Scottish Politics

Second edition

by Paul Cairney

Chapter 5: The Scottish Parliament


This chapter discusses the role of the Scottish Parliament as a political actor, arena and agenda setter. It outlines the functions of parliament, the legislative process, the role of committees as well as the Scottish Government. Any discussion of the Scottish Parliament’s role in Scottish politics must be qualified by an acknowledgement of the Scottish Government – the two institutions exist in a relationship of mutual interdependency. The Government derives its legitimacy from the Parliament, while the latter relies on the former to take care of the business of government and administration.

Key Points

5.1 The Scottish Parliament has since 1999 been the institution that has dominated media attention of Scottish politics. Most hopes for a new type of politics in Scotland were invested in the structure and operation of the Scottish Parliament.

5.2 The Consultative Steering Group (CSG) was the cross-party body set up to decide on the initial draft rules (standing orders) of the Scottish Parliament. It sought to provide Parliament with the time and opportunity to scrutinise the work of the Government, allow for the debate of issues of both national and local interest and enable individual Members to raise matters of concern and introduce proposals for legislation.

5.3 At the heart of this new process is the role of parliamentary committees which were given more powers and a greater policy role than their Westminster counterparts.

5.4 The Scottish Parliament allows for a more significant and straightforward ability for MSPs and committees to introduce legislation than in the House of Commons. It passed 25 non-Government bills (19.5% of 128) from 1999-2007.

5.5 The Government has access to far more resources than Parliament to consult with groups and to research, initiate, draft, redraft, monitor and evaluate bills.

5.6 Party conflict has remained evident in the Scottish Parliament. In plenary there is a strong culture of government and opposition.

5.7 There is often a more ‘businesslike’ atmosphere in committees. Since the introduction of minority government in May 2007 committees have had more opportunity to set the agenda. However, committees still lack the resources to initiate or scrutinise complex bills, while many government objectives can be fulfilled without recourse to legislation.

5.8 This legitimising function of the Scottish Parliament deserves emphasis – it has ‘solved’ the perceived democratic (or more accurately legitimacy) deficit of Scottish politics. No significant political actor questions the accountability and legitimacy of the outputs of government in Scotland, as they did pre-devolution.

Essay Questions

  1. Compare and contrast the legislative processes in Holyrood and Westminster.
  2. ‘The Scottish Parliament: £430 million of wasted public expenditure’. Discuss.
  3. Assess the notion that the Scottish Parliament is a policymaking legislature.
  4. Assess the impact of the Consultative Steering Group’s four principles of participation, accountability, equal opportunities, and power sharing on the Scottish Parliament since 1999.
  5. Scotland’s Parliament: A mini-Westminster, or a model of democracy?

Self-test questions

  1. What are the functions of Parliament in a liberal democracy?
  2. Outline the proposals of the Consultative Steering Group.
  3. Which policy areas are not reserved to the UK Parliament?
  4. What are the differences in the legislative processes in Holyrood and Westminster?
  5. Is there evidence of power sharing between the Scottish Government and Parliament?
  6. What is the role of parliamentary committees?
  7. What roles do MSPs play in Scottish politics?

Further Reading

Many of the examples discussed in this chapter are outlined in more detail in the ‘Scottish Parliament’ section of the Devolution Monitor Reports 2006-8 ( These reports began in 1999 and are still archived here: On the role of parliaments see Judge (1993), Norton (2005) and Rush (2005), Scottish parliamentary committees see Arter (2002, 2003, 2004). On the story of free personal care for the elderly policy see Shaw (2003); SPICE (2000b)


    Scottish Parliament
    Scottish Constitutional Convention Report
    Report of the Consultative Steering Group
    House of Commons
    Scottish Affairs Select Committee
    National Assembly for Wales
    Northern Ireland Assembly

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