Calum Lindsay introduces you to the complicated quagmire that is Scottish Politics


As a means of welcoming you into your adopted home, The Tribe has put together a short introduction to the social and political happenings in your new adopted homeland. Consider it a sweeping, vague educational exercise to be used only if you find yourself cornered by a local in The Stables, or a rampant nationalist in The Whey Pat, or a crazy Tory in Ma Bells (perhaps the most likely of the three), so that you have some idea of what they might be talking about, and maybe some way to answer back.

Scotland the Brave

Firstly, the biggest mistake you can make is to assume that Scotland is a simple, homogeneous place purely because it is small; it seems fairly obvious so say it, but Scotland is an immensely complex place, existing as a country of 5 million, within a country of 60 million, within a European Community of around 500 million, governed by three parliaments with varying degrees and circles of power.  Such complexity brings with it an extremely high degree of nuance and variation in the way people in Scotland consider themselves in relation to each other and to the world.

There are those who see Scotland as a distinct country, a stateless nation robbed of its ability to determine its own course in the world; indeed, for the vast majority of its history as a nation, Scotland has been an independent state. Unionists, in contrast, see Scotland as an enclave, an almost federal region within the larger whole of the United Kingdom, which represents both the status quo and the normative ideal of this island’s social organisation. The constitutional future of Scotland is, in the long term, the biggest issue facing the country, and the root of a great deal of heated discussion and debate. The best way to deal with this is to pick a side and join in.

Next to this, the social context in Scotland sits in strong contrast to that of England, particularly the South and South-East, particularly in demographic make-up, class divisions and the resultant ideas and ideologies that hold sway. There is a strong argument that Scotland sits on the Leftier side of the Left; the cities in particular harbour strong Old Labour tendencies and relatively strong Socialist and even Communist grassroots movements; indeed, it is often said that without Scotland, Westminster would be permanently overrun by Tories, they have only a single MP in the 59 constituencies in Scotland.  Such feelings only increased with the advent of the New Labour government in 1997, in which the traditional Leftist Labour party moved to the centre-right and the mainstream parties drifted towards an homogeneous blob of middle-class, middle-England social conservatives, and away from the strong working-class feelings that survive up North. Alongside this, and in reaction to it, Scotland has become increasingly about the politics of the Nation, in which major issues are framed in particularly Scottish terms, a tendency which increased as the Scotland Act introduced a Scottish Parliament, with limited powers, as the 20th century drew to a close.

The Scottish Parliament sits at Holyrood, in Edinburgh, in a building reminiscent of Andrew Melville Hall had the architect been on crack.  Reconvened in 1999 after a 292 year hiatus/period of repression and subjugation, it consists of 129 MSPs from five parties with one independent Member. The parliament has jurisdiction over education, health, agriculture and justice, generously paid for by a subsidy from Westminster, and a large number of increasingly disgruntled taxpayers. The largest party in parliament is the Scottish National Party (SNP), presided over by ex-St Andrews student and grand political wizard Alex Salmond, whose magical powers are so potent that he and his coven were able to conjure an overall majority in a parliamentary system specifically designed to prevent such a thing from happening.  The SNP are the primary architects and major exporters of a populist, Nationalist philosophy; it’s important to remember, when discussing the Nationalists, that this is a fairly gentle form of nationalism, associating the phrase with a peaceful stand for Scottish independence, self-determination, being nasty to English people, and indulging in the personality cult of their glorious leader. Keep an eye out for their occasional appearances on the UK-wide media, which are always entertaining and rarely without incident.

The remainder of the parliament is made up almost entirely of Scottish affiliates of the major UK-wide parties – Scottish Labour, the Scottish Liberal Democrats and the Scottish Conservatives.  As it stands, each of these parties is without a leader, due to a spate of resignations after the recent election; indeed, it could be said that the difference between such parties being leaderless and being led is negligible, as they have traditionally served as mouthpieces controlled by their better-funded, better organised and better publicised counterparts down South. All of the above are staunchly unionist (as you might expect), and can be expected to occasionally break with the UK party line, only to be swiftly brought back into line and rendered more helpless. It is symptomatic of these parties that the largest amongst them, Scottish Labour, has had 6 separate leaders in 12 years, each less the successful than the last. It’s worth watching each of these leadership races as they unfold; the wider context of economic woe and the progress (or lack thereof) of the Big Society down south, have provided a backdrop upon which some potentially seismic issues will be discussed and events will unfold. Plus, the Scottish Parliament is much less stuffy and much more fun than the UK parliament.

So what, if any, conclusions can you draw from this short introduction, what does all this mean for you, the humble student making your way in the world?  Well, firstly, please don’t take any of your knowledge of Scottish history and culture from Braveheart. On a similar scale of relevance and accuracy, it’s dangerous to take your knowledge of Scottish news and politics from the BBC news, or the mainstream British news outlets; 90% of discussions on the “British” NHS, education system, justice system, or rioting, or planning, or even the Olympic games are irrelevant north of the border, except as part of the socio-political complex upon which Scottish life plays itself out. Tuition fees, for example, and St Andrews recent policy to charge £9,000 per year to English, Welsh and Northern Irish students came about as a result of and a reaction to changes down south, and yet part of an almost entirely separate political movement and social circumstance.  As these things are discussed in the media, Scotland is often reduced to a bit-part in an even wider context that all too often dwarfs those issues that Scottish people face, and that you will face as students in Scotland.

So if you get angry, impassioned or in any way affected by education changes, the health service, the justice system, the Edinburgh tram debacle, the compassionate release of Lockerbie bomber Abdelbaset al Megrahi, the policing services in St Andrews, licensing laws, or any number of issues you may face, remember that they are expressions of a distinct national government that enacts (or tries to enact) the will of a separate polity to England, or Wales, or Northern Ireland.  Thus, should you ever find your studently self committing a criminal offence on a farm whilst at the same time being stricken with pneumonia, they’re the ones you answer to.  And with that, lay the blame and the responsibility and the criticism upon the right people.  Alternatively, just lay the responsibility for the good stuff on the SNP, and the bad stuff on Cameron and his friends; your Scottish pals might just like you all the more for that.

Returning, finally, to tuition fees; finally, I and all the other Scottish students would like to thank students from England, and from across the world, for paying for our education.  We’ll buy you a drink sometime to make up for it.


Calum Lindsay

Image Credit- Calum Hutchinson