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Scotland and the Scots, 1707-2007

Christian Auer

XIII. The road to devolution

XIII. The road to devolution

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1The term devolution refers to the transfer of power from central to regional government. In the context of twentieth century Britain it is associated with the granting of more autonomy to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. It does not mean total independence. Devolution is a complex process since it tries to reconcile two conflicting principles: the preservation of the central feature of the British Constitution, the supremacy of Parliament, and the creation of structures responsible for domestic affairs.

2It is partly because of the efforts of the Liberal peer Lord Rosebery (1847-1929), who supported the idea of a separate minister for Scotland, that William Gladstone (1809-1898) introduced a bill in 1884 setting up the Scottish Office and re-establishing the post of Secretary for Scotland, with the Duke of Richmond and Gordon as the first Secretary. The post was given Cabinet status in 1892 by Gladstone but the Secretary’s responsibilities remained limited.

  • 1 Quoted in M. O’Neill, Devolution and British Politics, Harlow: Longman, 2004, p. 359.

3The first political nationalist movement in Scotland, the Scottish Home Rule Association, was founded in 1886 to secure national equality with England. In April 1894 a motion proposed by the MP for Kirkcaldy was passed in the House of Commons: “it is desirable, while retaining intact the power and supremacy of the Imperial Parliament, to establish a Legislature in Scotland for dealing with purely Scottish affairs.” Different bills or motions for home rule were presented to Parliament in the first decades of the twentieth century but none of them reached the committee stage. Growing nationalist sentiment throughout the twenties led to the formation of the National Party of Scotland in 1928, which became the Scottish National Party in 1934. In 1949 the Scottish Covenant Association was formed by the Duke of Montrose and John McCormick, a former SNP leader: the Association called for reform of the constitution of Scotland and for self-government within the United Kingdom. In 1954 the report of the Royal Commission on Scottish Affairs, chaired by the Earl of Balfour, pointed out that there was “emotional dissatisfaction” in Scotland due to English “thoughtlessness and lack of tact and disregard of sentiment”. The report added that there was a widespread feeling that national individuality is being lost and the treaty of 1707 is no longer remembered as the voluntary union of two proud peoples each with their own distinctive national and cultural characteristics and traditions, but rather as the absorption of Scotland by England.1

4Home rule became a major issue during the 1970s. The referendum on devolution that was organized in 1979 showed 33 percent in favour of devolution, below the 40 percent required by the Scotland Act of 1978. Devolution then slipped from the political agenda to reappear in the 1990s.

  • 2 In its manifesto the Labour Party had promised to hold a new referendum on devolution.

5Following the return of a Labour government in 1997 another referendum was organized on 11 September 19972. 74 percent of the electors answered yes to the question: “I agree that there should be a Scottish Parliament” and 63 percent to the question “I agree that a Scottish Parliament should have tax-varying powers”, a decisive victory for devolution. Shortly after the referendum the United Kingdom Parliament passed the Scotland Act of 1998 that created a Scottish Parliament and a Scottish Executive. The Scottish Parliament is responsible for most of its domestic policies, such as education, health, housing, transport, the environment and agriculture. It also has the power to raise or lower the basic rate of income tax by up to 3 percent.

6The Scotland Act contains safeguards to ensure that the Scottish Parliament does not abuse its powers. The United Kingdom Parliament retains the power of legislation of all matters involving the whole of the United Kingdom such as the constitution, the succession to the crown, the Parliament of the United Kingdom, the Union of England and Scotland, foreign affairs and the European Union.

7The system used for elections to the Scottish Parliament is a form of proportional representation (PR) known as the Additional Member System (AMS). Each voter has two votes, one to elect regional Members (56 across 8 regions) and the other to elect a constituency MSP (73) via the same First Past the Post system (the candidate who obtains more votes than anyone else is elected) used for elections to Westminster.

8The first elections to the Scottish Parliament took place on 6 May 1999, and on 1 July of that year power was transferred from Westminster to the new Parliament. The first administration, led by First Minister Donald Dewar, was a coalition of Labour and Liberal Democrats. In the third elections to the Scottish Parliament, which were held on 3 May 2007, the Scottish National Party won a historic victory. The SNP formed a minority government, with Alex Salmond as First Minister.


1 Quoted in M. O’Neill, Devolution and British Politics, Harlow: Longman, 2004, p. 359.

2 In its manifesto the Labour Party had promised to hold a new referendum on devolution.

© Presses universitaires de Strasbourg, 2013

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