Royal seal of approval as Queen opens new Scots parliament

The Sunday Times, 10 October 2004

By Kenny Farquharson

THE choice of tune was a telling one. As the pipe bands swung down the Royal Mile towards Holyrood they were all playing a march called The Battle’s O’er. It summed up the wishful thinking of Scotland’s political leaders at yesterday’s opening of their contentious new parliament building.

Again and again the sentiment expressed in the opening ceremony was that Scotland should now draw a line under all the name-calling and soul-searching, all the delays and added millions, all the accusations of lying and sharp practice and incompetence that have sullied the Holyrood project over the past seven years.

The Queen in her speech talked about the building’s “difficult and controversial birth”. That was “all the more reason to ensure that with the energy, flair and determination for which Scots are renowned the world over, Holyrood comes to be seen as a landmark of 21st-century democracy”.

The first minister was at it too. Jack McConnell, his Holyrood tartan kilt a distinct improvement on that infamous pinstripe, spoke of there being “a spring in Scotland’s step again” and of a parliament “that has come of age in a country whose time has come”.

This was blind hope rather than realistic expectation. The question on every speaker’s mind was whether Scotland was ready to forgive and forget and move on. And also whether the current crop of MSPs was equal to the demands of such rarified rhetoric.

Yesterday’s official opening ceremony and associated concerts and street events went without a hitch, much to the relief of security staff who had feared some kind of security breach, especially on the “riding of the parliament” from its pre-1707 home next to St Giles’ Cathedral down the medieval Royal Mile to Holyrood.

Royal Archers and persuivants and heralds and crown bearers, their playing-card costumes making them look like extras from Alice in Wonderland, provided the ceremonial. The flags fluttered and the crowds waved little saltires — any protesters perhaps being dissuaded by the soldiers standing every 10 yards with fixed bayonets.

However, a day that strived to be an indelible moment in Scottish history fell short of the mark. In particular it failed to live up to the last time the Queen visited the Scottish parliament for the official birth of the legislature on July 1, 1999.

That truly was a day when history was made, when the monarch found herself redesignated “Queen of Scots” and Donald Dewar captured the epoch-making mood with his evoking of the din of the shipyards, the speak of the Mearns and the battle cries of Bruce of Wallace.

Nobody came close yesterday. The event was a humdinger of a house-warming, with sublime moments and a mood that veered between a classical music concert and a beery knees-up at a wedding. But a house-warming is just a house-warming, however good. Only time will tell if it was capable of marking a new and better chapter in Scotland’s story.

Lining the Royal Mile for a glimpse of royalty or Sir Sean Connery, the crowds were less than euphoric. It was easy to be cynical about the trappings of such occasions — the stilt walkers, the hairy battle re-enactment enthusiasts looking like extras from Braveheart, the parade of puffed-up provosts.

There were some genuine disappointments. Take the fly-past. Expectations were high after the appearance of Concorde accompanied by the Red Arrows in 1999. What we got this time was a single desultory Nimrod lumbering east towards the coast.

There were moments that grated in the main ceremony, too — a dull ballad by Eddi Reader that tried to evoke Highland romanticism but ended up describing how “high up where the air is rare, wild horses ride”. Eh? Anyone ever come across a herd of mustangs in Glencoe? There were moments of pettiness as well. Irene Oldfather, the Labour MSP, was asked to move her seat to make room for the teenage violinist Nicola Benedetti but refused.

Her crime was all the greater because Benedetti was the undoubted star of the day, contributing drop-dead glamour and a virtuoso performance of Saint-Saëns’s Rondo Capriccioso with the RSNO.

She won hearts and fans in equal measure. The RSNO conductor, Garry Walker, burst into tears when she had finished. Earlier a haunting psalm sung in Gaelic by a choir from Lewis set hair rising on the backs of necks.

The Queen excited little controversy or comment other than a heated debate as to whether her outfit was fuchsia or cerise. But this was always going to be a difficult day for her — getting to know new neighbours is always tricky.

Will they be noisy? Will they lower the tone of the neighbourhood? Will they take their turn at doing the stair? If she didn’t like the look of her new neighbours she was too well bred to show it — although there were moments during the long day of ceremony when she looked utterly bored.

Those who claim to know the royal mind say the Queen regards the new building next door to the palace of Holyroodhouse as an eyesore. But then again, this is a woman who has spent half a century opening swimming pools, motorways and hospital wings, so the very idea of a new building probably induces a Pavlovian shudder.

Nothing was going to persuade her to join in the day’s finale — a communal singing of Auld Lang Syne. There was one horrible moment when presiding officer George Reid looked as if he was going to try to take her hand in the traditional manner and make like it was Hogmanay at the bells.

Thankfully he resisted.

Reid was another of the day’s stars. In his speech, he raised the crucial factor that must be taken into account when considering the Holyrood saga — that Scotland is “a place where we know our enemy, and have the wisdom to understand that often it is us”. Justified though the tidal wave of outrage over Holyrood has been, it has always been laced with that familiar Scottish self-doubt.

Elected as a Scottish Nationalist party MSP, Reid has helped to ensure that the parliament feels like home to those who believe in independence as well as those who support devolution within the UK. He has shown how a devolved Scotland can give full voice to its patriotism. Reid has also ensured that the new Holyrood building has its share of nationalist trappings — including a cutting from the ancient Wallace Yew in Elderslie, the tree which is said to mark the birthplace of William Wallace.

There were nationalist overtones, too, in the celebratory poem penned by Scotland’s official national bard Edwin Morgan and read by his writer friend Liz Lochhead. It talked of MSPs having “not yet wholly the power, / but a good sense of what was once in the honour of your grasp”.

As for the building itself, an honest judgment is possible only if you divorce it from the process by which it was created. Two men were missing from the guest list yesterday but were on the minds of many present. The Catalan architect Enric Miralles died of a brain tumour in July 2000 aged 45. Scotland owes him a debt of gratitude because Miralles paid us the compliment of taking us at our best.

The building he designed for us was flattery in stone. It was bold, complex, lyrical, proud. It was uncompromising. A marvel of the engineering skills that sent ships and locomotives around the globe and built the Forth rail bridge. It was a homage to the best of our belief in ourselves.

Discussing how his massive “upturned boat” shapes would be constructed, Miralles at one stage said: “We are sure Scottish shipyards will be more than happy to collaborate in such a task.”

A fanciful notion and of course it never happened. But his confidence that it would told us something about his belief in Scotland.

Even when his grasp of English failed him he still got it right. The parliament, he said, would be “a mental place”. His widow, Benedetta Tagliabue, carrying the sporran she now uses as a handbag, stood for a long while by herself at the back of the debating chamber before yesterday’s ceremony started, lost in her own thoughts.

A few months after Miralles was buried in the Igualada cemetery in Barcelona which he designed at an early stage in his career, Donald Dewar died of a brain haemorrhage. Dewar was not watching over the proceedings yesterday.

To suggest otherwise would be an insult to his memory. He was a Presbyterian atheist. He is dead and that’s that.

But something of the man endures in the parliament building that he begat. Not only in the beautiful Donald Dewar library that contains his collection of books and which was visited yesterday by his daughter Marion and son Ian, but also in the pithy use of the written word throughout the fabric of the building, chiselled everywhere on walls and floors, epigrams and exhortations that are intended to whisper themselves into the ears of passing MSPs.

Take the biblical quote in Scots carved in the paving slabs that every MSP has to walk over every morning to get into the parliament. Picked out in steel and whinstone it reads: “Gin I speak wi the tungs o men an angels but hae nae luve i my hairt, I am no nane better nor dunnerin bress or a ringing cymbal.”

Had he lived, Dewar would have had much to answer for. With his cynical estimate of a parliament costing £40m he ensured that the eventual bill was always going to look spendthrift, even without the foul-ups and extras that took its price to £431m.

As the Fraser inquiry into the Holyrood saga rightly identified, Dewar’s desire to get the parliament all but built before the project was handed over to MSPs was one of the key reasons why the word Holyrood has become an international leitmotif for Caledonian incompetence.

However, had he left it to the MSPs, as protocol demanded, Scotland would have had a cheaper parliament certainly — but in a pre-fab warehouse in the Gyle business park.

As one apologist pointed out yesterday, the £431m cost of Holyrood is only half the cost of the new Wembley stadium and that is just a football pitch. But we have always judged ourselves harsher than we judge others.

In the 1999 ceremony someone read out a poem by Iain Crichton Smith extolling a nation’s hopes for the new institution. It ended with the following words: “Let it be true to itself and its origins, / Inventive, original, philosophical, / Its institutions mirror its beauty; / Then without shame we can esteem ourselves.”

Since those words were spoken there has been little inventiveness, scant philosophy and damn all beauty. Esteem has been in short supply as well. Can Scotland now move on? It is entirely up to our MSPs to prove the doubters wrong. In his poem to mark yesterday’s occasion, Morgan defined the challenge: “What do the people want of the place? “They want it to be filled with thinking persons as open and adventurous as its architecture.

“A nest of fearties is what they do not want. A symposium of procrastinators is what they do not want. A phalanx of forelock-tuggers is what they do not want. And perhaps above all the droopy mantra of ‘it wizny me’ is what they do not want.”

Amen to that.

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