Sir Paul Grice on the story of the Scottish Parliament so far
It is difficult to believe it is now 17 years since I was standing in the quadrangle behind the Church of Scotland’s General Assembly building under the watchful gaze of John Knox when Concorde roared overhead – to see that amazing aeroplane framed in that way was some sight.
The formal opening of the Scottish Parliament on 1 July 1999 was certainly a high point. Indeed, I am not sure we have yet surpassed that day for sheer excitement and expectation. The warm sunshine, throngs of people all the way down the Royal Mile. And all that pomp was more than matched by the substance, not least Donald Dewar’s much admired and much quoted speech. He said it was a proud day for all of us and indeed it was. He said we were fallible and would make mistakes and indeed we are and we have – but hopefully not too many!
So we began on a high, built on years of campaigning for many but for myself and the embryonic parliamentary service, it was built specifically on a year’s intensive effort to prepare for the first meeting of the new Scottish Parliament. Our aim was straightforward; to be a credible operation from day one. And, going by the reaction of members, I think we were pretty successful.
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Another high, looking back, was the first piece of legislation passed by the Parliament. As it happened, it was emergency legislation passed in a single day – not an ideal start for our new legislature but a necessary measure and a landmark moment. And at least we found out quickly that our systems worked. Of greater resonance for me personally was the early, ground-breaking legislation which provided a new legal framework for adults with incapacity.
The volume of legislation was high (and has remained so) in contrast to the days of the Scottish Office when we reckoned on an average of 1½ Scottish Bills a year (though I never did come across that half Bill). Our annual average in the Parliament was around 10 times that with some 15 pieces of primary legislation each year and much more secondary legislation. Our approach was novel, for the UK at least, with a strong emphasis on consultation before legislation was introduced and a central role for permanent committees in the legislative process.
But it was not all plain sailing. There was criticism of members for establishing the necessary schemes to govern their pay and allowances. It seemed harsh at the time – it wasn’t something they could avoid doing. With hindsight, it is more understandable, given the high expectations, that when the Parliament turned its attention to its own internal affairs, even briefly, it wouldn’t go down well.
But much worse was to follow with the untimely death of Donald Dewar. It was a huge blow to the Parliament and a great sadness for everyone involved with it – I had had the privilege of working closely with him from the time he became Scottish Secretary. I appreciated his intellectual grasp, his great knowledge of Scotland and his dry, if sometimes curmudgeonly, wit.
Meanwhile, the Holyrood building was not going to plan. Much has been written about it and I don’t propose to go over it again. To say it was difficult would be an understatement – not so much a low point as five years of stress and anxiety! But another untimely death, that of Enric Miralles the building’s architect, was a massive setback. It impacted the building project of course. More significantly at a personal level, he left behind a widow and two young children.
From that low point, the building and the Parliament itself emerged – not unscathed but complete and functioning. So another high point has to be the official opening of Holyrood by the Queen in 2004. That day lacked the grandeur of 1999 and excitement was replaced by relief but it felt just as good. We had a strong sense of a new beginning. And the Stirling Prize for Architecture – awarded each year for the best building in the UK – underlined the point that the worst might be over.
The most important thing about completing the building was that it allowed the focus to return to the Parliament itself. Slowly, ‘Holyrood’ became less associated with a troubled construction project and more with ground-breaking legislation such as free personal care and the ban on smoking in public places.
The Scottish Parliament began to build a reputation for innovation: one of the first in the world to have a dedicated public petitions committee; a strong focus on novel and imaginative public engagement; and extensive use of emerging digital technologies. We also began to develop a comprehensive events and exhibitions programme – quite a departure for a parliament.
For me, two of the highlights, from many, are our Festival of Politics and the Great Tapestry of Scotland exhibition – both are founded on imagination and collaboration and a willingness to try something different. And throughout, the Parliament carried out its fundamental purpose as a legislature and as a place where many of the big issues of the day were debated and decided.
Meantime, political and constitutional change was underway. As we begin our fifth parliamentary session, we have seen two coalition administrations and then after a change of name from the SNP, two minority governments and a majority one. Three political parties have been in power. And, after operating for the first 12 years on the basis of the Scotland Act 1999, we have had Scotland Acts passed in 2012 and 2016, both of which brought additional powers and responsibilities – each following commissions, the first led by Kenneth Calman and the second by Robert Smith.
The key point in this for me is the way the Parliament was able to adapt – and is still adapting – to these substantial changes. We have acquired the confidence that, perhaps, was missing in the early days, simply to get on and make the changes. The parliamentary service, I hope, typifies this – I very rarely hear from my colleagues “can we do this?” rather “how will we do this?” As chief executive, that positive and innovative approach is a source of pride and pleasure.
One of the initiatives that I am most proud of was the successful launch of the Apprenticeship Programme which offers great opportunities to young people from all over Scotland to come and work and train here at the Parliament, gaining valuable experience and an SVQ.
In reflecting on highs and lows, I must be careful as Clerk of the Parliament, given my strict political neutrality, in how I describe the independence referendum but not to include such a significant event in our history as a Parliament would be remiss if not negligent. The challenges for me and the service I lead were to support the key parliamentary processes in the run-up to the referendum, including passing the enabling legislation; to ensure the institution of the Scottish Parliament was not inappropriately associated with either side of the argument, i.e. to maintain our neutrality; and to be ready to play a positive role whatever the outcome. I think we achieved all three including, ultimately, providing strong support to the Smith Commission.
More than anything, I look back on the amazing energy and passion from both sides during the campaign, to the quality of the debate, the degree of public engagement and to the unprecedented levels of voter registration and turnout. To have had the pleasure of not only living in Scotland during that period but of being in such a privileged position has been an unforgettable experience.
I don’t feel I can finish on that point, however good it was, simply because it is now almost two years ago and we have moved on; new powers; new government; new First Minister; new Presiding Officer. Talking of which (and with my assurance that this is no simple sycophancy) I have had the great good fortune to work with outstanding Presiding Officers throughout: each of them has brought different knowledge and skills, all have brought commitment and integrity and have served (and continue to serve) the Parliament with distinction. My job would not have been as enjoyable or rewarding without the support and encouragement of these fine politicians and truly decent people.
Before closing, I would have to balance these positive memories with the sadness at losing too many close colleagues, both members of the Parliament and staff. The Parliament is an intense and close environment where strong friendships are made and those losses were keenly felt.
When I first sat down to these reflections, I planned to recap on the journey I have been fortunate to make with the Scottish Parliament, marked by many highs as well as the inevitable, but fewer, lows and I thought to end with a look ahead, focusing on the new session with its own political dynamics and with many exciting challenges, not least, implementing the new powers over taxation and welfare. That won’t change but it will be significantly impacted by the outcome of the referendum on membership of the European Union. It is too soon and too sensitive to say anything beyond this is a challenge for all of us involved with the Scottish Parliament and one I hope we can meet as well as those which have marked our first 17 years.
Sir Paul Grice is the chief executive of the Scottish Parliament
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