Scottish Politics

Second edition

by Paul Cairney

Chapter 3: Scotland’s Political Parties

This chapter outlines details of all of Scotland major political parties, emphasising the key role they play in politics. It also narrates Scotland’s changing party system as well as key trends in party organization.


Key Points

3.1 Political parties are very much the public face of Scottish politics – their leadership, outlook and policies dominate media coverage. Parties are key institutions which perform vital functions in Scottish politics, such as educating the public, providing choice and establishing a democratic link between the government and the governed.

3.2 Devolution has brought with it significantly increased opportunities for the SNP. The ‘raison d’être’ of the SNP is a territorial demand for Scottish independence. It achieved governmental status for the first time in May 2007.

3.3 The Scottish Labour Party was Scotland’s largest party at all UK General and Scottish parliamentary elections from 1964 to 2005. It was almost unique amongst Western European political parties in enjoying four decades of political hegemony in one country.

3.4 The Scottish Liberal Democrat Party is normally classified as centrist. It worked closely with Scottish Labour on the Constitutional Convention (1989-95) and in coalition government (1999-2007).

3.5 Since the 1960s the Conservative and Unionist Party has been in almost permanent decline towards minor party status in Scotland.

3.6 All of Scotland’s political parties tend to be organised around local constituency associations that operate within the borders of parliamentary constituencies. However, in recent decades party organisation has become more professional and power has become more centralised with the media a key focus.

3.7 Post-devolution there has been a more pluralist, multi-party political system than the one engendered by Westminster first past the post elections. Scotland’s political parties and its party system have diverged significantly from the Westminster arrangements with more coalition and bargaining between parties.


Essay Questions

  1. To what extent are all of Scotland’s political parties nationalist today?
  2. Evaluate alternative explanations for the changing fortunes of ONE political party in Scotland over the past forty years.
  3. Outline and assess the changing nature of the political party system in Scotland.

Self-test questions

  1. What are the roles of political parties in Scottish politics?
  2. What accounts for the growth of the SNP since the 1960s?
  3. Why, until 2007, were Labour considered Scotland’s ‘establishment party’?
  4. What accounts for the decline of the Conservative and Unionist Party?
  5. How has Scotland’s party system changed in the past 50 years?
  6. What have been the main trends in party organisation in recent decades?
  7. What are the key issues which face all of Scotland’s major political parties today?

Further Reading

The collection of chapters by Hassan, McEwan. Lynch, Seawright and Bennie in Hassan and Warhurst (2002) are a useful starting point giving useful outlines of each of Scotland’s major political parties. Hutchison (2001) provides an excellent historical account of each party’s development in the 20th century.

Hassan (1999; 2002b; 2003) has published widely on the Labour Party in Scotland. Other notable works on the Labour Party in Scotland include Donnachie et al (1988), Brand et al (1994a), Jones and Keating (1982) and Keating and Bleiman (1979). For the SNP, Brand (1978), Brand et al (1994b), Mitchell (1990b, 1996a), Gallagher (1991) and Lynch (2002b) are worth consulting. For the Conservatives in Scotland, Bulpitt (1982), Warner (1988), Mitchell (1990a), Kellas (1994), Seawright (1999), Dyer (2001) and Kendrick and McCrone (1989) represent a variety of accounts of the party’s history and development.

For broader reading on political parties Garner and Kelly (1998) give a good account of the key parties in Britain today. Downs (1957) and Schumpeter (1942) represents a classic works on parties and democracy. Mair (1990) is an edited collection by key writers on parties and party systems.


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