Scottish Politics

Second edition

by Paul Cairney

Chapter 2: Devolution: Historical and Social Context


This chapter outlines the historical and social context of devolution outlining how Scottish politics developed over the course of the 20th century. It outlines the Westminster model of UK politics and the rise of the home rule agenda in Scotland. The background to the 1979 referendum, the Conservative years (1979-1997) and the Scottish Constitutional Convention all form part of the backdrop of devolution. So too does the distinctiveness of the Scottish media, which is also outlined in this chapter.

Key Points

2.1 The union between Scotland and England in 1707 was partial, with the major institutions in civic life (religious, legal, education and local government) retaining a separate Scottish identity.

2.2 Key political institutions in Scottish politics today emerged from the development of administrative devolution. The existence of the Scottish Office emphasized distinctions and differences between Scotland and the rest of the UK.

2.3 The campaign for home rule in Scotland was built on many previous efforts. In the modern era, it developed following the dramatic expansion of, and rise in support for, the SNP in the 1960s and 1970s. However, following the 1979 referendum ‘defeat’, a Scottish devolved Assembly was not created.

2.4 From 1979 to 1997 the Conservative Party formed the UK Government and ran The Scottish Office, despite their minority status and decreasing vote share in Scotland.

2.5 In 1989 home rule campaigners sought to create extra-parliamentary pressure on the Thatcher Government by establishing the Scottish Constitutional Convention (SCC). It was a collection of political parties, interest groups and Scottish civic society.

2.6 Following the Blair led Labour Party’s landslide victory all of the Scottish leaders from the major parties in favour of constitutional change campaigned under one umbrella group – Scotland Forward. The result was inevitable. Significant majorities voted ‘Yes’ to both a new Parliament and for it to have tax raising powers.

2.7 The media have played an ever increasing role in Scottish politics. Post devolution coverage is now almost exclusively focused on the activities of the First Minister, Scottish Government and Parliament. Television and radio broadcasters in Scotland are bound by charter to show balance and impartiality in coverage of political parties. No such rules apply to the print media who are often vehemently partisan in their coverage of Scottish politics.

Essay Questions

  1. Compare and contrast the background, campaign and outcome of the 1997 referendum with that of 1979?
  2. Account for the rise of the home rule issue onto the Scottish political agenda in the latter decades of the 20th century.
  3. Outline and assess the legacy of Thatcherism in Scottish politics today.

Self-test questions

  1. What did administrative devolution involve?
  2. What are the main features of the Westminster Model?
  3. What are the features of a unitary state?
  4. What was the Scottish Office and what did it do?
  5. Why did devolution not follow on from the 1979 devolution referendum?
  6. What is the ‘West Lothian Question’?
  7. What was Thatcherism and what impact did it have on Scottish politics?
  8. What was the Scottish Constitutional Convention?
  9. Compare and contrast the background, campaign and outcome of the 1997 referendum with that of 1979?
  10. What impact does the media have on Scottish politics?

Further Reading

For general accounts of Scottish political history see Kemp (1993), Mitchell (1996c), Hutchison (2000), McCrone (2001), Fry (1987), Finlay (1997; 2001; 2004), Paterson (1994). For accounts of the contemporary period see Marr (1992), Brown et al (1997), Kellas (1988), Midwinter et al (1991), Bennie et al (1995). For the 1979 and 1997 Referendums see Balsom and McAllister (1979), Bochel and Denver (1981), Denver et al (2000), Surridge and McCrone (1999). For analysis which places Scotland in a wider comparative context see Dardanelli (2005a; 2005b) and Keating (2001; 2004a; 2004b). For the Scottish media see Schlesinger (2000; 2004) Schlesinger et al (2001), Garside (2002), Smith (1994).


Additional Material: The Scottish Economy

The book whilst noting the importance of historical and social context, does not discuss the wider Scottish economy and its impact on Scottish politics. The Scottish economy is inextricably bound up with the wider UK economy. As part of the EU it is part of the single market free trade area which exists across all EU member states. Beyond Europe, the US and south-east Asia are key Scottish export markets.

Scotland is not a poor country, indeed after London and the south-east of England it is one of the richest areas in the UK. Historically, of course, Scotland was a world leader in industries such as manufacturing, mining, steel and ship building after the industrial revolution. However, the process of globalisation has seen its comparative advantage in such sectors diminish.

Today it has a much more diverse industrial base with new sectors such as banking, information technology, whisky, financial services, retail and tourism playing key roles. In comparison to the rest of the UK, agriculture and fishing remain significant sectors on the economy. The public sector also retains a significant economic presence with the civil service, local government, the NHS and the armed forces being major employers. The public sector accounts for nearly one quarter of the workforce in Scotland.

The discovery of oil in the North Sea off the coast of Scotland opened up a whole new industry in the 1970s – Scotland is the European Union’s largest petroleum producer. Oil fundamentally transformed the local economies in areas such as Shetland, Orkney and Aberdeen. It also impacted significantly on Scottish politics – the SNP 1970s slogan, ‘It’s Scotland’s Oil’, was utilised to highlight the viability and potential wealth of Scotland as an independent economic state. Today North Sea oil production has been in decline, but rising oil prices have opened up new potentially profitable areas for exploration. In recent years significant research and investment has gone into new potential energy sources such as wave, tidal and wind power. The Scottish Government has set targets for the utilisation of renewable energy sources.

M. McLeod 18.5.08 ‘SNP prepares for battle over North Sea cash’ Scotland on Sunday

The Scottish Government is keeping the issue of North Sea Oil on the agenda by requesting money from the Treasury following rising fuel prices (and hence fuel taxes) – M. Settle 3.6.08 ‘First Minister posts invoice to Darling for £500m’ The Herald

The BBC accused of being too London-centric, with not enough Scotland-specific programming

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