With the country taking to the polls this week, eyes turn north to the Scottish Parliament, which stands to have a whole new parliament elected on 5th May.
After a recent visit to the Scottish Parliament at Holyrood, it was surprising to see just how much the institution divides opinion. Following a referendum in 1997, the Scotland Act of 1998 brought a measure of independence to Scotland, which had been governed from Westminster since the Union in 1707. The new Scottish Parliament was given the jurisdiction to govern itself in issues where it is felt that a devolved government does a better job than a centralised government, such as health, education, justice, public transport and community issues etc. However foreign policy, defence, the UK constitution, taxes and other economic matters are governed from Westminster, where Scotland is represented by its MPs.
There are many arguments for and against this situation, some arguing the Scottish Parliament should be abolished, others arguing that it should be given total independence. If Scotland were to be independent, it would be granted full control of its affairs, and there would no longer be any Scottish representation at Westminster. Scotland would be independently capable of joining the EU, UN and other international organisations as a full member. As things stand, Scotland as a whole seems undecided whether or not this is a desired course of action. A poll conducted in November 2010 found that 40% of Scots are in favour of full independence, 44% are opposed and 16% remain unsure. Interestingly, the survey appears to approximately indicate that a greater proportion of Scots over 45 are opposed to full independence, whereas independence enjoys a lot more support from those under 40.
If independence did occur, the chief arguments in favour appear to be those of history and national pride. Scotland became a part of the UK against the will of the Scottish people, and therefore it’s fair to question how well Scotland can be governed all the way from Westminster.
It is also important to question whether Scotland could sustain itself as an independent nation. Many people argue that as a part of the UK, Scotland enjoys a much stronger position than it would on its own. Given Scotland’s relatively small size, it prospers better on the international stage and has a greater deal of influence as a part of a larger, economically powerful state.
Scotland has a high level of public spending, and it is questionable if this could be sustained if Scotland became an independent nation. Despite the claim that North Sea oil would provide sufficient revenue, this will inevitably decline and not be sustainable in the long term.
Given its nature as a devolved constituent of the United Kingdom, Scotland has control over its education system, and this includes drastically lower tuition fees. Currently, due to a gap in funding for higher education in Scotland, there are plans to charge up to £6,000 for those from England, Wales and N. Ireland who wish to study in Scotland. At the minute Scottish students studying in Scotland do not have to pay fees, something which Education Secretary Michael Russell vowed to keep in place in December 2010. However, in 2011 it has been speculated that with the level of fees being charged by other universities in the UK in the near future, Scottish universities will require an extra £200m a year just to stay competitive, which could be filled by charging Scottish students around £3,000 a year.
Whatever people say about the Scottish Parliament, it does divide opinion. It certainly seems unlikely that Scotland could function as an independent nation, but the partly devolved nature allows it to better govern issues pertaining specifically to Scotland.
Walking around the Parliament building at Holyrood, the structure of government there was very impressive. Rather than opponents shouting and jeering at each other like children across the benches as we see in Westminster, Scottish MPs sit in a less confrontational semi-circle at individual desks with microphones. Anyone wishing to speak must alert the Chair by pressing a button on their console. Thanks to this, issues are discussed in a mature fashion and a stopwatch gives each speaker an allotted time to speak. Once the time is up, the microphone is switched off.
Regardless of whether or not you agree with the Scottish Parliament as an idea, the way it has been realised is a mature, modern vision of politics in the 21st century, and one which it would not hurt Westminster to take note of.
The full results from the survey I mention can be found here http://www.tns-ri.co.uk/_assets/files/16444_TNS_voting_intentions_dec_2010.pdf