Scottish Parliament - Yesterday and Today
Part 3: Long Road to Devolution
The new combined Parliament created by the Act of Union in 1707 consisted of 513 English MPs and 45 from Scotland. 16 Scottish peers were elected to sit in the House of Lords where there were 190 English peers. The House of Lords was now the ultimate court of appeal in legal matters, even though there was a separate Scottish legal system. Even so, in 1713 the Scottish peers introduced a bill to repeal the Union - which was only narrowly defeated. The march to devolution or even independence, had begun.
If Scotland had agreed to the union reluctantly in 1707, subsequent generations participated fully in the Westminster parliament. From 1707 until the end of the 20th century, nine of the 51 Prime Ministers were from Scotland (with a population for much of that time amounting to 9% of the United Kingdom). The Scottish attitudes of equality of man expressed in the Burns poem that "A man's a man for a' that" meant that they were in the forefront of pushing for a wider franchise. It is estimated that in the 1820s there were only 3,000 people entitled to vote in Scotland (the proportions were no better or worse in England). The Reform Act of 1832 increased that to 60,000 (all male) voters in a population of 1.1 million. But it was not until 1928 that there was more or less universal voting rights for all adults, including women. It is also perhaps no accident that one of the founding fathers the Labour Party was a Scot, James Keir Hardy.
In the 19th century, the number of Scottish MPs increased on three occasions so that by 1884/85 there were 72 Scottish representatives in a 658-seat House of Commons. Even in 1884, Scotland was over-represented in population terms and since then, the faster population growth in England has increased that disparity. Each Scottish MP now represents, on average, a population of 69,000. In England, that figure rises to 95,000. If Scottish MPs were based solely on population, there would be 58 instead of 72.
The Act of Union provided for the post of Secretary of State to administer local issues and represent Scotland at meetings of the inner Cabinet. Initially there was not much for the holder of the post to do and on occasions there was nobody appointed. At the end of the 19th century, the transfer of responsibility for education from the church to the state took place and the role of Secretary of State was revived and upgraded. The increased involvement of the state in many aspects of life, including health, environment, local government, prisons, industry, agriculture and fishing, caused the further expansion of the role - and the number of Scottish Office civil servants in support.
So Near and Yet So Far
If it had not been for the First World War, Scotland would have had a devolved Parliament in 1914. A Scottish Home Rule Bill had passed its second reading and the mood at the time was in favour of such a move - it was seen as natural development of the creation of the dominions in Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. It was also seen as a way of dealing with Scottish legislation (still on a separate basis from that in England) allowing Westminster to deal with "bigger issues". It was Winston Churchill, MP for Dundee and one of 56 Liberal MPs at that time, who put forward the Bill, which only fell by the wayside as a result of WW1.
Self Government or Devolution?
There were those who believed that the answer to Scotland's various ills could only be produced by self government and the focus for this became the Scottish National Party, which was officially formed in 1934. Their platform was not a devolved parliament but total self government - a position they maintain today. Many redoubtable Scots joined the party which became a major political force in Scotland after WW2.
In the Parliamentary election of 1974, no less than 11 Scottish Nationalist MPs were elected (out of 72) and there was a ground-swell of support for a greater level of autonomy in Scotland. In 1979, a government referendum was held in Scotland (by the then Labour Government lead by James Callaghan). The proposal was for a devolved assembly in Scotland. A 40% "Yes" vote was demanded - all those not voting were assumed to be voting "No". In the event, although there was a majority in favour, there was roughly a 33% vote for "Yes" and a similar number not voting and so the proposal fell by the wayside.
The government of Margaret Thatcher had no time for any ideas of devolution. But at the same time the Scottish electorate were becoming disaffected by Conservative rule and were returning fewer and fewer Conservative MPs to Westminster. There was a feeling of frustration - brought to a crescendo with a revision of the basis of paying local government taxes - the so called "Poll Tax". There were many who felt that such a situation should never be allowed to happen again. In the 1990s, the Labour and Liberal Democrat parties in Scotland joined a cross section of influential people in a "Constitutional Convention" which thrashed out proposals for a devolved Scottish Parliament. With some soul searching (they really wanted the break-up of the United Kingdom and total independence for Scotland) the Scottish National Party supported the call for a devolved Parliament in Scotland to look after its own internal affairs. Only the Conservatives continued to argue against such a devolved Parliament.
A referendum took place on 11 September 1997, 700 years to the day from William Wallace's victory over the English at the Battle of Stirling Bridge. The referendum posed two questions - "Should there be a Scottish Parliament?" and "Should the Parliament have tax varying powers?" Over 60% of the electorate voted and of these, 74.3% were in favour of a devolved Parliament and 63.5% in favour of tax "varying" powers (an increase or decrease of 3% on the basic rate of tax paid by those living in Scotland). There were, of course, regional variations - West Dunbartonshire had 84.69% voting "yes" while in the Orkney Islands the percentage fell to 57.29%.
Next page > Parliament Reconvenes > Page 1, 2, 3,4, 5.
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