Understanding the Scottish Political System

Election signage outside a voting location on EU Election Day last week. The SNP outperformed all other parties.

In this post I hope to share my understanding of the political system in Scotland. Yesterday, I toured the Scottish Parliament and learned a lot about the history and structure of the political system. First, it is important to understand the key players in the political landscape. Below is each political party holding at least one seat in parliament with a brief description:

Conservatives: Right-wing political party. One of three largest in membership in the UK (behind Labour and SNP), this party is against Scottish Independence and in favor of Brexit.

Liberal Democrats: Moderate political party against Scottish Independence with quite small membership.

Labour: Left-wing political party against Scottish Independence.

Scottish National Party: Left-wing nationalist party in favor of Scottish Independence on Scottish Independence and against Brexit. Currently in control of the Scottish Parliament and the government, with leader Nicola Sturgeon serving as First Minister of Scotland.

Green Party: Left-wing party in favor of Scottish Independence. Fourth largest party in Scotland.

Following the passage of the Acts of Union in 1707, Scotland’s original parliament adjourned and the country joined what has become the United Kingdom. In 1997, nearly 300 years later, the people of Scotland overwhelmingly voted in favor of the re-establishment of a Scottish Parliament. The new parliament holds certain “devolved” powers, including health and social services, education, and housing, while leaving “reserved” powers, including foreign policy, national defense, and immigration, to the UK.

The Scottish Parliament’s debate chamber, symbolizing cooperation and transparency.
Photo credit: Scottish Parliament (no photos allowed inside).

The Scottish Parliament has 129 representatives, called MSPs, elected to 5-year terms. One member is selected as the Presiding Officer (PO), similar to the Speaker of the House in the United States, though upon assuming the position, the PO revokes their party membership and pledges impartial leadership. The seats of Parliament are allotted in two ways, “first past the post” and “proportional representation,” and citizens vote for specific candidates and political parties. Without delving into the complexities, this system results in a politically diverse parliamentary body, unlike the U.S. Congress which is elected solely through a winner-take-all (first past the post) system and primarily consists of two parties.

The Scottish pride themselves on creating a parliament with diverse representation and transparency. The Scottish Parliament Building, completed in 2004, is a rather surprising and unusual structure. Consisting almost entirely of locally-sourced concrete, wood, and glass, most meeting rooms and the debating chamber are contained by glass walls, signifying transparency and openness. Furthermore, each Scottish citizen has 8 representatives, increasing the likelihood of sharing party affiliation with at least one.

The organic structure of the parliament building is somewhat controversial amongst locals.
Photo Credit: ArchDaily.

I hope to share more about my experiences in the Scottish Parliament in future entries, as I will be returning to observe a Delegated Powers & Law Reform committee meeting and full-body debate in the coming days.


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