Photo of the Scottish Parliament

The Scottish Parliament

Published: 24 September 2020

Emily St. Denny explains the process of designing the Scottish Parliament and asks, has the Scottish Parliament lived up to the political and policy hopes associated with devolution? 

The Scottish Parliament recently turned twenty. Advocates of Scottish devolution had hoped its inauguration in 1999 would usher in a new era of governance, one which would contrast starkly with Westminster’s supposedly old-fashioned centralism and adversarial politics. Electing representatives with the power to design ‘Scotland-specific’ policies was also intended to reinvigorate political participation and renew the public’s faith in institutions, helping to redress a perceived ‘democratic deficit’ and improve outcomes for the people of Scotland. In this way, the new Parliament was placed at the heart of this vision of a ‘new Scottish politics’. Nevertheless, the question of whether it has managed to live up to these original expectations remains contested and it is still unclear what changes would need to be made to allow it to effectively deal with an ever-expanding range of legislative competencies.

The Parliament’s blueprint was drawn up from the ideas and values put forward by historical pro-devolution coalitions, such as the Scottish Constitutional Convention, as well as concrete proposals set out by the Consultative Steering Group appointed in the wake of the 1997 referendum vote for Scottish devolution. In the process of discussing what devolution might look like and what it ought to deliver for Scotland, an emphasis was placed on notions of democratic renewal and the ability to design more place-appropriate policies. A vision of deliberative, consultative, and consensual parliamentary politics was put forward, in what was supposed to be a stark contrast to the aggressive winner-takes-all politics of ‘Old’ Westminster.

In the process of designing the Parliament, a number of key principles were identified to give shape to this broad vision: power sharing between the people, legislature, and executive; civic access to, and democratic participation in, the deliberative and decision-making process; legislative and political transparency and accountability; and the support and championing of equal opportunities for all. These values were then woven into the Parliament’s final operating procedures, which include: a more proportional voting system to elect representatives who more closely mirrored the country’s demographic and political diversity; a strong committee system through which to channel more intensive and focused scrutiny and deliberation of legislative proposals; and a formal requirement for Government and Parliament to systematically and meaningfully consult society and stakeholders in the process of developing policy.

Subsequently, the Parliament’s first two decades have primarily been assessed against these foundational aspirations. Some objectives been more readily achieved than others. The committee system, envisaged as an innovative way of creating new arenas for discussing, refining, and garnering support for policy decisions, has failed to meet the high hopes of devolution architects. From early on, the high burden of business being processed by the committees, coupled with MSPs’ limited time to split between multiple committee roles, hampered their ability to do more than rapidly scrutinize executive bills.

The limits of ‘new’ politics in post-devolution Scotland also extend to the difficulties involved in crafting a political culture of consensus. Scotland’s more proportional electoral has often required the largest party to garner support from others to pass legislation, but this has not led to a tradition of systematic political bargaining and consensus-building such as we might find in the Nordic ‘consensus democracies’.

Finally, despite hopes of involving a more representatively diverse membership, the majority of Members of the Scottish Parliament (MSPs) continue to be white educated males with prior experience of local or national political office.

This is not to suggest that the Scottish Parliament has entirely failed to live up to the political and policy hopes associated with devolution. There have been notable instances of ‘new’ Scottish politics in action, though most have unfolded quietly, out of the public eye. For instance, broad civic consultation remains a key commitment of legislative committees. A number of distinctive policies, including free prescriptions and the scrapping of university tuition fees, have allowed the country to chart a different path from the UK in small but noticeable ways. Moreover, while true consensus politics has not been achieved, control over the legislative agenda is not always monopolised by the dominant party, with instances of bills being introduced or inspired by opposition MSPs and even civil society.

Moreover, both the social and political expectations of what devolution could offer, and the Parliament’s institutional capacity to deliver these have evolved considerably since the early 2000s. Over the last twenty years, the Parliament and the people of Scotland have changed. Devolution, and the Scottish Parliament’s authority to make and shape policy across a range of sectors, is now a permanent, if not immutable, fact of life. At the same time, the range of powers at the Parliament’s disposal, as well as the policy areas over which it has control, have grown considerably over the period. The list of the Parliament’s devolved competencies has grown to include new policies areas, such as regulating speed limits and air weapons, as well as not-inconsiderable tax raising powers.

Ultimately, the debate over the Parliament’s track record concerns whether it was ever truly possible to achieve primarily social and political aims, such as a more civic participation in politics and political debate, a reduction in socio-economic inequality, or the emergence of a collegial political culture, solely through institutional means. The results are mixed. The Parliament has managed to achieve elements of ‘new politics’, including the normalisation of a culture of consultation in the legislative process and the fostering of some highly-visible policy divergence on topics such as health and education. Nevertheless, it has not been able, for reasons of resource limitations and political antagonism, to deliver on all those early hopes for devolution. The current socio-political context, which is characterised by fraught yet eminently important debate over, among other issues, the place and role of Scotland in the UK, the EU, and the world, therefore represents a critical juncture. The debate over the Scottish Parliament has now shifted towards what its future role and legislative purview should be, especially in the context of Brexit and the repatriation of powers from the European Union back to the UK, and whether or how it might be reformed and resourced in such a ways as to be able to meet people’s new and growing expectations of it.

Emily St. Denny is an Assistant Professor at the University of Copenhagen. 

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

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