Scottish Politics

Second edition

by Paul Cairney

Chapter 2: Devolution: Historical, Social and Economic Context

This chapter outlines the historical, economic, social and media context of devolution. It examines how Scottish politics developed over the course of the 20th century, outlining 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. Scottish politics is placed in its wider historical, social and economic setting.


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 and all-party opposition to the Conservative Government from 1979 to 1997.
  • 2.4 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.
  • 2.5 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.
  • 2.6 The Scottish media (both old and new) play a crucial role in shaping the image and perception of Scottish politics. In recent years new media outlets have played an increasing role in the communication and dissemination of coverage of Scottish politics. Unlike radio and TV broadcasters, these outlets (as well as newspapers) are not bound by charter to show balance and impartiality and are often vehemently partisan in their coverage of Scottish politics.
  • 2.7 An economy is a key contextual variable in the understanding of any political system. A key part of the constitutional debate in Scotland is the question of the impact of independence on future economic performance. However, key economic levers such as monetary policy would remain out-with the remit of the Scottish Government.
  • 2.8 Although Scotland ’s economy is, in relative global terms, rich, modern and open it has (as part’s of the UK ’s) not grown as fast as other European nations. It is also one of the more unequal European societies with much poverty, polarization and deprivation evident.

Essay Questions

  1. Compare and contrast the background, campaign and outcome of the 1997 referendum with that of 1979?
  2. In what ways is the Scotland 2014 Referendum campaign different from those in 1979 and 1997?
  3. Account for the rise of the home rule issue onto the Scottish political agenda in the latter decades of the 20th century.
  4. Evaluate the contention that a significant factor in devolution happening in Scotland was that a ‘negative consensus’ merged based on the rejection of Thatcherism (Mitchell 1999).
  5. Assess the claim that legislative devolution and its associated reforms merely added a democratic gloss to long established political institutions and processes in Scottish politics.

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 (2001b), Fry (1987), Finlay (1997; 2001a; 2001b; 2004) and Paterson (1994). For accounts of the contemporary period see Marr (1992), Brown et al. (1998), Kellas (1989), Midwinter et al. (1991) and Bennie et al. (1995). For the 1979 and 1997 referendums see Balsom and McAllister (1979), Bochel and Denver (1981), Denver et al. (2000) and Surridge and McCrone (1999). For the Scottish media see Schlesinger (2000; 2004), Schlesinger et al. (2001), Garside (2002) and Blain and Hutchison (2008). For the Scottish economy see Peat et al. (1999), Hood et al. (2002) and Brian Ashcroft’s blog. For Scottish society, Hearn’s (2000) analysis of the claims on Scottish national identity is a convincing account.


Online Sources


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