Scottish Politics

Second edition

by Paul Cairney

Chapter 6: The Scottish Government

This chapter looks at the evolution of Scottish Government. Prior to 1999 the Scottish Office was a territorial department devoted in the most part to implementing and adapting UK policies. Devolution has involved a shift in power and status between executives as well as the creation of a new Parliament. In many ways the shift in corporate titles from Scottish Office (1885-1999) to Scottish Executive (1999-2007) and finally to Scottish Government (2007- ) captures the story of recent Scottish political history. This chapter outlines in detail what the Scottish Government is and does – first, by making the distinction between Scottish Government ministers and the civil service and, second, by outlining their respective structures and responsibilities.


Key Points

  • 6.1 The Scottish and UK Governments have many similar features, including a Cabinet structure, departments (or divisions) headed by Ministers and a First Minister with no formal portfolio
  • 6.2 There are some differences, including smaller cabinets in Scotland (particularly from 2007) and a smaller recruitment pool
  • 6.3 From 1999-2007 most of the big decisions were made during the production of the Partnership Agreement between the coalition parties.
  • 6.4 The SNP Government sought a new style of government, with overall priorities crossing old departmental boundaries
  • 6.5 It also benefited from single party government, with a reduced need to coordinate policymaking to the nth degree
  • 6.6 There may be more scope for ‘joined up government’ in Scotland , but several examples suggest that this is not inevitable
  • 6.7 The civil service was often characterised as a force of inertia or a ‘stumbling block’ to change. This was a temporary problem based on the need for the old Scottish Office to adapt to its new role (or shift its focus from policy implementation to innovation) or for the Scottish Parliament to realise that civil servants were there to serve ministers (i.e. ‘new politics’ did not apply).
  • 6.8 In other words, we witnessed not an unwillingness to support change (based on a cultural and political attachment to the UK ) but an inability to change quickly.
  • 6.9 The SNP’s hopes for an independent civil service would not represent a complete break from the past, since the power of Scottish ministers to recruit already exists, the mobility of civil servants is already quite low, and intergovernmental relations has already become more formal in recognition of the potential for party conflict.

Essay Questions

  1. Compare the roles and responsibilities of Scottish and UK ministers.
  2. To what extent did civil servants represent a ‘block’ to policy innovation in a devolved Scotland ?
  3. Compare the Scottish Government’s style of government between 1999-07 and from 2007.

Self-test Questions

  1. What is ‘cabinet government’?
  2. How are Scottish ministers recruited?
  3. Outline the key differences between majority, coalition and minority government.
  4. Has devolution resulted in more cohesive cabinet government?
  5. What role does the civil service play in Scottish politics?
  6. What impact would an independent civil service have on Scottish politics?

Further Reading

The UCL Constitution Unit’s monitoring reports are an invaluable resource – see Cairney (2011a). The various chapters entitled ‘ Scotland ’ (usually by James Mitchell) in Hazell (2000; 2003) and Trench (2001; 2004b; 2005) are also very useful summaries of developments. On coalition governments see Lijphart (1999), Seyd (2002; 2004) and Cairney (2011b). On the civil service, Richard Parry’s publications are the key guides to developments – see Parry and Jones (2000) and Parry (1999a; 2001; 2002; 2003; 2012); see also Keating (2010). For the definitive history of the Scottish Office and its role in Scottish politics read Mitchell (2003a). Pre-devolution literature on the Scottish Office and government worth exploring are Pottinger (1979), Kellas and Madgwick (1982), Gibson (1985), Parry (1987; 1993), Midwinter et al. (1991), Kellas (1989; 1991b) and Hutchison (1996).


Online Sources


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