|Jorge Aliaga Cacho en Escocia|
The Nature of the Scottish Political System
By Jorge Aliaga Cacho
William the Conqueror realized that geography made a conquest of Scotland impossible. A show of strength, however, would help put the Scottish King in his place. In 1072, William took an army and navy to the firth of tay, and Abenethy Malcolm III became the English King’s ‘man’. To make sure of peace Malcolm’s eldest son was taken off to be brought up in England”.
I thought it would be useful to start this discussion reflecting upon Tom Steel’s assertion quoted above: it shows us Scotland, historically, in a position of political dispute with its English counterpart. The nature of the Scottish political system therefore did not originate in 1707 with the Act of Union, but is based on traditions, structures of power and cultural values which already existed before the time of William the Conqueror.
Professor J.G.Kellas in his book “The Scottish Political System” argues that the Act of Union of 1707 tried to divide the field of action of ‘British’ and Scottish Law and he also recognises the historical influence of the ‘Royal Burghs’ in the present structure of local authorities. The singular position of Scotland in relation to the United Kingdom as a whole and its differences with Wales, Northern Ireland and indeed England, is based on historical grounds which brought into existence political and social institutions which survive to the present day.
During David I’s reign Scotland attempted to achieve a national system of justice and administration. The most powerful instrument the king had by his side was the church. Church and State in feudal Scotland were indivisible. The nature of the Scottish political system is fed by the inheritance received from its past. Kellas asserts that: ‘the legal system of Scotland is one of the strongest clues to the existence of the Scottish political system’, (p.3). If we accept this argument as valid then the historical background with which we introduced this essay is, in my view, also valid, and of vital significance, to the topic under discussion. Furthermore, I would say that politics in Scotland are related to the development of its culture and more particularly its political culture. Scotland does not possess a government or a Parliament of its own. However, it has a significant number of political and social institutions and, more importantly, I think, Scotland possesses a strong feeling for its constitutional, probably, ‘political’ role.
The ‘fundamental law’ joining Scotland and England is The Act of Union of 1707. Ironically, this takeover did not affect the institutions which we can say made Scotland owner of its own identity. I refer to the Scottish legal system, the Presbyterian Church of Scotland, the Scottish educational system, and the ‘Royal Burghs’ (local authorities). These powerful institutions are the ones which inherited the Scottish past experience and in Kellas’ own words: ‘became transmitters of Scottish national identity from one generation to the next’, (page 2). At the beginning there was a Secretary of State for Scotland in the government. Later, in 1746 this position was dropped leaving the chief Scottish law officer, the Lord Advocate, as the main representative in the executive for Scottish affairs. Later in 1885 the Scottish office was created due to the development of Scottish administrative boards and also because of the rising of national feeling. The Scottish Secretary was to become a permanent member of the Cabinet. The fact that Scotland has a separate legal system required a separate legislation for Scotland. Therefore, the people from Scotland have many laws which are exclusive to Scotland, and the law courts are different from the rest of Britain, with the only exception that in civil cases the final court of appeal is the House of Lords in its judicial capacity. However, Scottish courts decide all other cases whether under Scots law or ‘British’ law. The Lord Advocate and the Solicitor General for Scotland are the representatives of the Scottish legal system in government, but the Lord Advocate is not the same as the Lord Chancellor in England and Wales: the difference is that Scotland has its own qualifications and traditions to appoint the Head of the Scottish judiciary which is recruited separately from that of England. The position in Scotland is held by the Lord President of the Court of Session (the supreme Scottish court).
Apart from its own institutions in the executive, legislative, and judicial spheres of government, Scotland also has a number of party organisations, pressure groups, and advisory bodies. It is true that, since the introduction of the Act of Union, political institutions in Scotland were not encouraged. However, it is also true that the Scottish MPs were to be, but not in proportion to population, members of the House of Commons and most of them are primarily interested in issues affecting Scotland. The commitment of the Scottish MPs to the solutions of the problems affecting its constituencies led to the creation of the Scottish Grand Committee (1984) in order to deal with the Scottish Bills. Today there are several Scottish committees of the House and during each year a number of Scottish Bills are passed in Parliament.
Having mentioned these peculiarities and differences in Scotland now the question rises: are these peculiarities and differences elements of a Scottish political system or a political sub-system? Kellas argues that: ‘it can be said that any territorial local authority was a sub-system of the central authority. Since Scotland is not a local authority in British terms, it would have to be a super-sub-system or territorial type’. For Kellas the concept of system is more appropriate, having in consideration the scale and nature of the phenomena in Scottish politics. However, political scientists like Keating and Midwinter consider that: ‘it is doubtful whether Scotland can be considered a political system when the main Scottish political institutions are UK institutions and authority and power are still retained and concentrated at Westminster and Whitehall’. Kellas believes that only devolution would provide Scotland with a political system in this sense, and even then it would still be the case that ultimate power was retained in London.
I consider that there is a need to look at the Scottish political system in a more direct way. If we imagine all the elements of its structure and then consider their functions in isolation we could generate a better picture.
Talcott Parsons writes: ‘When the system and its units are looked at ‘statically’, i.e. as objects in abstraction from the processes going on within the system, then these norms define the qualities of the object and the sub-objects or ‘parts’ of which it is composed’. (“Essays in Sociological Theory”, p.397) . My own view is that the sub-system term is not the most appropriate to define the Scottish phenomena. However, it is my point of view that we should not overestimate the role of the Scottish political system or indeed the ‘British’ one in relation to the European Parliament. If we do not accept the existence of a Scottish political system in its own right we could, using the same arguments, state that the ‘British’ political system does not exist in relation to the European Parliament. National parliaments usually possess three main powers: the first one, to dismiss the government; the second one to grant or withhold supply: i.e., vote the budget; and thirdly; to participate in law-making. Despite the fact that there is no Community government, the European Parliament has, in some measure, the three main powers mentioned above. The possibility that small nations may find a new role in a more integrated Europe has created a new confidence in Scotland’s aspiration for self-determination.
This new energy for self-government is no longer only about 1970s-style devolution, but support for ‘independence’ is increasing across the board including in the ranks of the Conservatives, half, support either devolution or independence and despite the Conservative Party’s opposition to Home Rule. Among the Labour party supporters 36% back ‘independence’; and in the SNP the percentage of support is bigger (55%), and 60% of Alliance supporters back devolution. (1987, MORI). In general the opinion poll support for ‘independence’ runs around 35% and between 18 and 25 year-olds it is closer to 50%. This new reality has found expression in the Scottish Constitutional Convention which represents 80% of the Scottish people through their institutions and organisations. ‘The Constitutional Convention has created the basis for new relationship between political parties, including the Labour Party, The Democrats, the Communist Party, the SNP and a broad movement in society, including the churches’. (Manifesto for New Times 1990 – “Marxism Today”).
Devolution for Scotland, in my view, would have a deep effect on the Status Quo, changing the nature of the political system of Britain. England itself could aspire its own devolution and questions like how is it that Scots have the right to vote in English Parliament and not the English in the Scottish one?, or how is England going to reconcile the English Parliament –if achieved- with- that of the United Kingdom. Other change under devolution would be the end of ‘imposition policies’ for Scotland like the poll tax, school boards, Health Service, housing, etc. The Scottish Parliament would have the authority to consider these policies. Under devolution a Scottish Parliament would also have to consider an increase in revenue or a reduction in spending to end the subsidy to Scotland on devolved services from the UK which at present stands at 30% per head higher in Scotland than in England. The continuation of this subsidy could create resentment on the part of England.
For the Scottish Constitutional Convention devolution will deliver a directly elected Scottish Parliament with a UK Parliament covering UK concerns. A Scottish Parliament whose powers would guarantee by law, and could only be altered with the consent of The Scottish Parliament, not by Westminster alone. Devolution would provide for Scotland’s Government the right to be represented in UK ministerial delegations to the Council of Europe; a Parliament which would recognise the unique Character of the Scottish islands and its Councils. The financial aspect of the Scottish Parliament would seek financial powers and flexibility, power to vary income tax rates within clearly defined limits and it would be assigned all Scottish income tax and VAT. In the economic and social aspect Scotland’s Parliament would also seek powers including: National Health Service, Social Security and Welfare, education –including universities-, vocational training, land use and planning, housing, industrial development, tourism, environmental conservation, agriculture, fisheries and forestry, electricity generation, legal system, transport, highways, Police and Fire Service, water, etc.
‘Independence in Europe’, on the other hand, proposes that Scotland could aspire to ‘independence’ in the European Community and also the possibility of becoming a state. These factors could give Scotland the chance to become better off –or worse off- economically and socially, I would suggest the first option, would be more likely. Independence in Europe’ (SNP) or ‘independence outside Europe’ (Green Party) or indeed other options, its income, spending and welfare would determine its progress and its oil revenues could even made Scotland richer but this could endanger its relations with England when trying to secure such revenue. ‘Independence in Europe’ could, also, bring the reorganisation of political and social institutions according to the new political geography.
With the federal system Scotland would differ from the devolutionist one by its attack on central sovereignty and its total scope covering the entire state. Despite the fact that there are already federal features in the British Constitution with regard to Scotland, coming from the perpetual guarantees in the 1707 Act of Union, however given the dominant position of England: 84% English population against 9% Scottish, the federal system would not be easily introduced in Scotland. Perhaps a solution to the last problem would be to divide England into regions making each of them a federal unit, but this system in England would be difficult to implement because a suitable infrastructure of institutions, laws, etc. does not exist.
To conclude I would like to define my option: Kellas thinks that in today’s Scotland there are only ‘a limited number of policy areas where Scots are determined to act independently of England’. He thinks the allocation of ‘British values are acceptable to Scotland in many important respects’. He compares the political culture of Northern Ireland placing it far apart from its Scottish counterpart. He states that politics in Scotland are not dominated by religion, although he recognises that there do exist special correlations between religion and voting in Scotland. Kellas argues that in Scotland there is no fundamental challenge to the constitution despite the SNP. I would like to emphasize that ‘independence’ is an evolutionary process and that the dynamic of the Scottish political arena will determine whether ‘devolution’, ‘independence’ or indeed federalism would best serve the interests of the Scottish nation.
Jorge Aliaga Cacho, Glasgow, January 1991.
This essay was written in 1991. Scotland gained its own Parliament in 1997.
1 CPGB, “Manifesto for New Times”, Marxism Today, 1990.
2 DOD’S “Parliamentary Companion”, 1987.
3 Gow, David, “The Red Paper on Scotland”, EUSPB, 1975.
4 Hanham, H.J. “Scottish Nationalism” Faber and Faber, 1969.
5 Keating, M., Bleiman D., “Labour and Scottish Nationalism”,
Macmillan Press Ltd, 1979.
6 Kellas, J.G.. Articled in “Parliamentary Affairs”, Oxford
University Press, October 1990.
7 Kellas, J.G. “The Scottish Political System”, Cambridge 1989.
8 Parsons Talcott, “Essays in Sociological Theory”, Free Press 1964.
9 Steel, T. “Scotland’s Story”, 1984.