Scotland and its position within the UK

  • 5 Pages
  • Published On: 19-12-2023

It has been said that the strongest of the “tacit understandings” about the constitution of the UK is its “profoundly unitary nature… as expressed in the supremacy of Parliament” (Bogdanor, 1979, p. 7). What this signifies is an understanding the UK is indivisible and that each constituent part is part of that one and indivisible entity. However, there are other understandings of the UK that have emphasised on the UK not being uniform although it is centralised and that there is institutional and public policy diversity within the UK (Mitchell, 2009). There is also a diversity within the UK when the unique history, culture, and diversity of the constituents of the UK are taken into consideration. This diversity may create questions about how far UK is unitary and indivisible as Bogdanor (1979) had noted or whether the institutional and public policy diversity within the UK may lead to questions about the tenability of the unitary status of the UK.


It is in this context that the question of Scotland and its position within the UK becomes relevant especially considering the recent political events in Scotland that point to a growing understanding of nationalist politics in the UK. This essay considers how Scotland is placed within this institutional and public policy diversity of the UK. Due to the significant change of the British exit from the European Union, this essay also discusses what this means for Scotland and the possibility of another Scottish referendum for independence. The essay discusses that due to devolved government in Scotland, there are specific concerns about the impact of Brexit for Scotland.

Parliament and devolution

Scotland is a part of the United Kingdom and has been so from a long period of time. Scotland and England are part of the same state since 1603 when James VI succeeded to the thrones of England and Ireland (Ross, 2002). Although Scotland was a part of the same political entity as England at the time, both Scotland and England had separate Parliaments. This meant that Scotland had the power to make laws for itself. However, in 1707, the Treaty of Union created a new parliament to replace the Scottish and English Parliaments (Ross, 2002). In spite of being a part of Britain, Scotland had its own law (Scots law), the Church of Scotland was separate from the Church of England, and the education system was also separate for Scotland.

The ‘separate but united’ status of Scotland with England has at times led to some contesting discourse over constitutional powers between Scotland and England, and Scotland has at times demanded more decision making authority (House of Lords Select Committee on the Constitution, 2016). These reforms did take place after the 1997 coming into power of New Labour with Tony Blair as the Prime Minister (House of Lords Select Committee on the Constitution, 2016). Under these constitutional reforms, Scottish Parliament was established by legislation and devolution of law making powers took place to Edinburgh for all matters except those that are reserved for the UK Parliament (House of Lords Select Committee on the Constitution, 2016). With this significant event, Scotland came to have its own parliament once again and more devolution has taken place in favour of the Scottish parliament over the years (House of Lords Select Committee on the Constitution, 2016).

Devolution also has implications for Brexit and its impact on Scotland (Birrell & Gray, 2017). This was reflected in the referendum vote for Remain in Scotland in which the majority voted to Remain in the European Union. This has attracted attention to the position of the devolved government in Scotland and the impact of Brexit because much of the devolved powers for Scotland are related to social policy, which is significantly affected by EU programmes, funding, directives and regulations (Birrell & Gray, 2017). In this context, it is noteworthy that the peculiar nature of governance within the devolved government framework in the UK is multi-level in nature because there is division of powers between three levels of government with regard to social policy: “allocation of social policy responsibilities between the UK and the EU; between the UK and the devolved administrations; and the linkages between the EU and the devolved administrations” (Birrell & Gray, 2017, p. 766). Because EU also has a role to play in the social policy, Brexit is a significant issue for devolved governments like in Scotland.

This is so because exit from the EU would impact issues like funding from the EU. It is also noteworthy that because devolved governments are concerned with their own specific areas of powers and responsibilities, for Scotland, where such policies are directed by the EU directives and regulations, it is under a duty to not make law that is contrary to such directives and regulations of the EU; this is provided by the Scotland Act 1998, which stipulates that Scottish legislations that are incompatible with EU law are outside its legislative competence (Birrell & Gray, 2017). Another concern for devolved governments is the access to free markets and this is not just unique to Scotland, but is also applicable to Wales. As noted by Birrell and Gray (2017), maintaining access to the Single Market is a priority and all three devolved administrations (Scotland, Northern Ireland, and Wales) have expressed concern about the same.

Impact of Brexit and the possibility of the Scottish referendum of independence

Another important change that has taken place is the British withdrawal from the European Union or Brexit. Although England chose to leave in the referendum, 62 percent of those in Scotland (including majorities in all districts) voted to remain in the European Union (McHarg & Mitchell, 2017). Because a majority of the Scotland population voted to remain in the European Union, this presents some threat to the existing constitutional order of the UK because Scotland has indicated that they may call for a second independence referendum on the ground that the conditions under which Scotland was a constituent of the UK have changed since the Brexit referendum (McHarg & Mitchell, 2017).

The issue of Scottish independence is not new and was not new in 2014 because there has been a long discourse about Scotland being a stateless nation (Dekavalla, 2016). Scotland was at times described as a nation that existed within the UK but was an example of a people with shared culture and history, without the political authority over a territory (Dekavalla, 2016). Scottish independence discourse is also one that is described as a political and not a cultural one and the Scottish nationalism issue became increasingly significant in the 20th century (Dekavalla, 2016). It can be said that the nationalist discourse has been one of the notable aspects of the political discourse in Scotland. The party that has been at the forefront of the discourse is Scottish National Party.

In the UK, the referendum is held under the Political Parties, Elections, and Referendums Act 2000 which was enacted by the Parliament at Westminster (Mitchell, 2016). However, the Scottish Referendum was not held under this law, but under the ad hoc arrangements that were agreed to between Scotland and England (Mitchell, 2016). This agreement between Scotland and England was termed the Edinburgh Agreement and this was signed in 2012 as per which the single question referendum was to be held and the results were to be reviewed by Electoral Commission in 2014 (Mitchell, 2016). The Scottish Referendum and 2015 general election results have changed Scottish political culture.

The election of the Scottish National Party in the 2011 general elections was the precursor to the Referendum because the election raised expectations that the referendum would be imminent (Mitchell, 2016). This also reflects on the political discourse around the referendum with two groups, Yes Scotland and Better Together being driven also by their political positions on different issues. The Yes Scotland campaign was run by the Scottish National Party which was the biggest party in the campaign along with the Scottish Green Party and the Scottish Socialist Party (Dekavalla, 2016).

Scottish National Party has been the principal advocate of the Scottish independence since the 1930s (Dekavalla, 2016). Therefore, when the Scottish National Party won the elections in 2011, it was clear that the issue of Scottish independence would now become one of the important issues in political discourse of Scotland. The 2014 referendum was the third in line of referendums, but first to be focussed on independence, and was conducted on 18 September 2014. It is also important to note that the third referendum was different because it was conducted when there already was a devolved Scottish Parliament in its fourth session (Dekavalla, 2016). Moreover, the Scottish National Party, proposed the referendum when it had already been in power for eight years. Furthermore, there was disillusionment with the Conservative party that had returned to power in Westminster and a general disengagement with Westminster politics in Scotland (Dekavalla, 2016).

The decline of Scottish Labour and its impact on Scotland’s position in the UK

It has been noted that the issue of whether Scottish Labour Party will continue to decline in the future period will depend on how it positions itself on the four important political and constitutional questions at this time, which are the issue of Scottish independence, Remain/Leave on the question of the UK’s membership of the European Union (EU), Socialism character, policies and direction of Scottish Labour, and whether power and control should lie between the Scottish Labour Party and the UKLP on the Holyrood/Westminster issue (Bennett, et al., 2020). The Scottish Labour Party came down to 1 MP in the 2015 General Election, when it had won 42% of the vote in Scotland with 41 MPs in the 2010 General Election. The considerable loss of vote share for the Scottish Labour Party also raises questions about the causes it espouses and the public approval for the same in Scotland; the public has shown that it does not approve in the 2015 elections. It retained only 1 MP in the 2019 general elections as well. Similarly, the Conservatives have not managed to do better than the Scottish National Party and is in the opposition.

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With regard to the issue of Scottish independence, Scottish National Party’s stance has resonate more with the voters and the Scottish Labour Party has struggled to adapt to the new trends in UK politics which point at increasing regionalisation (Bennett, et al., 2020). Even the traditional Labour voters back nearly one in four the independence for Scotland (Bennett, et al., 2020). With regard to Leave or Remain in the EU, Scottish Labour Party lost half of its voters who voted ‘No’ to Independence and ‘Leave’ to Brexit referendum to the Scottish Conservatives (Bennett, et al., 2020). What this says is that the vote to leave the EU has led to “further cleavage upon the fractured politics of Scotland” (Bennett, et al., 2020, p. 5). The Scottish electorate voted 62% to ‘Remain’ in the EU. These results can be seen in conjunction to the Scottish Labour Party’s stance on Brexit after the referendum, which saw the party not take a stance on unequivocally supporting Remain or backing a second referendum (Bennett, et al., 2020). On the question of socialism, the Scottish Labour Party does not divide between left and right unlike the UKLP (Bennett, et al., 2020).

The Scottish National Party has been emphatic about the Scottish cultural and national identity as opposed to the Scottish Labour party’s stance to this issue. Since the 1960s and 1970s, the Labour has been under a pressure to have a more distinctive Scottish identity, which culminated with the formal adoption in 1994 of the name ‘The Scottish Labour Party’ (Bennett, et al., 2020). When seen in conjunction with the recent election outcomes in Scotland, it can be argued that there is a greater support for a national identity for Scotland, thus the support for the Scottish National Party. Therefore, it can be expected that the Scottish people are going to support another referendum for independence in Scotland. Indeed, the Scottish cultural and national identity has become an issue that has gradually and more certainly become a part of the Scottish political and national discourse; and the 2014 referendum has been seen as a climax of “Scotland’s gradual distancing from the union over several decades, including creating a Scottish Parliament with devolved powers in 1999 (Clancy, 2020, p. 499).


A future Scottish referendum of independence is a likelihood because of the way in which political discourse in Scotland has moved towards regionalisation and a greater articulation of a national and cultural identity that is separate from England. The support to the Scottish National Party over the Scottish Labour Party in recent elections is a manifestation of the desire of the Scottish people to have a more nationalist and cultural worldview of their identity. This is likely to have continued significance for the position of Scotland within the UK. It can be said that it is likely that the Scottish National Party will continue to have support.


Bennett, S., Moon, D. S., Pearce, N. & Whiting, S., 2020. Labouring under a delusion? Scotland’s national questions and the crisis of the Scottish Labour Party. Territory, Politics, Governance , pp. 1-19.

Birrell, D. & Gray, A. M., 2017. Devolution: the social, political and policy implications of Brexit for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Journal of social policy , 46(4), pp. 765-782.

Bogdanor, V., 1979. Devolution. Oxford : Oxford University Press.

Clancy, L., 2020. ‘Queen of Scots’: The monarch’s body and national identities in the 2014 Scottish Independence Referendum. European Journal of Cultural Studies, 23(3), pp. 495-512.

Dekavalla, M., 2016. Framing referendum campaigns: the 2014 Scottish independence referendum in the press. Media, Culture & Society , 38(6), pp. 793-810.

House of Lords Select Committee on the Constitution, 2016. The Union and Devolution, London: House of Lords.

McHarg, A. & Mitchell, J., 2017. Brexit and Scotland. The British Journal of Politics and International Relations , 19(3), pp. 512-526.

Mitchell, J., 2009. Devolution in the United Kingdom. Manchester : Manchester University Press.

Mitchell, J., 2016. The Unexpected Campaign. In: N. Blain, ed. Scotland's Referendum and the Media: National and International Perspectives. Edinburgh:Edinburgh University Press.

Ross, D., 2002. Chronology of Scottish History. s.l.:Geddes & Grosset.

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