Fed up with Holyrood? Frustrated with a First Minister who jets around the globe like a head of state? Had your fill of mediocre MSPs, freedom-snatching laws and endless posturing about independence?
Ukip reckons it has the answer and thinks its solution will win your vote next time round. The populist party is set to back the abolition of the current devolution arrangements, which Scottish leader David Coburn pillories as a ‘waste of the public’s money’. He wants to sack MSPs (‘second-rate windbags’ who ‘look bad and sound bad’) and instead have Scottish MPs at Westminster ‘meet once a month in Edinburgh to do Scottish affairs’.
If that sounds familiar, it’s because Ukip proposed something similar going into the 2011 Holyrood election, though by 2016 they had seemingly made their peace with devolution, admitting that ‘the idea of a Scottish parliament has a majority of support’ and professing themselves ‘in favour of making the Scottish parliament work’. Now, Mr Coburn bemoans the SNP’s use of Holyrood as a vehicle for constitutional grievance-mongering: ‘If the Scottish parliament can’t work with Westminster, let’s get shot of it.’
Unsurprisingly, the suggestion has not gone down well at Holyrood. Tory MSP Donald Cameron called it ‘crazy’ while the SNP ridiculed Ukip as ‘a complete irrelevance’. Of course, Ukip has experience of being called crazy and irrelevant when proposing outlandish constitutional upheavals. If the past few years have taught us anything, it’s that much of what we once considered politically impossible is just one set of freak circumstances away from top billing on the nightly news.
The uncomfortable truth is that Ukip has, however haphazardly, alighted on a point. Last September, Panelbase recorded 19 per cent of voters in favour of dissolving Holyrood, the highest level since devolution began. How is it possible that, just two decades on from the fanfare and optimism of the new parliament, one in every five of us would like to pull down the shutters?
Ukip’s submission may be unorthodox but so too was independence once upon a time. The present bout of devoscepticism may lapse or it may be a permanent feature of Scottish politics. Either way, it enjoys roughly the level of support independence did 40 years ago and the longer the SNP uses Holyrood to pursue separation, the easier it will be for devoscepticism to recruit sympathisers.
Would it be such a terrible thing? Twenty years on, devolution stands as a half-fulfilment of a promise. It was designed to remedy the ‘democratic deficit’ whereby most Scots voted for non-Tory parties but continued to get Tory governments. A Scottish parliament would assume responsibility for the day-to-day running of social and economic affairs while Westminster would retain control of defence, foreign policy and pensions. It was the best of both worlds — increased autonomy while keeping Scotland in the Union.
Soon enough, the gloss started to wear off. The cost of building the new parliament was estimated at no more than £40 million. By the end of a long and tortuous construction — so long and so tortuous that architect Enric Miralles died in the middle of it — the eventual bill was £414 million. A public inquiry found that the project, delivered three years late, had suffered from poor management and decision-making.
The problems ran deeper than bricks and mortar. The first crop of MSPs brought mavericks like Labour dissenter Dennis Canavan, the bold and brassy Margo MacDonald, and independent-minded Nationalist Dorothy-Grace Elder, whose scorpion wit was especially delicious when it stung her own party. But these were the exceptions. The 1999 intake was a class of also-rans and those who could only dream of being so exalted. The country was to be governed by over-promoted councillors and the finest solicitors our district courts had to offer.
The quality gap has narrowed only slightly since then. The Commons continues to attract, if not the best and brightest, the least dim and dull while Holyrood must settle for the likes of James Dornan and Maree Todd, who would struggle to play MSPs on River City. Such are the limited pickings of a limited pariament. Little wonder Holyrood struggles to hold ministers to account, scrutinise legislation, and provide national leadership.
Noticeable too was the dearth of star power at the top. Henry McLeish lasted a year as First Minister and is forgettable only insofar as anyone noticed him in the first place. His sole memorable utterance in the job came in his resignation when he insisted an office-leasing row was ‘a muddle, not a fiddle’.
Another Labour leader was a sharp thinker but failed to connect with voters. Wendy Alexander lasted 290 days before standing down amid criticism of her leadership style and a brouhaha over donations to her election campaign. John Swinney, a clever man with a big voice, was drowned out by internal SNP squabbles and managed to lose ground in the 2003 election, when Iraq-beleaguered Labour was struggling. At Holyrood, great leaders are the exception, not the rule.
Today many of the flaws of 1999 remain and have been joined by others. After five years spent warring over independence, MSPs have returned to the day job with a stinging tax grab on everyone earning over £33,000. What does the taxpayer get in return? A parliament that costs just shy of £100 million per annum to run, with £30 million going on MSP salaries and allowances alone.
So far this year parliamentary time has been used to debate Earth Hour, the superior quality of Scottish building stones, and ‘the economic potential of Robert Burns’. MSPs have tabled motions welcoming the opening of a ferry terminal, congratulating a school dance troupe on its triumph in a regional contest, honouring a pub in Kilmarnock for winning an award, and marking the retirement of woman from her job at M&S in Kirkcaldy.
In January, Culture Secretary Fiona Hyslop led a debate on Scotland’s ‘international policy framework and priorities for 2018’, which addressed many questions, except why Scotland needed an international policy framework when foreign affairs are reserved to Westminster. If Miss Hyslop holds the secret to Middle East peace and curing global pandemics, she’s been keeping very quiet about it. And in a rejoinder to the old saw, ‘talk is cheap’, the Scottish Government has set aside £17 million for international relations next year.
Is this what Donald Dewar had in mind when he pronounced, ‘there shall be a Scottish parliament’? Human talking-point dispensers who share an unquenchable need to ban everything they disapprove of and disapprove of everything they cannot ban?
For all the derision that Ukip’s idea has met with, would Scotland really be worse off without a cluster of doleful granite squatting at the foot of the Royal Mile? Where Holyrood has introduced substantive reform, it has often done so in the same trajectory as the UK Parliament. Without Holyrood, there would still have been a smoking ban, repeal of Section 28, and same-sex marriage. True, there would have been no one arrested for singing dreary ballads about Bobby Sands and no attempt to insert a state snooper into the life of every family in the land, but those are sacrifices we would just have to bear.
Without a Scottish parliament, the bitter divisions of 2014 would likely never have emerged. Wounds torn open by demagogues chasing their place in history would have remained closed and our national life would have been a good deal more relaxed and tolerant. After 20 years of devolution, we are not markedly more equal, educated, healthy or prosperous. In some cases, the opposite is true. The promise of devolution, of a new politics for a renewed nation, has gone mostly unrealised.
It would not be surprising if one in five Scots were tempted to throw in their lot with Ukip and vote to go back to square one. Their prescription, however, does not offer a practical way forward. The Scottish people endorsed the principle of devolution just two decades ago and since then there has been no evidence to suggest the majority have turned their backs on it. Devoscepticism is very real but not (yet) widespread enough to pose a threat to the status quo.
The parliament has embedded itself in the national consciousness. If it has not yet earned parity of esteem with Westminster, it is at least no longer Billy Connolly’s ‘wee pretendy parliament’. Holyrood is somewhat more rigorous and self-aware than it was in the early years when it heaved with mediocrity. Amidst the building fiasco, when the country needed reassurance that it had not made a grievous mistake, it was confronted by drab anonymities and a rainbow of Trots, swampies, and cranks.
Back then, Labour was the great immovable force of Scottish politics and it was often stodgy, sclerotic, and listless. Labour-led administrations did good things but they seemed to live down to their political diminutive — they were an Executive, not a Government, and they behaved accordingly. There was Jack McConnell — an unflashy First Minister but a decent, well-intentioned one — but there was also Henry McLeish, who passed through the halls of Bute House quick as a shadow and with as much impact.
Arguably, it was the coming of the SNP that made the Scottish parliament, an institution they had set themselves against until the last minute. The party that went into the 1997 General Election deriding proposals for a devolved legislature as ‘fatally flawed’ and bound to ‘deliver no real power’ found itself running the show ten years later.
The new head of government, elected near-presidentially on a ballot that read ‘Alex Salmond for First Minister’, set about reshaping Holyrood from a provincial talking-shop into a focal point for Scotland’s aspirations and challenges. The Executive became a Government — the Scotland Act be damned — and senior ministers became Cabinet Secretaries. All the baubles of pomp and position were designed to elevate what Tony Blair had once compared to a parish council to something more readily recognisable as a parliament.
Mr Salmond never delivered the ‘new and fundamentally more reflective model of democracy’ that he promised upon his election as First Minister but he did give Holyrood a ‘pith o’ sense an’ pride o’ worth’ that had been lacking. His motivation was nudging Scotland along the path to independence but, as his plans became clearer, he awoke something else.
The opposition benches, disorganised and introspective during the first Salmond government, slowly began to up their game in response to the threat of independence. The Conservatives made Ruth Davidson their leader and she began to build a party that could cause trouble for the Nationalists.
With the referendum agreed to, Labour, Lib Dems and Tories set aside their differences to fight for the Union — and found new confidence in the debating chamber. The SNP might have enjoyed a majority by this point but it was now under regular assault for failures in health, education and policing.
It took a Nationalist government to make Holyrood look like a credible parliament and a Nationalist government’s excesses to make it act like one.
Where things have gone wrong is the constitution fetish. Losing the 2014 referendum only made the SNP hungrier to hold another one — and another — until the voters submitted. In response, the opposition, particularly the Tories, allowed the constitution to lead their message and Holyrood was once against a talking-shop, only this time with a solitary topic of conversation. Scots did not want independence, or another referendum on it; they wanted a parliament where the issues that mattered most to them were front and centre.
While the constitution is finally taking a back seat, MSPs are still devoting time and resources to pet causes and marginal agendas. If you want harassed parents banged up for swatting their recalcitrant offspring or yearn to know the intricacies of Highland estate ownership, Holyrood is the parliament for you. If you want jobs, good schools, quality hospitals and safe streets, you will have to look elsewhere.
MSPs may snort at Ukip’s proposals but they will resonate with those scunnered by failing public services, middling politicians, patriotism games and a parliament grown complacent and remote. Holyrood can be better than this and it falls to MSPs to convince us of that. Otherwise, a fifth might creep up to a quarter and then to a third and perhaps even beyond that. Devolution is not an historical inevitability; it requires the on-going and ever-replenished consent of the governed. Holyrood must stop talking to itself and start listening to the people it serves.
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Originally published in the Scottish Daily Mail. Contact Stephen at firstname.lastname@example.org.