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Encyclopedia > Estates of Scotland
Scottish Parliament
Scottish Executive
First Minister
Presiding Officer
Lord Advocate
Solicitor General
Members of Parliament (MSPs)
Local government
Political parties
UK Parliament
Scotland Office
Secretary of State for Scotland

The Scottish Parliament (Pārlamaid na h-Alba in Gaelic, Scots Pairlament in Scots) is the national legislature of Scotland. The original Scottish Parliament (or Estates of Scotland) was abolished by the Act of Union 1707 to form a Parliament of Great Britain. The current Parliament was established by the Scotland Act 1998. The first meeting of the new Parliament as a devolved legislature was in 1999.


Today's Parliament

Constitution and powers

Construction continues on Enric Miralles' elaborate new complex for the seat of the Scottish Parliament in Holyrood park. Above and behind the new parliament is the neoclassical Royal High School, which was prepared for a previous devolved Scottish parliament, but never used.

Parliament was reconstituted as a body which deals with matters which have been devolved to it by the UK Parliament. The Scottish Parliament has the power to pass laws and has limited tax raising capability. Another of its jobs is to hold the Scottish Executive to account. The "devolved matters" over which it has responsibility include education, health, agriculture, and justice. A degree of domestic authority, and all foreign policy, remains with the UK Parliament in Westminster.

Although English MPs no longer vote on matters which have been devolved to the Scottish Parliament, there is no separate English Parliament and Scottish members of the UK Parliament continue to vote on domestic English issues. Why this should be so is the subject of the West Lothian question.

Current members

There are currently 129 Members of the Scottish Parliament (MSPs). The current state of the Parties is: (1999 seat totals are in italics):

  Scottish Labour Party: 50 - was 56
  Scottish National Party: 26 - was 35
  Scottish Conservative and Unionist: 18 - was 18
  Scottish Liberal Democrats: 17 - was 17
  Scottish Green Party: 7 - was 1
  Scottish Socialist Party: 6 - was 1
  Independents: 4 - was 1
  Scottish Senior Citizens Unity Party: 1

The Independent MSPs are Dennis Canavan (Falkirk West), Margo MacDonald (Lothians), Dr. Jean Turner (Strathkelvin and Bearsden), and Campbell Martin (West of Scotland).

Voting system

The elections for the Scottish Parliament were the first in the UK to use the Additional Member System (AMS), which is a method of proportional representation (although various forms of PR had already been used in EU Parliamentary elections, and in Northern Ireland for local councils and the Assembly).

Of the 129 MSPs, 73 are elected to represent First Past the Post constituencies, whilst the remaining 56 are elected by AMS. These 56 are elected in eight different electoral regions which correspond to the former European Parliament constituencies in Scotland, with each returning 7 MSPs. The eight regions are: Highlands and Islands; North East Scotland; Mid Scotland and Fife; West of Scotland; Glasgow; Central Scotland; South of Scotland; and Lothians.

One MSP is elected by the other MSPs to be Presiding Officer, a position similar to that of the Speaker of the House in the UK Parliament. The current Presiding Officer is George Reid.

The Parliament also elects a First Minister, who heads the Scottish Executive. In theory the Parliament also elects the members of the Executive, but in practice it is the First Minister who chooses them. The current First Minister is Jack McConnell.


Inside the debating chamber of the Scottish Parliament Building.

Since September 2004 the official home of the Scottish Parliament is a new Scottish Parliament Building at Holyrood designed by Catalan architect Enric Miralles with a distinctive roof in the shape of an upturned boat. The Queen opened the new building on 9 October 2004.

Whilst the building was being constructed the Parliament's temporary home was the General Assembly Hall of the Church of Scotland in Edinburgh. Official photographs and TV interviews were often held in the courtyard adjoining the Parliament, which is part of the School of Divinity at Edinburgh University.



The first Scottish Parliament arose during the early thirteenth century, and its first meeting (referred to as a colloquium) was at Kirkliston in 1235 in the reign of Alexander II. It functioned until the Act of Union merged the Parliaments of Scotland and England in 1707. Long seen as a constitutionally defective body that acted merely as a rubber stamp for royal decisions, research during the last decade has suggested that the pre-Union parliament played an active role in Scottish affairs, and was sometimes, particularly in the late medieval period, a thorn in the side of the crown.


The Scottish Parliament evolved during the middle ages from the king’s council of bishops and earls. It is perhaps first identifiable as a parliament in 1235, described as a ‘colloquium’ and already with a political and judicial role. By the early fourteenth century the attendance of knights and freeholders had become important, and from 1326 burgh commissioners attended. Consisting of the ‘three estates’ of clerics, lay tenants-in-chief and burgh commissioners sitting in a single chamber, the Scottish Parliament acquired significant powers over particular issues. Most obviously it was needed for consent for taxation (although taxation was only raised irregularly in Scotland), but it also had a strong influence over justice, foreign policy, war, and all manner of other legislation, whether political, ecclesiastical, social or economic. Parliamentary business was also carried out by ‘sister’ institutions, before c. 1500 by ‘General Council’ and thereafter by the ‘Convention of Estates’. These could carry out much business also dealt with by parliament—taxation, legislation and policy-making—but lacked the ultimate authority of a full parliament.

The Lords of the Articles

During much of its history, a great deal of business in the Scottish Parliament was carried out by the ‘Lords of the Articles’. This was a committee chosen by the three estates to draft legislation which was then presented to the full assembly to be confirmed. In the past historians have been particularly critical of this body, claiming that it quickly came to be dominated by royal nominees, and thus undermining the power of the full assembly. Recent research suggests that this was far from always being the case, at least during the fifteenth century. Indeed, in March 1482 the committee was taken over by men shortly to be involved in a coup d’etat against the king and his government.

Parliament before 1400

Between 1235 and 1286 little can be told with certainty about parliament's function, but it appears to have had a judicial and political role which was well established by the end of the century. With the death of Alexander III Scotland found itself without an adult monarch, and in this situation parliament seems to have become more prominent as a means to give added legitimacy to the council of Guardians who ran the country. By the reign of John Balliol (1292-96) parliament was well established, and Balliol attempted to use it as a means to withstand the encroachments of his overlord, Edward I of England. With his deposition in 1296, parliament temporarily became less prominent, but it was again held frequently by King Robert Bruce after 1309. During his reign some of the most important documents made by the king and 'community of the realm' were made in parliament - for instance the 1309-1310 Declaration of the Clergy - although the extent to which the 'community' was able to speak independently of the king is a matter of debate.

By the reign of David II the 'three estates' in parliament were certainly able to oppose the king when necessary. Most notably, David was repeatedly prevented from accepting an English succession to the throne by parliament.

During the reigns of Robert II and Robert III parliament appears to have been held less often, and royal power in that period also declined, but the institution returned to prominence, and arguably enjoyed its greatest period of power over the crown after the return of James I from English captivity in 1424.

The fifteenth century

After 1424 Parliament was often willing to defy the king—it was far from being simply a ‘rubber stamp’ of royal decisions. During the fifteenth century parliament was called far more often than, for instance, the English Parliament—on average over once a year—a fact that both reflected and augmented its influence. It repeatedly opposed James I’s (1424-1437) requests for taxation to pay an English ransom in the 1420s, and was openly hostile to James III (1460-1488) in the 1470s and early 1480s. In 1431 parliament granted a tax to James I for a campaign in the highlands on the condition that it be kept in a locked chest under the keepership of figures deeply out of favour with the king. In 1436 there was even an attempt made to arrest the king ‘in the name of the three estates’. Between October 1479 and March 1482 parliament was conclusively out of the control of the James III. It refused to forfeit his brother, the duke of Albany, despite a royal siege of the duke’s castle, tried to prevent the king leading his army against the English (a powerful indication of the estates’ lack of faith in their monarch), and appointed men to the Lords of the Articles and important offices who were shortly to remove the king from power. James IV (1488-1513), realised that parliament could often create more problems than it solved, and avoided meetings after 1509. This was a trend seen in other European nations as monarchical power grew stronger—for instance England under Henry VII, France and some of the Spanish Cortes Generales.

The sixteenth century

During the sixteenth century the composition of parliament underwent a number of significant changes and it found itself sharing the stage with new national bodies. The emergence of the Convention of Royal Burghs as the ‘parliament’ of Scotland’s trading towns and the development of the Kirk’s General Assembly after the Reformation (1560) meant that rival representative assemblies could bring pressure to bear on parliament in specific areas.

Following the Reformation, laymen acquired the monasteries and those sitting as ‘abbots’ and ‘priors’ were now, effectively, part of the estate of nobles. The bishops continued to sit in parliament regardless of whether they conformed to protestantism or not. This resulted in pressure from the Kirk to reform ecclesiastical representation in parliament. Catholic clergy were excluded after 1567 but protestant bishops continued as the clerical estate until their abolition in 1638 when parliament became an entirely lay assembly. An act of 1587 granted the lairds of each shire the right to send two commissioners to every parliament. These shire commissioners attended from 1592 onwards, although they shared one vote until 1640 when they secured a vote each. The number of burghs with the right to send commissioners to parliament increased quite markedly in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries until, in the 1640s, they often constituted the largest single estate in parliament.

The seventeenth century

In the second half of the sixteenth century, parliament began to legislate on more and more matters and there was a marked increase in the amount of legislation it produced. During the reign of James VI, the Lords of the Articles came more under the influence of the crown. By 1612, they sometimes seem to have been appointed by the crown rather than parliament, and as a result the independence of parliament was perceived by contemporaries to have been eroded. This decline was reversed in the Covenanting period (1638-1651), when the Scottish parliament took control of the executive, effectively wresting sovereignty from the king and setting many precedents for the constitutional changes undertaken in England soon afterwards. The Covenanting regime fell in 1651 after Scotland was invaded by Oliver Cromwell whose Commonwealth government imposed a brief Anglo-Scottish parliamentary union in 1657.

The Scottish Parliament returned after the Restoration of Charles II to the throne in 1660, and, although initially docile, gradually came to exert considerable influence over the Crown—removing the clergy's right to attend in 1689 and finally abolishing the Lords of the Articles in 1690. Parliament's strength was such that the Crown turned to corruption and political management to undermine its autonomy. Nonetheless, the period from 1690 to 1707 was one in which political "parties" and alliances were formed within parliament in a maturing atmosphere of rigorous debate. The disputes over the English Act of Settlement, the Scottish Act of Security, and the English Alien Act showed that both sides were prepared to take considered yet considerable risks in their relationships. It is an oversimplification to claim, as Robert Burns memorably did, that the Union of England and Scotland (and hence the dissolution of the Scottish Parliament) was brought about by the Scots members being "bought and sold for English gold", but bribery and parliamentary division combined with wider economic imperatives, partly arising from the disaster of the Darien Scheme to enable the Crown to attain a majority in favour of Incorporating Union with England in the Act of Union 1707.

The new Parliament

For the next three hundred years the Scottish Parliament remained an important element in Scottish national identity, and suggestions for a 'devolved' parliament were made as early as the late 1900s.

The triggering event that caused an increase in Scottish nationalism was the discovery of oil in the North Sea in the late 1960s. Scottish nationalists began to argue that the funds from this oil were not benefiting Scotland as much as they should.

The 1979 Scotland referendum to establish a devolved Scottish Parliament failed. Although a slim majority of voters voted for the Parliament, the referendum failed to reach the 40% of the total electorate threshold deemed necessary to pass the referendum. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s demands for a Scottish Parliament grew in part because the government of the United Kingdom was controlled by the Conservative Party while Scotland itself elected very few Tory members of Parliament. Devolution became part of the platform of the Labour Party and in May 1997, the Labour Party under Tony Blair took power.

In September 1997 a referendum of the Scottish electorate secured a large majority in favour of the establishment of a new devolved Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh. An election was held in May 1999, and power was transferred from Westminster on 1 July 1999 to the new Parliament in its temporary home in the General Assembly Hall on the Royal Mile.

At the first meeting of the Parliament in July 1999, the "mother of Parliament" Winnie Ewing, sitting by virtue of being the oldest MSP at the time, declared that the Scottish Parliament, which had been adjourned in 1707, was now reconvened, thus explicitly proclaiming a connection with the previous body.


The Parliament has been criticised for various reasons, both pragmatic and ideological. Since 1999, the death in office of Donald Dewar, Scotland's first First Minister, and the resignation brought on by a business conflict of interest of his sucessor Henry McLeish, have meant that the first years of the parliament have not been easy. The escalating costs of the construction of the new parliament building have led to widespread criticism, while others still object to the alleged additional influence that the institution gives to the Scottish Electorate (see West Lothian Question). Popular arguments against the parliament before the UK general election of 1997, levelled mainly by the Conservative Party, were that the Parliament would create a slippery slope to Scottish independence, and provide the pro-independence Scottish National Party with a route to power. John Major, the Tory prime minister before May 1997, famously claimed the parliament would end '1000 years of British history', although the political entity of Great Britain was still less than 300 years old at the time. The equally pro-Union Scottish Labour Party met these criticisms by claiming that devolution would fatally undermine the SNP, and remedy the long-felt desire of Scots for a measure of self-government.

Perhaps the main criticism of the parliament as it enters its second term is that it has not changed Scotland enough. For many the entire point of devolution was that things could be done differently. Expectations that Scottish government would dramatically change as a new, non-confrontational, politics took hold in Holyrood have been disappointed, but were arguably based on naīve perceptions of the nature of politics. Adversarial politics is still commonplace after devolution, and frequently overshadow events at Holyrood. Moreover, the electorate has twice chosen a moderate centre-left (some would claim centre-right) executive, in voting predominantly for the Labour Party. The acid test in judging the success or failure of the parliament may not be to measure whether it is well loved by Scots, but whether, given the opportunity, they would vote to abolish it. Polling continues to show that they would overwhelmingly vote to keep it.

Miralles' new Scottish Parliament building opened for business on the 7 September 2004, three years late. The estimated final cost is 431 million pounds including fees, VAT etc (including almost 50 million pounds of VAT alone). The White Paper in 1997 estimated that a new building would have a net construction cost of 40 million pounds, although this was prior to the choice of a site, an architect, or even an outline design. This has led critical media (mostly unionist anti-devolutionists) and critical politicians (mostly fundamentalist nationalist anti-devolutionists) to claim the final building is "ten times over budget". Miralles' building in fact was originally costed at 109 million pounds, prior to major increases in space. Lord Fraser's Inquiry reported on the 15 September 2004 and identified the choice of the construction management procurement route as the main factor in the increase. This was portrayed as clearing Donald Dewar of any blame. The cost of the building remains more controversial than any of the decisions the parliament has taken. Dewar called a previous site, the Royal High School in Edinburgh, a "nationalist shibboleth", and refused to countenance it.

See also

External links

  • Home page of the Scottish Parliament (http://www.scottish.parliament.uk/)
  • The Scottish Parliament (Scots version) (http://www.scottish.parliament.uk/vli/language/scots/index.htm)
  • Scotland Act 1998 (http://www.legislation.hmso.gov.uk/acts/acts1998/19980038.htm)
  • The Scottish Parliament Project (http://www.st-andrews.ac.uk/~scotparl/)
  • Holyrood Inquiry Homepage (http://www.holyroodinquiry.org)

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