As Holyrood's 25th anniversary approaches, there is something rotten in the state of Scottish politics – Susan Dalgety

Are today’s politicians capable of the diligence and attention to detail required to make a lasting impact or do they just want a starring role in the Holyrood soap opera, asks Susan Dalgety

Reboots are always risky. I have still to watch the new incarnation of Frasier – the best comedy series ever written – for fear that it will spoil my memories of the original. And I switched off the menopausal revival of Sex and the City after the first episode. What had seemed edgy and aspirational in the early noughties had been reduced to bad pantomime. So it was with more than a little trepidation that I joined 400 others in Edinburgh’s Assembly Rooms on Thursday night for a meander through 25 years of devolution in an event organised by the podcast Holyrood Sources.

Before I go any further, I need to declare an interest. I campaigned for devolution and against independence. I was chief press officer for Jack McConnell when he was First Minister and today I count him as a close friend. I am not one of those ‘old’ people who think devolution was a mistake, that Holyrood should be turned into a night club and the UK Government left to decide on how Scotland’s public services should be run. Even in light of recent events, from self-ID to the hate crime legislation, Scotland is in a better place with its parliament that it was before 1999. But only just.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

All the old stars were there. Three former First Ministers, including Henry McLeish, who served only a year in the top job before quitting over a financial muddle, and a larger than life Alex Salmond, as well as the aforementioned McConnell. Jim Wallace, former deputy First Minister and one of the nicest people in politics, made a guest appearance.

The Scottish Parliament's successes include land reform and the smoking ban in public places (Picture: Jane Barlow/PA Wire)The Scottish Parliament's successes include land reform and the smoking ban in public places (Picture: Jane Barlow/PA Wire)
The Scottish Parliament's successes include land reform and the smoking ban in public places (Picture: Jane Barlow/PA Wire)

‘A young man with a crazy dream’

Labour’s loquacious Wendy Alexander turned up looking glamorous in a red jacket, and talking sense. Also sharing their insights was another Labour woman pioneer from 1999, Susan Deacon, plus Liz Smith, a Tory MSP since 2007, and former Labour adviser Lorraine Davidson. And representing the future was the SNP’s leader-in-waiting, Kate Forbes, who was only nine years old on 12 May 1999 when Winnie Ewing declared the Scottish Parliament “is hereby reconvened”.

Winnie’s son, Fergus, who was elected to the parliament on the same day as his mother, and is still the MSP for Inverness and Nairn, kicked off proceedings with a touching tribute to the doyen of the nationalist movement, before rather unexpectedly quoting Leonard Cohen. “I was just a young man with a crazy dream,” he said before leaving the stage. Fergus, in 1999 we were all young with a crazy dream. We believed that Scotland, an ancient nation that helped create the modern world through inventions like penicillin and the pneumatic tyre and thinkers like David Hume and Adam Smith, could run its domestic affairs better than a Scottish Secretary of State whose main office was in London.

And for a while we did, as the people on the stage gently reminded us. Even despite disasters like the sudden death in October 2000 of Donald Dewar, the first First Minister, and the debacle of the Holyrood building – ten times over budget and three years late – the Scottish Parliament achieved much in its early years. On Thursday, it was agreed that the single biggest success was the smoking ban brought in by McConnell in March 2006. Wallace recounted a GP in his constituency telling him that this intervention alone justified the parliament’s existence. Quite simply, it saved thousands of lives.

Scotland needs better politicians

There were other ground-breaking, if less headline-grabbing, successes, from the reform of Scotland’s feudal land system to the introduction of Freedom of Information. And as a nation, we were strong enough to survive the divisive referendum of 2014. But as McConnell told the audience, and others on the stage concurred, there is now something rotten in the state of Scottish politics, and in the rest of the UK.

There needs to be structural change, argued McConnell. Replace the House of Lords with a second chamber representing the nations and regions of the UK. Fix the Scottish Parliament’s broken committee system, and reform the discredited list system which produces MSPs with no responsibility to anyone but the members of their own party.

“But above all we need better politicians,” he said. People with a “vibrancy of experience” who can bring expertise and professionalism into the parliament and government. A theme picked up by Deacon, who said there was a “capability gap” at Holyrood. “We need a good mix of people able and willing to engage in inquiry and debate, people able to realise our original aspirations for the institution… to make Scotland a better place.” No one demurred.

But there was a ghost hovering over proceedings on Thursday night. Not Dewar’s – though his memory was lovingly evoked by several speakers. It was the spectre of ‘she who must not be named’. The woman who, until last year, had an iron grip on Scotland, stronger even than Thatcher had in her heyday. It was as if Nicola Sturgeon, mentioned only once in passing by Salmond, had never existed. I found it rather disconcerting.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

Other, less partial observers, have told me that the stand-out contribution of the evening was by McConnell. He was dubbed dull and managerial when First Minister by those too lazy to look at what he was doing – which was to use the considerable powers of parliament to make Scotland a better place to live and work. On Thursday night, he reminded us that the Scottish Parliament still has the powers and the potential to change our country for the better.

The question that remains largely unanswered is whether the post-devolution generation, personified by Humza Yousaf, is capable of the diligence and attention to detail required to make a lasting impact, or if their ambition is limited to winning a role in the Holyrood soap opera?



Want to join the conversation? Please or to comment on this article.