Ken Macintosh says the country’s political class would be “delusional” to ignore the fear among Scots that the system isn’t working for them, after almost two decades of devolution.
The Scottish Parliament celebrates its 20th anniversary this year and Macintosh insists the institution has made landmark gains which have allowed Scots to take more responsibility for themselves. He wants to use the year ahead to “refresh” Holyrood and to make it a platform for discontented Scots to voice their concerns with politics.
“For all the gains we’ve made, there’s no way you can look at today’s society, today’s economy and think we’ve got it right,” says Macintosh.
“You’re looking around you and you’re seeing people in difficulty, worried about their job, worried about their income and security. Not trusting either the experts or politicians – not trusting anybody.”
The Brexit vote and subsequent turmoil as politicians down south grapple to find a way forward for the country has fostered a sense of breakdown with Westminster politics. The emergence of protesters and demonstrations of all political hues has underpinned a growing public mood of discontent with the system.
Macintosh warns: “I don’t look at what’s happening at Westminster and feel either immune or not part of it.
“When you look across the globe, when you look at what’s happening with the divisions in America at the moment, the Gilets Jaunes in France, the impasse over Brexit. I don’t smugly think, ‘Oh I’m glad we’re not like that here in Scotland.’ I think exactly the reverse.
“My goodness, the political problems that we face at the moment are momentous. There’s a lack of trust in the familiar ways that we approached them and we need to come up with some answers.
“We need to be able to give people confidence and trust.”
He adds: “We are absolutely kidding ourselves if we think we’ve got it right and they’ve all got it wrong and we can laugh at their misfortune. That would be delusional.
“We need to recognise that people in Scotland are every bit as exasperated as people in the rest of the UK, the people in France, the people in America and so on. All these votes that we’re having – people are shouting ‘This isn’t working for us.’
“It’s not just about pro-Europe or anti-Europe. It’s ‘What’s happening? Have you forgotten about us? We’re not doing as well as we should be. We’re worried, we can’t get a house, we can’t get an income, we’re worried about our kids’ future. Where’s our security?’
“We need to respond to that. But I think the Scottish Parliament can respond to it.”
He continues: “It’s about first of all being open so you’re not pretending you’ve got all the answers, but you reflect people’s priorities by debating the issues that are at the front of people’s minds.”
Devolution has seen a distinctive policy approach in Scotland since the onset of devolution, with a shift towards universal benefits including free personal care, university tuition and prescriptions, as well as the more recent introduction of a new income tax and benefits regime. Many feel Scotland is “diverging” from the Westminster approach, towards the more modern, social-democratic, Nordic-style system with excellent public services and higher taxes to pay for them.
But Macintosh, who was a Labour MSP before moving into the Presiding Officer’s chair, plays down suggestions that Holyrood has brought about any political fracturing with the rest of the UK.
“They wrestle with exactly the same problems – exactly the same problems,” he says.
“The big issues about what kind of society we want. Are we going down this Nordic-style model, Scandinavian model of high taxation, really good public services? Or are we going towards the more American model where the state can’t do everything?
“I would question whether we’re diverging or reflecting what’s always existed.
“When the Scottish Parliament came into being, more people in Scotland used the NHS than private health; more people go to state schools, fewer to private schools; there are still local authority homes for the elderly – I don’t think there’s any south of the border.
“There has always been a greater support for the idea of public good and common good in Scotland. It’s just our historical tradition – and we’ve had a separate judicial system, a separate education system and we are maintaining that.
“I’m not sure there’s any obvious signs that we’re diverging in any way, going down a different route. I can see the debate playing out in the rest of the UK and in Wales and in Northern Ireland as well. And they’re struggling with it.”
A series of events will be staged throughout this year to mark the 20th anniversary of the parliament, culminating in a celebration in the main debating chamber on 29 June, the date when it formally assumed legal powers.
The anniversary provides an opportunity to show what Holyrood has achieved in the past two decades, Macintosh says, and to “show what we can still do.”
The parliament’s committees were long seen as a hidden gem of the Holyrood system and the Presiding Officer believes they will enjoy a resurgence as a “powerful political tool”.
Their effectiveness has been questioned in recent years. Party tribalism during the independence debate saw splits in many committees among nationalist and unionist MSPs, with “minority reports” even published by some committees, when consensus couldn’t be reached.
But the culture committee has taken a lead in the investigation into the Glasgow School of Art fires and a special committee is also being established to look into the collapsed Scottish Government probe into sexual harassment claims against Alex Salmond.
This shows that Holyrood works best under a minority administration, Macintosh contends, when no single party can bulldoze its plans through.
“I think the two parliaments which really have allowed the design of this parliament to operate to its full effectiveness were the minority administration of 2007 and this current minority administration,” he says.
“The parliament has just had to adjust to the different majority administrations. It’s built on a premise that there won’t be an overall majority and therefore that politicians have to work with each other.”