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1999 and all that. As Scotland holds its breath for indyref2, how did we get here?

BLISS it was to be alive in those early days of devolution – except that it wasn’t. The rebirth of Scotland’s democracy after 300 years in spring, 1999 proved to be a painful affair, and plunged Scotland into a period of post-natal depression, which ended the careers, and the lives, of some of the architects of Scottish home rule. From today’s historical vantage point, with the Parliament at the very centre of public life, and Scotland perhaps preparing for a second referendum on independence, it is hard to recall just how difficult that birth was.

The 1997 devolution referendum that led to the creation of Holyrood, had, by contrast, been a remarkable and positive achievement – one of the defining moments of Scottish history. The result, Yes to the the Scottish Parliament by a margin of three to one, took many by surprise. Not least the new editor of the Scotsman, one Andrew Neil, who had sought to turn the Edinburgh-based daily into an anti-devolution broadsheet at precisely the moment when home rule was about to become inevitable. Some Scottish newspapers never got over the sense of betrayal.

At the other end of the political spectrum, the 1997 referendum led directly to the birth of the Sunday Herald, under the inspired leadership of Andrew Jaspan, an Anglo-French newspaper editor with extraordinary powers of persuasion who managed to induce the Scottish Media Group, as it was then, to launch the first broadsheet Sunday newspaper in nearly 20 years. I was still based in Westminster presenting BBC programmes and writing columns – a little uncomfortably – for the Scotsman. But I got the call and could hardly refuse. Colleagues in the business confidently predicted that the Sunday Herald would only last six months.

Arriving back in Scotland in early 1999, there was a climate of curmudgeonly anti-climax. Partly, this was fostered by the sections of the Scottish press that had never supported devolution and were determined that it should fail. But it wasn’t entirely the media’s fault. The ranks of inexperienced MSPs were their own worst enemies. The scandal over the cost of the Parliament building, charted in minute detail by the Sunday Herald, was an own-goal the new Scottish democracy could not afford. The cost of the modernist building rose inexorably from Donald Dewar’s forecast of £40m to £440million. The death at 45 of the Spanish architect, Enric Miralles, plunged the project into confusion at an early stage. Newspaper cartoonists started depicting MSPs as pigs awarding themselves lavish expenses, even though Holyrood’s expenses regime was one of the toughest in Europe.

Matters improved somewhat after the Queen presided over a pitch-perfect state opening of the Scottish parliament in July, 1999. Donald Dewar, the first First Minister of Scotland, delivered an elegant speech, the best of his career as a Labour MP and minister. “Only a man with a soul so dead could have no sense, no feel of his native land,” he said, quoting Scott. “For me, for any Scot, today is a proud moment: a new stage on a journey began long ago, which has no end.” This was a speech the SNP leader, Alex Salmond, could have delivered (he said he wished he had), which raised some eyebrows among Labour unionists.

Dewar went on: “In the quiet moments today we might hear some echoes from the past; the shout of the welder in the din of the great Clyde shipyards; the speak of the Mearns, with its soul in the land; the discourse of the Enlightenment when Edinburgh and Glasgow were a light held to the intellectual life of Europe; the wild cry of the Great Pipes; and back to the distant cries of the battles of Bruce and Wallace.” Dewar’s inspired address stilled the controversy about the Parliament – but not for long.

The first great political controversy of the devolution era broke later that year over the abolition of Section 2A of the Local Government Act, which outlawed the teaching of homosexuality in schools. Dewar and his Communities Minister, Wendy Alexander, had tried to address Scotland’s lingering culture of homophobia by abolishing a clause which effectively demonised gays in the classroom. This infuriated many small-c conservatives in Scotland, including the SNP-supporting Stagecoach boss, Brian Souter, and the leader of Scotland’s 600,000 Roman Catholics, Cardinal Thomas Winning. They launched the “Keep the Clause” campaign and financed a private referendum in which over a million Scots called for the retention of Clause 28, as Section 2A was sometimes called after similar English legislation.

The Daily Record, The Sun and the Scottish Daily Mail formed an unholy alliance in support of Keep the Clause and fried the rookie politicians of Holyrood in an intense blaze of negative publicity. It was a torrid time. The Sunday Herald was vilified for campaigning strongly for the abolition of Section 2A. Finally, the Clause was abolished, subject to assurances about “family values” also being promoted in schools, and Scotland entered a new age of moral enlightenment from which it has never looked back. It seems hard to believe that this issue could have so divided Scotland – a country which is now one of the most tolerant of sexual minorities in the world, in which three major political party leaders are openly gay. Holyrood has wrought a revolution in social attitudes.

Whether the row over Section 2A hastened the death at 62 of Donald Dewar, we can only speculate. He died from a brain haemorrhage in October 2000, only a few months after the row had subsided. It was a huge loss and seemed to confirm that Holyrood had been born under a bad sign. Dewar’s successor, the Labour minister, Henry McLeish, looked sound enough on paper. He had served as a minister in Westminster and had a commitment to radical policies, including the abolition of tuition fees and free personal care for the elderly.

However, Henry McLeish, lacked an elementary ability to cope with crisis, and within a year had resigned over the subletting of his constituency offices when he had been in Westminster. He said it was a “muddle not a fiddle” and he was right: he’d broken none of Holyrood’s rules and had been exonerated for the infraction by the Westminster fees office. But somehow he couldn’t contain the controversy and Scotland lost its second First Minister in two years.
The third First Minister, Jack McConnell, had more staying power. By cutting back on the ambition of the Parliament he achieved a degree of stability, in coalition with the Liberal Democrats under Jim Wallace. It seems hard to believe but the Scottish LibDems were a governing party for the first two parliaments. Holyrood also saw the arrival, after the 2003 elections, of seven Green Party MSPs and six Scottish Socialist Party members as the PR system of election kicked in.

However, while voters appreciated the diversity of the “rainbow parliament” as the Queen called it at the 2003 state opening, they continued to be unimpressed by the performance of the quality of political leadership. The infamous Dog Fouling (Scotland) Bill seemed to sum up the lack of ambition of the “Dog Dirt Parliament” as some called it. Did this “glorified council” really need a £440m Parliament building? There were even calls for the repeal of the 1998 Scotland Act.

Jack McConnell’s “do less better” approach began to bear fruit in the shape of the Smoking, Health and Social Care (Scotland) Bill in 2005, which banned smoking in public places. It wasn’t without controversy, however. The measure was fiercely opposed, not least by Labour politicians in Westminster, such as the UK Health Secretary, John Reid, who argued that smoking was “one of the few pleasures left to the working man”.

There were warnings of civil disobedience in the nation’s hostelries if Scottish men were denied the right to light up. But McConnell persevered and the smoking ban legislation is now credited with causing a measurable improvement in Scotland’s dismal record of heart disease and strokes. There has also been a dramatic fall in the number of young people taking up the habit. At last, Holyrood had made a demonstrably positive impact on Scotland.

Unfortunately for Jack McConnell, Labour was not to benefit from the improvement in Holyrood’s standing in the public eye. The party had been tarnished by the indifferent performance of the early years and a succession of petty scandals. Scottish voters wanted a change. So in 2007, they decided to give Alex Salmond’s Scottish National Party a chance at the wheel. It was hardly a landslide, however, as the SNP won by only one seat after the most chaotic election night in Scottish history, in which ballot boxes went missing and counting went awry.

Indeed, the result was still in doubt when Alex Salmond helicoptered into Holyrood on the afternoon of May 4, 2007 and announced that he was going to form a government – even though he lacked a majority to do so. The SNP returned only 47 out of 129 Holyrood seats, against Labour’s 46. Important figures in the Labour Party, including reportedly Gordon Brown, advised McConnell to form another government with the Liberal Democrats, who had a further 17 seats.

But McConnell believed, probably correctly, that the Scottish voters would not accept the legitimacy of another Labour government after this defeat. Anyway, he believed the minority SNP government would collapse at the first budget. The Liberal Democrats inexplicably refused to form a government with Alex Salmond despite many shared policies. It was one of the greatest miscalculations in Scottish politics, and has led directly to where we are today, with independence at the very top of the political agenda.

Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon seized the reins of power in 2007 and refused to let go. Their obvious enthusiasm for governing, combined with populist policies like abolition of prescription charges, ending private provision in the NHS, freezing council tax and the full abolition of tuition fees, led to the SNP landslide in 2011. That paved the way for the first independence referendum in 2014. Devolution was supposed, in the words of the former Labour Scottish Secretary, George Robertson, to have “killed nationalism stone dead”. But the best laid plans …

Was all this inevitable, as the Labour MP Tam Dalyell had warned before the Scotland Act? Did devolution lead inevitably to independence, as in “a motorway with no exits”? It’s impossible to say. Perhaps if the early Labour-led Holyrood administrations had been less accident-prone and more imaginative (they didn’t even use the term “government”, but “Scottish Executive”), things might have been different. As recently as 2003, the SNP was a minority force and losing seats in elections. But there is no doubt that the experience of Labour’s ultra-cautious home rule failed to quench Scotland’s desire for greater self government.

In 2014, Scots voted decisively to remain in the Union, but the party of independence now dominates Scottish politics at all levels. The SNP has more seats in Holyrood following the 2016 election than all the unionist parties, Labour, Conservative and Liberal Democrat, combined. In the “Tsunami” general election the year before, the SNP returned 56 out of 59 Westminster MPs, snatching 40 out of 41 Labour seats. Devolution may have been Labour’s great contribution to Scottish history, but it has all but destroyed the party as a political force.

It would have been a matter of not inconsiderable anguish for the late Donald Dewar, father of Scottish home rule, if he’d been told that, within a decade or so, the hated Conservatives would be the main opposition party in the Holyrood, and the SNP dominating the field. But that’s the trouble with democracy: once people get a taste for it, they are inclined to want more.

From Sunday Herald 2/3/17

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About iain2macwhirter

Writer and journalist.

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