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A new dawn: Is it time to rethink what devolution means for Scotland?

The debating chamber, the Scottish Parliament | Alamy

A new dawn: Is it time to rethink what devolution means for Scotland?

When Donald Dewar officially opened the Scottish Parliament on 1 July 1999 he delivered what Nicola Sturgeon, one of his successors as first minister, would later call “one of the finest speeches of our times”. Though brief, it was full of hope and promise, with the country’s first leader pointing to wisdom, justice, compassion and integrity as being the “timeless values” and “honourable aspirations” for “this new forum of democracy, born on the cusp of a new century”.

“We will never lose sight of what brought us here,” Dewar pledged. “The striving to do right by the people of Scotland, to respect their priorities, to better their lot and to contribute to the commonweal.”

A quarter of a century on and Scotland’s sixth first minister, Humza Yousaf, has just resigned office after breaking apart an SNP-Green power-sharing agreement that appeared not to be striving to do right by the people of Scotland or to be respecting their priorities or to be bettering their lot. With the SNP now battling to shore up its minority government under a new leader – John Swinney, whose first attempt in the top job ended in disaster when he was ousted almost two decades ago – it would be easy to paint the devolution project as a failure. But that, according to University of Glasgow professor of public policy Nicola McEwen, would be wide of the mark.

Donald Dewar at the opening of parliament, 1 July 1999 |Alamy

“Of course, Donald Dewar was right [when he spoke about a new forum for democracy],” she says. “His speech was obviously hyperbolic and he didn’t use the words I would have used but the people of Scotland can elect a government of their choice and they can hold it to account every four or five years. That’s what devolution was about – bringing accountability to public policy decisions. It’s been able to do that.”     

Ken Macintosh, who served as an MSP for the first five sittings of parliament, agrees. As presiding officer, a role he held from 2016 until he stood down from Holyrood at the last election, Macintosh established the Commission on Parliamentary Reform specifically to review how the Scottish Parliament operates. It concluded that a range of procedures, such as those around how committee conveners are appointed, should be altered, with the practice of handing out convenerships based on how many MSPs a party has being seen as undemocratic in a unicameral parliament. Yet, despite feeling the need to launch the commission in the first place, Macintosh maintains that the Scottish Parliament as an institution has been a success.

“I am not going to pretend other than I am hugely biased, but I definitely take a more positive view of the parliament than some people,” he says. “I’m invested in it – I absolutely care for the institution and I want it to do well – but I don’t think my view of it is unduly coloured by that […] I’d say that the parliament is still remarkably well trusted and viewed positively by most people. You could sometimes say that the debate could be more elevated and there are lots of things that could be improved but fundamentally we need an institution where Scottish issues are devolved, debated and discussed.”

For former Scottish Liberal Democrat leader Jim Wallace, who was deputy first minister in the Lib-Lab coalition that formed the first Scottish government, that is precisely why he spent so many years in the run up to 1999 campaigning for devolution, a period during which he was MP for Orkney and Shetland.

“I believed that Scotland, over a whole range of domestic issues, should be able to determine its own priorities while leaving issues like defence, overall macroeconomic policy and foreign policy to the UK Parliament,” he says. “I thought that was a sensible approach and I still hold to that. I was also conscious about the lack of time to discuss Scottish issues at Westminster. We didn’t always get policies that were designed to fit Scottish circumstances and we didn’t always have time to get things done. When I started out there were a lot of proposals from the Scottish Law Commission just sitting there. It was important that we had Scottish solutions and proposals for our own domestic requirements.”

Ken Macintosh is elected presiding officer in 2016 | Alamy 
By and large there is consensus that that is what the Scottish Parliament has achieved over the past quarter century. In the most recent Scottish Social Attitudes Survey the majority of respondents (63 per cent) said that having a Scottish Parliament gives ordinary people more of a say in how Scotland is governed while a similar proportion (64 per cent) said it gives Scotland a stronger voice in the UK.  

That does not mean the parliament is a perfect institution, though. Former Scottish Conservative leader Jackson Carlaw, who sat on Macintosh’s Commission on Parliamentary Reform, says the Holyrood parliament is now “firmly embedded in the Scottish psyche”, but maintains that the idea put forward by Dewar that it would lead to a better kind of democracy has not come to pass.

“I think the public believes that the creation of the parliament was the right step, irrespective of the reservations others – including the Conservatives – had at the time,” he says. “But in almost every other respect the claims made about the parliament have proved not to be justified. 

“The Labour Party thought it would kill the SNP stone dead and that’s not happened. There wasn’t meant to be a parliament where there was a majority and parties were meant to work together, but since 2011 there’s been almost a majority position with the SNP. It was also going to be a parliament that wasn’t partisan in the way Westminster was – it was going to be a much broader church and more reflective of Scotland as a nation. In practice, it has descended into a parliament that is totally dominated by the same party system as elsewhere in the UK […] In many ways, all of the claims made of it haven’t been fulfilled.”

Michael Keating, emeritus professor of politics at the University of Aberdeen, says it stands to reason that those claims have not been fulfilled because the “notion that Scottish democracy could almost be depoliticised and that there could be consensus” was naïve – and wrong.

“There was an absurdity to how we used to do things,” he says. “Scottish politicians would go to London to do legislation then come back to Scotland – they went to London, discussed a bill to do with Scottish local government then got on the train and came back up. There was something odd about that and Westminster always got the last word. There was a Scottish bubble in Westminster but there was no clear linkage to Scotland.

Humza Yousaf announces the end of the Bute House Agreement with the Scottish Greens | Alamy

“What we had before was terrible – legislation was going through without proper democratic debate and scrutiny. Politics needs debate, party positions and disagreement. [Rather than being depoliticised] the Scottish Parliament should have lots of partisan debates because that’s what democracy is all about.”

The issue, Keating says, is that MSPs are “overwhelmingly drawn from middle-class, university-educated backgrounds” and, now more than ever, have “worked for MSPs or think tanks”. “If you’ve never done anything else that’s problematic,” he says. “You’re skilled in the art of doing politics but not in doing policy.” While on the one hand that has led to bad lawmaking – legislation such as the Offensive Behaviour at Football and Threatening Communications Act and the Gender Recognition Reform Act have had to be binned after taking up significant parliamentary time – on the other it has also led to a poor standard of debate.

Last month former Scottish Labour leader Johann Lamont told a University of Edinburgh event on reform at Holyrood that Scottish politics has become glib, immature and “deeply unserious”, and that the country is “paying a heavy price”. “I have never met a zealot like the zealots that sit in the Scottish Parliament now,” she said. Appearing on the same panel former SNP cabinet minister Alex Neil agreed, saying the founding principles of the Scottish Parliament had been “completely eroded” over the 25 years since it opened. 

Whether that is down solely to career politicians operating on purely partisan lines is moot, but what does seem obvious is that the enforced closure of parliament during the coronavirus pandemic – and the fact an election took place during that time – has played a significant part. In an interview with Holyrood last year former finance secretary Kate Forbes said the level of toxicity in parliament had increased dramatically since she was elected in 2016 and that “things have degenerated significantly since the 2021 election”. “Maybe it’s because the new recruits came in during Covid so didn’t have the same period of getting to know each other [that earlier intakes did],” she said. “In 2016 we met the other new recruits in other parties and got to know them as newbies together. We could identify with them. The new recruits now don’t see it that way.”

In a column published in The Scotsman last month Tory MSP Maurice Golden made the same point, noting that “when I first walked through the doors of Holyrood with other newly elected MSPs almost a decade ago, the press jokingly referred it as ‘freshers’ week’”. “The so-called 2016 intake was made up of faces from all political parties, and we were quickly shown that getting to know each other was as important as learning the Scottish Parliament’s political ropes,” he wrote. “It’s easy to hate people you don’t know, and the nosedive in relations and increase in toxicity across Holyrood’s benches can be traced back to the 2021 election. None of these exercises took place, largely because of Covid restrictions, which meant new MSPs only knew each other from their social media feeds – possibly the worst gauge of anyone’s true character.”

The Bute House Agreement between the SNP and the Greens, Golden added, compounded things, with ministers no longer having to work with opposition politicians to secure votes for their legislation. “Everything would be waved through as a formality,” he wrote.

None of it paints the parliament in a positive light. Indeed, though Macintosh makes the point that politics and parliament are two separate things, what goes on inside the parliament colours people’s perceptions of the institution itself. “People confuse the parliament with the government a lot, but political popularity recedes, and people get buyer’s remorse,” he says. “All sorts of governments have had that. Labour and the Liberal Democrats had a burst of popularity then it waned. The SNP administration is going through that at the moment and that will be reflected when people talk about the parliament. The popularity of the government of the day has an impact – people see it through that lens.”

Lord Smith of Kelvin presents the Smith Commission report on devolution in 2016 | Alamy

The obvious knock-on effect of that is that it erodes people’s confidence in devolution, something that has been heightened in the years since the independence referendum. 

“Devolution means different things to different people,” McEwen says. “For some it was to cement Scotland’s place in the UK, for others it was a way  to build confidence in self-government and build more and more power until we get to independence. But in 2016 two things happened – we got a more complicated devolution settlement and there was Brexit – and there’s been an erosion in the trust of devolved institutions since, including among people who would have used it as a stepping stone to independence. That’s a challenge.”

The “more complicated devolution settlement” came about as a result of the post-indyref Smith Commission, which was led by Lord Smith of Kelvin and brought extra powers – such as the ability to amend the Scottish electoral system and the capacity to be more creative with income taxes – via the 2016 Scotland Act. Macintosh’s Commission on Parliamentary Reform, which was chaired by former Scottish Electoral Commissioner John McCormick, was designed to ensure that parliament could cope with those extra powers; its 2017 report suggested a series of changes it said would make parliament “stronger and more effective”. Among those, in addition to changing the way committee conveners are appointed, the review recommended that the practice of publishing questions ahead of FMQs should stop and that the legislative process should be extended from three stages to five.

The recommendations have yet to be fully acted on, but for Carlaw they do not go nearly far enough. “Parliament is now part of the public consciousness and people don’t entertain the idea that it shouldn’t be there, but after 25 years we have to look very critically at it and consider if it needs reform,” he says. McEwen agrees, though says that, given the current contentious climate, further reform is unlikely to be forthcoming. “We don’t necessarily need another commission, but if there’s to be a change of government [at Westminster] this year that would provide an opportunity for some calm reflection on whether the settlement itself can be improved,” she says. “We don’t really live in times that are conducive to calm reflection at the moment though.”

Could the ending of the Bute House Agreement and the havoc it has wreaked at Holyrood provide the opportunity for that pause, though? When he announced he was tearing up his party’s deal with the Greens Yousaf said he was “clear that today marks a new beginning for the SNP government”. There are clear parallels with Dewar’s speech from 1999, in which the Labour leader said that, as a nation, “today we look forward to the time when this moment will be seen as a turning point, the day when democracy was renewed in Scotland, when we revitalised our place in this our United Kingdom”. It seems clear that 25 April 2024 will be seen as a turning point; with Yousaf now gone from government and a new first minister on the way in, will it also be seen as the day that democracy was renewed again in Scotland?

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