Search

Has 25 Years of the Scottish Parliament been a Success?

Holyrood, the Scottish Parliament
Official portrait of Lord McConnell of Glenscorrodale crop 2 2019 1

Rt Hon Lord Jack McConnell

First Minister of Scotland 2001-2007

The Rt Hon Lord Jack McConnell writes about the approach of the 25 year anniversary of the Scottish Parliament and reflects on the founding years he was a part of.

As we approach twenty-five years of the Scottish Parliament – in 12 months’ time – and with the Parliament embedded in the public life of Scotland and the UK, it is easy to forget how radical this change was. 

In May 1999, the first 129 MSPs and Scottish Cabinet Ministers inherited a country with deep, long-term problems. These problems included discrimination, a declining population, an oppressive system of land ownership, a creaking justice system with an old boy’s club culture, some of the worst knife violence in Europe, shocking public health and recycling statistics, collapsed morale in our schools, and manufacturing jobs disappearing fast to eastern Europe and China. 

We had secured the powers to tackle these problems and, despite a clumsy start, where the new building dominated the headlines, that is what we set about doing. Two decades of cross-party campaigning had led to this moment and we were determined to be true to the founding principles of devolution and find Scottish solutions for Scottish problems. 

As Scotland’s first Minister for Finance, I was very proud to steer through Parliament’s first full legislation, creating the Public Finance and Accountability Act that put in place a strong system of independent public audit and open, transparent budgeting procedures. 

This new way of working – clearly accountable to the people we served – guided me through my time as Minister for Education and then as First Minister. I never forgot that those of us who campaigned for a Scottish Parliament had argued not only for the devolution of powers but for a legislature that reflected the will of the Scottish people. 

We wanted a parliament whose success was not measured by the size of its budget or judged by individual scandals. Instead, it should be measured by the quality and lasting impact of its decisions and the leadership it provided.

When we tackled the shame of sectarianism that plagued many parts of Scotland, we knew that to avoid a damaging culture war, we must involve representatives from all sections of society. A historic summit in February 2005 brought together 30 organisations, some of whom had never been in the same room together before that day. And they came back in 2006 to report on progress, not to me as First Minister, but to each other. 

It was this approach that allowed Scotland to lead the UK with a ban on smoking in public places in 2006. Working with health campaigners, clinicians, businesses, and charities, we were able to deliver legislation that will save lives for generations. People understood that this huge social change was not done for political gain, but to boost public health and improve life chances. The Parliament had come of age. 

And by working constructively with the UK Government in ‘reserved’ areas of policy, we were able to show that the UK did not need a one-size-fits-all approach to policy. Fresh Talent, our positive approach to in-migration, encouraging people from across the world to come and live and work in Scotland, was enabled by the Home Office. It would have been inconceivable before devolution changed the UK for good.

Our ambitions and our approach delivered a vast programme of change: the abolition of feudal tenure, independent judicial appointments, new rights for vulnerable children and adults, and a national cancer plan that transformed cancer diagnosis and care. 

We were able to achieve significant progress without dividing our nation, even in the most sensitive of policy areas, because everything we did was rooted in the cross-party commitment made during the civic campaign to secure devolution. Holyrood would be different from Westminster, with the Freedom of Information Act, cross-party working, accountability, and public engagement.  

There were times, of course, when that promise made life difficult for the Government and for MSPs, but it opened the legislature to new ideas and gave its members the courage to address issues that had been swept under the carpet for decades. 

However, in recent years, public debate in Scotland has become polarised. Every policy discussion – from tackling the highest drug death rate in Europe to closing the education attainment gap – very quickly becomes toxic, divided along party or constitutional lines. The Parliament has lost much of its optimism and energy, with Scots largely disillusioned by what it has become. It does not need to be like this.  

There are organisational and political changes that can – and should – be made. The committee system, now in its third decade, needs to be more independent. The Freedom of Information Act requires a refresh and the relationship between Holyrood and Scotland’s local government and civil society must improve.   

Arguably, the first decade of the Scottish Parliament was its most challenging. Politicians had to unite in common cause, had to use their new powers to make Scotland a better place for all its people.  

We largely succeeded in that mission, which is why it is so frustrating that the energy and sense of purpose have been replaced by constitutional stalemate, declining public services, and a lack of ambition, accountability, and engagement. 

The people of Scotland deserve more than mediocrity and division. They want a parliament that delivers on the things that matter to them, whether that is a functioning lifeline ferry service to our island communities, a significant reduction in child poverty, or rising standards in our schools.  

Now is the right time to recapture the optimism of 1999. The new First Minister grew up with the Scottish Parliament in place, not as an aspiration. He must use Holyrood’s formidable powers to govern on behalf of all Scots, not just those who agree with his party. Opposition parties have found their voice again and there are growing signs that civil society is speaking out again for the people of Scotland. 

Scotland is at a crossroads. We can continue to indulge in the divisive politics and toxic discourse that has paralysed our country for much of the last decade. Or we can recapture the spirit of national ambition, civic engagement, and belief in progress that won the argument for the Scottish Parliament in the first place.  

Share

Related Topics

Latest

Plans for Diagnostics: NHS Screenings and Sunak’s Agenda

As long waiting lists for the NHS continue to persist, and people receiving diagnoses in adequate time has not reached its target, Sunak ventured on a campaign trail yesterday to trumpet new measures aimed at promoting timely diagnostics. This was to help ensure he can meet one of his top five priorities: cutting NHS waiting lists.

Hunt’s Bold Vision for the Economy

Hunt primarily proposed his bold vision for the economy and highlighted the value of investing in life sciences and the NHS especially during its time of crisis.

Video Features

Does Democracy Require Proportional Representation?

Marking LGBT+ History Month 2024

How Can We Make the UK the Greatest Place to Grow Old?

Why Should Women Stand for Office?

Subscribe to our newsletter for your free digital copy of the journal!

Receive our latest insights, future journals as soon as they are published and get invited to our exclusive events and webinars.

Newsletter Signups
?
?

We respect your privacy and will not share your email address with any third party. Your personal data will be collected and handled in accordance with our Privacy Policy.

Never miss an issue by subcribing to our newsletter!

Receive our latest insights and all future journals as soon as they are published and get invited to our exclusive events and webinars.

Newsletter Signups
?
?

We respect your privacy and will not share your email address with any third party. Your personal data will be collected and handled in accordance with our Privacy Policy.

Never miss an issue by subcribing to our newsletter!

Receive our latest insights and all future journals as soon as they are published and get invited to our exclusive events and webinars.

Newsletter Signups
?
?

We respect your privacy and will not share your email address with any third party. Your personal data will be collected and handled in accordance with our Privacy Policy.

Newsletter Signup

Receive our latest insights as soon as they are published and get invited to our exclusive events and webinars.

Newsletter Signups
?
?

We respect your privacy and will not share your email address with any third party. Your personal data will be collected and handled in accordance with our Privacy Policy.