Jack McConnell: Radical change is needed at Holyrood
As the first Holyrood magazine hit the printing presses in 1999, we were days away from the first-ever election to a democratic Scottish Parliament. Exactly 20 years before, and two months after I had cast my first vote in the failed referendum of March 1979, Margaret Thatcher had won a general election and dashed our hopes for devolution. After two decades of cross-party campaigning, we were finally going to elect the parliament that would close the democratic deficit, change Scotland, and decentralise the UK.
Holyrood was one of many new media initiatives to emerge in that year, illuminating our debates. And however infuriating the media scrum was at times back then, we should all regret that so many publications – and journalists’ jobs – have gone, leaving Holyrood on its 500th issue as a rare platform for politics in Scotland. Congratulations to all who have ensured its survival and success.
The first 129 MSPs and Scottish cabinet ministers inherited a Scotland with deep, long-term problems. Discrimination, a declining population, an oppressive system of land ownership, a creaking justice system with an old boys’ club culture, some of the worst knife violence in Europe, shocking public health and recycling statistics, collapsed morale in our schools, and manufacturing jobs disappearing fast to Eastern Europe and China.
But we had secured the powers to tackle these problems and, despite the messy start, we did. We were determined to take responsibility, be true to the founding principles, and find Scottish solutions for Scottish problems.
As Scotland’s first minister for finance, I steered through the parliament’s first full piece of legislation, creating the Public Finance and Accountability Act that set in place a strong system of independent public audit and open, transparent budgeting procedures.
This new way of working – clearly accountable to the people we served – guided me through my time as minister for education and then as first minister. I never forgot that those of us who campaigned for a Scottish parliament had argued not only for the devolution of powers, but for a legislature that reflected the will of the Scottish people.
We wanted a parliament whose success was not measured by the size of its budget or indeed by individual scandals. Instead, it should be measured by the quality and lasting impact of its legislation, the leadership it (and ministers) provided, and its relationship with the people of Scotland.
When I tackled the shame of sectarianism that plagued many parts of Scotland, we knew that to avoid a damaging culture war we must involve representatives from all sections of society. The historic summit in February 2005 that agreed on national action brought together 30 organisations, some of whom had never been in the same room as each other before that day. And they came back in 2006 to report on progress.
In 2006, Scotland was able to lead the UK with a ban on smoking in public places because it was not done for political gain, but to boost public health and improve life chances. Working across party lines, with health campaigners, clinicians, businesses, and charities, we were able to deliver game-changing legislation that will save lives for generations. Such a development imposed on Scotland by the old Westminster system would never have had the same level of public acceptance. The new parliament came of age, and people followed our lead.
Something has sucked the energy out of our new fresh, challenging parliament. Now, radical change is required
Fresh Talent, our positive approach to in-migration, encouraging people from across the world to come and live and work in Scotland, was supported by the UK Government, business, academia, and the media. It showed that even in reserved areas of responsibility, the UK did not have to be one-size-fits-all. Fresh Talent drove the successful effort to reverse population decline and would have been inconceivable before devolution changed the UK for good.
Our ambitions for change delivered a vast programme of legislation: the abolition of feudal tenure, modernisation of our judicial system, new rights for the elderly, for children and parents, for vulnerable groups and those facing discrimination, environmental safeguards, and national parks, without dividing our nation. And we created a National Theatre for Scotland, a national cancer plan that transformed cancer diagnosis and care, free buses for the elderly, and that wonderful partnership with Malawi.
Ministers showed leadership, using the authority of their positions to deliver stability in the classroom and ambition in our schools, take action on knife crime, and celebrate One Scotland, Many Cultures. With the flexibility of the Scotland Act, we secured new additional powers to improve railways and begin the renewables revolution. And we promoted Scotland abroad as an exciting welcoming place – with a world-beating tourist industry, international sporting events like Glasgow 2014, and a cultural scene that was among the most vibrant anywhere.
It was all founded on a commitment across parties that Holyrood would be different from Westminster, with Freedom of Information, cross-party working, accountability, and public engagement. A commitment that certainly made life difficult but opened up the parliament to new ideas and helped address issues swept under the carpet for decades.
But something has sucked the energy out of our new fresh, challenging parliament. Now, radical change is required to strengthen the committees, refresh Freedom of Information and ministerial accountability, and re-engage with local authorities and civic Scotland once more.
Change in the way the UK Government relates to all the devolved governments and parliaments is overdue, including transforming the House of Lords into a second chamber representing the regions and nations of the whole of the UK. But we also need to fix those democratic problems that can be fixed in Scotland without any action elsewhere.
In a Holyrood interview in 2021, its editor, Mandy Rhodes, captured my overwhelming sense of sadness that the promise of devolution, the potential and energy of those early years had been replaced by constitutional stalemate, declining services, increases in child poverty and a lack of engagement, accountability, and ambition. That sadness lingered into 2022, but my sadness for my country, Scotland, is today replaced by anger for her people. It was not meant to be like this. It does not need to be like this.
Each current crisis in Scotland has its roots in decisions taken in Edinburgh. Eyes off the ball for a decade on child poverty and children in care. Cutbacks ten years ago by Scottish ministers in training doctors and nurses. A botched Curriculum for Excellence in our schools. Lifeline ferries that do not sail. Scotland deserves better than division and failure.
It is time to rekindle the fires of protest and ambition. No more passive acceptance of mediocrity and division. For jobs and fairness, for education and better health, for a cleaner environment and for equal rights. For open, transparent, and accountable government. It is time to stand up and demand change – not this time to deliver devolution, but to use the formidable powers of Scotland’s parliament, in partnership with the people, to deliver social justice in Scotland.
Scotland has been transformed since Holyrood’s first edition. But we cannot stand still, and we must not go back. The devolution of power to a Scottish parliament was the right thing to do, but a parliament needs a purpose. It is time to find that again.