Scottish Politics

Second edition

by Paul Cairney

Chapter 12: Conclusion


The electoral success of the SNP has obviously placed constitutional change back at the top of the agenda. The SNP’s plan is to demonstrate its governing competence, hold a ‘national conversation’ and then introduce legislation to allow a referendum in 2010 (which may be the year of the next UK General Election). Until recently this plan has been undermined by the opposition of the other major parties to a referendum (indeed, this was the stated reason for the Liberal Democrats refusing coalition talks with the SNP). Since the opinion poll evidence suggests that most favour further devolution rather than independence, the outcomes of the Calman Commission may yet be crucial.

Key Points

12.1 A focus on the broad parameters, institutions and the historical legacy is a useful starting point for any student of Scottish politics.

12.2 The expectations engendered by the campaigns for home rule pre-devolution represents a good case study of the role of idealism in political change. There were some rather expectations that, when set against the contemporary reality of Scottish politics, look unrealistic.

12.3 The old academic debate, concerning whether an autonomous Scottish political system whilst contributing to our understanding of Scottish autonomy within the UK, is less relevant today - particularly as the EU becomes more important in different policy areas.

12.4. Although the evidence suggests that the Scottish Government is the key player within Scotland, this does not mean that it is necessarily the biggest player in Scottish politics. A focus on multi-level governance reveals not only interdependence during the implementation of policy, but also in the formulation of policy when devolved areas intersect with reserved and Europeanised aspects of policy.

12.6 The Scottish constitutional debate still remains and, contrary to former Labour Shadow Scottish Secretary, George Robertson’s prediction, nationalism has not been killed ‘stone dead’ by devolution. Indeed, the election of the SNP in 2007 election has re-invigorated it. The current devolution settlement no longer appears (in the late John Smith’s oft-cited phrase) ‘the settled will of the Scottish people’. The Scottish Government’s National Conversation and the Calman Commission are ongoing – neither is likely to report the status quo as a preferred option.

12.7 An understanding of Scottish politics requires a breadth of knowledge of many different levels of government, the many different stages of the policy-making process and the myriad of institutions beyond government.

Essay Questions

  1. Compare and contrast Scottish constitutional politics pre and post 1999.
  2. ‘Devolution is the settled will of the Scottish people’ (John Smith) Discuss.
  3. ‘The Scottish Parliament is a halfway house, and one built on a slippery slope [to independence]’ (Ian Lang). Discuss.
  4. Outline and assess the case for Scottish independence.
  5. 'Scotland is best conceptualised as a political village due to the smallness and narrowness of its policy and civic networks’. Discuss.
  6. To what extent do you think that Scottish politics is best conceived as a subsystem of United Kingdom politics and government?
  7. ‘Scottish politics post-devolution represents a test-bed for new ideas and practices that many advocates of change at a UK level have long argued for’. Discuss.
  8. Do you agree with Henry McLeish that the present Scottish political system “is a world away from the Westminster-Scottish Office model”?

Self-test questions

  1. Why has devolution not killed Scottish nationalism ‘stone dead’?
  2. What is the national conversation’?
  3. What is the ‘English Question’ and why is it relevant in Scottish politics?
  4. What does cascading interdependence mean?
  5. What is the Calman Commission? Why did its stated remit cause some consternation among nationalists?

Update June 2008: The SNP’s National Conversation

Since the SNP Government’s introduction of a ‘national conversation’ on independence in Scotland, the two most significant events have been:

1. The introduction of the Calman Commission to consider the adequacy of the current devolution settlement and address the future of devolution. While there is some suspicion that the direction of the commission’s agenda is strongly influenced by the UK Government (and Gordon Brown in particular). It includes representation from Scottish Labour, Scottish Liberal Democrats and Scottish Conservatives, as well as some notables from business and the unions. See BBC News 28.4.08 ‘Devolution body members announced’

2. The developments within the Labour Party, with Scottish leader Wendy Alexander’s invitation to the SNP to ‘bring it on’ (i.e. bring forward the referendum on independence) seemingly at odds with Gordon Brown’s stance. While this was designed (according to Alexander) to call the SNP’s bluff and expose the hollowness of their plans, the main focus has been on the relationship between Alexander and Gordon Brown (who was unwilling to support Alexander’s line publicly). This story suggests that if Alexander had not said ‘bring it on’ (committing Scottish Labour to a referendum in Holyrood), then Labour would have brought forward a referendum in Westminster in 2008 –

E. Barnes 18.5.08 ‘Wendy gaffe 'holed referendum plan'’ Scotland on Sunday

M. Settle 16.5.08 ‘Prime Minister in rallying cry to defend Union’ The Herald

See The Scotsman 9.5.08 ‘Losing his grip on Scotland’;

Evening News 8.5.08 ‘Wendy Alexander misses mark with SNP challenge’

Scottish Parliament Official Report 8.5.08 (First Minister’s Questions) -

The Scotsman 14.5.08 ‘Labour MSPs force Wendy into another U-turn on referendum’

The Herald 14.5.08 ‘Scottish Labour back to square one on referendum Bill’

The Herald 14.5.08 ‘Cameron: PM has lost Scotland and is putting the UK at risk’

3. The national conversation itself is still ongoing. See for example: D. Ross 23.4.08 ‘Salmond takes his national conversation to the STUC’ The Herald

BBC News 23.5.08 ‘'I want to be PM of all the UK'’
David Cameron speech to the Scottish Conservatives

For a humorous (and not very sympathetic!) look at Wendy Alexander’s career in Scottish politics see Wendygate whitewash section.

For a run down of latest opinion polls for Westminster and Scottish Parliament elections see the opinion poll section of Note that party politics extends even to sources of political facts!

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