Ian Swanson: Teenage Scots parliament grown up fast

The Queen, Sir David Steel and Donald Dewar after the opening ceremony of the Scottish Parliament 16 years ago today. Picture: TSPL
The Queen, Sir David Steel and Donald Dewar after the opening ceremony of the Scottish Parliament 16 years ago today. Picture: TSPL
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IN 16 years since the Scottish Parliament was ‘reconvened’ the country has been on a political rollercoaster, says Ian Swanson

Happy birthday Holyrood. There might not be any fanfare, but the Scottish Parliament – the institution, not the building – is 16 years old today.

On July 1, 1999, crowds lined the streets as the newly-elected MSPs paraded along the Royal Mile to the parliament’s temporary chamber in the Church of Scotland’s General Assembly Hall on The Mound for the official opening ceremony marking the formal transfer of power from Westminster.

In the light of all that has happened since, culminating in last year’s independence referendum and its aftermath, it is easy to forget how momentous the creation of the parliament was.

It had been a long time coming –repeated Tory victories at UK general elections where Scotland returned fewer and fewer Conservative MPs and the imposition of policies which had no support here galvanised the opposition parties into forming the Scottish Constitutional Convention to draw up a blueprint for devolution and led Labour to promise a Scottish parliament.

Tony Blair was far from passionate about it, but once prime minister he wasted no time in fulfilling the party’s commitment first to a referendum and then to setting up the parliament.

The SNP joined Labour, the Lib Dems and the Greens in campaigning for a Yes Yes vote – in favour of both a parliament and tax-raising powers.

And veteran Nationalist Winnie Ewing was able to set the new institution within the SNP’s historical view when, as the oldest member, she chaired the first meeting and declared the parliament “reconvened”.

It has been a political rollercoaster ever since, with rows over the Holyrood building; the untimely death of the first First Minister; the dramatic resignation of his successor; the election of a “rainbow parliament” with lots of Greens, Socialists and independents; then a minority SNP government in place of the Labour-Lib Dem coalition; then a majority SNP government – something supposed to be impossible under the voting system; and, of course, the referendum.

When Donald Dewar described devolution as a process rather than en event, he probably did not have all that in mind.

Despite its eventful life, the parliament is still very young – indeed if it was a person, it would be denied a vote in UK elections.

Critics may claim it has not made that much difference to people in Scotland. But for an institution just over a decade and a half in existence, it has achieved a remarkable amount.

Most importantly, it has ensured that on a whole range of issues which affect people’s day-to-day lives – like education, health, housing and transport – policy is now set in Scotland by the people who live here.

Scotland adopted free personal care while Westminster rejected it; was first to ban smoking in enclosed public spaces; abolished university tuition fees, which still apply south of the Border; introduced free prescriptions; and chose a different path from English health trusts and education academies.

Whatever happens next, whether there is another referendum and a vote for independence, or whether the UK agrees to enough extra powers to satisfy voters’ demands, it is worth remembering how the Scottish Parliament has helped change Scotland.

The days of a handful of politicians from the party most Scots didn’t vote for running the country as the ministerial team in the Scottish Office, answerable only to Westminster are now like ancient history.