As Scotland prepares to mark 20 years since electing to realise Donald Dewar’s vision for a Scottish Parliament in the referendum of September 1997, it can be said with some confidence that the 74 per cent of voters who favoured its creation have been thoroughly vindicated.
At the opening of the newly devolved parliament in July 1999, Dewar set out the principles and objectives upon which it was founded: “The striving to do right by the people of Scotland, to respect their priorities, to better their lot, and to contribute to the commonweal.”
Twenty years on, Scotland is safer, with crime at its lowest level in 42 years; Scotland is fairer, having introduced some of the most progressive equal marriage legislation in the world and pioneered the repeal of Section 28; Scotland is healthier, with 90 per cent of NHS Scotland patients rating their experience as either “good” or “excellent”; Scotland is greener, with over half the nation’s electricity needs being met from renewable sources; and on the economy, Scotland boasts the lowest levels of unemployment in the UK and the highest levels of foreign direct invest outside London. Put simply, with national parks established and the “freedom to roam” secured, with our public places free from cigarette smoke and our elderly population able to access free personal care, Scotland is now a much better place to live.
The parliament has not been without its limitations, of course. Education has been a recurrent stumbling block since the exam results fiasco of 2000, the parliamentary committees have been less effective than first anticipated, and the hemicycle designed debating chamber has failed spectacularly as an antidote to adversarial politics.
Yet, beyond all that, as the parliament’s first presiding officer, David Steel, reflected in a recent interview, the crowning achievement of devolution has been restoring “self-confidence” to the nation, just as Dewar envisioned: “This is about more than our politics and our laws. This is about who we are, how we carry ourselves.”
Nineteenth century Scotland proudly celebrated its world-beating economic, enlightenment, and martial prowess, but Scotland’s preeminent historian, Sir Tom Devine, argues that economic turmoil throughout the 20th century, “had a cataclysmic effect on the nation’s confidence.”
The collapse of old imperial trade links and failure to embrace the opportunities of the Second Industrial Revolution resulted in an over-dependence on declining and interdependent heavy industries – Scotland’s role in the world consequently diminished, parochialism set in, and the phenomenon known as ‘the Scottish cringe’ became endemic.
Dewar promised that devolution would, “give Scotland the power to boost its self-confidence: economically, culturally, and politically.” The restoration of our national parliament has allowed us to stride into the new millennium with a renewed sense of purpose, a conviction that this nation’s greatest years are not behind us, encouraging Scotland to return to its roots as the enterprising, outward-looking, European nation it has long been.
Rodaidh McLaughlin lives in Crossford, Fife, and is a politics and Scottish history graduate