Scottish Parliament - guide


'There shall be a Scottish Parliament' Scotland Act 1998, section 1(1)

The Scottish Parliament has the authority to initiate and pass primary legislation and to vary the basic rate of income tax by up to three pence in the pound from the UK-wide rate.

The transfer of powers from London to Edinburgh took place on July 1st 1999, when the Parliament was officially opened by the Queen following its first meeting on May 12th. Elections had been held on May 6th as required by the Scotland Act 1998, which brought the parliament into existence.

Labour had made a manifesto commitment in its 1997 manifesto to hold a referendum on Scottish devolution and on tax-varying powers. After the May 1997 landslide, a White Paper was published in July. A referendum was held on September 11th 1999 in which 74.3 per cent of voters endorsed proposals for a Parliament and 63.5 per cent backed tax-varying powers on a turnout 60.1 per cent of the electorate.

Scotland had shared a Parliament with the rest of the United Kingdom since the Act of Union in 1707. The Scottish Office - the first recognition of Scotland as a distinct entity in UK government - was formed in 1885. The first secretary of state for Scotland (George Trevelyan) was appointed the following year.

The next key date was 1979. The government of James Callaghan held a referendum on self-government. Although a majority of those who voted backed the proposal, a low turnout meant that the 'yes' vote did not represent the required 40 per cent of the potential vote and the plan was shelved.

The Scottish Office was subsumed into the Department for Constitutional Affairs in 2003.

The Scotland Act 2012 implements changes to the devolution settlement for Scotland as recommended by the Calman Commission.  


The Parliament is made up of 129 elected MSPs, elected by the additional member system, a form of proportional representation. Elections are normally held every four years on the first Thursday in May. Anyone who can stand for election to the House of Commons may stand for election to the Parliament. Peers may also stand.

Each voter has two votes - one for a constituency and one for a member from a regional list.

For the first vote, Scotland is divided into 73 single member constituencies, which are the same as those for UK general elections. Voting is the same as in UK general elections using the first-past-the-post system in which the candidate with the most votes, though not necessarily the majority of votes, is returned as an MSP.

The second vote is more complicated. Scotland is split into eight regions - Highlands & Islands, North East Scotland, Mid Scotland & Fife, West of Scotland, Central Scotland, Glasgow, Lothians and South of Scotland. Each region returns seven MSPs. Before the election each political party chooses a list of candidates for each region. A candidate in a single member constituency can be on a party's list for a region. Candidates on a party's regional list are arranged in the party's order of preference, with the candidate that the party would most like to see elected placed first.

In the second vote, votes are cast for parties. The number of MSPs returned for each party in each region is shared out in proportion to the share of the vote received by each party. If a candidate on a party's list has already been returned in a single member constituency, the next candidate on the list is successful. Parties use this 'closed' list system as a form of insurance policy to ensure that key candidates have a better chance of becoming an MSP.

If a constituency member resigns or dies, then a by-election is held. If a regional member resigns or dies then the vacant seat is taken by the next person on the regional list for that party.

The Queen officially opens the Parliament after each election but her address is not a 'Queen's speech' in the Westminster sense - the First Minister outlines the legislative programme in a speech to Parliament. A presiding officer is elected by MSPs at the first meeting after an election.

The first elections to the Parliament were held on May 6th 1999. Further elections were held on May 1st 2003. The first meeting of the Parliament was on May 12th 1999. The Queen officially opened the Parliament for the first time on July 1st 1999.


The Scottish Executive (or cabinet) is made up of the First Minister, the two law officers (the lord advocate and the solicitor general) and other Scottish ministers.

The party or coalition of parties with the majority of seats in the Parliament forms the executive. The First Minister is elected by MSPs and is normally the leader of the majority party or the lead party in a coalition. Because the electoral system makes an overall majority for one party unlikely, the First Minister is normally elected by a coalition of parties that have agreed to form the Executive. This coalition would normally include the largest party. In both 1999 and 2003, Labour formed the executive with the Liberal Democrats.

The First Minister nominates MSPs to be Scottish ministers and junior ministers. Their names are then agreed or rejected by a vote in Parliament. The First Minister also recommends the appointment of two law officers to the Queen. The law officers may or may not be MSPs and normally they are not. For the duration of their appointment, they are considered to have the same status as MSPs but they do not vote in Parliament.

The 1998 Act devolved control over policy and the implementation of UK statute in areas that were not specified as 'reserved' by the Act inasmuch as they extend to Scotland or are wholly within Scotland.

These are the reserved areas in which the Parliament has NO powers:

Constitution (succession, the union, treason)
Registration and funding of political parties
Foreign affairs and human rights
Civil service
Defence and armed forces
Fiscal, economic and monetary policy
Regulation of financial services and markets, money laundering
Drugs laws
Data protection
Electoral law
Film and video classification
Immigration and nationality
Animal testing
Gambling and lotteries
Business associations (including insolvency provisions) but not charities
Competition regulation
Intellectual property law
Import and export controls
Sea fishing outside the Scottish zone except in relation to Scottish registered vessels
Consumer protection and product standards and safety
Weights and measures
Telecommunications and wireless telegraphy
Post office and postal services
Scientific research councils
Designation of assisted areas under industrial development legislation
Protection of trade interests
Electricity, oil and gas, nuclear and coal industries
Energy conservation
Driving and vehicle standards
Provision and regulation of rail services
Maritime transport except ports and harbours and Highlands and Islands transport
Aviation except certain Scotland-only functions
Transport of radioactive material
Social security, child support, occupational and personal pensions
War pensions
Regulation of professions
Employment and industrial relations
Health and safety at work
Job search and support
Embryology, surrogacy and genetics
Medicines, medical supplies and poisons
Broadcasting and the BBC
Public lending right
Property accepted in satisfaction of tax
Judges' pay
Equal opportunities
CBN weapons control
Ordnance Survey
Outer space

These are the areas in which the parliament has powers inasmuch as they extend to Scotland or are wholly within Scotland, although this list is not exhaustive:

Education, training, lifelong learning
Local government including electoral provisions
Social work
Economic development
Criminal and civil law
Criminal justice, prosecution and rehabilitation
Police and fire services
Environment and natural heritage
Built heritage
Agriculture and food

The Scotland Act 2012 provides for a number of further powers to be devolved to the Scottish Parliament.  These include powers to legislate on taxation, to regulate drink-driving limits and to determine the national speed limit.  Some of the changes will take immediate effect, whilst others, for example in relation to taxation, are expected to take considerably longer.

The UK Parliament remains sovereign and may therefore legislate on both devolved and reserved areas in Scotland.  However, in accordance with the Sewel Convention, the UK Parliament will not normally legislate on devolved matters without first obtaining the consent of the Scottish Parliament.


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