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400th issue: party leader Q&A

Holyrood party leaders: Picture credit- Holyrood

400th issue: party leader Q&A

How did you feel in 1997 when Scotland voted for devolution?

SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon: The 1979 referendum cast a long shadow over Scottish politics in the 1980s and 1990s, and as such, played a big part in my formative political years. I remember campaigning in 1997 for a real chance for Scotland to make our own decisions, and after the vote, I remember an overwhelming sense of relief that it was definitely going to happen this time. In 1997, it was a pretty heated referendum campaign – with what we now know are the usual scare stories and doom-mongering – but before, during and after the referendum, I never doubted that a Scottish parliament would be anything other than a success. 

Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson: I was a first-year student in 1997 and like lots of teenagers, I was more interested in drinking and going out with my friends than I was with constitutional politics. I guess I didn’t really know what devolution would look like as it wasn’t something I’d ever seen before. I remember the opening of the parliament a couple of years later with much more clarity. There was a fly past of Concorde and the Red Arrows that went over our student union. 

Scottish Labour leader Richard Leonard: I’d campaigned for a Scottish parliament and for a Labour government to deliver it, so I was elated. The realisation of a long-held demand for change.

Scottish Green co-convener Patrick Harvie: Optimistic, but I’d been living in Manchester during most of the years when the Constitutional Convention had laid the groundwork, so I think I felt a bit unconnected to the issues.

Scottish Liberal Democrat leader Willie Rennie: Excited and proud. I’m proud of the part Liberal Democrats played in bringing about devolution. A decentralised United Kingdom, with decision making closer to the people and a pluralist approach at its heart, reflected decades of campaigning for Britain to become a modern democracy. I was excited to be part of the civic movement that set down the clear path for a devolved parliament with real powers. I am now proud to take my seat in the Scottish Parliament and represent communities across the country

What would you see the next stage of devolution being?
 
NS: There has been much talk in recent years about expanding the powers of the Scottish Parliament and I am pleased to see the parliament getting to grips with decisions over tax and social security.  However, I sadly feel we are now going to be very busy fighting a rear-guard action to prevent the UK Government restricting the powers of Holyrood as we leave the EU. Talk of continuity bills and power grabs maybe doesn’t always grab the popular imagination, but the post-Brexit arrangements are fundamental to areas as diverse as food standards, GM crops and potentially even keeping our NHS in public hands.

RD: The next stage of devolution is the normalisation of raising the money we spend and understanding that taxation and growth are linked. This budget is the first one where there has been mandated growth forecasts announced and the first one where income tax can be altered for Scotland only. I think politics in this country will be a lot healthier when it is not simply a spending competition between parties but when the Scottish Government acknowledges the money it spends comes from taxpayers and they deserve transparency and value.

RL: Brexit will bring back significant new powers to the parliament, but I also think the parliament needs to be more effective in using the powers it has, including being prepared to decentralise rather than centralise. I am a strong supporter of a re-empowered local government. I can see growing pressure for a more federal settlement in the UK.

PH: Unless we can achieve independence, it’s clear that we need a far more balanced relationship between the different governments and parliaments; that means changing the UK Government’s conception of itself as much as improving the devolution arrangements. The UK level still sees itself as being in charge, treating the devolved governments, at best, as an afterthought.

WR: I think the future of devolution lies in federalism. The story of Brexit is a lesson for the way in which the UK should be governed going forward. At the heart of the debate has been the question of how to have a UK-wide framework for devolved powers which is sensible for everyone involved. I think the answer to this is federalism. Federalism involves devolved administrations coming together to agree common frameworks, and we should do more of it in this country. The key to federalism is that the different administrations all may have different priorities and nuances within a framework, but they all have an eye and a care for the success of the whole. That’s why we brought forward an amendment to the EU Continuity Bill calling on the Scottish Government to consult with UK, Welsh and NI ministers over decisions to match EU developments in the future.

What do you remember from your first day in parliament?
 
NS: It had a real first-day-of-school vibe about it. Everybody was in the same boat – we had all just been elected, but clearly nobody knew on our first day what exactly it would be like to be an MSP in practice. A lot of new faces, a lot of good luck cards to open, and a lot of rules and procedures to get your head round. But a genuine desire among everyone – no matter whether you’d voted Yes or No in 1997 – to make it work.

RD:  I remember my leader, Annabel Goldie, resigning. I didn’t expect to be asked to run to be her successor.

RL: It was a humbling feeling. I had a great sense of anticipation and a weight of responsibility to make a difference to the people who had sent me – with a strong sense of new urgency to get on with it.

PH: My first day in parliament was as a committee witness in session 1, several years before I was elected. I was giving evidence on the repeal of Section 28, and the committee was meeting in the chamber since the temporary building didn’t have enough committee rooms. It didn’t feel too intimidating… I think I felt I could get used to the place!

WR: On my first day I remember lining up and chatting away to John Swinney and others nearby me in the alphabet as we all prepared for the moment we would be sworn in as MSPs. There was a dawning realisation of the huge importance of Holyrood and the good that could be achieved there and I was acutely aware of the great responsibility of representing the needs of the people of North East Fife. It was a very positive and hopeful first day, and most of the days since have been similar.

What speech have you made in parliament that you are most proud of?
 
NS: I’ve given countless speeches over my almost 20 years in parliament – I guess you only remember the really good ones or the really bad ones. There’s lots I could point to during the referendum debate or the passage of legislation to introduce minimum pricing, but I think the equal marriage debate was probably my proudest moment. Not only was it absolutely the right thing to do for the people of Scotland, but I think the way in which it was handled by MSPs was proof that the Scottish Parliament had matured and was capable of debating issues of fundamental importance to our society.

RD: The speech I made at stage 1 of the equal marriage debate. I said at the time it would probably be the most personal speech I would ever give, and so it proved.

RL: There is something about that first speech which is special: all those pent-up calls for change which can be unleashed. And last year I spoke on lifting the NHS pay cap which I thought was a great Labour-initiated debate and which allowed me to put the long view on incomes policy and the NHS.

PH: Not just one speech, but the role I was able to play in session 3 as convener of the committee leading on the Climate Change Bill was very satisfying. We managed to achieve a really constructive process, where all parties came to recognise that getting a ‘win’ was not about killing off the minority government’s policy ideas, but adding their own positive improvements to the bill.

WR: I think one of my most memorable achievements in the chamber was convincing the Scottish Government to commit to serious educational investment in care for two-year-olds. In the January 2014 debate, I pointed out that I had “ploughed a lonely furrow for some time to persuade the First Minister of the benefits of nursery education for two-year-olds” and was delighted to see the fruits of my labour when the then first minister, now RT presenter, Alex Salmond, agreed to fund nursery services. Knowing that a serious difference would be made to children’s development across the country was a hugely satisfying accomplishment and laid the foundations for the educational agenda I now pursue resolutely.

Can you think of a highlight for you from Holyrood magazine over the years?
 
NS: Hard to choose one out of many highlights over the years. Just keep up the good work.

RD: The art department once put me on the cover mocked up as Wonder Woman. That was funny.

RL: It’s those serious in-depth interviews which get beyond the spin, particularly with people in power, and those recently out of office who tend to be more candid. I remember reading an interview with Jack McConnell where he spoke about the things he wished he had done when he was in power.

PH: I think some of the 2016 coverage of our new MSPs was the most satisfying personally. It’s been a privilege to be here all the way since 2003, but keeping things going with just two MSPs was tough going. 

WR: Last month when the Scottish Parliament held a celebratory debate to mark the 100-year anniversary of women gaining the vote, Holyrood magazine published a cartoon of me as a proud suffragette supporter leading forward the next generation of Lib Dem women. It celebrated the move the Liberal Democrats have made to change selection rules for candidates, so that we can achieve 50:50 representation. For the next Scottish parliamentary elections, Liberal Democrats will have a number of all-women shortlists. That is action, not just words. We have dedicated funds to help women win and have instituted improved training and support. My ambition is that the Liberal Democrats will more accurately reflect the people whom we seek to represent and that we will remove the barrier to getting good women elected, and I think this cartoon celebrated that aim.

Do you have a favourite Holyrood cover?
 
NS: The one with all the kids on the Garden Lobby steps posing as the party leaders. They pulled it off far better than the grown-ups did!
 
RL: I think the photographic portraits are outstanding, but it would be invidious to pick out one. At the tail end of last year, an edition came out which focused on equality, and the black and white illustration was of a raised, clenched fist with the words ‘women take a stand’ wrapped like a bandage around the arm. It was very powerful.

PH: I usually prefer the cartoons, but the recent cover with five children recreating the party leaders’ photoshoot was great.

WR: Holyrood has had a lot of interesting covers over the years, but I think I’d point to the January 2018 cover which featured the party leaders played by children to celebrate Visit Scotland’s Year of Young People campaign. They got the attitude just right.

What would you like to see Holyrood magazine covering in future?
 
NS: We can all spend too much time focused on the ins and outs of what’s going on in the Holyrood bubble. I’d like to see a Scottish publication take a look at how our domestic policies stand against other countries in the world with similar challenges – what we can learn from them and where we can share our experience.

RD: I’d like to see more local government coverage. 

RL: I’d like to see more real human interest stories in the magazine – speaking not just to politicians and organisations, but the people whom the policies of the Scottish Government and the decisions of the parliament affect.

PH: We’re at the point where the new generation of Scottish politicians grew up with the reality not just of Scotland having its own parliament, but of Holyrood being the primary political focus of the country. So I think they’re the ones who should answer this question.

WR: I’d like to see Holyrood take an in-depth sectoral look at the devastation Brexit poses to the Scottish economy, as I believe the full gloomy picture of separation supports my argument that the public should have the opportunity to judge for themselves whether the final Brexit deal is good enough. On a more light-hearted note, I think the public enjoys the MSP and their pets segment and whatever happened to the ‘on my desk’ feature?

If the tables were turned, is there a question you would ask Holyrood editor Mandy Rhodes?

NS: Did your dry January really extend into February? [It lasted until March, Ed]

RD:  I’ll keep my counsel on that one. I don’t know when she’s likely to interview me again…

RL: I’d ask her, if she were to run for election, what her top five manifesto commitments would be. 

PH: If journalists had to publish manifestos, what’s in yours?

WR: Why haven’t you stood for parliament?  

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