Hope and history: Historian looks back on Donald Dewar speech and if his hopes for a Scottish parliament have been realised

Professor Tom Devine at his home. He is a leading Scottish historian, author and commentator on Scotland and Scottish Independance.
Professor Tom Devine at his home. He is a leading Scottish historian, author and commentator on Scotland and Scottish Independance.

It was a speech praised for ushering in a new era for Scotland, while also reflecting on the country’s history and heroes.

The address from the late Donald Dewar at the official opening of the Scottish Parliament on 1st July 1999 was widely considered the finest of his life.

Scotland’s first-ever First Minister spoke of a moment anchored in our history which would give a voice for the future.

Two decades of devolution later, Scotland’s most eminent historian Professor Sir Tom Devine said its creation was deeply significant as the most significant change in the union or parliament since 1707.

He added: “Then of course, you have got to judge whether it was simply a legislative change – or did it have more impact?”

Here, ahead of the 20th anniversary of the opening of the Scottish Parliament this week, Sir Tom looks at how far the hope of Donald Dewar’s speech, his vision for Scotland, has been realised.


DEWAR SPEECH: Today we look forward to the time when this moment will be seen as a turning point; the day when democracy was renewed in Scotland, when we realised our place in this our United Kingdom.

Undoubtedly the Parliament has brought legislative possibilities for Scotland much closer to the people.

It is clear there are a number of things that would not have happened if it hadn’t been for the parliament – they include abolition of tuition fees for Scottish students, the smoking ban introduced earlier than the rest of the UK, free prescriptions and free personal care of the elderly.

Perhaps most importantly of all is the first stages of what one might call land reform. It is still not particularly radical, but certainly wouldn’t have happened given the role of the House of Lords in the Westminster Parliament.

The other thing to note is according to all the polls over the last 10 years or so, the Parliament is now firmly embedded.

Some people did say before 1999 and its establishment that it might be transitory. But it is now well bedded down and to abolish it would now be regarded as unthinkable.

DEWAR: This is more than about our politics and our laws. This is about who we are, how we carry ourselves.

There was the beginnings of a greater sense of Scottishness before the Parliament.

In the 1970s in a whole range of areas – literature, film and the culture of the country.

Also in what I call neo-Highlandism – the new popularity of Highland dress for things like graduation ceremonies and marriages etc.

You could argue the Parliament was one result of that. But at the same time, the existence of the Parliament has given a further acceleration to that process, and Scottish people feel more in charge.

They recognise of course they are not independent – that has been shown many times over the last 20 years when Westminster has said no.

Since about the mid-18th century there has been a kind of duality in Scottish identity – of Britishness and Scottishness. The pendulum has undoubtedly swung much more to the latter rather than the former – in other words to Scottishness.

The Parliament has not been the only factor in that, but it has been a very important element. I think Dewar was getting at a stronger sense of Scottish identity, the way we carry ourselves. That has definitely happened.

I don’t think you get many people now talking about the Scottish cringe.

DEWAR SPEECH: The past is part of us, part of every one of us and we respect that, but today there is a new voice in the land, the voice of a democratic Parliament. A voice to shape Scotland, a voice above all for the future.

A lot of the legislation passed, has reflected intrinsic Scottish concerns. Not British concerns, or Westminster concerns.

In that sense, the renewal of Parliament did give voice to specific issues in Scotland, in which Westminster was disinterested or even opposed to. That is very important.

There is a double irony here – you could argue without the channel of the Scottish Parliament, the constitutional structure or channel of the Scottish Parliament, there wouldn’t have been a 2014 [independence] referendum.

Those who opposed to it said how do we know there is a desire for this – one of the ways was because a nationalist party was in control in Holyrood.

On the other hand, you could argue that if devolution had not occurred, the union would have been in even greater difficulty, because of the contrast and frustrations that are occurring, especially in an age of austerity.

That is another aspect in which the Scottish Parliament has been important, since the crash and the banking financial crisis, it has been under very strict controls in a budget sense from Westminster.

But to some extent at least in the public services, the Parliament has played the role expected of it – that is to protect Scotland from some of the greater excesses of Westminster policy.

I think it is fair to say that has happened to some degree at least, especially in areas like health.

DEWAR SPEECH: We are fallible, we all know that. But I hope and I believe we will never lost sight of what brought us here: the striving to do right by the people of Scotland; to respect their priorities; to better their lot; and to contribute to the common weal.

SIR TOM: The Parliament was mediocre in the early years, there was very little confidence.

I think it is a tragedy that Dewar died, although he was a cautious man and there might not have been very much there in the way of significant changes.

The period of office of his successor Henry McLeish was inadequate, then there was a bit more being done by Jack McConnell.

At that time people were starting to complain what value is the Parliament?
That has changed quite radically since 2007, not simply because of the SNP, but because of the fact it has become more mature and more confident.

In the beginning, it was virtually entirely dependent on the block grant. Since the Smith Commission reported after the 2014 referendum a very large proportion of the money spent by the Scottish Parliament is now raised in Scotland, which ensures the electorate can have more control over its activities.

One criticism that is levelled at it is that its aspirations are still fairly modest. Those who are looking for a visionary, almost radical approach, especially in terms of Scotland’s historic ills of inequality and child poverty, there has been hardly impact at all in that area.

I think the jury is still out on how far it will be able to tackle these historic problems in Scotland – to be fair, they are enormously difficult to tackle because they have been there for generations.

DEWAR SPEECH: I look forward to the days ahead and I know there will be many of them when this chamber will sound with debate, argument and passion.

SIR TOM: I definitely think there has not been enough of that. One of the aims was to be different from Westminster and not have the adversarial quality, but I think politics has got to be adversarial.

I think the shape of the Chamber was a mistake – Westminster is a bear pit, but at its best – as has been shown during the Brexit debate – it can be riveting viewing.

You get the impression the debates in the Scottish Parliament are more reminiscent of county council or town council debates.

To change that, the current generation will probably have to clear away and a new generation of politicians come up.

How many visionary thinkers are in the Scottish Parliament? The calibre of people who over the last 100 years have played great roles in the UK Parliament.

We are a much smaller nation and therefore the pool for Parliament is much more limited – but I would like to see people from a wider range going for election in the Parliament.

I think there is that kind of imbalance in that the vast majority, if you look at their CVs, have come through the public services.

DEWAR SPEECH: It is a rare privilege in an old nation to open a new Parliament.

Today is and must be a celebration of the principles, the traditions, the democratic imperative which has brought us to this point and will sustain us in the future.

SIR TOM: The Scottish Parliament is certainly worthy of celebration. Scotland would have been different without it – that is the key point.

A nation deserves a Parliament and there would have been a void without it.

In terms of the future, I hope there can be improvements and further development, but it might take a new generation of politicians to deliver that.

The other point is that – given the old cliché I use that the future is not my period – I have never known a time, certainly not in my lifetime, when the future of the UK in Europe and indeed the future of the UK as an entity is in more doubt.

So when we talk about the Scottish Parliament it is not a likelihood, but certainly a serious possibility that because of Brexit and the election of the next Conservative party leader, we will be talking about in 10 years time the Parliament in an independent Scotland.

In terms of transformation and metamorphosis this has been the most extraordinary period.


Sir Tom Devine has his say on Scottish Parliament

Undoubtedly the parliament has brought legislative possibilities for Scotland much closer to the people.

It is clear there are a number of things that would not have happened if it hadn’t been for the parliament – they include abolition of student tuition fees, the smoking ban introduced earlier than the rest of the UK, free prescriptions and free personal care of the elderly. Perhaps most importantly of all is the first stages of what one might call land reform. It is still not particularly radical, but certainly wouldn’t have happened given the role of the House of Lords in the Westminster Parliament.

The other thing to note is according to all the polls over the last 10 years or so, the Parliament is now firmly embedded.

Some people did say before 1999 and its establishment that it might be transitory. But it is now well bedded down and to abolish it would now be regarded as unthinkable.

We are more Scottish now

There was the beginnings of a greater sense of Scottishness before the parliament in a whole range of areas – literature, film and the culture of the country.

Also in what I call neo-Highlandism – the new popularity of Highland dress for things like graduations and marriages.

You could argue the parliament was one result of that. But at the same time, the existence of the parliament has given a further acceleration to that process, and Scottish people feel more in charge.

They recognise of course they are not independent – that has been shown many times over the last 20 years when Westminster has said no.

Since about the mid-18th Century there has been a kind of duality in Scottish identity – of Britishness and Scottishness. The pendulum has undoubtedly swung much more to the latter rather than the former.

I think Dewar was getting at a stronger sense of Scottish identity, the way we carry ourselves. That has definitely happened.

I don’t think you get many people now talking about the Scottish cringe.

Laws for Scots by Scots

A lot of the legislation passed, has reflected intrinsic Scottish concerns. Not British concerns, or Westminster concerns.

In that sense, the renewal of parliament did give voice to specific issues in Scotland, in which Westminster was disinterested or even opposed to. That is very important.

There is a double irony here – you could argue that without the Scottish Parliament, the constitutional structure or channel of the Scottish Parliament, there wouldn’t have been a 2014 (independence) referendum.

Those who were opposed to it said how do we know there is a desire for this – one of the ways was because a nationalist party was in control in Holyrood.

On the other hand, you could argue that if devolution had not occurred, the union would have been in even greater difficulty, because of the contrast and frustrations that are occurring, especially in an age of austerity.

That is another aspect in which the Scottish Parliament has been important. Since the crash and the banking financial crisis, it has been under very strict control from Westminster in a budget sense.

But to some extent at least in the public services, the parliament has played the role expected of it – that is to protect Scotland from some of the greater excesses of Westminster policy.

I think it is fair to say that has happened to some degree at least, especially in areas like health.

Maturity and confidence

The parliament was mediocre in the early years, there was very little confidence.

I think it is a tragedy that Dewar died, although he was a cautious man and there might not have been very much there in the way of significant changes.

The period of office of his successor Henry McLeish was inadequate, then there was a bit more being done by Jack McConnell.

At that time, people were starting to complain about the parliament’s value.

That has changed quite radically since 2007, not simply because of the SNP, but because of the fact it has become more mature and more confident. In the beginning, it was virtually entirely dependent on the block grant. Since the Smith Commission reported after the 2014 referendum a very large proportion of the money spent by the Scottish Parliament is now raised in Scotland, which ensures the electorate can have more control over its activities.

One criticism levelled at it is that its aspirations are still modest. Those who are looking for a visionary, radical approach, especially in terms of Scotland’s historic ills of inequality and child poverty, say there has been hardly impact at all in those areas.

I think the jury is still out on how far it will be able to tackle these historic problems in Scotland – to be fair, they are enormously difficult to tackle because they have been there for generations.

Show us the passion

There has not been enough debate, argument and passion. One of the aims was to be different from Westminster and not have the adversarial quality. But politics has got to be adversarial. I think the shape of the Chamber was a mistake. Westminster is a bear pit but, at its best, as has been shown during the Brexit debate, it can be riveting viewing.

You get the impression the debates in the Scottish Parliament are more reminiscent of county council or town council debates.

To change that, the current generation will probably have to clear away and a new generation of politicians come up.

How many visionary thinkers are in the Scottish Parliament? The calibre of people who over the last 100 years have played great roles in the UK Parliament.

We are a much smaller nation and therefore the pool for parliament is much more limited – but I would like to see people from a wider range going for election in the parliament.

There is an imbalance in that the vast majority, if you look at their CVs, have come through the public services.

This extraordinary period

The Scottish Parliament is certainly worthy of celebration. Scotland would have been different without it – that is the key point.

A nation deserves a parliament and there would have been a void without it.

In terms of the future, I hope there can be improvements and further development, but it might take a new generation of politicians to deliver that.

The other point is that – given the old cliche I use that the future is not my period – I have never known a time, certainly not in my lifetime, when the future of the UK in Europe and indeed the future of the UK as an entity has been in more doubt.

So when we talk about the Scottish Parliament it is not a likelihood, but certainly a serious possibility that because of Brexit and the election of the next Conservative party leader, we will be talking about in 10 years time the parliament in an independent Scotland.

In terms of transformation and metamorphosis, this has been the most extraordinary period.

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