Scotland politics

Westminster and Holyrood: A tale of two parliaments

People in Scotland go to the polls on 18 September to decide if they want their country to be independent. In the event of a "yes" vote they will be fully governed from Holyrood in Edinburgh. But how different an institution is this to Westminster?


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Westminster uses the "winner takes all" first-past-the-post system to elect MPs. This means the candidate in each constituency who gets most votes is elected.

The Electoral Reform Society says that is unfair as about two thirds of MPs do not have the support of a majority. But a referendum in 2011 saw the UK electorate reject, by 67.9% to 32.1%, a plan to change how MPs were elected in general elections. The proposed alternative vote system requires voters to rank candidates in order of preference.

Holyrood's system - the Additional Member System - is more complex. Voters get two votes - one for their constituency and one for their region. The constituency candidate who gets most votes (passing the post first) is elected.

Voters use their second vote for a party in a region made up of a group of constituencies. Seven regional members are then selected based on a formula that favours parties with less representation.

After all the calculations are done each voter in Scotland is left with eight MSPs to represent them.


Westminster opts for a bicameral legislature. Simply put, that means they have two chambers - the House of Commons and the House of Lords.

Both chambers are set out in an "adversarial rectangular pattern", meaning that parties directly face their opposition.

After the Commons Chamber was destroyed in 1943 during the Blitz, Prime Minister Winston Churchill insisted it was rebuilt in the same shape, claiming that "'we shape our buildings and afterwards our buildings shape us".

Holyrood's single Chamber was constructed in the hemicycle (horseshoe) shape found throughout European legislatures.

Advocates of this design claim it encourages consensus and compromise between parties.


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After a hard day representing their constituents, MSPs and MPs may look to unwind with a glass of wine or a pint.

In Westminster they are spoiled for choice. The House of Commons has four venues that it describes as providing "entirely or substantially bar services". A pint can be bought for as cheaply as £2.70 and a glass of wine for £2.35 - not bad at all for central London.

Thirsty MSPs can visit the bar in Holyrood's Garden Lobby for a drink but will have to pay a bit more than their Westminster counterparts - about £3 a pint.

The Chair

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Holyrood's proceedings are chaired by the presiding officer. Their influence is felt throughout the chamber - they select the questions to be put to the first minister and amendments to legislation for debate.

The presiding officer - currently held by Tricia Marwick - is elected in a ballot of all MSPs and must remain politically neutral. They have the deciding vote in the event of a tie, although parliamentary protocol says they must vote with the status quo.

The speaker's role in Westminster is not dissimilar. MPs can indicate to the speaker - currently held by John Bercow - that they wish to speak on an issue by standing up to "catch the speaker's eye". Like the presiding officer, they must be impartial.

They are still a sitting MP and may stand in a general election - usually unopposed by the main parties - as "the speaker seeking re-election".

When elected, the speaker is physically dragged by fellow MPs to the chair. This tradition has its roots in the speaker's duty to communicate the (often unpopular) opinions of the Commons to the Monarch - a job that many required convincing to do.

Question Time

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The highlight of the week in both Westminster and Holyrood is the organised grilling of the government's leader.

The prime minister answers six questions from the leader of the opposition and a further 15 questions from MPs (time permitting) chosen by ballot.

Prime Minister's Questions (PMQs) is a typically animated affair where the speaker is regularly called upon to restore order.

In Holyrood, there are fewer questions but arguably more depth as leaders of a number of opposition parties are given the opportunity to ask supplementary questions at First Minister's Questions (FMQs).

At the end of last year, Ms Marwick said she wanted more backbenchers to take part in FMQs because she believed the weekly question time session was "not working as it should be".


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MPs are paid more than MSPs - about £8,300. An MSP's salary rises proportionately with those of MPs, so they could be due an increase if plans to raise Westminster salaries go ahead.

Members of the House of Lords may claim a £300 daily allowance.


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The largest single party in Westminster is the Conservatives. But its electoral success has not been emulated north of the border: the Scottish Conservative and Unionist party has 15 MSPs and is the third largest political group.

In Edinburgh the Scottish National Party has an outright majority. There's no official opposition as Holyrood doesn't have a two-party approach system - there are no "shadow" ministers in Scotland, only party spokespersons.


Holyrood is responsible for powers devolved to Scotland. These include education, justice and health.

Westminster still takes responsibility for the defence, immigration, welfare and foreign affairs policy of Scotland.

Changes are expected, regardless of whether Scotland votes "yes" or "no" in 2014, as new fiscal powers will come into force in 2016 allowing the Scottish Parliament to set its own rate of income tax.


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The lobbies are the central points where the corridors of power meet and political representatives and the media congregate.

The entrance to the Commons is flanked by the imposing figures of two wartime prime ministers - Winston Churchill and David Lloyd George. Their feet have been polished bright by MPs who stroke them for good luck when entering.

The Garden Lobby in Holyrood is a more modest affair, in keeping with the postmodern design of the rest of the building.

The roof is designed with glass panels to light the space naturally and steel panels surrounding the roof lights form the shape of a map of Scotland's west coast.

It is a generally accepted rule that if an MSP is in the lobby then they are "open for business" and can be approached by other politicians or the press.


With a 900 year history it may come as no surprise that a number of traditions have developed within The Palace of Westminster.

The technology for electronic voting has been available for years but MPs and Lords continue to vote either by shouting their support/opposition or by walking to a certain part of the building.

The Lord Speaker in the House of Lords sits on a large woolsack covered in red cloth and neither house can sit and debate without the appropriate maces in the correct positions.

The Scottish Parliament, perhaps because it is a far younger institution, does not have quite as many customs for MSPs to get their heads round.

But it is not without its own quirks.

Ministerial appointments are often challenged by an opposition politician on light hearted, humorous grounds, since any selection should pass regardless if the government has a majority.