'The Scottish parliament, adjourned on 25th March 1707, is hereby reconvened'
From The Scotsman of 13 May, 1999
DAVID Steel could not resist it. Five years to the day since the death of John Smith, nobody thought that he should. It was, said Sir David, Presiding Officer of Scotland's first democratic parliament, the start of a new sang. That and more.
Dr Winifred Ewing, 69, mother of the house, had already reminded us of what was being done. In the capital's grey Assembly Hall, just after 9:30am, to a half-empty chamber, she uttered the simple, astonishing truth: "The Scottish parliament, adjourned on the 25th day of March, 1707, is hereby reconvened."
History is memory. This moment was memory reclaimed, a right restated, a truth reaffirmed. The nation of Scotland, with all its thrawn suspicions, numberless confusions, apathy, clumsy rivalries and disparate hopes, had remembered.
We began again on a May morning in Edinburgh, high on the Mound, with 35 white roses, a clenched fist, 129 members sworn in with a measure of honest dissent, a Labour Party honouring John Smith's promise and a strange kind of ease. This, said the language of ritual, is what we do, ours by right, and this is how we do it. The fact was woven in neat, white letters into the very uniforms of the hall's polite, patient staff: "Scottish Parliament".
But then, suddenly, many strands came together. The clenched fist was Tommy Sheridan's, affirming on behalf of the Scottish Socialist Party and a long tradition for a democratic socialist republic. The white roses were on the lapels of the Scottish National Party. The power was with Donald Dewar's Labour, the novelty with Britain's first Green parliamentarian, the democratic question with the Liberal Democrats, the new argument with the new Scottish Tories. Whatever else home rule may come to mean, it has already given articulacy to Scotland's diversity. We have not been here, or anywhere like it, before.
Hence, perhaps, the sense of relaxation. Whatever the tensions over pacts and deals, whatever the storms to come, the bitterness and the arguments, Scotland's parliament-arians seemed content yesterday just to celebrate, to be themselves.
Mr Dewar entered the forecourt of the Assembly Hall and, as usual, failed to co-operate with the photographers. Alex Salmond of the SNP was as ebullient as nature intended. By lunchtime David McLetchie of the Tories was in a pub in a Royal Mile close listening hard, as promised, to the people, in this case some young men from an Edinburgh housing scheme.
This is what we are; this is what we do. Mr Salmond spoke for the collective strength of the SNP when he said, before swearing the oath: "For the Scottish National Party parliamentary group, loyalty is with the people of Scotland, in line with sovereignty of the people."
Before that, Mr Dewar, following Dr Ewing, had seemed almost to efface himself, he whose creation this parliament had been. Jim Wallace of the Lib Dems took his place after Mr Salmond, but made no objection to monarchy or ordained allegiances. But then came Dennis Canavan, the socialist from Falkirk West that "new" Labour could not silence, recording that he owed a duty first and above all to the people of Scotland.
It became what the glib call a defining moment: almost one third of Scotland's first democratic parliamentarians put on record their belief that sovereignty resides, as old doctrine and the Claim of Right once supported by Labour says, with the people of Scotland, not with the Crown. Mr Canavan said it; the SNP said it; Robin Harper of the Greens said it; Mr Sheridan of the SSP said, loud and clear, that he took his oath under solemn protest.
The maker's label in Mr Sheridan's dapper suit says "Candidate". Yesterday the democratically elected socialist amended the prescribed ceremony by affirming his vision, as he called it, of a democratic socialist republic. An open palm was raised towards him as he recited the oath to "bear true allegiance to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth, Her Heirs and Successors, according to Law". In return, Mr Sheridan offered a clenched fist.
An antique gesture from another Scotland, in some books, but yesterday there seemed nothing odd in that. The reconvened parliament, for all the blond wood and desktop computers, the 21st-century procedures, the pagers and the mobile telephones, was itself an antique revived. The idea, if not the entity, had proved unkillable. Scottish Labour, under orders, male and female, to dress with due sobriety, finally seemed proud of itself. The SNP at last seemed a reality rather than a rhetorical device.
It was a haphazard day, none the less. The journalist Dorothy Grace Elder, the SNP MSP for Glasgow region, upset the parliamentary lawyers by infiltrating a mention of the people into the formalities involving the Queen and was obliged to say her piece again. Fergus and Margaret Ewing, Nationalist spouses and MSPs for Inverness East and Moray, made their declarations simultaneously.
When Mr Dewar trooped his parliamentarians en masse up the High Street after lunch, in an interval between showers of rain, it seemed more than symbolic that Mr Canavan followed, as though tracking them, 20 yards behind.
But business, such as it was, was conducted. After the MSPs had made their oaths and settled into their blue chairs Sir David Steel was found to have won the Presiding Officer's job over the SNP's George Reid by 82 votes to 44. Mr Reid, a friend of Sir David's for more than four decades, duly became one of the PO's deputies. This is, was, remains, a small country - and what of it?
Yesterday in the Royal Mile the bewildered tourists wanted to know what was going on, and if it might be worth a souvenir snap. The journalists wanted to know whether the Lib Dems and Labour had reached an accommodation, and what it might be. A few local people looked on diffidently, with honest curiosity at this parliament suddenly reborn in its temporary home beneath the standing rebuke of John Knox's statue. If a historic thing can be done casually, without much fuss, this had become the Scottish way.
There were clues for that. Refusing Mr Canavan's considered and dignified demand that there be an open vote rather than a secret ballot for the post of Presiding Officer, for example, Dr Ewing confounded centuries of Westminster practice by calling a parliamentarian by his first name. In the Assembly Hall's black and white corridor, so-called, that instantly became the parliament's lobby, political rivals mingled freely. The absence of pomp was almost disconcerting.
This was a small parliament in a small country, and none the worse for it. The spin doctors were conspicuous, if not by their absence then at least by their silence. How to enlarge or diminish what was taking place? It may be sullied in the months and years to come but Scotland's parliament pledged itself into existence with what seemed, in the measure of these things, honest intent.
Mr Dewar is there for the sake of his own belief and for John Smith's promise. Mr Canavan is there for his principles, Mr Sheridan for his people, Mr Salmond for a new nation, Mr Harper for the planet, Mr McLetchie for the Union. Scotland is represented, male and female, from a 69-year-old to a 25-year-old. In the closes, wynds and pends off the Royal Mile, new politics, a new democracy, came to an old city and an old country.
It is too easy, now, to be cynical. On the Mound yesterday something new did happen, just for once, without self-consciousness, from beneath the weight of history, with a sense of honest purpose. This process will take us only where we want to go. Just for once, we cannot say that we have seen it all before. Yesterday, for a moment, Edinburgh was the only place in the world to be.
Under the television lights, the SNP's white roses had a yellowish hue, and we could not all remember every word they were meant to invoke. No matter. The flowers were a Nationalist gesture that might, just once, have done for all. Hugh MacDiarmid (Christopher Murray Grieve) wrote of the little blossom 65 years ago, in another Scotland, in the same Scotland:
The rose of all the world is not for me.
I want for my part
Only the little white rose of Scotland
That smells sharp and sweet - and breaks the heart.
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