politicians constrained by inherited commitments, make incremental adjustments to the historical legacy.

Essay Questions

  1. Evaluate the suggestion that Scottish politics post-devolution is different in character to politics in Westminster and Whitehall.
  2. Outline and assess the relevance of the old ‘political system’ debate to Scottish politics in the 21st century.
  3. Critically assess the notion that there was highly autonomous control of domestic policy by the Scottish Office in the pre-devolution Scotland?

Self-test questions

  1. Can politics be defined? If so, how? If not, why not?
  2. Which policy areas are reserved to the UK Parliament?
  3. Which policy areas are not reserved to the UK Parliament?
  4. Outline different levels of governance in Scottish politics.
  5. In what ways has Scottish politics become different from UK politics?
  6. Outline and assess the notion of ‘a Scottish political system’.
  7. In the context of Scottish politics, what is ‘new politics’?

Further Reading

For general discussions on the nature of politics and power see Crick (1993), Dahl (1961), Laswell (1936), Lukes (1974), Leftwich (1984). On conceptualisations of Scottish politics pre-devolution see Brown et al (1998), Kellas (1989), McCrone (2001), Midwinter et al (1991), Paterson (1994). On territorial politics see Bulpitt (1983), Mitchell (1996b), Bogdanor (1999) and Bradbury (2006). For post-devolution books on Scottish politics see Keating (2005a), Lynch (2001), Wright (2000), Hassan and Warhurst (2002). On ‘new politics’ see Arter (2004), Brown (2000), Keating (2005a), McGarvey (2001a), Mitchell (2000), Millar (2000), Scottish Constitutional Convention (1995), Shephard et al (2000).


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