Scottish Politics

Second edition

by Paul Cairney

Chapter 11: Assessing Scottish Democracy


This chapter reviews the theory and practice of Scottish democracy. It compares the reality of post-devolution politics with the pre-1999 discourse and aspirations. First, the move to extend microcosmic representation, or the representativeness of MSPs in terms of their social background. Second, the development of the Scottish Civic Forum and the petitions process of the Scottish Parliament as a means for direct participation, or at least an alternative means of involvement in the political process. Third, a new and improved consultation process between the Scottish Government, Scottish Parliament and a wide range of representative organisations in the community, voluntary sector, professions and business. This inclusion of hitherto excluded sections of society would come at the expense of the ‘usual suspects’, or the larger and better resourced groups which tend to dominate consultation time with government.

Key Points

11.1 In terms of representative democracy, devolution solved the ‘democratic deficit’ in which the Scottish population voted for one party but got another. There is now a greater sense in Scotland of a link between electoral response and governmental responsiveness (particularly following the election result in 2007 which resulted in minority government rather than a coalition with a larger majority).

11.2 In terms of micro-cosmic representation, the main success of devolution has been a significant gain in the representation of women within the Scottish Parliament. Female MSPs accounted for 37%, 40% and 33% of the Scottish Parliament in 1999, 2003 and 2007 respectively. This compares to 15% of Scottish MPs and 20% of the rest of the UK in 2005. However, there were no MSPs with an ethnic minority background until Bashir Ahmad (SNP) became the first successful candidate in 2007.

11.3 There are some signs of a move away from a career path from local to national government and lower levels of private education than in the UK. However, as a whole, MSPs are just as likely as MPs to be white, middle aged, middle class, and university educated with a professional background.

11.4 The Scottish Civic Forum was the main plank of attempts to develop a new form of deliberative democracy. However, the project struggled to gain popular support and folded after six years following a loss of funding.

11.5 The public petitions process was developed as a means for a limited form of direct democracy. It is held in high regard by MSPs and participants are generally satisfied with their experience. However, there are few examples of petitions which go on to have a direct policy impact. Rather, the aim of petitions is to set the agenda and hope that other organisations respond to the issues.

11.6 Perhaps the most direct route to decision-makers is by lobbying through an interest group. Most interest groups appear satisfied with the consultation process and feel that decision-makers are accessible and that their opinions are listened to post devolution.

11.7 The ‘Scottish Policy Style’ refers to the greater access to (and opportunity to influence) ministers and civil servants in Scotland since devolution. This arguably relates more to the limited research capacity of the Government (which causes it to rely on interest groups and organisations such as local authorities) than a new culture of openness in Scotland (although many interest groups would disagree with this statement).

11.8 While the influence of interest groups in Scotland is superior to the pre-devolution Scottish Office experience, the difference between consultation styles in Scotland and the UK is often exaggerated. Since 2007 there are some signs that the SNP is trying to consult with groups other than the ‘establishment’ organisations relied upon since 1999. Yet, the ‘logic of consultation’ suggests that ministers and civil servants will rely on the groups with the best information and/ or the ability to implement policy.

Essay Questions

  1. Assess the argument that post-devolution Scottish policymaking processes have become more pluralist.
  2. Compare and contrast Scottish parliamentarians at Westminster and Holyrood.
  3. Outline and assess the impact of ONE post-devolution democratic innovation on Scottish politics.

Self-test questions

  1. What does ‘microcosmic representation’ mean?
  2. Define (a.) participatory (b.) representative and (c.) pluralist democracy.
  3. Outline criticisms of the notion of ‘new politics’.
  4. What are ‘politics facilitating’ professions?
  5. Has the introduction of devolution fostered closer links between Government, Parliament and the Scottish people?
  6. How has devolution fostered equal opportunity in Scottish politics?
  7. What are ‘public petitions’?
  8. What impact has devolution had on Scotland’s interest groups?
  9. Is there a ‘Scottish Policy Style’? If so, why did it develop?

Further Reading

On democracy in the UK see Weir and Beetham (1988). For arguments in favour of deliberative democracy see Cooke (2000). For a classic work on representative democracy see Schumpeter (1943). For a contemporary discussion of representative democracy in the UK see Judge (1999). For details of representation in Scotland post devolution see Bennie et al (2001), Shepherd et al (2001), Keating and Cairney (2006). For defining works on pluralist democracy see Dahl (1961), (1971) and (1989). On participation, the defining UK empirical study is Parry et al (1992). For details on the Scottish Civic Forum and civic democracy see Lindsay (2000; 2002), McTernan (2000), Paterson (2000a) and Scottish Civic Forum (2001). For details on the Petitions Committee see Cavanagh et al (2000), Lynch and Birrell (2001) and Carmen (2006).


    The (now defunct) Scottish Civic Forum Homepage
    Convention of Scottish Local Authorities
    Friend of the Earth Scotland
    Stonewall Scotland
    Scottish Council Development and Industry
    Charter 88 Scotland Events
    Scottish Trade Union Congress
    CND Scotland
    CBI Scotland
    Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations

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