It’s 20 years today since the first Scottish Parliament elections. Stand by for a flurry of assessments and an assortment of milestones including the anniversary of Holyrood’s first sitting next week, a speech by the Queen marking the transfer of legal powers in June, the official opening in July and the passage of the first Bill in August.
But never mind commemorating the symbolic dates. Can we all agree on the parliament’s value to Scots, 20 years on? It’s worth remembering how quickly those predicting a brain drain and jobs flight after devolution were proved wrong, how completely Tory opponents of the Parliament and its proportional voting system changed their tune and how surprisingly macho Caledonia became the gender equality leader among UK legislatures.
This day 20 years ago, more women became MSPs in a 24-hour period than the total elected to represent Scotland since women first became MPs in 1918. Now the Scots cabinet is gender equal, two of six party leaders (counting both co-leaders of the Scottish Greens) are openly gay and three are female.
Would this gender revolution have happened without Holyrood? It’s hard to say. But Westminster’s aversion to most modern practice suggests not – denying votes to 16- and 17-year-olds and EU nationals and clinging to first-past-the-post (FPTP) despite all evidence of democratic harm. The decision to use STV for local elections took Scotland in quite the opposite direction but efforts to modernise democracy must continue. By 2039 the current “halfway house” of FPTP and the additional member system for Holyrood elections must be overhauled and the current regional-sized councils replaced (or supplemented) with a tier of genuinely local town and island-sized authorities.
Land reform was the first substantial issue tackled by the parliament 20 years ago. Built-in opposition by hereditary peers meant Scotland’s first national parks came half a century later than England and community buyouts like Assynt and Eigg had to succeed the hard way (the latter collected £1.5 million from individual public donors in 1997). Legislation supporting community ownership has (on average) doubled buyout populations and enabled ferry, energy and other long overdue infrastructure improvements to take place. Community asset transfers are now an everyday occurrence in urban areas too. But the overall patterns of landownership and remote governance have hardly changed and the climate emergency looks set to add forestry cash to the wind power millions handed to Scotland’s large landowners. There is massive opposition to this. Over the next 20 years, a land value tax must be introduced, succession laws must give Scots children legal rights to inherit land (naturally breaking up “sporting” estates) and the system for obtaining planning permission must change so people can afford to build and buy homes locally instead of handing massive unearned bonuses to the owners of land.
The face of Holyrood has become markedly less diverse than the “Rainbow Parliament” of 2003, when Scottish Socialists, Senior Citizens, Solidarity, a hospital candidate and seven Greens were represented. Since then, smaller parties have been squeezed out as voters polarise and Scotland’s constitutional future takes centre stage. That’s unavoidable, as evidenced by the latest extraordinary threat to bypass the parliament and distribute grants directly from Westminster after Brexit. Michael Gove’s plans to dismantle Holyrood may yet prove his biggest mistake (and that’s saying something) because Scots, though undemonstrative and hyper-critical, are also strongly attached to our parliament.
Over the years, administrations of all political complexions have inched Scotland away from Westminster policy norms – devolved and reserved. Holyrood effectively rejected Westminster’s dwindling conception of the Welfare State by approving the delivery of free personal care in 2001. Of course, funding problems in that system are regularly highlighted. But opposition parties must explain how anything other than complete control of Scotland’s finances can establish proper funding levels over the next 20 years. Similarly delays to the transfer of some welfare powers have (ironically) been attacked by opposition parties – but most Scots support the £400 million already spent at Holyrood restoring UK benefit cuts north of the Border and understand Scotland can only mitigate the cruel and hostile environment facing benefits claimants, for so long.
The origins of the parliament’s distinctive stance on foreign policy issues can be traced to 2003 and a memorable debate on the war in Iraq, in which Tory and Labour MSPs combined to defeat an SNP motion opposing military action. Scottish Labour’s inability to stand up to Tony Blair sealed its fate in the Scottish elections four years later. That decline continues as unionist parties stubbornly maintain Westminster branch offices, even though commentators now suggest Ruth Davidson must quit the toxic UK Conservative Party and establish a separate Scottish brand. Over the next two decades, under devolution or independence, that will surely happen. The question is whether the current unionist party leaders have the courage to reframe the argument and take the plunge.
Obviously the biggest change at the Scottish Parliament happened in 2007 when the SNP won power as a minority government. Alex Salmond’s change of signage turned the managerial-sounding Scottish Executive into the more purposeful Scottish Government and he swiftly became a hands-on first minister, shifting energy policy towards wind and other renewables and paving the way for the world-leading emission reduction targets announced by Nicola Sturgeon last week. More populist decisions to axe bridge tolls and prescription charges did not go unnoticed either. Four years later the party “broke the bank” forming a majority government in a parliament designed to deliver minority governments and coalition.
The independence referendum followed and the rest is history – still in the making. The “wee pretendy parliament” dismissed by Billy Connolly has won over many, including its fiercest critic. The low-key location chosen for the parliament by Donald Dewar was meant to stifle expansionist urges but the majority of MSPs have refitted the glorified tug Holyrood as a vessel fit for seagoing expeditions. Surely the business that will dominate the next two decades is the slow process of setting sail.