The Scottish Parliament at 20: Are we really ‘Children of the Devolution’?

Gerry Hassan

Bella Caledonia, July 1st 2019

It was twenty years ago today that the Scottish Parliament officially opened. Donald Dewar spoke eloquently, the Queen attended, and there was a small amount of pomp and circumstance in Edinburgh Old Town.

Time for reflection and an assessment – cue Allan Little’s ‘Children of the Devolution’ shown on the new BBC Scotland channel, and subsequently BBC Scotland (the last episode shown this Tuesday on the former, and Wednesday on the latter). This offers an appraisal of the past twenty years: the establishment of the Parliament, its impact, and how it has changed Scotland, politics and beyond.

The two parter opened with Little stating: ‘Twenty years ago our country awoke to a new dawn’, before adding: ‘We are all now children of devolution.’ The series has numerous talking heads including many prominent politicians who made their reputation over the past two decades including Nicola Sturgeon, Jack McConnell, Ruth Davidson, Wendy Alexander, Jim Wallace, Anas Sarwar, Andy Wightman and more. Two of our four living First Ministers – Alex Salmond and Henry McLeish – are not present, and neither is Tommy Sheridan.

There are numerous interesting comments from politicians as well as observers. Some are revealing in ways that participants don’t realise with, for example, Lib Dem Jim Wallace talking of the Scotland before the Parliament as ‘a mature democracy’ which is illuminating given that Scotland was never a fully-fledged democracy pre-devolution. Wendy Alexander references Donald Dewar’s now familiar line of the Parliament at its inception as ‘a new voice in the land’, but then goes on to give an assessment of each of the five First Ministers and their qualities, calling Jack McConnell ‘a teacher’ who saw education as key, Alex Salmond ‘an oil economist’ championing renewables, and Nicola Sturgeon as believing in social justice.

Where the programmes rise to their best is when they go beyond insider Scotland and listens to people whose lives the Parliament was meant to better. One example is revisiting Section 28/Clause 2a. Twenty years ago this produced a near-cultural war when the then Scottish Executive announced it would abolish the Thatcher inspired clause prohibiting the supposed ‘promotion’ of homosexuality in schools, resulting in a campaign of opposition, reaction and homophobia, which was subsequently defeated.

In a moving set of testimonies, Little goes to a Motherwell school and speaks to Jim Whannel, Chloe Divers and Jordan Daly. We see Whannel, a lifelong campaigner for LGBT equality, watching footage of himself making the case for repeal twenty years previous when debating in the TV studio with then ‘Daily Record’ columnist Tom Brown proclaiming homosexual relations as ‘not being equal’ to heterosexual ones. Whannel was calm, rational and unflinching in his case and we all owe a debt of gratitude to him and many like him who stood firm for equality.

Talking now Whannel says of Section 28 then: ‘There was a feeling [that] you cannot mention anything to do with gay or lesbian issues because it’s now illegal’ which led to ‘an environment within which people felt it was respectable to discriminate’. Divers recalls the effect the Clause had when she was a schoolgirl: ‘When I started to identify as a lesbian there was nothing, no support. I did start to be bullied. The school did nothing for me.’ Daly, at 24, doesn’t remember this history, but comments that ‘the country had to go through all that noise and debate’ to come out the other side. This is moving testimony.

Just as interesting is when Little goes to his old school, Stranraer Academy, and meets with pupils, parents and teachers. One pupil says of the Scottish Parliament: ‘as a concept it’s a really good thing and has done quite a lot of progressive things.’ A teacher offer a more negative take saying that power has been ‘taken away’ from places like Stranraer, while a parent states that ‘Stranraer is completely forgotten about’ and that ‘the most overwhelming thing, if you speak to the people of Stranraer, is feeling cut off. It’s a frightening thing to think if you had a heart attack or you were in labour, you’ve got a 75-mile journey on a road that is shocking.’

What emerges implicitly from these and other comments – but is mostly left unexplored – is a set of contradictions and tensions within the devolution project, and between different interpretations of it. This was for some a project to transform our nation and shift power within it, democratising and dispersing authority, and empowering a range of voices. But for others it was merely a limited act, to aid better administration, and in the Labour account, to continue their dominance and the sending of a pile of MPs southbound to aid a Westminster Labour Government.

Scottish Green MSP Andy Wightman talks of the potential of the Parliament when he says: ‘devolution was a disruption of the status quo’ and expands the possibilities of this: ‘Now suddenly you had constituents and MSPs asking questions in Parliament on education, on land, on the environment: that people for whom life had been quite comfortable – suddenly needed to wake up and address.’ Jim Mitchell, of Edinburgh University, offers a more critical perspective of what has actually occurred: ‘We need to empower our local communities, citizens and local government. They’ve been disempowered through devolution.’

This brings us back to the voices from Stranraer where one of the teachers comments: ‘We would like to be in a position where we can decide what’s best for us – the best people to make those decisions are the people in the region here.’ The tensions and power struggles between these two competing forms of devolution are only at best hinted at in Little’s film that tends to think the best of everywhere and to present this recent history in warm, sentimental, inclusive language.

What is missing is any dynamic between insider and outsider Scotland, or an understanding that politics is about power, contested ideas and different social constituencies. Thus, the ascent of the very idea of the Scottish Parliament and its establishment is presented as if it happened, if not naturally, but smoothly, and almost inevitably. Skated is over is any notion of politics as being about profound social forces, coalitions, and arguments, in which people who are not part of insider Scotland became mobilised, engaged and active agents in their own future (the exception to this being the Section 28/Clause 2a episode).

Little’s film portrays the problem with devolution and its official account, which underplays the energy and effort which went into achieving the Parliament. This is no mere historical point about the past, but matters for how the whole past 20 years is understood, and how we see the role of the Parliament now and in the future. If we see our politics as one of inevitable incrementalism and benign progressivism by our elites, then the chasms which divide our society – on education, health, wealth, land and more – can be downplayed or treated as natural products of modern life and capitalism.

This is after all the dominant story of devolution and modern Scotland: one which likes to stress our centre-left, social democratic, but which isn’t that centre-left or social democratic. This story once associated with Labour and has now been taken over by the SNP – who independence apart – see Scotland through the same kind of lenses.

Little’s film is telling in that it pays next to no attention to the SNP victory in 2011 and the three year indyref: the biggest exercise in democratic engagement in Scotland’s history, the effects of which we are still living through and whose shockwaves still carry through society and politics to this day. Little and his team will no doubt say the indyref was the subject of a recent BBC Scotland three parter, but that is to ignore the wider implications of that campaign.

This feels like a short change of the changes we have gone through, created, pushed, argued, sometimes won and sometimes lost. It is indeed accurately called ‘Children of the Devolution’ and is the view of us from Holyrood, rather than the country and politics from a wider, richer canvas.

Large swathes of Scotland are passed over without much comment. Not surprisingly there is not even a single reference to the BBC’s role in this, and their lamentable record in the indyref that Allan Little commented upon in the indyref series. Radical voices are few and far between: the sole exception being Green MSP Andy Wightman. Missing is the Scottish Socialist Party or any of the energising voices of the indyref. And of course nowhere is there any reference to the low turnouts of every devolved election: starting at 58% in 1999 before dipping below half of all voters, and only ‘recovering’ to 55.6% in 2016.

It is almost as if the pre-devolution voices of institutional Scotland who were opposed or sceptical of the whole enterprise and have gained the most from the whole exercise and critically shaped the official account of our past two decades, get to tell their story here unchecked. Slipping off the schedules are the left-wing, radical, egalitarian voices which argued for a Parliament pre-devolution, and have supported it through and through; instead we get twenty years of Scotland without one trade union voice or representative, or even a single reference to trade unions and unless I missed it not one mention of ‘austerity’.

Jim Mitchell towards the end of the second programme makes the observation that the debates which drive Scottish independence and Brexit are shaped by issues which have no end point irrespective of what we do constitutionally, ‘No referendum is every going to truly resolve these matters because they’re all about relationships, and that means that whatever happens these issues, the Scottish Question and the European Question, will always be with us.’

This is a good point and could have been taken further by the programme makers: all politics including that of the Scottish Parliament – devolved or independent – are about relationships and the qualities, trust and values they embody. After twenty years of devolution, neither the Parliament or our politics, has put enough time or care into building and nurturing relationships across this land, and particularly to those who need the most support.

This is all a missed opportunity. I came to this programme well-disposed and wanting to like it and say positive things about it. Sadly I found it underwhelming and selective in the tale it told, and perplexing that Little thinks this an adequate account.

This showcases elite Scotland’s story of how it believes it has the best interests of the country at its heart. That entails believing the self-serving, self-preserving mythologies and ideologies of our elites – that their complacent slightly progressive values are up to the challenges of our times. They haven’t worked so far pre or post-devolution – look at our poverty, inequality, educational apartheid and health inequalities, while all around public services are being cut back in poor and disadvantaged areas. And they certainly won’t in the future.

The past twenty years have seen people increasingly question this above account – and an alternative Scotland, filled with drama, disruption and debate come to the fore – with increasingly traditional institutional authority challenged and in decline. That Scotland of a citizen-led democracy isn’t really one understood by either our political parties, politicians, or mainstream media, but it is a story which needs to be told and retold, and one of the defining accounts of recent times. After watching this film, even more, that perspective needs to be given voice and championed. Our past twenty years and our next twenty are hopefully going to be understood and championed as more vibrant, pluralist and contested than this film presented.

Children of the Devolution, the last episode is on the new BBC Scotland channel on Tuesday July 2nd and on BBC Scotland on Wednesday July 3rd.