Ian Swanson: Devolution road to the referendum

Pomp and ceremony in July 1999 as the Scottish Parliament reconvened in Edinburgh
Pomp and ceremony in July 1999 as the Scottish Parliament reconvened in Edinburgh
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As the independence referendum is looming large, Ian Swanson looks at the road from devolution until September 18

IT’S been 15 years since the advent of devolution, when crowds thronged the Royal Mile to see the newly-elected Members of the Scottish Parliament parade through the streets to take their places in the Assembly Hall on The Mound.

These were heady days – the “reconvening” of a parliament in Edinburgh after more than 300 years. And although there were plenty of early controversies – over the parliament building and MSPs’ salaries to name two – there was an upbeat feel about Scotland’s new democracy and high expectations about what self-government could achieve.

The years since then have seen lots of ups and downs and many changes. The death of Donald Dewar, the first first minister, and the resignation of his successor, Henry McLeish, made for turbulent times, followed by a more stable period with Jack McConnell and then the dramatic victory for Alex Salmond and the SNP’s unprecedented overall majority.

Of the 17 constituency and list MSPs covering Edinburgh and the Lothians, only Labour’s Malcolm Chisholm is still there and in the same seat as at the start in 1999.

And some of Holyrood’s most respected politicians, like independent Margo MacDonald and former Tory leader David McLetchie, have died.

Opinions on how successful devolution has been may vary widely. But few who were at that opening ceremony on July 1, 1999 would have predicted that within just a decade and a half Scotland would be where it is today – on the verge of a referendum on whether or not to become an independent country.

The mood is different now. The momentous nature of the decision to be made on September 18 is focusing minds and sadly also creating a bitterness and divisiveness alongside the hopes and fears about independence.

The past 15 years are evidence of how quickly and dramatically the political situation can change.

The SNP has described the referendum as a once-in-a-generation event – and Deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has suggested a political generation is about 15 years.

Looking back, 15 years before the opening of the Scottish Parliament, in 1984, when Margaret Thatcher was at the height of her powers, devolution wasn’t even on the cards.

The Tories had won a resounding victory at the Westminster general election the previous year on the back of the Falklands war. Scotland was being run by Scottish Secretary George Younger and a handful of junior ministers at St Andrew’s House, accountable only to Westminster.

And the failure of the 1979 referendum on a Scottish Assembly, together with Mrs Thatcher’s hostility to devolution, had put the dream firmly on the backburner.

It is startling to realise how different everything was then and how big a transformation there has been in politics.

Jack, now Lord, McConnell entered the independence debate this week, speaking up for devolution – or “home rule within the United Kingdom” as he described it – as the best option for Scotland.

Independence campaigners, on the other hand, use the successes and achievements of devolution to argue in favour of Scotland taking full responsibility for its own affairs.

But whichever way the referendum goes, the chances must be that in another 15 years, Scotland will have seen another transformation.