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by Alex Salmond
19 June 2024
The SNP's election pitch is reminiscent of the last sleep-inducing campaign under John Swinney

Alex Salmond photographed for Holyrood by David Anderson

The SNP's election pitch is reminiscent of the last sleep-inducing campaign under John Swinney

The Scottish Parliament is 25 years old. However, in a very real sense it is 25 years young.
The underlying and remarkable fact of the first quarter of a century of this young parliament is that it has established itself as the forum of Scottish politics – the place where things are done and undone.

That did not happen immediately. The parliament was launched into a sea of goodwill, with MSPs cheered into their temporary home on the Mound.

However, within weeks, the water was getting choppier as an adolescent, right-wing press tore into its new target. In these days the deadwood press was still a power in the land and every time the parliament stuck out its chin it got thumped below the belt.

I recall a conversation with first first minister Donald Dewar in which he was genuinely perplexed that, given the enormity of the step of establishing a new democratic power in the land, the Scottish press would obsess on relative trivia such as medals for MSPs and subsidised lunches.

It was not a point without merit, but the truth was that an inevitable increase in critical assessment which came from the existence of a new parliament was taking place in an era when social media, and the heightened scrutiny that goes with it, was being born.

That degree of inspection was inevitably uncomfortable but in many ways it established the parliament. Holyrood, as it became in 2004, became the “grand inquest of the nation”. Even at the point of being criticised it was being elevated as something worth criticising!

After Donald’s premature and sad demise, the next two first ministers realised that establishing a track record for the parliament was as important as leaving a legacy for themselves. Free personal care in the case of Henry McLeish and the smoking ban in public places on Jack McConnell’s part, were both important pieces of social legislation, issues that were the talk of the steamie and certainly the pubs!

Equally important was the sustained struggle to establish the parliament’s own right of freedom of speech, the ability to discuss any topic, whether within the provenance of the parliament or not. Initially there were voices, mostly but not exclusively, concentrated in the Tory interest who wanted to contain the parliament’s ability to comment on reserved or world affairs.

This was of great importance. I recall in January 2003 watching from Westminster an outstanding Holyrood debate on the impending war in Iraq. Given that the parliament was meeting in the General Assembly Hall, with the statue of  great reformer John Knox looming over it, it was an interesting irony that it was John Knox of the BBC who reported.

“It had been the best parliamentary debate of the year so far,” Knox said. “The irony was that it was on a subject over which Holyrood has no direct control.” 

And he was right. It was a high-quality debate. Folk memory will tell you that the parliament followed Scottish opinion and rebelled against the Blairite instruction from London. 

In fact, party lines prevailed and only three Labour members abstained on the anti-war ticket. But the act of debate itself was the assertion of independence and the quality of the speeches demonstrated that given a big subject, the parliament rose to the occasion.

A parliament confined to debating devolved competences would have withered on the vine. It wasn’t and it didn’t.

The 2003 election was a disaster for the SNP. In a mistake eerily reminiscent of the current Westminster campaign, John Swinney’s natural ‘safety-first’ instincts came to the fore. To an electorate ready and confident for a walk on the wild side John offered sleep-inducing invitation to “release our potential” to “make a better Scotland”.

There were plenty of votes for change, but they went to the Greens, the Scottish Socialists, hospital and pensioner campaign candidates, but decidedly not to the SNP. The Scottish Parliament was finding its feet, but independence had reached its post-devolution nadir.

However, the SNP had the sense to change direction and reach back to claim the future.
Nowadays it is difficult for anyone under 30 to recall the time when the Labour Party ruled the roost in Scotland. Back in 2007, next to no one could recall a time when they didn’t.

When the seismic shock did arrive, it was more a crack in the tectonic plate than a full fissure – the SNP beat Labour in 2007 by a single seat and a single percentage of the vote. In consequence, I became the first nationalist first minister of Scotland in a parliament of 50 independence backers but around 80 unionists.

Nevertheless, the psychological impact was profound. Once Goliath had been felled, the aura of invincibility went with it. Equally, when the SNP demonstrated it could actually run the show, as opposed to just talking about it, we gradually earned respect, which in turn led to growing confidence in the process of self-government.

Given that at any point in that plurality parliament of 2007 our unionist opponents could have combined to remove us from office, and a unionist press would have cheered them on, it was imperative not to give them a cause to unite behind.

It was equally imperative that we found a way to be active without legislation. The more we could do by ministerial decision then the less vulnerable we would be to unionist combination in the parliament.

A classic example was the early changing the name of the Scottish Executive to the Scottish Government. Labour first minister Henry McLeish had pondered the move but abandoned it in the face of internal opposition. But, of course, the administration didn’t actually need legislation to call itself a government, only the confidence and the brass neck to do it.

And thus, instead of introducing complex amendments to the Scotland Act to be shot down after interminable debates in Holyrood or Westminster, I sent in the painters over a weekend and hey presto we had a Scottish Government sign, adorning every building. Nationalists loved it, unionists hated it, and the in-betweens just admired the bravado.

In terms of legislative action or parliamentary votes, minority government means choosing key measures that peel off at least one of our unionist opposition. Thus free higher education gathered in the Lib Dems (ironically, given what was to happen later in the south), apprenticeship expansion committed Labour, and the small business bonus carried the Tories.

But the real flagship measure was the one which carried the whole parliament. Scotland ended up in control of climate change legislation by accident – it hadn’t been considered important enough to reserve to Westminster in the Scotland Act of 1998.

However, in terms of demonstrating that Scotland could address the biggest issue facing the planet, and manage the renewable energy expansion which was one part of our policy response, it could not have served better. The Climate Change Act of 2009 passed in the parliament unanimously and, note, without the ‘assistance’ of the Greens in government. By 2014 Scotland was well ahead of its 2020 emission targets –  four per cent ahead six years early, to be exact.

So strong were some of the achievements of that period of minority government that they still comprise most of the current SNP claims of success in their manifestos. Some of the most important things are unheralded.

The single most important economic move of early SNP governance was to vastly improve the efficiency of public capital. Consigning PFI to the dustbin and ensuring value for money from capital contracts through the Scottish Futures Trust was a vital move. People may not place the SFT on their election literature but they will cite what it made possible – motorway completions, the Queensferry Crossing, the Aberdeen Western Peripheral Route, the borders railway and schools for the future across the country.

The equal and opposite is true. By allowing government’s eye to roam off the ball on the changing nature of capital spending after 2014, the last 10 years has produced miserable outcomes, such as the failure to redeem commitments on the A9 and the A96.
The success of minority government allowed us to run the following 2011 election campaign on the theme of ‘record, team, vision’. It succeeded beyond any forecast and shattered the ceiling of an electoral system specifically designed to prevent a nationalist majority, with the SNP alone claiming 69 seats.

That was the first and thus far the only time the parliament has experienced single-party majority government. Just as the discipline of hard political arithmetic kept the minority government on track, the goal of pursuing independence kept the 2011 administration focused.
For example, almost all of the self-indulgent claptrap of the SNP/Green recent years would not have been countenanced when there was a referendum to fight and independence to win – for the 2011 administration self-determination was a tad more important than self-identification!

That does not mean that all controversy was avoided. Equal marriage and minimum pricing of alcohol were measures undertaken in this period. But there was a great difference.

Minimum pricing was action to counter a genuine social problem afflicting Scotland while equal marriage extended rights without sacrificing or jeopardising those of women and girls. And the quality of the debate and tolerance of opposition was at a different level from the governmental arrogance which has besmirched the recent gender wars.

The independence referendum was lost but the parliament should and could have taken the opportunity to develop further since 2014.

Only the current chief executive of the SNP believes that the campaign-winning manoeuvre ‘The Vow’ was worth the paper it was written on in terms of delivering “near federalism”. However, the Smith Commission opportunity was largely wasted. Gains in control of social security and the Crown Estate were undermined by new financial settlements where successive Scottish finance secretaries must have been collectively comatose to endorse them. They have applied the Westminster straitjacket ever tighter to Scotland.

Similarly, the parliament’s internal procedures merit some attention. The committee system needs enhanced with more independence and authority. No committee of any democratically elected parliament should ever tolerate being threatened by the government prosecution service, all elected members should have absolute legal privilege in parliament, and chairs should be elected by the parliament not nominated by whips.

Overall, the years from 2014 have been ones where the locusts have eaten. In the near 25 years of our reconvened parliament a great deal has been achieved for Scotland. Now we approach a point of decision once again.

At the first opening ceremony of the parliament Donald Dewar made the speech of his life. He reminded us that Scotland’s story was still being written. “For me, for any Scot, today is a proud moment; a new stage on a journey begun long ago and which has no end,” he said.

Institutions are rarely frozen in aspic. They either move forwards or backwards. The next 25 years will not be ones of uninterrupted success. However, they should mark a decisive move forward in our nation’s story.

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