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Scotland at Westminster

Published: 2 September 2020

Taken from his chapter in the Oxford Handbook of Scottish Politics, Adam Evans explores the influence Scottish constituency MPs have had within the Westminster party system, and evaluates the long-term challenges that might impact this influence.

The influence of Scottish constituency MPs within the Westminster party system has ebbed and flowed over the decades. Since 1832, Scottish constituencies have returned six Prime Ministers, a list that includes William Gladstone, Herbert Asquith and, most recently, Gordon Brown. Even after devolution, and a reduction in the number of Scottish seats from 72 to 59, Scottish MPs have continued to play significant roles at Westminster.

This influence is explored in two ways: 1) through the party system at Westminster; and 2) through the institutional avenues for the influence within the House of Commons.

Scottish MPs and the Westminster Party System

a) Liberals and Liberal Democrats

From the late 1870s through to the 1920s, Scottish constituency MPs dominated the senior leadership of the Liberal Party, including three of the four Liberal Prime Ministers prior to Lloyd George’s accession to the premiership in 1916.

The dominance of Scottish based MPs within the upper echelons of the Liberal Party continued even with the party’s decline and fall. Between 1918 and 1988, when the party merged with the SDP to form the Liberal Democrats, Scottish constituency MPs held the party leadership on three occasions, including Jo Grimond (Leader from 1956 to 1967 and briefly again in 1976) and David Steel (1976 to 1988).

Post-merger in 1988, the Liberal Democrats have continued to have a strong Scottish influence. Three of the party’s leaders have been Scottish constituency MPs: including Charles Kennedy (1999-2006), and, most recently, Jo Swinson (2019). During the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition Government in Westminster (2010-2015), two of the five cabinet seats allocated to the party were held by Scottish constituency MPs – of which one (Danny Alexander as Chief Secretary to the Treasury) was a member of the all-powerful ‘Quad’ that acted as the Government’s inner-cabinet.

b) The Unionist Party/Conservatives

The Conservative and Unionist Party has had a long and complex relationship with Scotland. For most of the twentieth century, Conservatism in Scotland was represented by the Unionist Party, a party that, although integrated with the Conservative Party at Westminster, represented a distinctive and Scottish electoral brand. Two Unionist MPs served as Prime Minister: Andrew Bonar Law from 1922 until his death in 1923 and Sir Alec Douglas-Home from 1963 to 1964.

Ironically, the period that would culminate in the party being wiped out in Scotland at the 1997 election, the Conservative Governments from 1979 to 1997, saw a number of Scottish MPs holding positions of influence within the Cabinet, including George Younger as Defence Secretary(1986-1989) and Malcolm Rifkind who was successively Defence Secretary (1992-1995) and Foreign Secretary (1995-1997).

More recently, the most influential Scottish Conservative at UK level politics was someone who was not an MP, Ruth Davidson. While her leadership of the party in Scotland saw them become the main opposition party in Holyrood in 2016 and return 13 MPs to Westminster, at the 2019 election this number was reduced to six MPs.

c) Labour

The story of the Labour Party at the UK level is deeply interwoven with Scotland. The founder of the Labour Party and its first MP, Keir Hardie was born in Lanarkshire and began his career as a miner, trade unionist, and journalist in Scotland, before winning election as an Independent Labour Party MP in West Ham South in 1892. Ramsay MacDonald, the first Labour Prime Minister was also a Scotsman. Two of the party’s leaders, post-Second World War, have represented Scottish constituencies: John Smith (1992-1994) and Gordon Brown (2007-2010).  

Scottish influence within the UK Labour Party reached its peak during the thirteen years of Labour Government from 1997 to 2010.  During this time, Scottish constituency MPs held, at various points, all four of the great offices of state (Prime Minister, Chancellor, Foreign Secretary and Home Secretary). Gordon Brown was successively Chancellor (1997-2007) and Prime Minister (2007-2010). While other New Labour Scottish heavyweights included Robin Cook, Alistair Darling, John Reid, George Robertson and Douglas Alexander.

Outside of Government, this period also saw a Scottish MP hold office as Speaker of the House of Commons (Michael Martin who was Speaker of the House of Commons from 2000 to 2008) and a Scottish Clerk of the House of Commons (Sir William McKay, Clerk of the House from 1998 to 2002).

d) The SNP

Having spent a long period on the margins at Westminster, the SNP has since 2015 enjoyed a new status. The rise of the party at that year’s General Election, and the electoral eclipse of the Liberal Democrats, has resulted in the SNP becoming the ‘third party’ at Westminster with (limited) additional rights and privileges that that bestows. This status provides the SNP, and thus its bloc of Scottish constituency MPs, with guaranteed questions at Prime Ministers Questions, opposition day time (three of the twenty Opposition Days are at the disposal of the leader of the second opposition party—the SNP) and the likelihood that at least one of its amendments to bills or the Queen’s Speech will be selected by the Speaker for the House to vote upon.

Institutional Avenues for Scottish Influence at Westminster

While the above focuses on influence from the personnel level, influence can also be explored through process and the institutional avenues available to Scottish MPs to represent Scotland’s interests at Westminster.

Such avenues include:

  • the Scottish Affairs Committee which scrutinizes the Scottish Office and the UK Government’s policies in Scotland;
  • the Scottish Grand Committee, a Committee of all Scottish MPs which in a number of respects can act as a smaller-scale version of the House of Commons (although this body has not met since 2003); and
  • departmental questions, including questions to the Secretary of State for Scotland.

However, while the above are mechanisms which can facilitate a Scottish voice, there has been a recent procedural development with clear consequences for Scottish MPs: English Votes for English Laws (EVEL). EVEL marks the latest stage in a debate as old as devolution (including the Irish Home Rule debates) about the parliamentary representation at Westminster, post-devolution. Since the 1970s, and with an eye on Scottish devolution, this debate has been known as the West Lothian Question. Despite furore among Scottish MPs at the introduction of EVEL in 2015, the system has not had a dramatic impact on politics at Westminster, beyond the extensive additional pages that have been added to the House of Commons’ Standing Orders.

It is too early to say what, if any, long-term impact will arise from EVEL or whether the SNP will continue to hold onto its position as the largest party in Scotland and the third party in the House of Commons. However, for now, Scottish influence remains strong at Westminster, buttressed by the party system and the deliberate, and more general, institutional avenues for representation that exist in Parliament.

'Scotland at Westminster' was published in The Oxford Handbook of Scottish Politics in August 2020 in the UK and Europe by the Oxford University Press. 

Adam Evans is a Clerk in the House of Commons and an Honorary Research Fellow at the Wales Governance Centre, Cardiff University. 

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