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by Henry McLeish
03 February 2023
Henry McLeish: The independence wars of the SNP and the culture wars of the Tories are holding Scotland back

Henry McLeish and Donald Dewar at the site earmarked for the Scottish Parliament in 1998 | Picture: Alamy

Henry McLeish: The independence wars of the SNP and the culture wars of the Tories are holding Scotland back

Five hundred editions ago, the new Holyrood magazine launched itself on the political scene as Scots went to the polls in May 1999 to vote in the election for the new Scottish Parliament. Representing a new voice for Scottish politics, it has become a powerful and authoritative commentary on Scotland’s first parliament since 1707. 

And after a near quarter of a century there is still a great deal to write about.

Being part of the devolution story was the highlight of my political career, helping to write a new chapter in Scotland’s history, continuing the struggle for political and constitutional change begun in the 1870s, becoming Minister of State for Devolution in the Blair government, overseeing the passage of the Scotland Bill in 109 hours at the dispatch box in the House of Commons, preparing the blueprint of how the parliament would operate as chair of the Constitutional Steering Group, serving as an MSP and minister in the new Scottish Parliament (created after an absence of 312 years) and eventually becoming the First Minister of Scotland. 

Nearing 30 years in elected office, this was a remarkable period in my life, where passion, pride and politics have left an enduring legacy. My time in the top job was unfortunately limited and for me a great disappointment. On reflection, it seemed a minor issue on which to resign but that was not how it felt at the time, and the issue was becoming a serious distraction from the ambitious agenda on which we were working. Politics continues to be a rough trade.

The formative years of the parliament and government, from 1999 to 2007, involved the monumental task of setting up new institutions from scratch in coalition with the Liberal Democrats. 

Today there is a different atmosphere and a sharp deterioration in relationships between governments in London and Edinburgh. The nature of politics has changed. While it may be unrealistic to compare different eras, the current lack of trust, respect, tolerance, and civility between parties and personalities is tangible and destructive. Political opponents are now regarded as political enemies as divisions between Scotland and the United Kingdom deepen. 

In the spirit of political civility, it is worth remembering the late John Smith and Donald Dewar, who had stature, were well respected and contributed enormously to securing Scotland’s new future. 

On the evening of 11 May 1994, Smith made a speech at a fundraising dinner in London and finished by saying, “The opportunity to serve our country – that is all we ask”. Tragically, he died at 9.15am the following morning. Politics is service. These wise words ring true today. The Labour leader, in previous speeches, talked about devolution as the “settled will” of the Scottish people. But today there seems to be little interest in consensual politics as the only meaningful way of building a secure future for Scotland. 

It is also worth remembering the words of the late Donald Dewar. At the opening of the Scottish Parliament on 1 July 1999 he was explicit in predicting that devolution would be a journey when he said, “For any Scot, today is a proud moment: a new stage on a journey begun long ago and which has no end. A Scottish Parliament. Not an end in itself – a means to greater ends.”

His insights were remarkably prescient.

Being away from frontline elected politics has allowed me to observe more dispassionately what needs to be done to keep Scotland moving forward after having often felt frustrated by the attitude of the traditional parties in not embracing a more powerful role for Scotland within the Union. Ownership of the word “Scotland” was surrendered to the SNP so early in the devolution years. 

Scotland must be honest with itself and replace wishful thinking about where we are and where we are going with a more considered assessment of constitutional alternatives.

Established to reflect the views of Scotland, Holyrood has become a successful legislature, introducing ground-breaking policies to tackle new problems and old injustices, which would never have happened at Westminster. This has been done with skill, and at times courage. Personal care, free at the point of need; the early banning of smoking in public places; the abolition of tuition fees; the minimum unit pricing of alcohol; radical land reform; and extending Scotland’s international reach, confirmed the wisdom of devolution. Education and health remained firmly rooted in publicly provided services and free from the dismantling and commercialisation introduced by Westminster governments. 

Building interdependencies was crucial and my administration started to develop Scotland’s role on the international stage. I was fortunate to host, in Scotland, the South African President Thabo Mbeki, the soon-to-be President of China, Hu Jintao, and Irish Taoiseach Bertie Ahern. Secretary of State John Reid and I had an audience with Pope John Paul II in the Vatican, the first meeting with Scottish Government ministers in five hundred years. Despite opposition from Whitehall, we got closer to nations and colleagues in Europe and strengthened our links with the EU in Brussels: The late Robin Cook, as foreign secretary, helped unlock a few diplomatic doors. 

Strong links between Scotland and the United States are a real asset. With help of the British ambassador in Washington, I became the first and indeed only Scottish Government leader to meet a US President, George W Bush, in the Oval Office in the White House. Following that visit we established the post of Scottish First Secretary in the British Embassy in Washington. It was vital that Scotland’s international reach should be strengthened. As a frequent visitor to the US, I proposed a motion of condolence in our new parliament in the days following on from the tragic events of 9/11. This was a sombre and respectful chamber. 

MSPs observe a minute's silence in the parliament following the 9/11 attacks | Credit: Alamy

After 2007 however, the early years of devolution gave way to a campaign for independence. Identity politics was pushing hard for attention. The SNP captured the mood of Scotland. 
Today, Scots are caught between the independence wars of the SNP and the cultural wars of the Conservative party which are holding Scotland back. 

As a result, the full potential of the Scottish Parliament is not being realised. The SNP might argue that Scotland needs to be “free” of Westminster and the United Kingdom to do more. This is simply not true. 

Devolution was more than an opportunity to give Scotland a new and powerful voice in the Union. It should have been an opportunity, to modernise our politics, democracy, governance, and constitution. But little progress has been made. The worst traits of Westminster behaviour remain. Partisanship remains corrosive. The lack of trust, tolerance, and respect between parties is damaging. Creating a European-style consensual coalition politics remains elusive. 
Our politics require more across-the-aisle cooperation and less partisanship. 

A consensual, and more European-style of parliament must be the aim, achieved by strengthening democracy and scrapping completely the first-past-the-post system for elections in favour of PR.

The Scottish Government must be made more accountable to parliament, with much stronger oversight powers and less blurring of the boundaries between them. A more ambitious and assertive role for the Scottish Parliament is a priority, freed from the shackles of excessive SNP government control. 

A more powerful committee structure is needed.

The creation of a written constitution for Scotland, long overdue, based on the sovereignty of the people, as was envisaged in the work of the Constitutional Convention. None of this is happening. 

This is the time for a debate on today’s challenges and alternative futures not a narrow campaign on a single issue. In the spirit of devolution, nation building in Scotland and transforming the United Kingdom, are the way forward. 

The traditional parties must unite and energise around such a narrative. 

A new and more intelligent way to change the UK mindset at Westminster is vital. Achieving a “settled will” of Scots is the only way forward if political and constitutional progress is to be achieved. 

UK politics must become a flexible four-nation framework within which different solutions can emerge at various times, based on changing needs, timescales, ideas, and ambitions. Not one fix, but many. 

Scotland must be honest with itself and replace wishful thinking about where we are and where we are going with a more considered assessment of constitutional alternatives. But so must Westminster. We are still on the foothills of transforming Scotland and not yet scaling the peaks of a settled will on Scotland’s final constitutional destination. We must embrace the long view.

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