When Scotland said Yes
Twenty years ago this month, voters overwhelmingly backed the creation of a Scottish parliament. It’s been a bumpy ride…
As the autumn visitor approaches the Scottish Parliament down the dark, narrow channel of the Canongate, tortured by Edinburgh’s bone-blasting wind and laser-guided rain, he might pull up his jacket collar and take a moment to read the selection of quotes chiselled into the wall. There’s one from a Gerald Manley Hopkins poem called Inversnaid that serves as a hymn to the ungenerous climate blowing around him, to the semi-wild sweep of Holyrood Park, and to the vast, ancient Arthur’s Seat that watches poker-faced over the passing dramas and conceits of our lawmakers:
‘What would the world be, once bereft
Of wet and of wildness? Let them be left,
O let them be left, wildness and wet;
Long live the weeds and the wilderness yet.’
There’s a passage from Walter Scott, too: ‘When we had a king and a chancellor and parliament men o’ our ain, we could aye peeble them wi stanes when they werena gude bairns. But naebody’s nails can reach the length o’ Lunnon.’ You take his point. Arthur’s Seat can afford to be patiently impassive; for the rest of us Scots, warm-blooded, quick-tempered and working to a rather shorter timetable, it’s useful to have parliament men (and women) o’ our ain close by for regular peeblins.
The habits of the 17th century, when stones and rotten fruit and veg were literally thrown at unpopular members as they took part in the ‘Riding’ parade that marked each opening of new proceedings, are gone. These days, we largely confine ourselves to social media bromides and the occasional lobbed egg. But while our manners might have improved a bit, the contemporary Scottish Parliament has this in common with its ancestral predecessor: it is a focus for hopes, expectations, frustrations and anger. As the years have rolled by its centrality to our sense of ourselves as modern Scots, to our idea of what Scotland is and could be in its 21st century incarnation, has only grown.
Monday marks the 20th anniversary of the day we voted the institution into being. I was a young political hack with the Mail then, and although it doesn’t feel to me like two decades have passed since that referendum, I noticed recently that some of those quotes on the Canongate Wall have begun to wear away, no doubt under daily assault from the elements. But then, I thought to myself, haven’t we all…
Like a vital Scotland World Cup qualifier or a Pete Wishart keyboard solo, the rebirth of the Scottish Parliament was a painful experience. There was strong opposition to the idea from Conservatives, who feared it would shake loose the roots of the Union. There was plenty of scepticism, too, on the Labour benches, including among veteran Scottish MPs who had been on the winning No side in the 1979 referendum. This time, No got off to a bad start. At its campaign launch in Glasgow’s stuffy RAC club a table of well-fed and well-to-do Tory chaps effectively warned Scotland would be reduced to a smoking crater if it dared avail itself of a legislative assembly with middling powers. The luxuriantly mutton-chopped QC Donald Findlay, perched at the end, puffed on his pipe throughout like some stern Victorian admonition.
They never stood a chance. The idea of a parliament had been given wings by the former Labour leader John Smith, whose early death had in a way sanctified the concept. The new Chancellor Gordon Brown was committed to seeing through his mentor’s ‘unfinished business’, though there were suspicions Tony Blair was cool on it, especially when he announced the referendum would be pre-legislative and would ask two questions: whether there should be a Scottish parliament, and whether it should have tax-varying powers. Was this an attempt to complicate matters and tease out a No vote?
In his memoir Blair insists not, while admitting he was ‘never a passionate devolutionist… you can never be sure where nationalist sentiment ends and separatist sentiment begins.’ But, he says, ‘I thought it inevitable.’ It was a period of jangling nerves and fierce debate, and the young PM was given a rough time of it whenever he ventured north of the Border. Despite his Scottish roots, ‘they contrived to make me feel alien,’ he writes. ‘The Scots were notoriously prickly about the whole business. Language had to be used carefully. They were incredibly sensitive to the fear that the Scottish Parliament would turn out to be a local council (which it never was). The Scottish media were a PhD about chippiness all unto themselves.’ Some things, at least, never change.
September 11, 1997, was referendum day — by chance, the 700th anniversary of the Battle of Stirling Bridge, at which William Wallace delivered a gubbing to the English forces. Turnout, at just over 60 per cent, was not particularly high, but 75 per cent of those who did vote backed the creation of the parliament and 63 per cent opted for it to have tax powers. The people had spoken and, when compared to the marginal outcomes of the 2014 independence referendum or last year’s Brexit vote, had done so in overwhelming fashion. Donald Dewar, the Scottish Secretary and lifelong home ruler who two years later would become the first First Minister, punched the air with relief as the result was declared. Soon afterwards, he unveiled the Scotland Bill that would give legal authority to the new institution, reading out its first clause with relish: ‘“There shall be a Scottish Parliament”. I like that.’
On May 6, 1999, the first elections were held and later that month 129 MSPs were sworn in. Winnie Ewing, presiding officer for the day, stole the moment: ‘I want to start with the words I have always wanted to say or hear someone say. The Scottish Parliament, adjourned on the 25th day of March 1707, is hereby reconvened.’
The official opening of the parliament in its temporary home at the Church of Scotland’s General Assembly Hall followed on July 1. It was an emotional day for all but the most trenchant refuseniks. The folk singer Sheena Wellington’s solo rendition of Burns’s A Man’s a Man for A’ That was spine tingling. An inspiriting fanfare written for the occasion by the great composer James MacMillan was performed by the RSNO. The Queen attended and gave the gift of a specially commissioned mace. Sean Connery was there in full Highland fig.
It was an occasion for romantic rhetorical flight, and Dewar, by some margin the parliament’s most charismatic figure, did not disappoint. ‘This is about more than our politics and our laws,’ he told us. ‘This is about who we are, how we carry ourselves. 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.
‘The past is part of us. But today there is a new voice in the land, the voice of a democratic Parliament. A voice to shape Scotland, a voice for the future. Walter Scott wrote that only a man with soul so dead could have no sense, no feel of his native land. For me, for any Scot, today is a proud moment; a new stage on a journey begun long ago and which has no end.’ Gorgeous, eh?
As with any start-up, the early days were heady, chaotic, and tremendous fun. The nation had been given a lift, and there was a sense of optimism about what might now be achieved. There was a lot to live up to — which turned out to be the problem.
Dewar, his great brain and his lightning wit, dominated the parliament. He treated the opposition leader Alex Salmond, then still in his first spell as SNP leader, as a cat might a mouse, toying with the younger man and squeezing the life out of the Nats — Salmond, unnerved, ran for safety back to Westminster in 2001.
It’s fair to say Dewar was loved, I think, but he was also a solitary, unknowable man, a lanky, stooped, shabbily-attired, quasi-academic enigma who was dedicated to his antiquarian book collection. The policies pursued by his administration, a coalition with the Lib Dems, didn’t seem to match the ambition Scots had for their new parliament. In May 2000, following heart surgery, the First Minister was forced to take three months off. In October that year, he slipped outside Bute House and fell, later suffering a brain haemorrhage. Dewar died the following day, just 63 years old. It was a devastating blow to a young institution to which he had in many ways been a father.
If Dewar’s policies had not set the heather alight, they did perhaps set the tone for what followed. Labour had no one of comparable substance to take over. His successor, Henry McLeish, had been a mediocre performer at Westminster, lacked his predecessor’s intellect and charm, was an awful public speaker, and had quite an ego — not a great mix. The parliament seemed quickly to sink to McLeish’s level. He was caught on microphone describing the then Scottish Secretary John Reid as a ‘patronising bastard’ and his Labour colleague Brian Wilson as ‘a liability’. McLeish lasted just over a year before being forced to resign amid a trite scandal about subletting his taxpayer-funded office.
With hindsight, Jack McConnell looks a better first minister than many of us gave him credit for at the time. He took over when Tony Blair was at his reforming height, and perhaps suffered by comparison. But McConnell may have been the first to see the job for what it was: not an adjunct to the whims and games of the big beasts at Westminster, nor just a step up from being a council leader. He brought energy and swagger, as well as some terrible waistcoats and an exotic taste in kilts. During his five-and-a-half year tenure, Scotland went after several major international sporting events, including Glasgow’s successful bid for the 2014 Commonwealth Games; McConnell launched the Fresh Talent plan aimed at encouraging economic migration; Scotland became the first part of the United Kingdom to implement a ban on smoking in public places; victim support was improved, tougher sentences for serious offenders were introduced and judicial appointments were made independent. If not all of what McConnell attempted worked out, the philosophy and the scale were right.
But the tide was turning. By 2007, Labour had been in power for eight years, along with their sidekick Lib Dems. Oppositions have a habit of becoming governments, because voters eventually want new faces at the top. The only alternative was the SNP, now run, once again, by Alex Salmond. The electorate liked the ‘Scotland’s Party’ schtick of the Nationalists, and an unprecedented overall majority landed in the grinning Salmond’s lap.
I’ll stop here with the history lesson, because the story of Nationalist Scotland is fresh enough in the mind. Salmond was a lightning-rod First Minister, a gifted demagogue but a profoundly divisive figure, relentless in pursuit of his goal of independence, with little care for what he broke along the way. Policy, and, arguably, the general good of the population, came a very distant second.
Here, in 2017, we have a moment for pause and reflection. Salmond has been kicked out by voters and now pursues forced laughs on the Edinburgh Fringe; Dewar is a statue in Buchanan Street, from which drunk students keep stealing the copper specs; Holyrood, that Spanish-designed, Kirsty Wark-endorsed, vastly expensive jumble is, like Arthur’s Seat, a sturdy part of the Edinburgh landscape. It hums with quiet authority and, for the most part, the noise of good people doing honest work. In Bute House, Nicola Sturgeon is a marked improvement on her predecessor, but finds the Scottish Tories, of all parties, snapping at her heels. She must also wrestle with the formidable challenge of reinventing a separatism that appears to have reached it electoral limits.
I spoke to Ruth Davidson last week and asked for her view on devolution’s first 20 years. Her analysis would chime with most fair-minded observers, I think. ‘Are we as a country more dynamic, braver, more advanced, better educated, with better health than 20 years ago? I’m not so sure. Honestly, I think it’s been timid. I think devolution was designed to be more ambitious than what previously existed, and I’m not sure that ambition has been realised within this building at Holyrood.’
At times, it does feel like two decades of missed opportunities — of hard choices avoided and a tax-payer-funded rest home for the hard of thinking. Where has been the comprehensive reform of our education system to stop its slide down the international charts and to boost the life chances of our most deprived children? Why does Scotland still seem to be in the grip of special interest groups, unions, the producer class, when elsewhere courageous leadership has rebalanced societies in favour of the voter, the consumer, the parent, the patient? There have been a lot of handouts, which is the easy bit, and not much tough love, which is the necessary bit.
Last week, I visited Holyrood for the first time in a while. As I approached down the Canongate, I pulled up my collar against the wind and rain and stopped to look over those chiselled quotes. I read the famous line from Hugh MacDiarmid: ‘Scotland small? Our multiform, our infinite Scotland small?’ Well, quite. We are often our own worst enemies, we have a bad habit of luxuriating in glorious failure, but our multiform Scotland is a glorious place with infinite potential. It’s up to us, really — we can choose to fulfil that potential, or we can choose not to. In 1997, we might have said No, but we didn’t. I’m happy about that. Holyrood: messy, maddening, thrawn, and ours. Long live the weeds and the wilderness yet.
This article appeared in the Scottish Daily Mail on September 9, 2017