“Satisfactory, I think,” was how he greeted Tony Blair on Friday, 12 September 1997, after Scotland had voted overwhelmingly for a Scottish Parliament.
He was rather more effusive 18 months later when, at the official opening of the Scottish Parliament, he delivered a short but significant speech that set out the values and principles of the new legislature.
“… Today there is a new voice in the land, the voice of a democratic Parliament. A voice to shape Scotland, a voice for the future,” he declared.
On Wednesday night, hours after the fifth session of that ‘democratic Parliament’ had ended and MSPs had left the building – or switched off their laptops – the Scottish government issued a news release at 9.25pm.
And not any old news release, but one announcing that the “Scottish government has offered a substantial pay rise for NHS Scotland Agenda for Change staff… this deal will be most generous National Health Service pay uplift anywhere in the UK and would represent the biggest single year increase in pay for NHS staff since devolution”.
So far, so good. Scotland’s NHS staff have been on the front line of the global pandemic for 12 months. Their hard work – often at great risk to their own lives – should be rewarded. They deserve the thanks of a grateful nation.
But in a fully functioning parliamentary democracy, the one envisaged by Dewar and the non-partisan Constitutional Convention which developed the framework for the Scottish Parliament, this decision would have been debated in Holyrood, not sneaked out at the start of an election campaign with no detail on how it is going to be funded.
It may come as unpleasant surprise to Nicola Sturgeon but her government derives its legitimacy, not from the people, but from the legislature. The Parliament’s 129 MSPs represent the people, and any government, not matter how cocksure or cynical, should be accountable to them, otherwise democracy withers.
But as Sturgeon donned her trademark yellow coat and headed for the empty streets of Glasgow to start her six-week campaign to win the votes, if not the hearts, of the Scottish people, I doubt she gave democracy a second thought.
Parliamentary scrutiny is for the faint-hearted, not a Braveheart like her. She had achieved her objective for the week: newspaper headlines contrasting her generous four per cent offer to NHS staff with that of England’s measly one per cent. Scotland good. England bad.
The election campaign that we have just stumbled into will be like no other. Lockdown means that campaigning will be largely done by phone and on social media. Alex Salmond and his new Alba party will hog the limelight, a constant reminder of the gang warfare that has split the SNP in two and poisoned Scottish politics.
And while the majority of voters are fearful for what lies ahead as furlough ends and the economy stutters back to life, Sturgeon offers not a plan for national recovery, but a second independence referendum on leaving the UK. Division, not healing.
Scottish Labour’s new leader, Anas Sarwar, who has had less than a month in post to prepare for what is arguably the most important election campaign in his party’s history, will do his best to focus on “what unites us, not divides us”, but is anyone listening?
Political discourse in Scotland has become too political. Ideas are no longer the currency of campaigns; identity is all that matters. Saltire good. Union Jack bad.
Objective truth has given way to feelings, where public policy is decided not on rigorous research and analysis, but by lobbyists with easy access to ministers. Men are women if campaigners say so, to hell with biology. And ministers can ignore the democratic legitimacy of Parliament, safe in their cynical assumption that no-one cares.
But we do. Regardless of where our party-political allegiance lies, most people want a properly functioning democracy. The easy lies of Boris Johnson and the control freakery of Nicola Sturgeon offend many voters. To paraphrase Dewar’s opening-day speech, we want politicians to do right by the people of Scotland and respect our priorities.
Actor Sheila Hancock was more direct on BBC Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour on Wednesday. “We need a revolution,” she said, expressing a frustration felt by many.
She went on, “We have got to do something about the vast divisions in our country. We’ve got to get down to making our society work better.” She urged: “…we’ve got to start making our politics great. I don’t like decisions that are made for political reasons as opposed to the welfare of the country.”
And in a sideswipe that could have been aimed directly at both Sturgeon and Johnson, she said, “Most mistakes have been made because politicians don’t want to offend members of their party.”
On Thursday, the first full day of the election campaign, the Scottish government issued another news release. “Child poverty gradually rising,” read the mild-mannered headline, designed to mask the awful truth, that in Scotland, 22 years after the opening of the Scottish Parliament, poverty is on the increase. Children are going to bed hungry.
Six weeks of political theatre lie ahead. There will be moments of high farce and plenty of slapstick comedy. There may even be a decent speech or two. But at the end of the campaign, we deserve MSPs who will put our nation’s recovery first, before their party’s political objectives.
We don’t need a revolution, just a parliament where, in the words of Donald Dewar, “men and women from all over Scotland will meet to work together for a future built on the first principles of social justice”. All we have to do is vote.