Brian Wilson: Why Scottish Parliament must rule out independence

The Scottish Parliament is celebrating its 20th anniversary in 2019
The Scottish Parliament is celebrating its 20th anniversary in 2019
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Ahead of the Scottish Parliament’s 20th anniversary, Brian Wilson says it will never achieve its full potential until independence is ruled out.

The Scottish Parliament has intimated that 2019 is to be a year of celebration – to mark 20 years of its own existence.

That is understandable though one might reasonably hope that rejoicing is tempered by reflection on the extent to which the noble objectives proclaimed in 1999 have been met.

The least that can be said is that current headlines give cause for doubt. Broken promises on hospital waiting times, savage cuts to council budgets, widening poverty gaps, more Scottish kids without basic literacy or numeracy ...

It reads more like a charge sheet from the 1980s than the prospectus for a year of self-congratulation. Yet these were areas of government in which Holyrood was supposed to make a critical difference for the better.

There will, of course, be alternative lists which proclaim Holyrood’s achievements and these should be properly recognised. The mistake in both approaches is to see politics through the prism of institutions rather than competing philosophies and competent delivery.

Whether in Holyrood, Westminster of any other seat of government, outcomes depend on the priorities of those running it. The institution is the vehicle but certainly not the guarantor.

The idea nothing was done differently in Scotland prior to devolution is now widely inculcated but is, of course, complete nonsense. For example, the course for our NHS was set by the late Sam Galbraith, as Health Minister in the old Scottish Office in 1997.

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His senior civil servant Kevin Woods wrote: “In the six months between his appointment and the publication of the White Paper which set out his plans for the NHS in Scotland, Sam demonstrated an independence of spirit and a determination to do what was right for Scotland’s health service ... That this differed substantially from the plans in England was of no evident concern to Sam.”

The same applied to many policy areas which then carried into the early years of devolution. Whether they were more or less effectively applied as the result of Holyrood’s existence is debatable but the primary intention was to “future-proof” them against subsequent changes in political climate.

That is one yardstick against which 20 years of Holyrood should be measured. In these clearly devolved areas, nobody has inflicted an external ideology on Scotland as would have been the previous charge. Scotland has got what it voted for.

Perhaps the most surprising aspect of these 20 years has been the lack of ambition to make big changes and lasting monuments to what devolution can deliver. For all the rhetoric, legislative programmes have been consistently timid even in areas where devolved powers are clear-cut.

If you take, for instance, the Highlands and Islands, there is nothing to compare with the Labour creation of a powerful Development Board (1960s) or indeed the Tories’ establishment of a federal university (1990s). There has not been much evidence of vision.

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More widely, the anniversary should consider some basic questions. Has Holyrood’s accretion of powers too often been at the expense of local government and other meaningful counterweights? Has UK devolution become the agent of centralisation within Scotland itself?

When Holyrood was planned, Donald Dewar and his fellow-architects were intent on making it procedurally very different from Westminster. Some of that could do with a birthday review.

The greater the powers devolved, the more need for serious debate and meaningful scrutiny. A powerful committee system was supposed to deliver the latter but has largely failed, because of rigid party discipline.

As for debate, complex subjects cannot be dealt with in five-minute speeches. Holyrood’s rules frustrate the outside chance of oratory or the kind of holding to account which any serious Parliament depends upon. They should be changed.

The biggest underlying question is what Scotland wants from its devolved Parliament. Is it better, kinder government? Or a platform for the relentless pursuit of a different constitutional objective?

That was always going to be the elephant in the chamber and Holyrood’s potential will never be realised until it is removed from the equation. There is plenty to reappraise around the 20th anniversary. Let’s hope the chance is taken.