As Scotland marks 20 years of the Scottish Parliament, it’s clear we need leaders who recognise the immense possibilities and rich potential of devolution outside of the constitutional debate, writes Brian Wilson
There has been a welcome degree of thoughtful introspection about the first 20 years of the Scottish Parliament. Not all good, not all bad, early days …
Holyrood has in many respects fulfilled the ambition to do things better and differently from the rest of the UK, and sometimes to protect us from the downright objectionable.
That is devolution at its best. It is what I signed up for in the Scottish Constitutional Convention of 1995. Scotland is entitled to any form of government it wants. Just make a good job of it.
I always found it funny to be labelled “anti-devolution” having spent a lifetime advocating devolution to councils, communities, the powerless. Therein lies a continuing challenge for Holyrood and whoever is running it.
In that context, I was struck by a BBC Scotland programme in which Alan Little returned to his old school in Stranraer to seek impressions. Holyrood had a high level of visibility, of course, among those who have grown up with it.
Had it made much difference to a community, perched on a periphery of Scotland? Not really and, if anything, they felt more remote from Edinburgh than from what had gone before.
The same sentiments are heard in many parts of Scotland but this is not just about geography. Proximity to the seat of government guarantees nothing. In poor communities, how much has changed? That is at least as great a challenge.
One signposted danger of devolution was that it could actually lead to centralisation around its all-powerful hub. The extent to which this has been allowed to happen in recent years is frightening.
Longer-term aspirations may be to draw powers from Westminster, Brussels or wherever, but the easier option was to take them from within Scotland itself so that government becomes the controlling influence over everything that moves.
Not even the most starry-eyed political gardener could claim that a thousand flowers have bloomed in devolved Scotland. On the contrary, the culture is resistant to alternative points of decision-making. For example, Scotland used to have powerful quangos headed by giants of industry, unions, academia.
They feared not to challenge power – necessary counterpoises in Scotland’s interests. Could anyone name a single quango head in these branch offices today?
The treatment of local government is appalling. How can one reconcile the relentless attack on services, upon which the most vulnerable are disproportionately dependent, with even a scintilla of “progressive politics”? It need not be like that. If bigger minds would carry the principle of devolution into Scotland’s communities and institutions, we might start to see more tangible change for the better.
I live in a rural area and despair of the lack of imagination towards the micro-needs of fragile communities. I don’t care who is running Holyrood. So much could be done for very little. But it needs focus. It needs what devolution was meant to enable but has actually made more remote and bureaucratic.
Holyrood is now caught in a dual role of government and grievance pulpit. That is deeply debilitating with no end in sight. The ongoing focus on “powers” is counter-productive and now threatens fiscal consequences which will make matters worse for those devolution was primarily meant to serve.
If the rich potential of devolution is to be realised, then leadership must emerge that recognises and explores the immense possibilities outside of that wider constitutional debate. Then see what happens. We have no such leader.
One final plea about the Parliament itself. I never understood why it was designed as an antidote to either experience or oratory – two deep wells on which Parliaments draw.
The MP for the Western Isles, Malcolm MacMillan, once spoke in the Commons for four hours about an amendment to a Crofting Act. I do not recommend that as a regular feature but Holyrood is at the other extreme – five minute speeches, questions from crib sheets, glibness as substitute for content.
The last feat of oratory in the Scottish Parliament was from Donald Dewar at its opening. So loosen up. Let MSPs explain, debate, orate – and occasionally even inspire.