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The political life of Scotland is closely related to, but in some ways quite distinct from, the political life of the United Kingdom (UK) more widely. The countries of Scotland, Northern Ireland, Wales and England together form the United Kingdom, and authority over the UK as a whole is exercised by the UK Parliament sitting in Westminster. The head of state is HM the Queen.
The UK Labour Government that came to power in 1997 did so with a mandate to pursue constitutional change and, in particular, to develop proposals for devolving power in Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland. As a result the Secretary of State for Scotland in the newly elected Labour UK Government, Donald Dewar, oversaw a referendum on devolution, which took place on 11 September 1997.
Scots were asked two questions. The first was on the principle of establishing a separate Parliament for Scotland. The second was whether that Parliament should have the power to vary levels of taxation. 74.3% voted yes to the first question, and 63.5% voted yes to the second question. As a result a devolved government came into being in 1999 and the Scottish Parliament resumed sitting, for the first time since it voted itself out of existence by approving the Act of Union in 1707. Donald Dewar became Scotland's first First Minister.
The Scottish Parliament is a unicameral legislature with 129 Members or MSPs. 73 of these represent individual constituencies and are elected on a "first past the post" system, while the other 56 are elected in eight different electoral regions by the "additional member" system.
Rather than set out a list of powers to be transferred from the UK Parliament to the Scottish Parliament, the Scotland Act 1998 set out a list of "Reserved Matters", control of which would be retained by the UK Parliament: and control over all other matters was devolved to the Scottish Parliament. The list of "Reserved Matters" included: constitutional issues; foreign policy; defence and national security; fiscal and economic policy; immigration; energy; competition; broadcasting; health and safety; equal opportunities; gambling; some aspects of transport; data protection; firearms; extradition; emergency powers; treason; time zones; and weights and measures.
This may seem a long list, but there are many important areas of policy not included in it, and therefore devolved by the UK Parliament to the Scottish Parliament. These include: health; education; economic development; planning; aspects of transport; local councils; housing and regeneration; social work; agriculture; arts and culture; environment; justice; fire; police; prisons; social inclusion; voluntary sector; tourism and sport.
In strictly legal terms, sovereign authority over all matters remains with the UK Parliament in Westminster, which has the right to decide to extend, reduce, or even abolish altogether the range of powers devolved to the Scottish Parliament. In practical terms, ending devolution without an extremely clear mandate (probably a referendum) seems a step no UK Government would be prepared to take. But "fine tuning" of devolution can and does take place, for example when responsibility for railways in Scotland was removed from the list of Reserved Matters, thereby devolving it to the Scottish Parliament at Holyrood.
In its early years, devolution produced some notable differences between policies implemented in Scotland and England. The three most obvious have been the abolition of tuition charges for Scottish students studying in Scottish Universities; free personal care for the elderly; and an earlier and more complete ban on smoking in public places being imposed in Scotland than eventually happened in England.
Nonetheless, relations between the UK Government and the Scottish Government were very close so long as the Labour Party was in control of both. But in the Scottish Elections of 2007, the Scottish National Party emerged with the largest number of seats and was able to form a minority government in coalition with the Green Party. The result has been more, and more obvious, differences of view, but there seems no reason to believe that devolution will not continue to work effectively for Scots. The fact that the SNP only forms a minority government means that the issue of full Independence, which is opposed by every other significant party, is unlikely to be seriously discussed in the short term: but the outcome of the election does reflect a growing degree of confidence and maturity across Scotland which means that for the first time in over a thousand years we tend not to feel ourselves to be anyone's poor neighbour.
The benefits of devolution may, however, be much less easy to see from an English perspective. On 14 November 1977, the Labour Westminster MP for West Lothian, Tam Dalyell used a Parliamentary debate on devolution to pose what has since become known as "The West Lothian Question":
"For how long will English constituencies and English Honourable members tolerate... at least 119 Honourable Members from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland exercising an important, and probably often decisive, effect on British politics while they themselves have no say in the same matters in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland?"
On the face of it, it does seem unfair that Members of the Westminster Parliament representing Scottish seats should be allowed to vote in debates on, for example, education or health, the outcome of which will only effect English constituencies because those matters have been devolved in Scotland. The problem is that disallowing Scottish Westminster MPs from taking part in some UK Parliamentary discussions and votes could have a dramatic effect on the ability of a UK Labour Government to govern. The Westminster MPs representing Scottish seats are overwhelmingly Labour, and without their active participation it is unlikely that a UK Labour Government could gain acceptance for its policies. As a result there has never been a satisfactory answer given to the West Lothian Question, even 30 years after it was posed.
Scotland has four main political parties. Three of them, Labour, Conservative and Liberal Democrat, mirror the three main parties active across the UK. However, in Scotland the Scottish National Party has added a fourth dimension in Scottish politics since the party won its first Westminster seat in a by-election in November 1967. The Labour Party invariably wins most Scottish Westminster Parliamentary seats. The Lib Dems have a fairly steady following, especially in more rural areas. And Conservative Party fortunes in Scotland have fluctuated from poor to abysmal: in the 1997 General Election, Scottish unhappiness at 18 years of Conservative Government, 11 years of it under the leadership of Margaret Thatcher, led to the Conservatives winning no Scottish seats at all in the Westminster Parliament.
In the House of Lords in Westminster, hereditary Scottish Peers are eligible alongside their English counterparts to vote in and be nominated for the representative seats available in the House of Lords. And at the European level, Scotland makes up a single constituency, returning 7 Members of the European Parliament, or MEPs.
Local Government in Scotland comprises 32 unitary authorities, each governed by a Council made up of Councillors who stand for election every four years. Councils vary widely in population, from Glasgow with just under 600,000 residents to Orkney with just under 20,000: and in size, from Highland covering 26,484km² to Clackmannanshire covering just 158km². There are in total 1,122 Councillors serving in Scotland's Councils. The last council elections took place on 3 May 2007, and of the 1,122 Councillors, 363 are members of the Scottish National Party; 348 are Labour; 166 are Liberal Democrats; 148 are Conservatives; 8 are Scottish Green; 1 is Scottish Socialist; 1 is Solidarity; and 192 are Independents or Others.