Independence debate has distracted Holyrood from original mission – Richard Leonard

The Scottish Parliament, which is marking its 20th anniversary, needs to focus on jobs, schools and hospitals, rather than constitution issues, writes Scottish Labour leader Richard Leonard.

Last weekend, while clearing out my garage, I stumbled across a timely reminder of the importance of the creation of the Scottish Parliament, as it approached its 20th anniversary. Like a letter from our past it not only tells us about the aspirations of our younger selves but forces us to reflect on whether we have lived up to our earlier ambitions as we mark this important milestone.

‘Power For Change’, the document I found, was a comprehensive manifesto for the change that the Scottish Trades Union Congress believed was necessary to be led by a Scottish Parliament. The clue was in the title. It was not constitutional change for its own sake, but for real change for the people of Scotland. It was written collectively and I contributed a number of chapters as the STUC’s newly appointed assistant secretary for economic affairs.

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Dusted off from the corner of my garage and reconsidered, it tells us a lot about why we are here today. The Scottish Parliament grew out of a process involving the Scottish Constitutional Convention, which itself was born out of the frustration of people in Scotland who knew that if power could be held in the right hands at the right level, it could be used much more effectively for the benefit of the majority. The labour movement, industrially and politically, was deeply involved in developing that case. ‘Power For Change’ was the culmination of many years of such work by the trade unions, collectively, in Scotland. Building on earlier STUC pressure, this programme of reform argued for a strategy that “covers a wide sweep of areas crucial to the wellbeing and the development of the people of Scotland”.

Donald Dewar speaks to people on the Royal Mile on the day the Scottish Parliament opened in 1999 (Picture: Neil Hanna)Donald Dewar speaks to people on the Royal Mile on the day the Scottish Parliament opened in 1999 (Picture: Neil Hanna)
Donald Dewar speaks to people on the Royal Mile on the day the Scottish Parliament opened in 1999 (Picture: Neil Hanna)
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Scottish Parliament at 20: How Holyrood found the power to make a difference

Notably, it did not limit itself to talking about the powers that are required as an arid constitutional point, but instead placed those powers at the heart of delivering something different: “Central to this strategy has been the creation of a Scottish Parliament with powers to ensure that Scotland’s priorities are to the forefront when dealing with economic issues.”

The late and much missed Campbell Christie was the General Secretary of the STUC at that time. He was determined to ensure that the focus remained on the purpose of a Scottish Parliament, not merely its fact. And so, in 1991, Campbell initiated a comprehensive document for what the Scottish Parliament must do, designed to help shape the agenda of an incoming Neil Kinnock Labour government, and it was published in the weeks before the 1992 general election. Labour lost, and we had to wait another five years for the election of a government that would finally deliver the Scottish Parliament that Power For Change so desperately wanted to see.

Nonetheless, its vision and the arguments it contained remained a blueprint for progressive Scottish politics in the years leading up to the final establishment of the Parliament. It is not a factional point, but an historic fact, that during this whole time, the Tories implacably opposed the creation of a Scottish Parliament and the SNP walked out of the Constitutional Convention altogether.

I am struck today by the all-encompassing, transformative vision that was held by those of us who fought for a Scottish Parliament, which is reflected in our ideas in Power For Change. Presciently, this vision demanded an energy policy for the 21st century that recognised the need to place the environment at its heart. On the economy, the agenda was to be radical. Recognising the role of financial services under a Scottish Parliament, Power For Change saw that the Parliament must provide for intervention in the economy – influencing mergers, safeguarding industry, and undertaking strategic economic planning. Manufacturing was seen as central to the wellbeing of the economy as a whole and an efficient modern transport infrastructure was understood to be essential for the economic growth Scotland needs. We also understood that Scotland would only be prosperous if all of Scotland’s people could participate in its future and therefore that all forms of discrimination must be tackled. We saw that Parliament must see this objective as a priority. Education and skills were vital. Public services such as local government and the health service were to be revitalised and housing had to be addressed as a matter of urgency.

It is instructive to remind ourselves of this all-embracing analysis of the state of Scottish economic and social conditions at the time when the Parliament was in gestation. Let us be honest with ourselves. Those conditions are fundamentally the same now. Some elements may be different in form but in content the conditions that made the creation of a Parliament necessary have just not gone away.

Moreover, the early years of the Parliament certainly delivered real reform such as the scrapping of tuition fees, the introduction of free personal care and free bus travel for the over-60s, the smoking ban and the repeal of clause 2a. But deep-seated change is now stalled. If anything, as I have argued here before, the big headline ‘change’ of constantly dragging everything back to independence, distracts from the actual change that could be delivered by a Scottish Parliament that drew strength and inspiration from the causes that led to its establishment in the first place.

On this anniversary, there are tasks here for my party, and there are tasks for the Parliament. Labour delivered a Scottish Parliament and the next Scottish Labour Government will implement the most radical economic and social agenda in the history of devolution. To do that, my party must recapture and rededicate itself to the vision and hope of John Smith, Donald Dewar and all of those of us who campaigned for a Scottish Parliament.

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And for the Parliament, in recent years it has been distracted by constitutional debate rather than real action on the issues people care about and need, like jobs, schools and hospitals. The use of new powers over tax and social security has been too limited. While the wealth and incomes of the richest have soared in the past decade, one in four children are growing up in poverty. Twenty years on, that once again must be what drives us to use that power for change.