Holyrood not all that different to Westminster Shock

Amidst the referendum madness, the sort of story that gets overlooked. The Herald has reported data on the composition of the Scottish Parliament in terms of their schooling – with the headline focussing on the percentage educated at private schools. This is the sort of data that takes longer to compile than some of the more easily accessible data on things like sex or ethnicity.

It reveals:

MSPs are now five times more likely than the average Scot to be privately educated….

Fully 20 per cent of politicians elected to Holyrood last month went to independent schools, up from 17 per cent last in the last parliament.

That compares with an average of around four per cent for the general population in Scotland and challenges the long-standing view that MSPs should be “representative” of those they represent.

What’s particularly nice about this particular research is that it also looks at the types of state schools MSPs went to, and they’re not all exactly Scumbag College (“Sixteen MSPs in total went to comprehensives currently ranked, by The Herald, as among the best performing state schools in the country”).

The piece notes that despite rising, the percentage of MSPs educated at private schools remains lower than the percentage of MPs at Westminster who had been so educated. But it also notes that much of the rise is due to the very different party make up in the 2016 Scottish Parliament compared to the one elected in 2011 – and, in particular, the rise in the number of Conservative MSPs, who tend to be more likely to have been educated at private schools.

But, of course, the party make up at Westminster is also different from that in Holyrood, which makes comparison between institutions problematic.

So what would the educational background of MSPs be, if the Scottish Parliament had the same party make up as the House of Commons? 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, 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 (I did notice that), and there is no likelihood of an SNP majority at Westminster (I also noticed that), but this is all a useful reminder that in compositional terms the heavy lifting is often done by the parties. In other words, what is different at Holyrood is the party make up, rather than because Holyrood is intrinsically different to Westminster.

Philip Cowley