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Modern Studies

Electoral Systems, Voting and Political Attitudes


The Scottish Qualifications Authority regularly reviews the arrangements for National Qualifications. Users of all NQ support materials, whether published by Learning and Teaching Scotland or others, are reminded that it is their responsibility to check that the support materials correspond to the requirements of the current arrangements.


Learning and Teaching Scotland gratefully acknowledges this contribution to the National Qualifications support programme for Modern Studies.

The publishers gratefully acknowledge permission from the following source to reproduce copyright material: image on page 20 © BBC News website.
© Learning and Teaching Scotland 2008
This resource may be reproduced in whole or in part for educational purposes by educational establishments in Scotland provided that no profit accrues at any stage.

Introduction 4
Section 1: What is democracy? 5
Section 2: The 2005 General Election 7
Section 3: First past the post 9
Section 4: Scottish Parliament elections 17
Section 5: Proportional representation 23
Section 6: Referendums 40
Section 7: Voter participation in elections 43
Glossary 74
This resource aims to meet the standards set for the Higher Modern Studies unit Political Issues in the United Kingdom, study theme 1D: Electoral Systems, Voting and Political Attitudes.
In line with the unit descriptor, this resource analyses:

  • the UK, Scottish, European parliamentary and Scottish local government electoral systems; effects on the distribution of power within and among parties, in elected bodies and between the electorate and the elected

  • voting patterns; explanations of voting behaviour

  • the shaping of political attitudes through the media; opinion polls; referenda; voter participation

  • ongoing issues and proposals for change in respect of all of the above.

This resource aims to support classroom practice in meeting the purposes of Curriculum for Excellence. This unit provides an excellent opportunity to develop learners’ potential to become responsible citizens, because questions of democracy and the participation of the individual are raised. Many of the issues also provide opportunities for debate as learners are encouraged to consider opposing points of view and evaluate the merits of each. If these opportunities for debate are used in group and whole-class settings, learners will be helped to develop as confident individuals and effective contributors as they present their work to the rest of the class, encourage peer evaluation and undertake self-evaluation.
The activities in this resource give learners the opportunity to develop their skills in planning and writing extended answers that meet the requirements of Higher Modern Studies, while the core text provides extended explanations of the unit descriptors, and is supported by a glossary. These features will help learners develop their literacy and communication skills.
The resource also provides statistical information that can be used to develop numeracy skills, and points to further research opportunities.
The skills opportunities provided by this resource represent a progression from Standard Grade or Intermediate level, point the way to further progression to Advanced Higher, university or personal study in the future, and aid the overall development of individuals as successful learners.

Section 1: What is democracy?
Democracy is a system of government in which decisions reflect the wishes of the people. The greater the number of people consulted, and the more often, the more likely it is that democratic decisions will be made. Virtually all government systems have some element of democracy. Some governments are more democratic than others though.
The most common form of democracy is representative democracy. In a representative democracy, every few years, voters elect representatives to make decisions on their behalf. If the representatives do not do what voters want, they can elect someone else next time.
It is unrealistic, especially when the population runs into millions, to exercise direct democracy whereby everyone is consulted every time a decision is made. People may not have the time to make informed decisions every time a question needs to be answered. In addition, it would be expensive to run the country as a direct democracy.
Electing, maintaining and advising 129 members of the Scottish Parliament (MSPs) at Holyrood (home of the Scottish Parliament), 646 MPs at Westminster (home of the UK Parliament), 732 members of the European Parliament (MEPs) at Strasbourg (home of the European Parliament) and several thousand local councillors is more efficient and a lot cheaper than operating a direct democracy.
The system still has its flaws though, and is expensive. The fewer people choosing to exercise their vote, the less well representative democracy works. Representatives may not carry out their election promises, and cannot be held to account by the voters until the next election, which may be years away. New issues may arise between elections, and the representatives are not obliged to consult the people before deciding what to do; for example, the UK joined the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 without a popular vote on the issue. A government may not be the expressed choice of the majority of people. These flaws lead to a democratic deficit – a gap between what people want and what the government does.

The Scottish Parliament
In 1997, it was decided (by a referendum, a rarely used form of direct democracy) that Scotland would, for the first time since 1707, have its own parliament at Holyrood. Westminster would still make most of the big decisions affecting Scotland, and Scottish MPs would still sit in Westminster, but some decisions affecting Scotland would be made by its own parliament. This was a form of devolution, transferring some power to Scotland, and was designed to make Scotland more democratic.
In the 2003 elections for the Holyrood Parliament, voter turnout (the percentage of voters choosing to exercise their vote) fell to 49.4%, below the symbolic figure of 50% for the first time in a national election in the UK.
Turnout was expected to rise in the 2007 elections as a close result was predicted, but rose only to 52%. This reflected a longer-term pattern of falling turnout in Westminster elections, itself a matter of concern. The lowest turnout was among the 18–25 age group, implying that many of a new generation of voters were turning their back on parliamentary democracy, whether at Holyrood or Westminster. (See Section 4 for further information about the Scottish Parliament elections.)
Whatever the reason for the low turnout – for example, faults with the system, perceived deficiencies of politicians, lack of awareness, or simple apathy – the fewer voters turn out, the less well democracy works. How to engage with more voters and thus make Scotland (and the UK) more democratic has become a central concern for politicians.

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