Scottish Politics

Second edition

by Paul Cairney

Chapter 3

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, key trends in party organization and how, in an effort to gain more electoral success, mainstream parties are increasingly de-emphasizing ideology. However, despite similarities in policy platforms party tribalism remains much in evidence.


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 minority governmental status for the first time in May 2007, and majority status in 2011.
  • 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. However, the party’s dominance of elections and key arenas of economic and cultural life appears to be ending.
  • 3.4 Since the 1960s the Conservative and Unionist Party has been in almost permanent decline towards minor party status (alongside the Liberal Democrats) in Scotland .
  • 3.5 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 around leadership with the new and old media communication a key focus.
  • 3.6 Post-devolution there is a clear dis-juncture between Westminster and Holyrood party systems. The relationship between the UK wide parties and their Scottish parts has proved to be at times a problematic and delicate balancing act. Projecting a message of ‘standing up for Scotland ’ the SNP has emerged as the dominant party.

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 fifty years.
  3. Outline and assess the changing nature of the political party system in Scotland .
  4. Assess the impact of devolution on the organizational structure of Scotland ’s political parties.
  5. Evaluate the impact of devolution on either the SNP or Scottish Labour in terms of party structure, campaigning, leadership and electioneering.
  6. ‘Male, pale and stale’. To what extent is it accurate summation of Scotland ’s democratically elected representatives today?
  7. ‘The party that delivered devolution has not come to terms with its consequences’ (Brown and McLeish 2007). Discuss in relation to the Scottish Labour Party.

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

Hutchison (2000) provides an excellent historical account of each party’s development in the twentieth century. The collection of chapters by Hassan, McEwan, Lynch, Seawright and Bennie in Hassan and Warhurst (2002) provide early accounts of each party immediately post-devolution.

For students of the SNP, Hassan (2009) and Mitchell et al. (2011c) are the best starting points. Brand (1978), Brand et al. (1994b), Mitchell (1990b; 1996a), Gallagher (1991), Lynch (2002b) are also worth consulting. Hassan and Shaw (2012) is the best starting point for Scottish Labour. Other works worth consulting are Hassan (1999; 2002b; 2002), Keating and Bleiman (1979), Jones and Keating (1982), Donnachie et al. (1989), Brand et al. (1994a), Laffin et al. (2007). For the Conservatives in Scotland, Bulpitt (1982), Warner (1988), Kendrick and McCrone (1989), Mitchell (1990a), Kellas (1994), Seawright (1999), Dyer (2001), Smith (2011), Convery (2012), Mitchell and Convery (2012) and Torrance (2012) represent a variety of accounts of the party’s history and development. Kidd (2008) is a fascinating historical analysis of the development of unionist political thought. Bennie (2004) presents a detailed study of the Scottish Greens. For broader reading on political parties Downs (1957) and Schumpeter (1942) represent classic works on parties and democracy. More generally on political parties see Panebianco (1988), Michels (1997), Carty (2004) and Clark (2012). Fabre (2008), Bradbury (2009), Hopkin (2009), Van Houten (2009) and Bolleyer (2011) outline details of devolved party organization at the sub-state level.


Online Sources


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