Scottish Parliament at 20: Lewis Macdonald on growing up with devolution

Written by Liam Kirkaldy on 4 March 2019 in Inside Politics

Interview with the Scottish Labour MSP for North East Scotland, Lewis Macdonald

Image credit: Holyrood

Lewis Macdonald’s daughter, Iona, took her first steps just as the Scottish Parliament did.

Macdonald had just been elected as part of the Scottish Parliament’s first intake of MSPs and a team from the Station House Media Unit, his local community radio station, had been following him on his journey from selection to winning his seat in Aberdeen Central.

One of four prominent devolution campaigners from the area to end up in parliament – the Yes-Yes group in Aberdeen had also included Elaine Thomson, Kevin Stewart and Alasdair Allan – the moment was obviously an important one for him. Yet, as the North East MSP tells Holyrood, in taking those first hesitant steps across the carpet, it seems his daughter still managed to upstage him.

“At the wind up of it all [the election], they came to interview me at my house, and filmed it, and my youngest daughter, Iona, at that time was just over a year old,” he says. “She was sitting on one sofa and I was sitting on the other, and she took her first steps on camera as part of this documentary on the setting up of the parliament. She walked across from one sofa to the other. That was a fabulous moment,” he says, smiling at the memory.

“It was kind of symbolic about what the Scottish Parliament meant to me – it was very much a family enterprise. My wife, Sandra, had basically been my campaign coordinator, she wasn’t my election agent but she did a lot of the organisation for the campaign. Because our kids were young, they were part of the election, part of the parliament, they were down for the opening along with the extended family.”

Opening the parliament provided a chance to make a fresh start, with the founders given the opportunity to pause and consider how they would like Scotland to do things differently. And while that approach has been most obvious in the legislative divergence brought by devolution over the years, it also allowed for a different approach in the day-to-day routines governing the lives of those that worked in the building itself.

“One of the things I was very keen on, having worked as a shadow cabinet researcher at Westminster in the 90s, was that this new parliament would be family friendly, so I was very supportive of the measures taken at that time to make sure there was support for parents, as well as family-friendly hours.

“For me, as a parent of young children, that was important, but one of the other striking features of the Scottish Parliament compared to Westminster was the number of people who were young parents, because naturally, Westminster, being a more mature parliament, had people of all ages, as the Scottish Parliament does now. But back at the beginning, there was a preponderance of people in their thirties and forties, with maybe a younger outlook on life, on our roles and responsibilities, than might be the case at a more mature parliament.

“There was an enormous amount of scrutiny – some of it was helpful and some of it was quite petty and perhaps damaging. But it meant that from day one that what we did as MSPs and as a parliament was very much in the public domain. Transparency was absolutely a watchword because in a highly scrutinised environment, anything that fell short would immediately become suspect or attract attention for all the wrong reasons. In a sense that was very good for the parliament, to get into good habits from the very beginning.”

And while some MSPs express a certain nostalgia for the days when parliament borrowed the General Assembly Hall from the Church of Scotland, Macdonald sees the completion of the Holyrood building at the bottom of the Canongate as a key part of the devolution journey, even if he admits he enjoyed welcoming MSPs to Aberdeen back when parliament held a couple of sessions on the road.

“I was delighted as the then MSP for Aberdeen Central to host the parliament in Aberdeen for a week,” he explains. “It went to Glasgow for a week as well, and those things probably won’t happen again because we have a parliamentary building, but that was a benefit of being homeless, we went to visit the neighbours. It was great for the parliament to do that.”

In the years since 1999, Macdonald has been both a constituency and regional member – he lost his Aberdeen Central seat to the SNP’s Kevin Stewart in 2011 – as well as serving both in government and on the Labour front bench, in opposition, in a range of portfolio areas.

So, welcoming other MSPs to Aberdeen aside, what have been Macdonald’s other highlights over the last 20 years?

“The business of legislation has had high points and low points,” he says. “There have been bills passed which have been so weak they’ve had to be redone, but on the other hand, there have been some really fantastic legislative initiatives. We led the UK on banning smoking in public places, for example, that was a real milestone piece of legislation. We weren’t the first in the world but we enabled other countries which followed our example to see that it could work and that it could really make a difference. That was significant. I was delighted in the first term to be part of the land reform legislation, and that’s been built on so that last year, a community in the urban centre of Aberdeen was able to buy an asset using the same principles we established 20 years ago in relation to Highland crofting estates.

“I suppose it’s fair to say that if you look over the history of the five sessions of parliament so far, the approach to legislation of the government and of other parties has varied from parliament to parliament. Again, that is part of the learning process. The third session in particular, the Alex Salmond minority government, was very legislation-light. It didn’t do very much, for reasons that no doubt Alex Salmond and his ministers would defend. In contrast, the first session, when Donald Dewar was first minister, he came in having been part of government and parliament at Westminster and realised how much Scottish law reform, for example, had simply not happened through the Commons, and Henry McLeish was like him, I suppose. So they were legislation-heavy in terms of sorting out some of the things that had been sitting on the shelf of the Scotland Office for a number of years.”

He adds: “You know, my daughter is just reaching 21, and you look back over that time and you look at the growth of the parliament almost like you do the maturing of a person. The parliament in 1999 was new-born, it was entering the world with all sorts of things in front of it and obviously with some very experienced people – Donald Dewar above all – but on all sides and from all fields of life. But as an institution, it was brand new, and in a sense, a lot of the story of the last 20 years is the story of a democratic institution growing up. People talk about the re-founding of the Scottish Parliament but that’s not right. This isn’t the recreation of some medieval institution, this is a modern, democratic, brand-new institution.

“You can see in those 20 years there have been difficult learning spells, there have been periods of real challenge. If the 2014 independence referendum was characterised as a teenage crisis, it wouldn’t be far wrong – it was certainly the most direct challenge to the existence of a devolved parliament within our wider union, and it was led from within the parliament itself. Could a devolved parliament successfully accommodate both nationalism and a more plural approach? It was challenging, particularly for the committee system of the Scottish Parliament. Would a single party with a majority, and therefore in charge of every committee, would it be able to act in a way that respected the democratic spirit in which the parliament was created? I think there were some really testing times, however, the parliament came through that, and the devolution settlement came through that, and it was actually strengthened rather than diminished by it.

“As any 20-year-old will probably admit, they don’t know everything yet. But they know a lot more than they did at the beginning. I think the same is true of the parliament, it’s not by any means the finished article, and maybe you could argue that it never should see itself as the finished article. It should always be growing and developing, and it’s certainly doing that, but it’s come through some critical experiences already.”

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