Talkin’ about a devolution: Scotland’s third First Minister discusses 20 years of Holyrood highs and lows

Former First Minister of Scotland Jack McConnell photographed at his home ahead of becoming Stirling University chancellor
Former First Minister of Scotland Jack McConnell photographed at his home ahead of becoming Stirling University chancellor

Twenty years ago the first Scottish Parliament in nearly 300 years opened for business.

It was the “most exciting of times”, according to Jack McConnell, one of the first intake of MSPs, who was to become First Minister for six years between 2001 and 2007.

Last week, at home in Stirling, Lord McConnell reflected on 20 years of devolution as Holyrood prepares to mark the anniversary next weekend.

The former First Minister said: “If you look back on it, Scotland was not a happy place in 1999. We were not a content or equal society, or a society where people really had the opportunities they should have.

“We had this massive ­opportunity with a Parliament that could pass its own laws. Despite all the ups and downs, Scotland is a far, far ­better place today than it was 20 years ago.

Here Lord McConnell reflects on the Scottish Parliament, from early turbulence to future priorities.

ON THE EARLY YEARS

The first few years of the Scottish Parliament were marked by turbulence and scandal, including the resignations of First Minister Henry McLeish and Scottish Conservative leader David McLetchie, and the jailing of Labour MSP Mike Watson after he set fire to curtains during a function at a hotel.

Lord McConnell said: “It seemed relentless for a while. There were three or four years when it seemed there wasn’t a day went by without something.

“One of my colleagues used to call it that Tuesday morning feeling, when we would all head to Edinburgh after spending Monday in the constituency.

“You would head through wondering what on earth was going to happen today.”

Lord McConnell said ­factors influencing the early years included intense media scrutiny and the fact it was a young institution.

He said: “There was a little bit of naivety at times – Parliament getting itself in a bit of a guddle over a bit of legislation or the rules over expenses.

“A lot of that was the fact it was new. There was a lot of ­people who were inexperienced.

“To me, the Parliament settled after 2003. By then it was passing legislation, having debates, people knew the ropes.”

ON THE SUCCESSES

When it comes to the impact of the Scottish Parliament, Lord McConnell pointed to legislation around land reform and changes to the criminal justice system.

He argued the time for these types of bills – which took about three years to get through the Scottish Parliament – would never have been found at Westminster.

But he said the legislation that marked a particular successful moment was the ban on smoking in public places in 2006.

He said: “To me, that was when the Parliament grew up. It wasn’t popular when it was first suggested. The country was really divided on it.

“When it came in, almost half the population who weren’t very happy about it accepted it on the day.

“There was not one incident anywhere in Scotland on the day the law came in, in March 2006.

“When a Parliament passes a law and people who hate that law accept it, because the Parliament is seen as legitimate, that is the moment the Parliament is accepted.”

ON THE ROLE OF FIRST MINISTER

When the Scottish Parliament came into existence, it also brought with it the new role of First Minister, meaning Scotland had a ­figurehead for the first time.

Lord McConnell said he believed Westminster politicians had failed to grasp how significant the post would be.

He said: “That was something that changed dramatically and it has changed Scotland, having a figurehead.

“Obviously, the Prime Minister of the country and the Queen are partly our figureheads, but having our own Scottish figurehead has made a difference to Scotland, I think – good and bad at different times.

“Sometimes that person has been liked, sometimes they have not been liked – but we have had somebody who has been our spokesperson to the world.”

Lord McConnell said introducing different rules for visas in Scotland – under his Fresh Talent initiative – was one example of changes that could be made.

He said: “A secretary of state for Scotland in a UK cabinet without a Scottish Parliament would never have been able to get agreement with the UK Government that there should be different visa rules for Scotland.

“They wouldn’t have even really been able to speak about it publicly. It would have been discussed behind closed doors and shutdown behind closed doors.”

ON THE BUILDING

One of the biggest scandals ­connected with the new Scottish Parliament was the cost of the Holyrood building.

In 1997, the estimate was put at £40 million. By the time it was completed in 2004, three years behind schedule, the final bill was £414 million.

Lord McConnell, who once called the cost of the building the “single biggest disappointment in devolution”, said every building should “provoke debate”.

But he said: “I don’t think the building works as the centre of political life and debate in Scotland in the way it should.

“There is not enough life about it in the evenings. There is not enough excitement around it.

“It was right to do something different from Westminster, but it is almost like the heat has been taken out of it. You need to have proper rules and processes, you need openness and transparency – but you also need spontaneity and argument and tension to make the right decisions.

“I think the format of debating and the format of the chamber doesn’t do that.”

Lord McConnell said there was a need to “sharpen up procedures” to introduce more life into the building.

He added: “I was always in favour of the idea of having one evening session a week, possibly a topical debate – so people could then come in after work and listen to and create a bit of a buzz.”

ON THE FUTURE

If the Scottish Parliament had never been set up, Lord McConnell believes Scotland would be in a “pretty grim position” – less confident, less modern and less equal than it is today.

But he argued the big ­challenge for MSPs in the future was to challenge the poverty that exists in Scotland.

He said: “The challenge of the first decade was modernising Scotland, which is what I and others set out to achieve.

“The challenge of the second decade has been dealing with the aftermath of the financial crisis, the independence debate and the Brexit debate, and some issues around equality.

“The issue that should dominate the third decade should be focusing on those parts of Scotland and those children in Scotland who face multiple disadvantages because of economic poverty or related issues of social decline.

“It is fundamentally wrong heading out of the second decade of the 21st Century to still have kids in Scotland not having a hot meal every day, or there are still kids who think there is no route out of their lives through education or other means.

“The next generation of Scottish politicians has got to grab that issue and debate it, not spin it for their own advantage, and come up with solutions and then implement them.”

He added: “I would hate to be sitting here in 10 years’ time, 30 years after the creation of the Scottish Parliament, and think there are kids still going hungry in Scotland. That would be a disgrace.”

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