Wednesday, 6 July 2022 – 09:08
Inside Scotland's Parliament building

How Politics Works in Scotland

Scotland is a country that is part of the United Kingdom and is home to approximately 5.4 million people.

Scotland is located in the North of Great Britain but also includes more than 790 islands, including the Northern Isles.

Scotland first emerged as an independent state as the Kingdom of Scotland in the European Early Middle Ages. In 1707, Scotland entered into a political union with England to great Great Britain. At this stage, powers over Scotland were largely transferred to England with the creation of the Parliament of Great Britain – a Parliament that succeeded (took over from) the Parliament of Scotland and the Parliament of England. The Scottish legal system and other cultural elements did though remain in Scotland.

While a country of the United Kingdom, Scotland has come to have an increasing number of powers in recent decades thanks to devolution (the delegation of power to a lower level).

Click through the tabs below to learn more about how politics works in Scotland.


{tab How are the people of Scotland represented?}

Today, the people of Scotland are represented in multiple different ways.

As part of the United Kingdom, the people of Scotland elect candidates to become Members of the UK Parliament (MPs). Of the 650 UK constituencies, 59 of them are in Scotland. Members of the public in Scotland can write to and engage with their MP in the same way as in other parts of the UK. Scottish MPs go to Westminster to represent the Scottish people and debate and vote on a variety of UK wide issues including the constitution and monetary policy.

At a UK Government level, affairs in Scotland are represented by the Secretary of State for Scotland. Currently, Alister Jack MP, the Scottish Secretary represents Scotland in the Cabinet on matters that are not devolved. Largely, the position of the Scottish Secretary is seen as a go-between for the UK and Scottish Governments.

Scotland also has its own Parliament based in Parliament. Founded in 1999, the Parliament has 129 members. Click the tab above to learn more about how the Scottish Parliament works.


{tab How does the Scottish Parliament work?}

The Scottish Parliament was founded in 1999 following devolution (the delegation of power from the UK Government to Scotland). The Parliament is a unicameral legislature – this means it is a law-making body with just one chamber.

While the Parliament building was being constructed, the Parliament was temporarily housed in the General Assembly Hall of the Church of Scotland. It later moved to a debating chamber in Glasgow and then to the University of Aberdeen, before settling at its new building in Holyrood in 2004. The Parliament is located in the Holyrood area of Scotland’s capital city, Edinburgh – as such, the Parliament is often referred to as ‘Holyrood’.

The Parliament is democratically elected and has 129 members known as Members of the Scottish Parliament (MSPs). Each MSP is elected for a four-year term.

  • 73 MSPs represent individual constituencies (geographical areas of Scotland)
  • 56 MSPs are elected from eight regions, with each region electing seven MSPs.

The most recent General Election to the Parliament was held in 2016 and the next General Election to the Scottish Parliament is expected to be held in May 2021. Elections had been due to take place in 2020, but were delayed due to the Coronavirus pandemic.


{tab What powers does the Scottish Parliament have?}

The Scottish Parliament has a range of powers – too many to display here. Over time, Scotland has been given increased powers.

‘Reserved matters’ are matters which are reserved so that only the UK Parliament can rule on them. For example, foreign policy is a reserved matter for the UK Parliament.

Any matters that are not reserved are automatically devolved to the Scottish Parliament, allowing it to make laws on these topics. Some examples of matters that the Scottish Parliament can control include;

  • Tourism
  • Legal System
  • Education
  • Food Standards
  • Police and Fire Services
  • Health
  • Agriculture
  • Sport
  • Arts
  • Many Areas of Transport

A key example of devolved powers in Scotland can be seen during the COVID-19 Coronavirus pandemic. During the pandemic, the UK went into lockdown, with people told to stay at home and much of the economy being forced to close for months.

Scotland, with powers over Health and a range of other measures, decided to generally take a more cautious approach to easing lockdown measures than the rest of the UK. For example, while schools reopened ahead of the summer break in England and Wales, they remained closed for most pupils in Scotland. Scotland also implemented some measures ahead of England and the other countries in the UK, such as with making wearing face masks mandatory in shops.


{tab How does the Scottish Government work?}

Much like the UK Government, the Scottish Government has a Cabinet and civil servants who work for the Government. The structure is though slightly different.

Instead of having a Prime Minister, Scotland has a First Minister – the current First Minister is Nicola Sturgeon. The Cabinet is the main decision-making body of the Government.

The Scottish Cabinet is made up of the First Minister, Minister for Parliamentary Business, a Permanent Secretary and Cabinet Secretaries. Cabinet Secretaries are supported by Ministers (sometimes known as Junior Ministers), in a somewhat different structure to the UK. 

Cabinet Meetings are usually held at the official residence of the First Minister, Bute House in Edinburgh.

Hover over the photos of the First Minister and Cabinet Secretaries below to learn more.

{module ScotlandKeyPeople}

Photos are credited to the Scottish Government under licence (CC BY-NC 2.0)


{tab Independence Debate}

Scotland has been part of Great Britain since 1707 but there have long been calls for Scotland to become an independent country once again.

In 1934, the Scottish National Party (SNP) was founded and in the late-1940s, 2 million people signed the Scottish Covenant, a document calling for ‘home rule’ (devolution) in Scotland. Despite the petition, devolution to Scotland was not taken too seriously in England until the 1970s, at which point the SNP were putting even more pressure on the government, then headed by Labour’s James Callaghan.

In 1979, a referendum was held to decide whether there was significant support for a Scottish Assembly. The Assembly would have given Scotland a list of powers, with these being devolved from the Government in Westminster. In the referendum, a small majority of votes were cast in favour of the Assembly, though this had no effect due to too few people voting in the referendum.

In 1997, a second Scottish referendum on devolution was held, as had been promised by the Labour Party in their election manifesto. Over 74% said they were in favour for a Scottish Parliament, and so The Scotland Act of 1998 established the new Scottish Parliament, which held its first elections in 1999.

Scotland now had many more powers, including the power to make laws on a variety of matters that were previously decided in Westminster. However, the Scottish National Party won the Scottish Parliament election of 2007 as the largest party – part of their manifesto committed to hold a Scottish independence referendum in 2010. Proposals for a referendum were not particularly well supported in the Scottish Parliament, leading to the Scottish government ending their attempt in September 2010.

In the 2011 Scottish Parliament Election, the SNP stated again a commitment to hold an independence referendum.  A referendum was later arranged and a date was set for 18 September 2014.

Before the referendum could take place, there was debate over whether the referendum would be legal. The referendum related to the Constitution, which usually only the UK Parliament would have the powers over. The UK Government agreed to let the referendum take place (with UK Prime Minister David Cameron supporting the “No” campaign) and the Electoral Commission reviewed the referendum question, which was amended to “Should Scotland be an independent country”.

At the time, the referendum was cited as a “once in a generation event” the results of the referendum saw the “No” campaign win with 55% of the vote.

Despite the referendum being cited as a “once in a generation event”, there have been calls for another referendum in recent years and these calls have only grown as a result of the 2016 EU Referendum. Scotland voted to remain in the EU, however, the UK as a whole voted to leave, leading to the whole of the UK leaving the union on 31 January 2020.

The SNP have continued calls for another independence referendum, with party also wanting the country to rejoin the EU. UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson has repeatedly said that he will not allow another referendum on Scottish independence. As a result, there are often high tensions between the SNP and Government in the House of Commons, with the SNP often saying they feel Scotland has been left out or would do better as an independent nation.

In the debate on Boris Johnson’s post-Brexit trade deal with the European Union on 30 December, SNP MPs made clear their unhappiness with the deal and issued further calls for Scottish independence.



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