The backgrounds of MSPs and MPs: it’s about the parties, not the culture

By Paul Cairney and Phil Cowley

There is an interesting set of stories, by David Leask and colleagues in the Herald, about the background of MSPs. We take an interest as part of a team of scholars comparing backgrounds in Westminster and devolved assemblies and examining how parties decide between many sources of representation, from sex and race to employment and locality.

In this post we examine the latest data on education as a proxy for class. It suggests that there would be little difference between Holyrood and Westminster if they had the same balance between parties.

A classic measure of social background is education as a proxy for class: we look at the proportion of MPs or MSPs who were educated at private schools and Oxford or Cambridge. We then normally find that, for example, the Conservatives are more likely than most to have come via this route. So, in the Scottish Parliament, compared to Westminster, you tend to find fewer members with this background partly because there are fewer Conservatives.

Is there more to the Scottish difference than the party make up?

There might also be subtle differences in career paths to reflect a different Scottish landscape: fewer people in Scotland go to private schools (this is difficult to gauge, but is 4-6% in Scotland compared to 7% in England, and it’s higher in places like Edinburgh and Aberdeen) and places like Glasgow University are bigger recruiting grounds than Oxbridge.

If so, we may have to dig deeper to find an equivalent proxy for class, such as in key differences in Scottish schools. The Scottish story is of educational equality – it has a comprehensive schooling system based on a rejection of segregation by ability – but it masks the stark differences in attainment between schools in the most and least deprived areas of Scotland. So, wouldn’t it be interesting to see if (as we might expect) MSPs are far more likely to come from the least deprived areas, just as MPs are far more likely than the general public to come from private schools? The Herald has looked into this by providing the list of secondary schools attended by MSPs, but it will take a more work to get a clearer picture (partly because the Scottish Survey of Literacy and Numeracy categories are relatively new, and many of the MSPs’ previous schools no longer exist).

How would Holyrood compare with Westminster if they had the same party make up?

We can say with greater certainty that key Holyrood/Westminster differences disappear when we make their experiences more comparable. For example, let’s focus just on the four parties who are present in both parliaments with above single member representation: that is, Labour, the SNP, Lib Dems and the Conservatives.

In the Commons, of the MPs from these four parties 33% were educated at private schools. In the Scottish Parliament, of the MSPS from these four parties 20% were educated at private schools. But, if the Scottish Parliament had the same party composition as the Commons – that is, a narrow Conservative majority, a largeish Labour opposition, and a decent chunk of SNP MPs, a handful of Lib Dems – then the equivalent figure would be 32%, basically identical to the figure for Westminster.

Conversely, if Westminster had the same party make up as the Scottish Parliament – with SNP MPs making up almost half of the Commons, the Tories a distant second place, Labour third, and so on – then the equivalent figure for Westminster would be 20%, exactly the same as the current Scottish Parliament.

Now, obviously, the Scottish Parliament doesn’t have the same party make up as the Commons, and there is no likelihood of an SNP majority at Westminster, but the figures provide a useful reminder that the heavy lifting on recruitment is done by the parties. In other words, the difference at Holyrood is the party make up, rather than the effect of devolution and ‘new Scottish politics’ on recruitment.

Cairney mugshot 3.7.13Paul Cairney is Professor of Politics and Public Policy at the University of Stirling.




Phil CowleyPhil Cowley is professor of parliamentary government at the University of Nottingham. His research focuses on British politics, especially political parties, voting and Parliament.


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