Comparisons of democracy

Posted by Euan Bennet on 09/10/2013

Work and real life took over for a couple of weeks there so I haven’t had a chance to update. This is a follow-up to the piece on democracy, since to put that post into context it is useful to have some meaningful comparisons to look at. This post came about as a result of a conversation with a fellow Yes campaigner who wondered if we would expand the size of the Scottish Parliament after independence to better cope with the legislative workload of having the full powers of a normal parliament.

All of this data is from the relevant Wikipedia page for each Parliament, which can be found in this list. Interestingly, the UK is the only state on the list of UN member states which has a larger “upper house” of unelected members than corresponding “lower house” of elected members.

So where do Scotland and the UK currently lie in relative democratic terms with comparable nations? Let’s start by looking at the usual suspects for comparison to Scotland – Western nations with population fewer than 10 million. Most of these are unicameral Parliaments like Scotland, i.e. there is no so-called “revising chamber” like the House of Lords in Westminster. To avoid confusion I’m describing “number of MPs” even though it should be noted that most countries call their representatives by other descriptors.

Country Population Number of MPs Population per MP Voting system
Scotland 5.3 million 129 40734 Mixed-member PR (FPTP, D’Hondt and party list)
Denmark 5.6 million 179 30969 Mixed-member PR (D’Hondt and Saint-Lague)
Norway 5 million 169 29785 Mixed-member PR (open list, doubly proportional by population and by land area)
Finland 5.4 million 200 25900 Electoral district PR (D’Hondt)
Ireland 4.6 million 166 27640 Single Transferable Vote, also unelected Senate with 60 members
Sweden 9.5 million 349 27286 Open list PR (Saint-Lague)
Iceland 320000 63 5080 Mixed-member PR (party list)
Switzerland 8 million 200 40000 Party-list PR (Hagenbach-Bischoff), also upper house of 46 elected by FPTP
New Zealand 4.5 million 120 (normally) 33566 Mixed-member PR, system allows extra seats (over the normal 120) to be allocated to ensure proportionality if necessary.


  • PR – Proportional Representation: a system that attempts to allocate the correct number of seats to each party, such that the percentage of seats that a party takes in parliament is equal to the percentage of the vote received by that party. As such outright majorities are very rare, as the system requires one party to receive >50% of the vote in order to win a majority of seats.
  • FPTP – First Past the Post: a plurality voting system where within each constituency the candidate with the most votes wins the seat. This means that one party can receive a majority of the seats with far less than 50% of the vote. In the UK in 2005 for example, the Labour party received 35.2% of the vote but that got them 355 of the 646 seats (55%).
  • Mixed-member system: A hybrid system that includes geographic constituencies as well as “top-ups” using various systems to ensure total proportionality. Examples of the seat allocation system include the D’Hondt and Saint-Lague systems.

So the Scottish Parliament is very similar to comparable nations’ parliaments in voting system and number of members, albeit at the bottom end of the MPs per head list. If we wanted to move towards having more representatives per head of population, then a maximum of an extra 40-50 MSPs would bring us absolutely in line with Denmark and Norway.

One independence dividend will be not having to pay for Westminster representatives (currently 59 MPs plus our share of the large cost of the House of Lords). The cost of even 50 extra MSPs is still much less than the cost of our Westminster representation – I will include the numbers for this in a future post.

 Comparisons with the UK

We’ve seen how Scotland compares to nations of similar population, but how does the UK compare to nations comparable to its population? In the same format as above:

Country Population Number of MPs Population per MP Voting system
UK 63.2 million 650 95787 FPTP, also unelected upper house of 765 members appointed by Queen
Germany 80 million 620 (Federal Government) 131934 Mixed-member PR, also upper chamber of 69 elected by state governments
Spain 47 million 350 131894 Party-list PR (D’Hondt), also Senate of 208 elected and 58 appointed by regional governments
Italy 60 million 630 94556 Party-list PR, also Senate of 315 elected by party-list PR and 6 appointed by the President for life
France 65 million 577 113258 Two-round (“run-off”) system, also Senate of 348 indirectly elected by elected officials of all levels
Netherlands 16.8million 150 111533 Party-list PR, also Senate of 75 members indirectly elected by the provincial parliaments

In terms of population per MP, the UK is near the top of the list. However, in terms of the voting systems and upper house structure, the UK’s systems stick out like a sore thumb. Among large Western European nations (and the Netherlands which is really in the middle in terms of population), the UK is the only state that has a lower house elected by a non-proportional method AND the only state with an unelected upper house. It’s not surprising that UK politicians are perceived as being out of touch with the electorate.

What does all of this mean?

When the Yes campaign talks about the democratic argument for independence, it is usually phrased in terms of getting the governments we vote for every time instead of 40% of the time, and that the people who live and work and contribute to Scotland should elect the people who make all of the decisions about Scotland. Another less often heard but equally important argument is that on day one of independence we will have better democracy full stop. Not just in terms of governments accurately and proportionately determined according to votes, but that every decision will be taken by elected representatives. Scotland is is well-placed to become a democratic, equal European country. The UK on the other hand, is lagging well behind the rest, and has shown time and again that it is institutionally incapable of meaningful reform. The future democracy of Scotland is a choice of two futures.

radical democracy


11 thoughts on “Comparisons of democracy

  1. Jim Wylie

    I have recently been looking at the history of the UK parliament. It is a thousand-year-old story of gradual and reluctant devolution of powers from our rulers while in reality, they attempt to retain the final say. It is just over a hundred years since the Commons finally achieved the law making pre-eminence it now holds. In spite of calling this democracy, Legislation passed by the Scottish Parliament can be vetoed by the UK Parliament. Many laws passed by the UK Parliament can be amended or blocked by the House of Lords. The Queen still has the power to withhold Royal Assent.
    In Scotland we have the choice to sweep away all the self-interested interference from above and determine our own future. What an exciting prospect.
    Just say Yes.

    1. juanbonnets Post author

      Hi Jim, thanks for taking the time to comment. It is frightening to comprehend that the Scottish Parliament could be abolished at the whim of Westminster, and if we had a mainstream media worthy of the name this would be much more common knowledge than it is at the moment. The word is spreading however and we are getting the message through to people on the doorsteps. Lots of work still to do, but I believe we’ll achieve our goal if we keep it up!


  2. Pingback: Devolved and reserved powers | The Science of Independence

  3. Pingback: The Big Racist Elephant in the Room | We'll never be fooled again!

  4. Pingback: Internet tennis with Greg – the “It is likely that…” series | The Science of Independence

  5. Pingback: (It is likely that…) The first independent parliament will be governed by a Left/Green coalition | The Science of Independence

  6. Pingback: By their actions shall you know them. | We'll never be fooled again!

  7. Pingback: Mythbusting with evidence 1 – “After independence it won’t be any easier to change governments we don’t like” | The Science of Independence

  8. Pingback: Soliloquy for the Blind | We'll never be fooled again!

  9. Pingback: The high concept of democracy | The Science of Independence

  10. Pingback: Euan’s Ramblings: collected for reference | The Science of Independence

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s