Book review: The Story of the Scottish Parliament, edited by Gerry Hassan

The Scottish Parliament is 20 years old, such an accepted part of the framework of our public life that, looking back to the fierce arguments that preceded it, one may find oneself wondering what all the fuss was about, or, in the case of someone who, like me , was sceptical of devolution or hostile to it, wondering what we thought we were up to. This is, I suppose, a measure of the Parliament’s success. Nobody now is calling for a repeal of the Scotland Act which Donald Dewar piloted through the House of Commons.

The Scottish Parliament PIC: Jane Barlow/PA Wire

That said, the central question of the pre-devolution years remains unanswered. In the 1997 referendum which approved the Labour government’s devolution proposals, Donald Dewar, asserting that a Scottish Parliament would make for “the better governance of Scotland and the United Kingdom,” campaigned alongside Alex Salmond, who assured his Nationalist followers that the creation of a devolved parliament was a staging-post on the road to independence. It was obvious both couldn’t be right. It now looks as if Salmond was more prescient than Dewar. Devolution has set Scotland on the path to independence, even if it is a winding road rather than the “motorway with no exits” that the late lamented Tam Dalyell warned us it would be.

This book is a timely exercise in stock-taking. Twenty-five essays on different aspects of the political and parliamentary history of the last 20 years follow Gerry Hassan’s 30-page introduction. Most of the contributors are academics, and most of the contributions are suitably dry. If this means that they are likely to be of greater interest and more use to other academics and political scientists than to the general public, this is neither surprising nor reprehensible. Anyone who ploughs through it will learn a lot.

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The tone is measured. Nobody claims that the Parliament has been a resounding success; nobody pretends that it has been a failure. It has continued the pre-devolution practice of managerial government, with the significant difference that the managers are elected politicians here in Scotland whom we can dismiss if we are inclined to.

It is obviously the case that the First Minister is the head of a Scottish Government as the pre-devolution Secretary of State for Scotland wasn’t – even though some Secretaries of State, notably Labour’s Willie Ross, were every bit as powerful as the First Minister is now. Richard Crossman complained that Ross prevented Scottish business being discussed in Cabinet, even while he – and indeed some Tory Secretaries of State – played the Scottish card more effectively in Whitehall and at Westminster than is now possible. In 1997 Andrew Neil asked Donald Dewar what he would be able to do as First Minister that he couldn’t already do as Secretary of State; he got an evasive, indeed waffling, reply.

Devolution has had two unforeseen consequences. The first was the abrupt decline of the Scottish Labour Party; this is well analysed by Hassan. The second, which should perhaps have been at least foreseeable, has been the weakening of local government. This is well treated by Neil McGarvey, who writes that both Labour and the SNP “have been complicit in how local government has been neglected in favour of national. Scotland is now, arguably, more centralised than at any time in our history. Spending cuts are imposed on local authorities so that the Scottish Government has more to spend, and local government’s refusals of planning permission are overruled, even when they have popular support.

This collection of essays offers much to reflect on. It might have been livelier. More attention might – indeed should – have been given to personalities, to the strengths, weaknesses and influence of individuals. I understand that this is a difficult time to write about Alex Salmond. Nevertheless it is extraordinary that Craig McAngus can write an essay on the SNP’s journey from the fringe of Scottish politics to its present dominant position without examining Salmond’s remarkable contribution to making it appear first a credible, then a convincing, party of government.

What is pleasing is the absence – one might almost say, the surprising absence – of complacency. Indeed the final chapter, perhaps the liveliest in the book, has The Scotsman’s Joyce McMillan bluntly telling the Parliament that it “is now undoubtedly in need of some fresh thinking about its operations and procedures”. Allan Massie

The Story of the Scottish Parliament, edited by Gerry Hassan, Edinburgh University Press, 308pp, £14.99. Gerry Hassan is appearing at the Edinburgh International Book Festival on 22 August