Exclusive: Nicola Sturgeon reflects on the future of the Scottish Parliament
Nicola Sturgeon - Image credit: David Anderson
In many ways this is an apt moment to be asked to offer my reflections on the evolution of our parliament and what the new session may hold in store.
The seismic political events of recent weeks have sent shockwaves around the world, thrown Westminster into a tailspin and posed major constitutional questions to the whole of the UK.
Although MSPs did not propose the EU referendum – and neither we nor the people of Scotland back the Brexit now on the cards – we must now ready ourselves to seek answers to some profound constitutional and legal questions.
The fallout will dominate the work of the Scottish Parliament for the next five years, and I believe that it will prove to be a watershed in the relatively short history of devolution.
Even without the EU referendum, the Scottish Parliament was already heading for by far its busiest session, with the ambitious proposals in the SNP’s manifesto, and the significant new tax and welfare powers, set to fill the parliamentary timetable.
But I know that Holyrood can rise to this challenge. It may only be entering its fifth session, but the re-established Scottish Parliament has already shown it is capable of navigating its way through turbulent political waters.
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I still vividly remember the overwhelming sense of pride and responsibility of being part of its first intake.
Winnie Ewing captured the sense of history perfectly – and caused hairs across the nation to stand on end – with her opening declaration that “the Scottish Parliament, adjourned on the 25th day of March in the year 1707, is hereby reconvened.”
It now fell to 129 men and women to prove that it had been worth it.
Before considering whether they did, it’s worth reflecting on just how different subsequent parliaments have looked to the Class of 99.
In just five elections, we have experienced coalition government, minority government and majority government.
The Labour and Lib Dem parties whose coalition dominated the early years of parliament now hold less than a quarter of the seats, while the SNP has representation in every corner of Scotland.
We started out with a male presiding officer, a male first minister, and with every party being led by a man – but fast forward to 2016 and women have occupied every single one of these positions.
It’s also hugely welcome to have seen so many lesbian, gay and bisexual MSPs, which has helped ensure that the Scottish Parliament is one of the most progressive chambers in the world.
But there is still much more to be done, and I’m honest enough to admit that we still have some distance to travel – particularly in terms of seeing more BME and disabled candidates.
Ultimately, only a chamber that is truly reflective of Scottish society will take decisions that truly reflect the needs of that society. There are many proactive steps being taken to achieve this, and the challenge for all political parties over the next few years is to turn good intentions into reality.
Turning the clock back to 1999 again, we can clearly see how the Parliament has also steadily grown in stature.
Of course, the Parliament’s early years are often remembered for less positive reasons – chief amongst them the tragic death of Donald Dewar.
And the unpleasantness surrounding the Section 28 debate, the Officegate affair and the controversy surrounding the Scottish Parliament building itself were issues that did not portray the fledgling parliament in the best of lights.
But looking back, I am now more philosophical about those first few years. Section 28 was repealed, free personal care was introduced, and in these and many other ways, that first intake of MSPs made their mark with bold decisions from which the people of Scotland still benefit today.
In the years since, on a diverse range of issues, MSPs have continued to show real leadership.
The ban on smoking in public places – which was not without its doubters at the time – has reaped the tremendous public health benefits which its original proponents envisaged. The rest of the UK quickly followed suit.
Our world-leading climate change legislation, passed in 2009, has attracted the interest and imitation of nations across the globe. It was recently revealed that we met our 2020 target six years early – which is why, early in this parliament, we will unveil legislation to set an even tougher target for Scotland.
And the abolition of tuition fees in Scotland has, for me, been one of the greatest achievements of devolution.
I know that not everyone in the chamber shares this view, but this 2007 vote demonstrated the ability – and the willingness – of Scotland’s Parliament to take a different path to the rest of the UK if we wish.
The Equal Marriage Act is the one of which I am most proud however. On a subject which produces strong feelings on both sides, MSPs led a respectful and measured debate, and produced a great leap forward for equality.
In this session of Parliament, I want to see as much progress made on equality for transgender people as we saw for lesbian, gay and bisexual people in the last.
But the moment the Scottish Parliament truly came into its own was during the independence referendum.
This was a vote which was never meant to happen – devolution was supposed to kill nationalism stone dead, we had been told.
We understandably look back on the whole experience through the prism of our views on independence, so we often overlook the fact that organising the referendum was in itself a significant achievement.
The Edinburgh Agreement between the Scottish and UK governments, the Section 30 order devolving the right to hold the referendum to the Scottish Parliament, and the Scottish Independence Referendum Act itself were some of the many administrative hurdles which had to be cleared.
That process unleashed the most exciting and engaging democratic process this country has ever seen, reaching people in Scotland who had in some cases never voted in their lives.
Sixteen and 17 year olds were allowed to vote for the first time – and I’m delighted that this successful experience provided the tipping point in ensuring their participation in all elections – in Scotland at least.
For a sustained period, the eyes of the world were upon Scotland– and all of us had a duty to ensure that we rose to the occasion and portrayed our country in the best possible light.
I think that by and large we did so – certainly in comparison to the somewhat ugly, ill-tempered and hysterical EU referendum debate we have endured over the last few weeks.
September 18th 2014 didn’t bring about the result which I wanted, but it did ultimately lead to significant new tax and welfare powers being transferred to the Scottish Parliament – and deciding how to use these powers will be a key feature of the fifth session of the Scottish Parliament.
Of course, the result of the EU referendum means that work to implement these new powers will take place alongside another constitutional debate – but one very different to that in the last session.
There can be absolutely no doubt of Scotland’s desire to remain in the European Union, and for us to be dragged out against our will – as stands to happen – is democratically unacceptable.
My priority – and the priority of the Scottish Parliament – should now be to do everything we can to protect Scotland’s relationship with the EU.
Committees will have to consider carefully how a Brexit will affect their portfolio interests, and they must ensure that stakeholders’ views and concerns are heard.
And MSPs must also now consider the option of a second independence referendum – as that may well be the only way to protect Scotland’s relationship with the EU.
Government officials are now drawing up fresh referendum legislation, and MSPs will have an important role in scrutinising this process – and they will have to approve another referendum.
But through all of that, the business of government and parliament will go on – and our important work to improve our schools, our hospitals and our economy will continue.
The priorities that we laid out in our manifesto are unchanged: raising educational attainment, a transformational increase in childcare provision, reforming healthcare provision to meet the challenges of the future, supporting our businesses in creating jobs and making work fair, reforming taxation to make it more progressive and increasing investment in public services, and using the new social security powers to create a welfare system based on dignity and respect.
As I said upon my re-election as First Minister, I will always listen to constructive ideas from all sides of the chamber – and indeed, I have already taken opposition manifesto suggestions on board.
It is only right that our ambitious plans be subject to the utmost scrutiny – and doing so will certainly keep MSPs busy over the next five years.
As we look ahead to the next 10 years, let’s consider a statistic which I think demonstrates the way in which the Scottish Parliament has firmly established itself at the centre of Scottish civic life.
Within the pages of the Scottish Social Attitudes Survey, we find that public trust in the Scottish Government to act in Scotland’s best interests outweighs trust in the UK Government by a factor of around three to one.
While it would be easy to attribute this clear divergence to the failings of a distant, out-of-touch Westminster system, it is doubtless in no small part also down to the success of the Scottish Parliament.
I aim to keep it that way.