As the Scottish Parliament marks its 20th anniversary, there is much still to do, but devolution has made a real difference to how Scotland is governed, says Ian Swanson.
Expectations were high 20 years ago when Scots elected their first parliament for three centuries. The advent of devolution in 1999 marked a new era for Scotland, the hopes of the nation pinned on the 129 men and women chosen to represent a public who had voted clearly for a shift of power and decisions made closer to home.
The politicians too were ambitious – Scottish issues for which there was never enough time at Westminster would finally be given the attention they deserved, the new parliament would shape a better future for the country and the antiquated and acrimonious style of the Commons could be left behind.
No-one promised a New Jerusalem, but there was a confidence that devolution would make a real difference.
After decades of what often seemed hopeless campaigning and then a growing consensus for home rule, it had all happened quite quickly. Labour came to power in 1997 with the promise of completing John Smith’s “unfinished business” of devolution; a referendum produced a clear vote in favour of a parliament with tax powers; and within two years the Scottish Parliament was a reality.
The anniversary of those first elections has prompted calls for Holyrood to recapture the radical spirit of devolution’s early days and disappointed assessments of how the politicians have failed to change their tribal attitudes. There are suggestions for a second chamber or a change in the voting system at elections.
But any verdict on the parliament’s performance over its first two decades should acknowledge the significance of its creation in the first place as well as the genuine differences it has made.
Before 1999, Scotland was governed by a handful of ministers appointed in London by a UK government which for many years had not commanded majority support in Scotland.
The ministers spent much of their time down south and had an extensive civil service based up here to run the country, but there was no accountability to anyone other than the UK parliament. Looking back, it seems strange that such a situation was able to persist for so long.
And the new parliament did see important early achievements, from increasing the proportion of female MSPs (even if this has since been allowed to slide back) to long-overdue land reforms introducing the “right to roam” and legislation to safeguard the welfare of adults with mental illness or learning disabilities.
Over the years, under both the original Labour-Lib Dem coalition and now SNP rule, Scotland has chosen different approaches from south of the Border in areas such as health and education, led the way on the smoking ban and plastic bag tax. It has abolished student tuition fees, brought in free personal care, free bus travel for the over-60s, free dental and eye checks, free prescriptions, scrapped bridge tolls and abolished most hospital car parking charges. Of course some of these policies have been controversial and there is lots more to do. Poverty and inequality are still major problems in Scotland; there is a serious shortage of housing; and public services don’t have enough money.
But however disappointed voters might feel with the parliament or how critical they might be of the MSPs or the Scottish Government, few would disagree that decisions now made about what happens here are a better reflection of Scottish opinion and a massive improvement on having to accept policies handed down by unrepresentative and unaccountable politicians in London.