An Introduction to the Scottish Parliament
The Scottish Parliament was founded relatively recently, in 1999. Before then, matters affecting the Scottish people had all been decided by the MPs in Westminster. Historically, Scotland had had its own parliament, but it was dissolved in 1707 with the Acts of Union, which meant that all of the former parliament's powers over Scotland were transferred to London. Poet Robert Burns proclaimed at the time that the Scottish people had been "bought and sold for English gold". Almost 300 years later, in 1997, the Scottish people voted in favour of devolution, leading to the recreation of the Scottish Parliament just two years later.
Today, the parliament building stands in Edinburgh, at the bottom of the Royal Mile. It is free to visit, and debates going on in the chamber can be watched by members of the public. The Scottish Parliament is a devolved parliament, meaning that it is separate from the UK Parliament in Westminster, and it has control over many laws, matters, and policies which affect Scotland.
The Scottish Parliament vs. The Scottish Government
The Scottish Parliament and the Scottish Government are two different entities with differing areas of responsibility. The Scottish government is responsible for bringing into force new laws and policies in areas for which Scotland has devolved powers. The Sottish Government is made up of members of the Scottish Parliament, and the Scottish Government introduces most of the bills that are considered by the Scottish Parliament.
The Powers of the Scottish Parliament
The Scottish Parliament sits at Holyrood, in Edinburgh. It has power on all matters which are devolved to Scotland- in this context, "devolved" means that Westminster used to have these powers, but in recent years have handed over many regional responsibilities to the Scottish Parliament. What this means in practice is that the Scottish Parliament has power over many aspects of everyday life in Scotland, although it doesn't have jurisdiction on all matters. Issues, laws, and problems which affect the UK as a whole are voted on in the UK Parliament in London. The Scottish Parliament has control of what are known as "devolved matters", while the UK Parliament has control of "reserved matters". The distinction is important, because people living in Scotland need to know who holds responsibility for the issue they are interested in, so they can contact either their representative in Holyrood (their MSP), or their representative in Westminster (their MP).
If Scotland becomes an independent country in the future, it is likely that the Scottish Parliament will take on the responsibilities that are currently retained by Westminster.
What are the Devolved Matters?
These are the areas of Scottish life over which the Scottish Parliament has control. They include:
•Many transport issues
•Law and order
•Education and training
•Agriculture, Forestry, and Fisheries
•Social and healthcare services
•Sports and arts policy
What are the Reserved Matters?
The reserved matters are those which the Scottish Parliament doesn't have any control. They include:
•Social Security & Benefits
•Electricity, gas, oil, coal, and nuclear energy
•Trade and industry
Members of the Scottish Parliament are known as MSPs: they are elected locally in Scotland to represent local interests, and to decide on many laws which affect Scotland and the Scottish people. However, Scotland also elects MPs, or Members of Parliament, to represent the interests of the people of Scotland in the UK Government which sits at Westminster. MSPs' duties and responsibilities include the following:
•Introducing bills in order to make a change in the law
•Raising the profile of issues in the media
•Taking part in debates on proposed bills and other issues
•Taking issues up with local authorities, businesses, health boards, and other organisations
•Lodging motions to gather support for a debate in the chamber with the other MSPs
•Asking questions of the Scottish Government, and/or write to the relevant Minister or Cabinet Secretary
•Proposing an amendment to a bill which is going through Parliament
Despite being widely received as a great advantage for the people of Scotland, the Scottish Parliament has also been subject to some controversy. The first problem was the building itself: designed by a non-Scot, the modern aesthetic of the building has as many admirers as it has detractors (a Catalan architect, Enric Miralles, was selected to design the project, although sadly he died in 2000 before his work was completed). The location of the new parliament building also generated fierce debate. The building, like many others, also ended up taking more time than originally planned -it needed to be extended significantly from the original blueprints- and came in over-budget.
Another source of controversy has been what is known as The West Lothian Question. Due to procedures in place when the Scottish Parliament was set up, it was given authority over domestic matters which only affect England, Wales, and Northern Ireland, but MPs in Westminster from England, Wales, and Northern Ireland are unable to vote on matters which only affect Scotland. This perceived inequality has led to criticism from some quarters.
Voting Differences, and the Constituencies of Scotland
Unlike the UK Parliament in Westminster, whose MPs are selected using the First Past the Post system, Scottish MSPs are elected using a form of Proportional Representation known as Mixed Member Proportional Representation. In total, there are 129 MSPs, with 73 of them drawn from the 73 Scottish Parliament constituencies, and the remainder drawn from 8 electoral regions (Central Scotland; Glasgow; Highlands and Islands; Lothian; Mid Scotland and Fife; North East Scotland; South Scotland, and West Scotland). These remaining 56 MSPs are known as "List MSPs", and the idea behind this system is to make it more proportional- to better reflect the wishes of the Scottish electorate.
The Composition of the Scottish Parliament
The last election in the Scottish Parliament happened in 2011. The largest party by far was the Scottish National Party, which claimed the majority of the seats. The leader of the Scottish National Party, Nicola Sturgeon, is now the First Minister, and the head of the Scottish Government. Other parties, in descending order by number of MSPs elected, were: the Scottish Labour Party; the Scottish Conservative Party; the Scottish Liberal Democrats, and the Scottish Green Party. Collectively, all of these parties form the Scottish Parliament.