How Does Scotland Fit Into the UK Government?

The news that Nicola Sturgeon, the first minister of Scotland, will step down raises a variety of questions about how the United Kingdom — England, Scotland and Wales, along with Northern Ireland — is governed. Here is a quick guide.

The United Kingdom operates under a constitutional monarchy. While there is no single written constitutional document, laws and carefully documented traditions together form a Constitution that binds the monarch, currently King Charles III.

These rules have accumulated in centuries of legislation. Together, they make the king a constitutional monarch: an embodiment of power and statehood with no personal public role in politics, and tight constraints even on private influence.

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak is the current leader of the government of the United Kingdom. He took over as the country’s 57th prime minister in October, after his predecessor, Liz Truss, lasted just six weeks in the post.

The role of the prime minister, according to the U.K. government’s official website, is to oversee the operation of the civil service and government agencies. The leader also appoints members of the government and is the principal government figure in the House of Commons.

Here’s where it gets interesting. Mr. Sunak is responsible for some, but not all, of what happens across the United Kingdom. His government makes decisions for England, but some powers and responsibilities are left to elected officials in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland — a result of what is known as devolution.

(Northern Ireland is having its own leadership issues at the moment, after the first minister resigned last year and the government remains in limbo.)

In Scotland, the government makes decisions relating to the economy, education, health, justice and other areas. The government enforced its own Covid policies during the pandemic, and it has the power to set its own income-tax rates. Decisions regarding immigration, foreign policy and defense are left to the U.K. government.

Following a Scottish parliamentary election, a first minister is nominated by the Parliament in Edinburgh and is appointed by the monarch.

The first minister is responsible for appointing Scottish ministers to create a cabinet and is responsible for setting and carrying out government policy.

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