The coming of age of the Scottish Parliament … but has power shifted to the people?

Gerry Hassan

Scottish Review, May 8th 2019

Twenty years ago last Monday Scotland went to the polls in the first democratic elections to the Scottish Parliament. This coming Sunday marks the anniversary of the first session of that Parliament which Winnie Ewing famously opened with the words: ‘The Scottish Parliament, which adjourned on March 25th 1707, is hereby reconvened.’

The new Parliament was elected with much goodwill, hope and energy, following the decisive 1997 devolution referendum. Polls showed that large majorities expected the Parliament to bring positive change on the economy, NHS, education, law and order and more, and at the same time to become the focal point of political life and decisions.

Twenty years is an appropriate point to assess the Parliament, its role and impact, and the politics and activities around it, and to ask whether it has lived up to its initial hopes, what it has achieved, and where all this might be heading?

First, it is important to contextualise those initial hopes. The Parliament came about in an age even then filled with anti-politician and anti-political party sentiment, which has only grown with the passing of time. The hopes people had of the Parliament in its early years were much shallower than what the headline figures gave the impression. For example, only small minorities in each of those areas – the economy, NHS, education – thought the Parliament would bring about ‘significant change’; the bigger groups which contributed to the overwhelming majorities thought the institution would bring a ‘little change’. So it was hardly a blank cheque of believing it would produce a Caledonian nirvana.

Fast forward to the present, and the track record is one of similar ambiguity mixed with wishing the Parliament the best. Thus, a recent Panelbase survey for the Sunday Times showed that on the economy, NHS and education, more people thought that the Parliament’s impact had been positive than negative, but in each area significant numbers of voters either felt it had made no impact or didn’t know.

In twenty years Scotland has changed, and the face and style of our politics has altered from when Donald Dewar in his capacity as First Minister welcomed the creation of the Parliament as ‘a new voice in the land’. That was to prove true in ways he could not foresee. In 1999 Labour appeared impregnable in Scotland, the Scottish Parliament as an institution that Labour would dominate, while Tony Blair was, many now forget, a popular politician north of the border pre-Iraq war. None of these would remain enduring.

The Parliament has been very busy. It has become, according to surveys, the primary political institution in the land, supplanting Westminster (but at the same time the highest Scottish Parliament turnout at 58.2% in 1999 has never been higher than the lowest for Westminster). It has enacted a lot of legislation, gained new powers from Westminster, and accumulated to itself lots of power from other institutions in the country such as local government. The Scottish Executive became a Government, while the role of First Minister has been remade from early days to become the uncontested political leader of the nation – first under Alex Salmond and then Nicola Sturgeon.

Beyond these political processes and perceptions, what has the Parliament done which has directly changed and improved lives? For example, despite twenty years of rhetoric about social justice under Labour and Lib Dems and the SNP, there has been no major redistribution from the affluent to the poorest. Instead the big ticket items regularly cited – free care for the elderly, no tuition fees, abolishing prescription charges – have helped those comfortably off.

A number of measures however stand out as directly changing lives in a dramatic and far-reaching way. First, the smoking ban introduced in 2006 improved public spaces and places, particularly pubs, and contributed to the continued decline in smoking and diseases it causes. Perhaps minimum pricing for alcohol, which came into force in 2018 after a long UK Supreme Court case, will have a similar and beneficial effect on our culture of drinking and its impact.

Second, the land reform acts of 1999-2003 brought an end to feudal tenure and introduced community buy-outs of landed estates. The latter gave communities up and down the land the right to self-government and to run their own affairs supported by public funds. Hence, following on from the pre-devolution inspiring examples of Eigg and Assynt, communities such as Gigha, North Harris, and South Uist, along with other rural communities experiencing depopulation, were able to take power into their own hands and have the chance to thrive and prosper. This was an unusual empowering move – taking power away from Edinburgh and politicians – and was seen as a threat by vested interests such as landowners. Only last week historian Max Hastings raged against land reform in Scotland calling it ‘uniformedly disastrous’ which showed it had registered with him.

Third, the abolition of Clause 28 (which had notionally prevented the ‘promotion’ of homosexuality in schools) began Scotland’s journey in 2000 to a society that has, first accepted, then, celebrated, LGBTI equality. The initial step was fraught with anxiety and nerves, producing a reactionary backlash and an unofficial referendum funded by then SNP backer Brian Souter. It was a landmark moment in the history of Scotland: the first ever public conversation about homosexuality, some of which was not very pretty, but ultimately it was a watershed for LGBTI rights and how we talk about and see sexuality.

The impetus of such legislative changes slowly dried up after the early years. This was replaced by an SNP story of devolution as one of competence and continuity, preserving and protecting what had been achieved, alongside offsetting the worst aspects of the Tory led UK Government from 2010 on austerity and welfare. This was articulated as being true to the values of progressive Scotland, but was by its nature, defensive and reactive.

At the same time, lots of change happened beyond the Parliament. There was the increasingly acknowledged success of the Violence Reduction Unit and pioneering community projects such as Galgael working with the long term unemployed in Govan, the Govanhill Baths in the most multi-cultural part of Glasgow, and the work of the Sistema Big Noise Orchestra, starting in Raploch, Stirling, then establishing initiatives in Glasgow, Aberdeen and Dundee. These were grass roots projects which brought about long-term change, but for many, the wider environment has become increasingly difficult financially.

Meanwhile, too many indicators have turned negative or not changed enough. Scotland’s income and wealth inequalities as measured by the Gini co-efficient has not altered in twenty years. A drug epidemic has exploded in the last decade hitting some of the most vulnerable. And while we think we are compassionate increasingly we lock up more and more Scots in prison, with one expert describing Justice Minister Humza Yousaf’s policies as ‘a bitter war on the poor’.

The Parliament’s record has been mixed, sometimes acting as a catalyst and at others acting as a block. Devolution has become known more often than not for what it hasn’t done: contracting out, privatisating and the spiv culture of what many of England’s public services have been reduced too.

In the course what has been lost is the fantasy Parliament which existed before we got the real thing. This fantasy body would have been devoid of party domination and career politicians, drawn from the best and most bold in the land and included numerous independent and free spirits. Instead, we got a real Parliament filled with party career politicians nervous and unsure of how they fitted in and aware of the limits of their actions. And for some this was as much a loss as it was a gain of a proper Parliament.

The human dimension of all of this is frequently forgotten. Five First Ministers, 20 party leaders of SNP, Labour, Lib Dems and Tories, 305 individual politicians elected to the Parliament up to Kezia Dugdale’s resignation as a MSP. There have been numerous controversies (the escalating costs of the Holyrood building), leaders falling on their swords, scandals (Henry McLeish, David McLetchie, Tommy Sheridan), and reputations made and unmade (anyone remember Lib Dem Keith Raffan?). All of this comes at a cost to the individuals in question. Life in the pressure cooker works for some, but for others the stress and attention is too much.

I had my own supporting role in the story. Twenty years ago I produced my first book – ‘A Guide to the Scottish Parliament’ – commissioned and published by the Stationery Office, that rather surprisingly became a runaway bestseller. This year I brought the story up to date with two volumes on the past twenty years, one on society: ‘Scotland the Brave? Twenty Years of Change and the Politics of the Future’ edited with Simon Barrow, published in June, followed the next month by an analysis of Parliament: ‘The Story of the Scottish Parliament: The First Two Decades Explained’.

One factor they emphasise is that politics is not just about the Parliament. Rather it should be about all public life. Devolution was a narrow political idea emanating from Labour – an administrative sleight of hand to ‘fix’ Scotland. Under the SNP a new account emerged, but the party’s prevailing vision of independence isn’t that different in many respects, regularly being presented as about ‘the full powers of the Parliament’, as if independence isn’t about all of us as a nation rather than just our Parliament and politicians and what happens to them.

What should be central to our political life are two qualities – democracy and the quality of relationships. First, the Parliament should be about aiding greater democracy, accountability and scrutiny of public life and the areas which pre-devolution avoided any light and questioning. This would shed rather uncomfortable questions into how large parts of society are run – from quangos to public bodies, NGOs, and corporates. Many of these bodies, for obvious reasons, don’t see any need to call time on elitist Scotland and the continuation of their self-preservation society, but democratic scrutiny would ask questions of whom their decisions benefit. Maybe we could even start discussing how we run public organisations, and even business, in the interest of the wider public – a true politics of self-government.

Second, is the issue of how we do relationships, and make, build and nurture them, and strengthen trust and the connections which bind us together. This can only happen in association with greater democratisation, but already a fledgling agenda has been taking shape on this, seen in the work of the Violence Reduction Unit, increasing support for recognising the importance of Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs), and the work of advocates such as Upstart Scotland for a different approach to education.

Twenty years on this perspective seems to be gathering force beyond the political parties and politicians. It is a politics of power and voice which does not reside in Holyrood. But it should be self-evident that this is as important as the ever-dominant constitutional debate. Moreover, how we nurture and strengthen democracy and hold elites to account, and relate and treat each other, are two of the defining features that reveal who we are as a society and what we aspire to be. This though requires a different kind of politics and politicians than present, one that knows how to empower others and to give power away: a genuine politics of self-government which treats people as citizens and adults. If we could get that right it could be as important as whether Scotland decides to be independent or not – marking out what we care for and how we act towards each other.