Euan McColm Euan McColm

The legacy of devolution – 25 years on

Scottish Parliament (Getty)

Winnie Ewing, SNP royalty – Madame Écosse to those who had served alongside her in the European Parliament – opened proceedings with a song in her voice and a twinkle in her eye. ‘The Scottish Parliament,’ said the oldest of its new members, ‘adjourned on 25th day of March in the year 1707, is hereby reconvened’.

Applause rang out across the debating chamber. The sense of optimism, and possibility, was palpable on the morning of Wednesday, May 12, 1999. On the 25th anniversary of devolution, the mood is very different. 

Holyrood was supposed to be home to a new kind of politics but, of course, there is no such thing.

Today, Scotland’s politics is degraded and divided. A parliament that was supposed to react nimbly to the priorities of voters north of the border has, instead, become home to tribes of intransigent ideologues. The constitutional question has come to dominate debate at the expense of progress across a range of policy areas and the idea that Holyrood might mean a more collaborative kind of politics has been comprehensively destroyed.

Scotland’s newly selected seventh First Minister John Swinney (the fourth SNP MSP to hold the position since the party won its first Holyrood election in 2007) claims he will lead for all Scots, working to unite a divided nation. If he is sincere, I don’t fancy his chances of success.

Shortly after Labour’s 1997 landslide general election win, Prime Minister Tony Blair confirmed there would be a referendum on Scottish devolution. Not only was the new PM keen to answer growing demand among Scots (then still in favour of the UK by a margin of around 70-30) for a new political settlement, he and senior colleagues believed a strong devolution package would scupper the SNP. Shortly before Blair’s election victory, then shadow Scottish Secretary George Robertson (who was later to become head of Nato and now sits in the House of Lords) said the devolution project would “shoot the nationalist fox”.

Things didn’t quite work out that way. Scotland’s first First Minister Donald Dewar was a substantial political figure. In a new parliament full of neophytes, Dewar was among a handful – including then SNP leader, Alex Salmond – with any kind of experience.

Labour, not unreasonably, reckoned Dewar was the very best person to ensure the new parliament had a trouble free birth. But tragedy was to prevent him fulfilling that task.

In May 2000, Dewar underwent surgery for a heart condition and was forced to take a three-month break, leaving his deputy First Minister – then Scottish Liberal Democrat leader Jim Wallace – in charge. In October of that year, Dewar fell at his official residence in Edinburgh, Bute House. Initially, he seemed fine but later suffered a brain haemorrhage.

At the age of 63, Donald Dewar – an architect of the devolution project – was dead. And chaos ensued. Dewar’s successor, Henry McLeish, was affable but untalented, a plodder with little in the way of charisma. The McLeish era was marked by Labour Party infighting. Those were glory days for the lazier political hack. A swift phone call to a random member of cabinet would yield remarkable tales of incompetence and disunity.

An expenses scandal forced McLeish from office in November 2001. Little more than two years after the Scottish Parliament was reconvened, Jack McConnell – a former general secretary of the Scottish Labour Party – became the third First Minister. Keen to bring some stability back to government, McConnell announced he would ‘do less, better’ which, as slogans go is… well, I wouldn’t open with it.

All the while, delays and massive increases in costs in the construction of the new Holyrood parliament building (in the first years of devolution, MSPs met in a temporary home at the Church of Scotland’s Assembly Hall) were creating waves of tabloid outrage. When the building – predicted to cost around £40million – was inaugurated in October 2004, the final bill to taxpayers was more than £414m. And the nationalist fox remained defiantly unshot.

While McConnell led with paralysing caution, SNP leader Alex Salmond – reinvigorated and focused – turned his party into a united and seemingly unstoppable force. A first SNP victory in 2007 followed by a majority win (something the voting system – a mix of first-past-the-post and proportional representation – was supposed to prevent any party achieving, forcing government by coalition or good faith negotiation) in 2011 led to 2014’s independence referendum, an event that increased backing for the break of the UK, boosting and solidifying support for the SNP.

The past decade has seen the nationalists dominate Scottish politics. Salmond’s successor Nicola Sturgeon spent nine years agitating for a second referendum that she could not deliver – and which voters did not want – at the expense of good stable government. Public services were neglected and division in Scottish society grew deeper.

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Holyrood was supposed to be home to a new kind of politics but, of course, there is no such thing. Politics, with all its dysfunctional players and its betrayals, is just the same in Scotland as elsewhere. Members of the Scottish Parliament have been brought down by scandal, caught fiddling expenses, and even jailed (Labour’s Mike Watson for – I kid you not – setting fire to a hotel in which the Scottish Politician of the Year Awards were being held, and the SNP’s Bill Walker for a string of incidents of domestic violence). Anything Westminster can do, so can Holyrood.

A recent poll on the pubic attitude to devolution should be a wake-up call for MSPs. The survey – carried out by the Diffley Partnership for the Holyrood Sources podcast – showed only two in five Scots think the Scottish Parliament has served them well. In the 1997 devolution referendum, 74% of Scots backed the creation of a new parliament and 63% said it should have tax-varying powers. According to the Diffley poll, just 56% believe devolution has been positive overall.

A quarter of a century ago, the Scottish Parliament opened on a wave of optimism to serve a public largely united in support of its creation. Today, Holyrood is mired in scandal and warring MSPs have fomented and cemented division. This is not the happiest of birthdays.


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