Devolution at 20 — The Power For Change in Scotland*

Scots Independent

*Article submitted by Councillor Richard Thompson as featured in the Scots Independent Magazine. To subscribe to the magazine, please click here.

This may not, given his subsequent track record, prove to be a very popular opinion. Nevertheless, when it comes to the Scottish Parliament, Scotland and the wider Scottish self-government movement has much for which it should be grateful to Tony Blair.

We have many others to also be grateful to of course, not least the multitude of activists who marched, leafleted, debated and engaged down the years to persuade their fellow Scots to back home rule. The sacrifice to get there was not — thankfully — a bloody one, but can be measured instead in forgone opportunities. We should never forget the sheer amount of time and energy committed to that task over many decades.

But back to Blair. Given one of devolution’s oft-cited achievements was the rejection of ‘Blairism’, giving him too much credit for what followed might seem like a strange stance. Yet wittingly or otherwise, he helped give the infant Scottish Parliament the one thing it needed most in its early years.

It’s important to remember that we were not always so keen on referendums as we are now. As Labour leader, Blair caused consternation when he insisted that a referendum be held not just on whether or not there should be a Scottish Parliament, but also whether that Parliament should have tax-varying powers.

The suspicion was that Blair was just another British centralist, who by insisting on a pre-legislative referendum was using this as a device to try and kill off devolution. However, on 11 September 1997 Scots endorsed home rule with an emphatic ‘Yes’ vote. That not only helped exorcise the demons of past political failures, it also gave the new Parliament legitimacy — a quality which subsequent events would demand it have in deep reserves.

For after the euphoria came the hangover. The cross-party steering group to establish the parliament workings achieved much but understandably, left many details of how the parliament would work to the new politicians to sort out for themselves. So it was that MSPs, fresh from their personal triumphs at the polls and buoyed by the sense of national expectancy soon found themselves buried in the detail of salaries, expenses and term lengths.

It was necessary work but it gave an opportunity for the press to do what they do best and to start knocking the institution. You expected that from the likes of the Mail, the Express and the Telegraph, but what surprised was how quickly titles with a long history of editorial support for devolution turned on the neophyte politicians and the parliament they now sat as part of.

There was also the matter of where the new parliament would sit longer term. Calton Hill’s Royal High School was where people had expected it to be. Instead, it was announced that it might be built on a former rail yard at Haymarket, on a vacant site in Leith docks, or less plausibly still, on a narrow former brewery site at the foot of the Royal Mile, deep in the bowels of the capital, with the civil servants looking down on MSPs from St Andrew’s House above.

In many ways, the Holyrood building project held up a mirror to Scottish governance and few seemed to like much what was reflected back. It became a byword for waste, incompetence and mismanagement. Everything about it, from the cosyness in the choice of selection panel, architect and site; the indecent haste to get the building underway; to the inept political and administrative scrutiny of the project itself, emphasied all that was rotten about the ‘old Scotland’ and everything that a Scottish Parliament was supposed to change.

And then there were our first First Ministers. Although Donald Dewar was deeply respected, he struggled to impose order on his gaggle of competing Ministers and advisors. His tragic death led to the First Ministership of Henry McLeish, who for different reasons struggled to impose his authority. Jack McConnell was, as you’d expect from a former Labour General Secretary, a far better party manager. Still, his mantra of ’doing less, better’ in ‘the best small country in the world’ came up short in meeting the growing public ambitions for that better future.

Luckily, the thumping referendum result and the reserve of public goodwill meant that the public kept a sanguine perspective. Assailed by unionist sceptics on one flank and impatient independentistas on the other, the exam question devolutionists struggled to answer most was the age-old critique of what could a parliament do that the old-style Secretary of State couldn’t?

The answer, of course, was both nothing and yet everything. It brought democratic oversight to the civil service and introduced a vibrant new cadre into Scottish public life who were willing to shine a light into some dark places. It forced politicians to work together on matters of substance in a diligent, low key way. It also brought responsibility — sure, it wasn’t in charge of everything, but when something went wrong in a devolved area, the chances were it was now a home-grown muck-up requiring a home-grown solution.

It took the election of a minority SNP administration with Alex Salmond at the head to really establish Holyrood and the drably named ‘executive’ in the landscape. Within days of taking office, the new administration rebranded itself as the Scottish Government. Hampered by minority status in the chamber, the new administration nevertheless got on with business, showing a sureness of touch and a command of how to exercise power which even its sternest opponents had to concede was impressive.

A parliament is more than its location, its building or the people inside it. It is judged by its output — the voice it projects and the difference it makes. On that score, thinking of free personal care, free university tuition, defending the principle of universalism, investing in long-neglected infrastructure — it has enabled government in Scotland to leave its mark overwhelmingly for the better.

Critics would say Holyrood has been too timid; that it should do more with the powers it has; that it needs to be about more than simply spending money on ‘free’ things or ‘defending’ Scotland from the faddish reforms of health and education South of the Border. Those critics may have a point. However, there has also been important advances and the rectification of past wrongs — the advancement of an equalities agenda, tackling prejudice, improving public health, tackling knife culture and reforming our approach to the justice system — all are measures which are starting to yield the sort of life-changing societal outcomes the sceptics of home rule have long demanded.

Scotland 2019 is certainly different to Scotland 1999 in both outlook and outcome, and wholly for the better. Ultimately, that’s what our Parliament has achieved for us — we no longer blame others for our misfortunes. Instead, we look outwards. For those who dream of something better still, we have the comfort of knowing that most of the institutional foundations are in place, and with its legitimacy unquestioned, our parliament at the heart of it all.

Councillor Richard Thompson is the SNP Group Leader on Aberdeenshire Council and Depute Editor of the ‘Scots Independent’.