The birth of a parliament

Written by Gemma Fraser on 21 January 2019 in Inside Politics

In the year that celebrates the 20th anniversary of the Scottish Parliament, former first minister Henry McLeish tells Gemma Fraser how it all began

Image credit: PA

Sometimes, the only way to celebrate a job well done is by ordering in pizza.

And in the House of Lords, one night in autumn 1998, after the Scotland Bill was finally finished, that’s exactly what a happy band of Scots, including former first ministers Donald Dewar and Henry McLeish, did.

On the face of it, the bill came into force in a relatively short timeframe, from the day Scottish voters said yes to a Scottish Parliament with tax-varying powers in September, 1997, to the day it became the Scotland Act in 1998.

But for some, the fight to see a Scottish parliament governing Scottish issues from the heart of Scotland had been a long-fought one which dated back decades, even centuries.

And such an accomplishment undoubtedly deserved pizza.

“Devolution of power and the idea of home rule were obviously politically early visitors to Scotland because we had Keir Hardie in 1888 with an address which mentioned home rule and in 1918, the first manifesto contained the subject as a major priority,” McLeish tells Holyrood.

“From that point onwards, pre-war, First World War, inter-war, post-war, the interest in the issue ebbed and flowed, partly based on the mood of the country, how good or bad it was feeling about itself, and often in relation to surges of the SNP – often unpredictable but nevertheless a threat.”

McLeish, who became the second first minister following the sudden death of Donald Dewar in October 2000, has written extensively on Scottish politics past and present, but it’s the personal insight he can give into the process that helped shape the biggest change to Scotland’s constitution since 1707 that fascinates more than the history books.

The story begins in 1997 in ‘Cool Britannia’, where makeshift stands, plastered in images of Tony Blair’s grinning face, dominated high streets up and down the country and D: Ream’s Things Can Only Get Better boomed out from ghetto-blasters.

There was an unspoken air of excitement, an infectious buzz, an overarching sense that something new was on the horizon.

And that came in the shape of New Labour, in the form of the fresh-faced, smiling, enthusiastic and charismatic Tony Blair, the poster boy credited with kicking the Tories out of power after 18 years.

“We were euphoric about that,” recalls McLeish. “I had been in opposition for 10 years by then, with the Tories in power, first Thatcher, then Major, so in a sense, there was great excitement, great expectation and a real sense that we could change the face not only of the United Kingdom, but in the process, change the face of Scotland.

“A head of steam had built up in the 90s for a Scottish parliament. The Constitutional Convention was a boost, but there was a feeling that it failed on a technical hurdle in 1979 [when the first devolution referendum was held]. There was a growing mood for change.

“It was quite clear that Tony Blair in this flush of creativity and enterprise that he was trying to induce – you know, ‘Cool Britannia’ and all of that – that Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland needed different settlements.”

Blair had, of course, promised a devolution referendum in Scotland if Labour were to be elected, and he delivered on that promise.

Not only that, he delivered quickly, with Scots returning to the ballot box just four months after the general election.

“Tony Blair was instrumental in getting the legislation through because he was prime minister and he would brook no real criticism and no real attempts to reshape the White Paper,” says McLeish. “He was stalwart in his support. That was partly based on the fact that Labour was committed and John Smith [the former Labour leader who died in 1994] left him with the unfinished business of doing it.

“I would never ascribe to Tony the view that he was an enthusiastic constitutionalist who wanted change, but it didn’t matter because he was the prime minister and what prime ministers want, they normally get. It was a political mission and he accepted it.

“Nothing has moved as quickly in Westminster. Politics can be an ugly business, but you have to recognise that that was a formidable achievement.”

Dewar, who was Scottish Secretary at the time, led the charge, but always with the “absolute support and commitment” of Blair, according to McLeish.

He recalls: “The good thing was that Dewar took it through with a great deal of humour, a great deal of purpose, a great deal of conviction and there was no blood shed on the floor of the House of Commons.

“Donald Dewar, of course, did all the big occasions. I think I spent about 120 hours at the dispatch box taking all the minutiae – and some were significant issues – from start to finish. The speed of implementation, tactically, it didn’t give anybody a chance to create any problems. On the other hand, momentum had been created by John Smith, the party, convention and Blair.

“The night the parliamentary stages of the bill finished in the House, we ended up eating pizzas in the House of Lords. It wasn’t in any dining rooms, it was just along with the Labour leader of the Lords at the time. This is the other side of the House of Commons.”

And so the referendum was held on 11 September 1997, when Scots were given two questions to answer: whether or not they wanted a Scottish parliament, and whether or not a Scottish parliament should have tax-varying powers.

McLeish remembers the day fondly. “That day was special for a variety of reasons,” he says. “One, it was built on a White Paper which was believed at that time to be one of the best White Papers that had preceded legislation in virtually 100 years.

“So we got to the double-edged referendum on September 11th and of course, on that day, with 74 per cent voting for the parliament and 63 per cent voting for the tax purposes, these were significant referendum results.

“There was a kind of carnival atmosphere about the day but I don’t think there were any doubts on our part that that would be delivered.”

Blair arrived in Edinburgh the day after the referendum, where he met Dewar when his helicopter touched down at Holyrood.

“Satisfactory, I think,” Dewar reportedly said to the PM.

“Very satisfactory, and well done,” came the reply from Blair.

McLeish tells Holyrood: “This was a remarkable achievement in parliamentary, constitutional terms, and a lot of credit had to go to Donald Dewar, brought back into the Secretary of State’s job on the election in ‘97 and as a consequence, he had the stature, the background, he had the intellectual capacity and he had the passion and emotion for his country. It was an ideal mix.”

With the will of the Scottish people now undeniable, the rest was just a matter of ticking all the boxes and going through the necessary stages until the bill finally received Royal Assent on 19 November 1998 and became the Scotland Act 1998.

“The reason why the bill stages were so free of acrimony and difficulties was because we had the White Paper approved by Scots,” explains McLeish. “There was a debate about whether we got the White Paper and then we go to the Act and then have a vote after that. But what actually happened was the White Paper delivered incredibly quickly – 12 weeks – now the masterstroke was to put it to the people and nobody in that House after the Scots had voted ‘yes, yes’ was going to try to undermine or destroy that legislation.

“Donald Dewar concentrated on getting the White Paper published, then very quickly, a referendum. Between us being elected in May ‘97 and the first occasion the parliament met in May ‘99 was two years in one of the boldest constitutional moves that’s ever been undertaken since the Irish question in the 1920s and [the Act of Union] 1707.

“The important thing about Westminster is that if you leave things too long, the whole spirit can be dissipated. It’s a very strange place, the House of Commons. So there was method in his purpose.

“So really, we were driving up the street with lights and horns all flashing and nobody was going to stop this. I don’t say that in a sense of arrogance but politics is about mood and momentum and the mood was positive and momentum was very strong and we struck while the iron was very hot.”

And so, on 6 May 1999 – just two years since Labour’s general election victory – the first Scottish Parliament elections were held, resulting in the formation of a coalition government between Labour and the Lib Dems.

While it would be a further five years – and £414m – before MSPs could move into their permanent home at Holyrood, they took their temporary seats at the General Assembly Hall of the Church of Scotland on the Mound.

But it was the official opening of parliament by the Queen, on 1 July 1999 that sticks in McLeish’s mind the most.

“There was a simply brilliant speech by Donald Dewar. It captured the essence of Scottishness. We had the Queen making a good contribution and the whole place was singing A Man’s a Man for A’ That. There was a fly past with Concorde and the Red Arrows which looked like they were just above the Assembly building. There was a great sense of drama and a great sense of showmanship.

“But then I quickly realised if you were thinking on that day, that this was the start of something more significant. This was the razzmatazz of launch and from that, some of us, I’m sure, were reflecting.

“Donald Dewar had a speech where he’s making the point that this is a journey, we don’t know what the destination is. He also made the point that he can’t believe that the UK government has such a soft underbelly that there won’t ever be any more changes to the constitution of the UK. This was a person who was thinking achievement and thinking to the future. And that came through on that day.

“Some people were apprehensive about destination unknown. We had no idea at that point but we had reached that critical day where everything changed.”

McLeish admits he may have even shed a tear as emotions ran high during the monumental day.

“I think I’m quite emotional by nature,” he says. “There were a lot of people reflecting that day. This was an institution newly formed that could then develop, create and move in a way that would have frightened some people at that point. On the other hand, there were people there saying we need to get on with taking it to that point. Then there was maybe the Donald Dewars of the world who were thinking [it was] challenging but we just have to be up with whatever Scots want.

“We built the parliament within the building we had at the top of the Royal Mile so the atmosphere transcended the physical surroundings. We could have been anywhere that day and it would have been a great occasion.”

While in a reflective mood, Holyrood asks McLeish to consider whether the Scotland Act 1998 actually went far enough at the time, given the benefit of hindsight.

“At that point, these were major, major changes to the constitutional make-up of the UK,” he says. “Twenty years down the line, everybody says you should have had this, you should have had that.

“Even with the benefit of hindsight, that was not going to happen at that point. A lot of people had been persuaded that this was the right thing to be doing at that time and therefore, it’s not wise to look back and say, we should have done this, what’s more appropriate to do now is look ahead.

“It was all satisfactory, all needed, a very big bill and satisfied the requirements of Scotland. I think if we had tried to go further at that point in some of the areas that have now been [introduced], like taxation, employment, social security, we would have met resistance because at that point, we didn’t have the benefit of 20 years ahead and I think at that point, there would have been some delicate discussions and therefore it would have been unproductive.

“For Scots like me, Donald Dewar and others, this was a huge step forwards but for the UK, especially England, they didn’t see it through the same prism as we did.”

And in his opinion, would Blair have any regrets about being so supportive of devolution, given what has happened in the following two decades?

“I think he [Blair] would still think it was the right thing to do at the time. It’s worth remembering that he’s the most successful Labour prime minister ever. He was the person who may not have given it the highest priority in his government, but he delivered. And one of the things that people are cynical about these days is that politicians, maybe including myself, can make many promises and say many things but we don’t deliver.

“Blair delivered and he would be proud of that. He’d be proud of the Irish achievement, he’d be horrified at the prospects of what’s happening in Northern Ireland because of Brexit, and I think Wales made a small step forward but now Wales has got significant powers as well.”

He adds: “I think the key for me, and this is my concern 20 years on, is that there was no bigger dream at that time, no bigger picture, no bigger idea. And this is then the Labour Party’s problem of hoping it was business completed to keep the nationalists at bay. It opened all the doors and the Labour Party’s lost traction in trying to find a way forward, so much so that we are in a situation where they think it’s a bit of a taboo to talk about the constitutional question.

“It’s not about embracing independence, it’s actually saying Scotland’s future will carry on. We’re on a journey, we haven’t reached a destination and Labour has to be part of it.

“The excitement of Scottish politics is where’s it going next? The status quo can’t endure in the sense that there will be no more powers. Will it become independent? There is a possibility. On the other hand, could it be federal? And if it is federal, does Westminster have the courage or ambition to have that bigger architecture for the future of the UK than it ever did 20 years ago?

“My concern is that there’s still a significant residue of bitterness, hatred, enmity between Labour and the SNP. Now, look, politics is not passion-free and I was as bad as anybody when I was at Westminster but we’re not doing the public any favours by doing that. Labour has got to stop resenting the fact that the SNP has been in government for 11 years.

“I would like to see the parliament become more consensual, more co-operative and it may well be the time for the parliament to consider all of the MSPs being elected on PR, not just 56 of them.”

There’s no doubt that McLeish is still passionate about the Scottish Parliament and still carries around a sense of pride for his own involvement in the process that led to its birth.

But having risen very quickly to the position of first minister – albeit in very tragic and unforeseen circumstances – he fell just as suddenly following an unfortunate financial scandal he became embroiled in.

He resigned after little more than a year in post, in November 2001, admitting “full personal responsibility” for mistakes made over the sub-letting of his constituency office in Glenrothes.

At the time, McLeish said his resignation was the best thing to do to allow the Scottish Parliament to continue with its “real and pressing business” with the minimum of distraction.

But does he still believe stepping down was in the best interests of the parliament, and indeed, himself?

“People ask me that, but quite frankly, I didn’t go around Westminster thinking I would ever be Secretary of State for Scotland or first minister in a Scottish government,” says McLeish. “I didn’t covet the job at any time.

“Everybody says to me, ‘why on earth did you do that, why did you resign’? This was potentially the first big issue affecting the first minister. I mean, Donald had been criticised because of the parliament and building and all that kind of stuff. But in the sense that once some of the [media] pack smell blood, then it’s very difficult. You just become the total focus, not the good things that are being done in the parliament, not the fact I got free personal care through in legislation, etc, etc, so therefore the balance of judgment was, because I hadn’t really spent all my life coveting the job and wanting it, then I was quite happy to say, ‘look, I am a major distraction and this might be the easiest and the best way out’. All of a sudden it takes you out and there’s no focus and people can get back on.”

And does he hold any resentment about being forced to make that decision?

“None at all,” he says, decisively. “I’m now a renewed believer in the fact that there’s a lot of good in politics. Politicians are much maligned, and sometimes we bring it on ourselves. We’re electing people not angels to a parliament. I look back on all of it as a big learning curve. I was able to come back from my 2001 resignation after a while because I believe in politics, I believe in the goodness it can do.”

At the same time, McLeish isn’t afraid to admit it took him a while to pick himself back up again after ‘Officegate’.

“I’ve only ever been defeated in an election once in my life and that was to the SNP in 1977,” he says. “The day after, I thought that six billion people in the world had cast a vote against me. You get that kind of feeling.

“But on the other hand, there are more ways to contribute to your nation in terms of public service and I’ve certainly done that. But you do feel disappointed. You’re disappointed for people, you’re disappointed for yourself but at the end of the day, I don’t like the indulgence of looking back and people saying you shouldn’t have done this. In that moment in time, you take a decision on what you think is best for yourself and the government and the parliament and in that sense, I have no regrets. Maybe if I had been desperate to have the job all my life, I would cling on till grim death.”

McLeish believes that there is a lot to be learned from the parliament over the past 20 years – not least by politicians at Westminster.

He praises the accomplishments of first minsters past and present – from his own success in introducing free personal care for the elderly to Jack McConnell’s smoking ban, Alex Salmond’s free tuition and Nicola Sturgeon’s minimum alcohol pricing.

“When I was in London at Westminster, we would maybe get one or two Scottish bills a year,” says McLeish. “Now I think we can vary between 15 and 20 bills. That means we’re attending to things in Scotland that wouldn’t have been attended to in London.

“I defend the [Scottish] parliament completely against people who say it’s just another institution. If you look rationally at the views of Scots, it’s a parliament in our own backyard, you can moan about our parliamentarians, you can come to Edinburgh, you can visit, you can see this.

“If Westminster was more accessible to the country and not just the elite and lobbyists then you’d find that there might be a lot better view of it than we’ve currently got.”

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