Scottish independence explained: Devolution of powers

With a second referendum on Scottish independence on the table, join us as we break down the key issues and historical context of the debate. Today, we examine the devolution of powers from Westminster to Holyrood. 

Scottish independence explained: Devolution of powers

"Devolution is the decentralisation of governmental power. Examples of devolution are the powers granted to the Scottish Parliament, the National Assembly for Wales, the Northern Ireland Assembly and to the Greater London and Local Authorities."

This definition of devolution can be found on the UK government website. To elaborate, devolution is the process in which political powers are granted to local governments. There is a significant amount of variation in this. A local council has some level of devolution, although this usually just means they have control over where their funding goes and how they run public services. When taken to a national context, devolution can have a much more significant impact. 

In the UK, Scotland currently has a higher amount of devolved powers than any other local government. This is because, in 1999, for the first time in almost 300 years, Scotland was granted its own parliament. Let's take a look at the context behind this monumental decision. 

Last time on Scottish Independence explained, we discussed the history of the Treaty of Union. During that recap, we touched on the shift in Scottish politics that took place after the Union of Crowns and the Treaty of Union, i.e: the majority of Scottish nobles and politicians left the country and went down to the English court. The Scottish Parliament was outright dissolved in 1707, which meant all Scottish issues were left to the British Parliament, which consisted of representatives from Scotland and England. Due to the proportional nature of this representation, almost all policies affecting Scotland were decided by England. This was a contentious issue, with many Scots unhappy with this sudden lack of autonomy. The 1700s saw several uprisings, most famously the 1745 Jacobite revolt. Many Scots who supported the uprising felt that if they could restore the Stuart dynasty, they would have more influence over the British Parliament. These revolts were crushed, and efforts were put in place to eradicate Scottish identity, including the banning of bagpipes and the systemic exclusion of Scots from official proceedings, but the sentiment behind the uprisings remained. 

997e63c07ab9145c92bd048f27344d7069b89ba6.png1745 Jacobite Uprising by All About History

Scotland did not gain any additional power until the creation of the Scottish Office and Scottish Secretary position in 1885, although these were largely symbolic measures with little political significance. It was not until much later that marked progress was made. 

After the election of the first Scottish National Party (SNP) MP in 1967 and Plaid Cymru's first by-election win the previous year, the UK government set up the Kilbrandon Commission to examine the union and assess whether or not there was a call for devolved parliaments. The findings of that commission were given in 1973, and indicated that a demand for Scottish devolution would increase in the coming years. A date was set on an official referendum proposing the creation of a Scottish Parliament, and in 1975, the vote was carried out across Scotland.  

The 1975 referendum saw a majority of the votes cast in favour of a Scottish Parliament, but the turnout was not above the requirement for the UK government to view the results as legitimate. 63.6% of eligible Scots took part in the vote, with a close result of 51.6% in favour of the proposition, and 48.4% against it. As the UK government required at least 40% of the entire Scottish electorate to vote in favour of the act, this was not enough to affirm the results. 

The issue would not be presented again until the 1997 referendum, which was promised as part of Labour leader Tony Blair's election manifesto. The vote once again saw a Yes majority, but this time the majority was significantly higher. Although turnout was worse than the 1975 referendum (60.4%), the results were much less narrow. 74.29% of participating voters backed the creation of a Scottish Parliament, whilst 25.71% rejected it, surpassing the 40% requirement. 

The Scottish Parliament was officially opened in 1999, after an election took place that same year. Scottish Labour held the most seats, with the SNP a reasonably close second. The first MSPs (Members of the Scottish Parliament) began governing in early July. The parliament building was constructed at the foot of Arthur's Seat, the building is often referred to as Holyrood. 

2d1065f82b37eb91923be006eaa8c17b3955809f.jpgHolyrood Parliament by Dun_Deagh

How are MSPs elected?

The system by which MSPs are selected differs in a number of ways from how the English and British electoral system works. MSPs are not the same as MPs, although it is possible for an MSP to also be an MP — this is referred to as a dual mandate. MSPs represent their constituencies in the Scottish Parliament and deal with devolved matters, MPs from Scotland represent their constituencies in the British Parliament and deal with reserved matters (see below). There are 129 MSPs in total. 

During a Scottish Election to determine who holds the seats in the Scottish Parliament, each member of the electorate has two votes. Their first vote is a constituency vote. This is to determine who represents their constituency and is a 'winner takes all' situation, or first past the post. If, for example, all the votes in the East Dunbartonshire constituency are counted and it is revealed that 48% of the vote went to Scottish Labour, and 52% went to the SNP, then the sole representative of that constituency will be from the SNP. 73 MSPs are chosen this way, each representing one constituency. 

The second vote contributes to a regional percentage. Scotland is divided into eight regions. Every member of the electorate in each region casts their second vote in favour of one political party, rather than a specific individual. These votes are counted up, and the political parties are granted additional MSPs based on the percentage of the regional vote they achieved. Each region yields seven MSPs, meaning 56 in total are chosen this way. This method allows for smaller parties that are unlikely to win constituency votes to gain seats in the Scottish Parliament. Historically, the Scottish Green Party do very well in the regional vote. 

To complicate things, a certain formula — the D'Hondt formula — is used to determine how the regional percentage equates to additional members. Essentially, a party's regional vote total is divided by the number of constituency seats they have already won. The more seats they gain through the constituency vote, the harder it is for them to win seats from the regional vote. The intention behind this is to make it near impossible for any one party to win an outright majority. In the most recent election, the SNP were one MSP off an outright majority, and therefore had to form a coalition with the Scottish Green party. 

Reserved and devolved powers

Since its inception, the Scottish Parliament has been able to grant Scotland a certain amount of autonomy, but there are still extremely significant areas of government that they do not have control over. These can be broken down into devolved and reserved powers.

Devolved Powers (Holyrood controlled)
Reserved Powers (Westminster controlled)
Agriculture, forestry, and fishing
Borrowing, lending, and investment
Sport and the arts


Some forms of taxation and limited borrowing powers



Benefits and social security



Law and policing

Foreign policy

Certain aspects of transport


Trade and industry
Health and social services
Land use planning

Scottish support for more devolution continues to grow to this day. With Boris Johnson declaring devolution "a disaster", and the proposed 'devo-max' promised by the unionist side during the 2014 independence referendum largely falling to the wayside, devolution will be the key issue in any upcoming debates. 

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Hamish Gray

Hamish Gray Kickstart

Hamish Gray is a recent English Literature and Creative Writing graduate with a deep passion for anything that grabs him, be it literature, film, video games or world culture. He is always looking to learn something new and tackles each experience with the unshakeable belief that good art can come from anywhere.

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