Interview: Sandra White looks back at 20 years of the Scottish Parliament

Written by Liam Kirkaldy on 6 February 2019 in Inside Politics

The SNP MSP for Glasgow Kelvin talks to Liam Kirkaldy about how the Scottish Parliament has changed over two decades

Image credit: Allan Milligan

“They say as you get older, your short-term memory is worse than your long-term memory,” says Sandra White, laughing.

White is sitting in her office, on the fifth floor of the Scottish Parliament, almost 20 years after she first arrived as a new MSP, attempting to choose a particular highlight from the bills and legislation she has seen in her time as an elected representative.

Her list of high points is a long one – jumping from the implementation of recently devolved social security powers to housing legislation passed when she first arrived.

Free school meals, the smoking ban, pavement parking [yet to be passed]. The Crown Estate Bill. The small business bonus. Paid carers. Support for looked-after children. Free prescriptions. The list goes on and on.

Not that anyone knew what to expect back on 12 May 1999, when White and her colleagues walked back into the parliament’s temporary home in the General Assembly Hall of the Church of Scotland, at the top of Edinburgh’s Royal Mile.

“I remember it very well,” says White, looking back on that day. “I was in awe – not of the parliament building itself, but of the set-up. I’d been a councillor and I knew the council, but this was another step. It felt like the future of my country was in our hands. We [the SNP] weren’t in government but it was a great feeling [to arrive at parliament]. I looked up to an awful lot of people, from the security guards onwards. To keep me right, basically. It was a huge learning curve for all of us and one of the things I enjoyed about the older parliament was the fact it was right in the middle of the buzz.

“You weren’t in a bubble at the beginning. Only now, in retrospect, do you realise that, but for me, that was my first impression – you had this big office and you would walk down and cross the cobbles. It was very historic – you had St Giles and the castle right there – and you met real people there. You had to be on your best behaviour, because the public were watching you. I was in awe of the area, there was something majestic about it, in the atmosphere. Everyone was new. You could be crossing over to go vote or debate and someone would stop you – the public knew what you were – and they would stop you in the street. They’d stop Donald Dewar, they’d stop Alex Salmond, and they’d ask you questions. It was great.

“I think we learned off each other, but we all had this sense of responsibility, that you had been elected to represent your country. It was awe-inspiring.”

The parliament was based in the Assembly Hall until 2004, when MSPs made the leap down the Royal Mile, to the bottom of the Canongate, to take up residence in the current Scottish Parliament building. And while Holyrood may now instinctively seem the natural base for the parliament, it seems it took MSPs a while to settle in.

White says: “Perhaps because it was new, and there was less at stake, people were a bit friendlier to each other. You would chat, I’m not saying we were going out for dinner together but you did chat more. One, you had no option, but two, people were all learning. It was a new era, it was a new parliament, and we were all finding our feet, so I’d say it probably was a bit friendlier back then.

“I remember going around the building, when it was still under construction. It was much bigger, but that meant you didn’t bump into each other in the same way. You had your various offices – a floor for this, a floor for that, a floor for some other party. We all had to learn the committee rooms, then we had to learn them again when they named them after people.”

And while MSPs adapted to a new building, politics, too, was changing. The 2003 election had brought gains for a host of smaller parties, particularly the Scottish Green Party and the Scottish Socialist Party, while three independents – Dennis Canavan, Margo MacDonald and Jean Turner – also took seats. That move to the new building, alongside a growing sophistication in Scottish politics, brought a change in the mood.

“Folk had a wee bit more experience by the time we arrived here, so it wasn’t just the building, it was learned behaviour,” White explains. “There was a less confrontational space for debates, in the chamber, but there’s probably also been a bit more tribalism. I think that’s probably because there’s more to gain, more at stake.

“When it started up in 1999, we were all learning – the media was learning as well – it was a new era. But once we came into the new building, everyone was maybe a bit more politically savvy. The media as well. But then you had the rainbow parliament as well, that really opened things up, and I think that was a good thing. There were different ideas, bouncing off each other. It made it all the more interesting, but it was changing all the time, I suppose.

“We’ve had another new influx [of MSPs] recently but I think it’s maybe a bit more heated now than it was in the beginning. It’s a shame because you’d hope that as time went on it would become friendlier. But I still see people like Mary Scanlon, John Scott, all the people there since the beginning, we still tend to chat to each other.

“We have a sense of camaraderie, and shared memories as well. I’m not sure what it is with some of the politicians that come in nowadays, compared to then – maybe it is because we were all new. There was less competition between MSPs then, we wanted to get on with the job, and I think the big change of scene now is that people have become much more focused.”

White argues that the Scottish Parliament has brought politics closer to the people, claiming, “we engage with people much, much better than Westminster ever engaged with anybody”. But while she says she has seen Scotland become a more confident country during the time the parliament has been up and running, still, she wonders if there were things MSPs could have done differently.

“This might be a bit controversial,” she says, “but I must admit that when we had socialists in the parliament, we used to have trade unionists from Chile, people like that, come over and talk about the situation they had been facing, so one of my regrets is that we’re not international enough. I know we don’t have the powers but we can still talk about it. We can bring forward issues. We did have the opportunity when we were a rainbow parliament, but I don’t think we do as much in that respect now.”

Yet back on that day in 1999, as White and her colleagues made their journey into the chamber for the first sitting of the Scottish Parliament in 300 years, it’s unlikely anyone could have predicted what Scotland, or its parliament, would look like 20 years on. A changing Scotland has moulded its parliament, while there is no doubt the representatives who have walked through its doors over the years have, in turn, moulded Scotland. But if you had walked up to White back then, at the top of the Royal Mile, surrounded by the bustle of politics and tourism, she would never have predicted she would be sitting where she is now.

“I honestly didn’t think I would still be here,” she laughs. “In my naivety, I thought it wouldn’t be long till we were an independent Scotland. The only party I ever joined was the SNP and my whole raison d’être was [independence]. I got elected, we had the Scottish Parliament and I thought, ‘it won’t be long until we have an independent parliament and I won’t need to be here’. That was the way I thought in those days, but then before you know where you are, you’re 10 years down, 15 years down, before you know it, it’s been 20 years. People ask you that and you think, ‘I cannae believe that, it cannae be right’. It’s not so much you get consumed, it’s just life. There’s always something going on, it’s always changing.”

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