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by Jack McConnell
19 June 2024
Jack McConnell: Our parliament must restore its sense of ambition and purpose

Photo by Anna Moffat

Jack McConnell: Our parliament must restore its sense of ambition and purpose

Let us take a moment this month, in the middle of all the noise of the general election campaign, to recall the scale of what was achieved on 1 July 1999 and in the years that followed.

The power of pressure from the people building slowly but surely from the disappointment of 1979; the quality of political leaders in the Labour government driving top quality legislation through parliament at pace; civil servants and civil society preparing for the change.

The most powerful autonomous sub-state legislature and government in the world. An ancient nation able to take responsibility and shape the future. Elections, procedures, budgets, action.

It was truly historic.

The bumps along the way should not have been a surprise. Even experienced politicians and civil servants were caught off guard by more scrutiny. Inexperienced MSPs had to learn on the job. Everyone faced ambitious demands to deliver change. But the creation of a new parliament, the transfer of legislative and executive responsibility over the majority of domestic budgets and laws, and the resetting of relationships in the UK and the EU, should be a source of pride for the whole nation, not just those most closely involved.

And by delivering effective legislation and providing leadership for the whole country, not just narrow or partisan interests, we were quickly able to show that Holyrood could be different to Westminster, and address issues and injustices that had been ignored for far too long.

The centuries-old feudal system of land ownership was abolished, followed by the creation of Scotland’s first national parks and legal rights of access to the countryside. We introduced new rights and protections for vulnerable groups facing disadvantage, discrimination and abuse. The justice system was modernised with rights for victims, the independent appointment of judges and new laws to break the grip of anti-social behaviour. We reversed Scotland’s poor environmental record with a national drive to convert to renewable energy and new statutory environmental standards.

All without dividing the nation along partisan or cultural lines. We were guided by the spirit and principles that had underpinned the campaign for home rule and helped secure it: that the needs and priorities of the Scottish people were paramount. 

Two examples from 2004 provide evidence of the positive power of devolution, and both would never have happened in the old centralised UK.

The single biggest challenge facing the country as we moved into the 21st century was our falling population. It was at its lowest level since the first half of the 20th century and was projected to fall below the symbolic five million by 2009. And it was ageing, with half the population aged over 39 and the working-age population projected to fall below three million by 2027.

If Scotland’s economy was to grow, and successfully compete globally, we needed a constant flow of new people to work alongside our home-grown talent – a modern scheme of managed in-migration. Working in partnership with the UK Government in this area of reserved policy, we developed the successful Fresh Talent programme, which drove successive efforts to reverse population decline. By developing a Scottish solution within a legislative framework reserved to Westminster, Fresh Talent showed that devolution could change not only Scotland, but the rest of the UK, for the better.

But equally significant was how the people of Scotland embraced this approach to policy-making and delivery. By using the role of first minister to bring together businesses, big and small, with the UK Government, universities and others we were able to mount a big international push to grow the economy and create jobs.

And then there was Scotland’s smoking ban. It came into force in March 2006, but the decision to make this groundbreaking legislation a reality was taken in 2004. Again, working across party lines and with health campaigners, clinicians, businesses and charities, we were able to build a national consensus for change and, crucially, convince the public that the introduction of a smoking ban was not a political gimmick, but a serious attempt to boost public health and improve life chances.

When a parliament passes a controversial law against well-funded tough opposition, and the people accept it, that is a sign of a mature democracy at work. A Westminster government experimenting with this in Scotland would have met hostility, but the legislation passed by our Scottish Parliament was a success because people accepted that their parliament had made the decision and that our government was not seeking to exploit the plan but doing the right thing for all. It continues to save lives today.

In the years that followed political change in 2007 and 2010, there have been good days and bad days. Everyone will have different views on those years and I respect that. But two things are surely true now, in 2024.

First, the massive radical constitutional change of 1999 has become embedded in our lives. No reasonable person could imagine going backwards and returning to the days when we had our own legal system but no legislature of our own.

But secondly, something is wrong. No reasonable person can say that where we are today reflects those founding principles and ambitions. Our governance and public debate in Scotland are not good enough. The parliament has lost much of its transparency and energy. Every policy debate, even around human tragedies such as drug deaths, quickly becomes toxic, divided along party lines. Local government is moribund, starved of resources and respect, our public services are in decline, and too many voices feel ignored.

I do not want to use this article to allocate blame. I want to look forward. Scotland needs a major refresh and this is a good moment to resolve that we must set that in motion. In my view, that refresh should start in three areas.

The well-intentioned parliamentary procedures of 1999 need an overhaul, starting with modernisation of the committee system. The committees have become too partisan in nature and their examination of government proposals less robust than it should be. They must be more independent, with conveners elected by backbenchers across the parliament not appointed by party whips.

Freedom of Information, first introduced in 2002, is long past due an update, and the relationship between Scotland’s 32 councils and Holyrood must improve. The system of electing party representatives from regional party lists encourages parliamentarians to be more mindful of their relationship with party activists than the people they represent. Now would be a good time to review this system, to improve accountability and engagement.

Scottish education, once among the best in the world, is now in a perilous state, and it is too often failing our most disadvantaged children and communities. Our distinctive education system was a key driver for devolution, responsibility lies directly and solely in Holyrood, and it is time for decisive action to improve standards and outcomes. This is crucial for individual aspirations and the ambitions of our country.

Schools must be free to innovate, but the acquiring of knowledge and proof of attainment must be at the heart of the whole system. There should be a return to a truly independent inspectorate to drive up standards and call out failings.

And there must be much more effective action to improve the educational experiences of our most disadvantaged and vulnerable young people. Recent figures that show 41 per cent of secondary school students with an absence rate of 10 per cent or more are simply unacceptable.  It is time for honesty and action about the state of our education system, including the chronic financial problems facing our colleges and universities. Our children and young people suffered terribly from the impact of the pandemic and lockdown; we owe them the best possible education to prepare them for a future that is unpredictable.

And we need a new relationship between our two governments in Edinburgh and London. Twenty-five years on, the UK Government structure and approach has changed very little. Despite legislative devolution to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, and the widespread establishment of strong mayors in England, the way that Whitehall and the UK cabinet try to run the country is stuck in the past.

If we do have a new government after the election on 4 July, there is a chance for a fresh start in London too. Both governments need to commit to change. Robust negotiations in private and sometimes in public are important but cooperation should replace competition to put people first.

And the best place to start would be cooperation to support Scotland’s economy, with both governments working in partnership to deliver investment and jobs. We have a world-class reputation in financial services, our tourism, food and drink sectors are top tier, our engineering still excellent and we are at the forefront of life sciences. We need an infrastructure that allows companies to innovate, encourages investment and supports a highly skilled workforce.

And our national mission can be sustainable and play to our strengths by prioritising home-grown green power, reducing carbon emissions as well as energy bills and creating good jobs across the country. Enterprise and wealth creation matter as much as quality public services – a dynamic, growing economy provides the resources for Scotland’s schools and NHS, as well as the jobs, opportunities and – crucially – hope for the future.

It was hope that drove the campaign for a Scottish Parliament, bringing together people from across civil society and the party divide to argue for a better way to govern our ancient nation. The first years of that parliament were infused with hope and a determination to use its new powers to build a better, socially just society; to right old injustices and create a modern, diverse country, one where everyone, regardless of their background, had the chance to flourish.

As we look forward to the next stage of our parliament’s life, we need to find ways to renew hope in the power of devolution. The parliament must listen once again to the everyday concerns of the Scottish people, whether that is the cost of living or the poor state of our schools. It must use its considerable powers to properly tackle the climate emergency, working in practical partnerships with communities and business and with local and UK Government. It must be honest and transparent. And it must abandon the politics of recent years, where photo-opportunities and statements of intent trumped effective legislation and policy delivery.

Above all, our parliament must restore its sense of ambition and purpose and help us all feel proud again.

Jack McConnell was the First Minister of Scotland between 2001 and 2007.

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