Scotland was promised a referendum on devolution by the Labour Party in the build up to the 1997 election. This manifesto promise was carried out in 1997 just four months after the general election and a process of devolution was started for Scotland which lead to a Scottish Parliament based in Edinburgh coming into being in 1999.


Historical Background


Scotland was brought into a union with England in two stages. In 1603, James VI of Scotland became the legitimate heir to the English throne after the death of Elizabeth who left no heir herself. Therefore James became king of England and Scotland. After 1603, James rarely returned to Scotland. He died in 1625.

Scotland was fully brought into the Union with the Act of Union signed in 1707. Many Scots were against this and prior to the Act of Union the Scottish Parliament had rejected any such idea. However, their attitude changed when the English Parliament threatened to ban Scottish exports entering England therefore potentially bankrupting the Scots as England was their largest and most lucrative market.

The large Scottish landowners, which dominated the Scottish Parliament, relied heavily on exporting cattle to England and they faced certain economic ruin if the English carried out their threat. Though news of the impending Act of Union was met with riots in a number of Scottish towns, the Act of Union was passed in January though with no great enthusiasm in Scotland. Many Scots believed that England had effectively blackmailed the Scots into signing the Act: bankruptcy or sign. Therefore, the Act of Union and what it gave to Scotland was not well received from the start.

The terms of the Act of Union allowed Scotland to keep its own educational and legal systems. Scotland also had its own church. It had a Secretary of State in 1885 and since 1892, the Secretary of State has been a member of the Cabinet. The Scottish Office was set up in 1928.


Devolution for Scotland


In the run up to the 1997 election, Labour promised a referendum for Scotland on the issue of devolution. In September 1997, those who voted in this referendum clearly voted for a devolved Scottish Parliament. The turnout for this election was 60%.

The turn out might have been considered disappointing for those who wanted a clear national statement of support for devolution. Over one-third of those entitled to vote did not do so.

That there was support for devolution should have come as no surprise, as research by Marshall in 1994 indicated that 75% of Scots have wanted some form of devolved parliament since 1945.

In a 1997 poll, people in Scotland were asked whether they felt they were Scottish or British. They answered as follows:

Belief that they were Scottish – 28%

Belief that they were more Scottish than British – 35%

Belief that they were equally British and Scottish – 29%

Belief that they were more British than Scottish – 3%

Belief that they were British and not Scottish – 3%

No thoughts on the issue – 2%

Therefore 63% indicated that they felt that they were Scottish or more Scottish than British. Again, this would fit in with the Marshall model – those who felt that they were Scots would wish for their own Parliament.

The SNP (Scots Nationalist Party) had originally not supported the idea of devolution. However, their support in the 1997 election marginally dipped in terms of votes gained. Labour gained over 75% of the seats available in Scotland and after the election, the SNP changed its direction by agreeing to support the idea of devolution but as a stepping stone to full independence.

Those Scots who voted in the devolution referendum, also voted for the new parliament to have tax-varying powers.

This statement of public support for a Scottish Parliament in 1997, scheduled elections for the new Scottish Parliament for 1999. It was decided that

The new assembly would have the title “Parliament”. There would be 129 members to this parliament. Those elected to it would be called Members of the Scottish Parliament (MSP’s). The voting procedure would be a form of the Additional Member System. 73 MSP’s would be voted for using FPTP, while 56 MSP’s would be voted in using proportional representation. The most successful party would pick the Scottish First Minister (the post went to Donald Dewar, Labour) The First Minister would pick his/her cabinet. The new Parliament would have limited tax-varying powers of up to 3p in the £.

Elections to the new Scottish Parliament (1999)






Total seats

Vote %


Vote %














Lib Dems


















The prophets of doom claimed that devolution would lead to the break-up of Great Britain. MP John Redwood wrote a book entitled “The Death of Britain”; the BBC’s political correspondent Andrew Marr produced “The Day Britain Died”.

Has devolution lead to the break-up of the United Kingdom?

The main fiscal powers of government remain firmly embedded in London and the Scottish Parliament can only deal with Scottish issues rather than trespassing into issues involving other regions. Important issues affecting Scotland, such as foreign affairs and major financial policies are still dealt with by London. Scotland does have its own education system but it effectively had this before devolution.

It would be hard now to sustain an argument that devolution has brought on the break-up of the UK. It could be argued that it has strengthened ties as the enmity once felt in Scotland regarding the domination of London has now decreased be degrees. The 2001 election result did not show a great boost for the SNP as would have been expected if the bulk of Scottish voters still felt let down by the devolutionary process.

Has anything been achieved by devolution?

Devolution has meant that politics has become closer to the people in Scotland but Iain Macwhirter claims that Scotland has been swept “by a tidal wave of disillusion at the succession of disasters that have marred devolution’s infancy.” He also claims that there has been a “meltdown” in the Scottish public’s confidence in the devolutionary process.

However, it may simply be the case that too much was expected out of the Scottish Parliament too soon and that the whole bedding in process might take awhile longer than was at first anticipated. There has been no magical regional improvement in housing and the health system – but this takes money and the Scottish Parliament does not have major revenue collecting powers. However, the education system has seen stability with the Scottish teachers union coming to an agreement with the devolved government on terms of service – an agreement that was envied by the English and Welsh teaching unions and one which they could not achieve with the Education Department in London.

The Scottish Parliament had a less than stable first year. It had to face a hostile press – especially from the “Daily Record” and the “Scotsman” – over its handling of the tuition fees issue and the repeal of Clause 28. The most public anger came over the summer 2000 exam results whereby some pupils got the wrong results and others did not get any and faced the prospect of not going to a university of their choice as they did not have the entry grades. The head of the Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA) resigned but not the Member of the Scottish Parliament responsible for education, Sam Galbraith. There has been much public disquiet about the cost of the new parliamentary building at Holyrood. The sudden death of the Scottish First Minister, Donald Dewar, in October 2000, did not help to stabilise the Parliament. Dewar was rightly regarded as the elder statesman of the new Parliament and as a former Cabinet member of the Labour Government could command respect for his views in London. His death meant that the Scottish Parliament lost a valuable link to Downing Street.

But has the Scottish Parliament achieved anything?

In its first year it passed eight bills into acts and eleven bills were going through the parliamentary process. Therefore, in 12 months 19 issues relating to Scotland were either finalised or going through the process of being accepted or not. On average, the House of Commons passed one or two acts a year that directly related to Scotland. In this sense, the Scottish Parliament has been very successful.

In its second year, the Parliament is to discuss a programme on housing, domestic abuse, the regulation of care and protection of rape victims from cross-examination during a court trial, water services, salmon conservation and legislation concerning the European Convention of Human Rights. When the programme was announced it was considered to be dull and uninspiring but it received support from the “Herald” which wrote “a lot of it might be bread-and-butter fare but that is surely what government is all about, and it is something the executive is finally getting on with.” (15/09/00)

Prior to this in pre-devolutionary days, those who represented Scotland at Westminster could only present their issues within the forum of Westminster. Seven times a year Scottish Question Time was held. Now debate on uniquely Scottish affairs is a week-in week-out affair at Holyrood and Scottish issues can still be discussed at Westminster with Scottish MP’s representing their constituents there as well as MSP’s representing their constituents at Holyrood. In this sense, the Scots get a better ‘deal’ than their English counterparts as they have representation in two Parliaments.

Only time will show whether devolution has been a success for Scotland or not.


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