David Moon teaches history at the University of Durham in England. From 1999 to 2005, he taught at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow (Scotland).
On 12 May 1999, the new Scottish Parliament met in Scotland’s capital city of Edinburgh. The parliament elected Sir David Steel as its Presiding Officer1 (or Speaker). In his opening speech, Sir David made a direct connection between the new Scottish Parliament and the last Parliament to meet in the Scottish capital in 1707. In that year, the Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh and the English Parliament in London voted for the Act2 of Union. The Act united Scotland, England (and Wales) to form a new state: the United Kingdom of Great Britain. Scotland retained its own church, education and legal systems, but ceased to exist as an independent state. From 1707 until 1999, all important decisions about Scotland were taken by the British parliament and government in London.
Historians and politicians have debated whether Scotland benefited from Union with England. On the one hand, from 1707, Scottish merchants were allowed to trade with colonies that had belonged only to England before 1707. As a result, the city of Glasgow developed as a major centre for trade with the American colonies. Glasgow merchants grew rich by importing American tobacco. In the nineteenth century, parts of Scotland became major industrial centres. Many of the ships for the Royal Navy were built on the river Clyde that flows through Glasgow. On the other hand, many talented Scots, for example James Watt who invented an improved steam engine, moved south to England. Scotland also suffered as the parliament and government in London seemed to be more concerned about England than Scotland.
The new Scottish Parliament building at Holyrood, formally opened on Saturday 9 October 2004.
From the nineteenth century, Scots began to demand that the British government took more account of Scottish interests. In 1885 a special department of the government, called the Scottish office, was created to administer some of Scotland’s affairs. But this did not satisfy Scots who wanted ‘home rule3’ or even independence from England. Scottish nationalist parties were founded in the 1930s. The first Scottish Nationalist MP (member of the British parliament) was elected in 1945. Since the 1960s the Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP) has had several MPs in London, and they began to make their voices heard. ‘Devolution4’ (transferring some powers from the British government to Scotland and Wales) became an important issue in British politics.
The home up to mid-2004 of the Scottish Parliament was New College, Old Town, Edinburgh.
The Labour party, which governed Britain between 1974 and 1979, was in favour of ‘devolution’. In 1978, the Scotland Act became law. The act would have allowed Scots to elect an Assembly, which would have been responsible for some areas of government in Scotland. A referendum was held in Scotland in 1979, but not enough Scots voted for the Assembly and it was never elected. Between 1979 and 1997, the Conservative party governed Britain. The party was strongly opposed to ‘devolution’. Nevertheless, support for a Scottish parliament in Scotland increased. Scottish politicians from several political parties united to campaign for a parliament in Edinburgh. The Labour party won the election in Britain in 1997 and was committed to creating a Scottish Parliament. A new referendum was held in Scotland in 1997, and 74% of the voters voted in favour of a Scottish parliament. A new Scotland Act was passed by the British parliament in 1998. The Act called for elections to be held for a Scottish Parliament, and for the parliament to elect a Scottish Executive5 and a First Minister6.
The current First Minister of Scotland is Jack McConnell.
Elections were held in Scotland in 1999. The new parliament has 129 members (MSPs). The Scottish electoral system is interesting. Scotland is divided into 73 constituencies7, each of which elects a single MSP. Candidates who win the most votes win, even if they do have fewer than half the votes. The Scottish electoral system differs from the system for the British parliament, because it includes an element of ‘proportional representation8’. Scotland is also divided into 8 larger regions, each of which elects 7 MSPs according to the numbers of votes received by each political party. This means that smaller parties that do not get enough votes to win individual constituencies, but do receive sufficient in the larger regions, are represented in the parliament. For example, the Green party, which campaigns for the environment, has members in the parliament elected by the regions, but not by individual constituencies. The system of proportional representation has made it difficult for one party to win an overall majority in the parliament. Thus, parties have to work together in the Scottish Executive. Since 1999, Scotland has been governed by a coalition of the Labour and Liberal Democratic parties. The first First Minister of Scotland was Donald Dewar, who died suddenly in 2000. The current First Minister is Jack McConnell.
The fact that Scotland now has its own parliament, executive and first minister does not mean it is independent from the rest of Britain. Scotland also elects members of the British parliament in London. The Scotland Act of 1998 carefully divided areas of government between the Scottish parliament in Edinburgh and the British parliament in London. The Scottish parliament is responsible for such matters as education, health, economic development, transport, the environment, and law and order. The British parliament, however, retains control of foreign policy, defence and financial policy in Scotland. Since 1999, the Scottish Parliament has passed a number of laws that are different from English laws. For example, unlike in England, students at Scottish universities do not pay fees while they are studying, but pay a special tax after they have graduated. It is interesting that the British parliament recently decided to introduce a similar system in English universities. Thus, the Scottish parliament takes important decisions about Scotland that take account of Scottish interests. Some Scots, however, are not satisfied with the new parliament. They want their parliament to have more powers, for example control over financial policy. There are still demands for complete independence for Scotland.
1 Presiding Officer – председатель парламента 2 Act – постановление 3 home rule – самоуправление 4 Devolution – автономия 5 Scottish Executive – шотландское правительство 6 First Minister – премьер министр 7 Constituency – избирательный округ 8 proportional representation – пропорциональное представительство