Ian Swanson: We’re at the halfway point after 20 years of devolution

Donald Dewar and Tony Blair, big players in devolution
Donald Dewar and Tony Blair, big players in devolution
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TWENTY years ago today Scots were celebrating the historic vote in favour of the creation of a devolved Scottish Parliament.

The UK Labour government, elected under Tony Blair just four months earlier, had moved quickly to hold the referendum they had promised in order to conclude John Smith’s “unfinished business” of devolution.

And the result, announced at the Edinburgh International Conference Centre in the early hours on September 12, 1997, was a three-to-one majority in favour of a parliament and an almost two-to-one vote to give it tax-raising powers.

Mr Blair flew to Edinburgh later that day and was met by Scottish Secretary Donald Dewar with a characteristic understatement: “Satisfactory, I think.”

The SNP had joined Labour and the Liberal Democrats campaigning in favour of devolution, while the Tories opposed it.

The campaign, fought by the opposing camps on the slogans “Yes Yes” and “Think Twice”, had been suspended for a week following the death of Princess Diana, but resumed after the funeral with Sir Sean Connery joining the party leaders in an energetic final push.

Eighteen months later the first MSPs were elected and SNP veteran Winnie Ewing, as the oldest member, declared that the Scottish Parliament, adjourned in 1707, was “hereby reconvened” – although, of course, the new parliament was democratically elected and bore little resemblance to the previous one.

So two decades on, what is the verdict so far on devolution?

There were high expectations 20 years ago about a different kind of politics, new ways of doing things and an opportunity to make a difference to the lives of all Scots.

Critics say devolution has not done enough to improve Scotland’s performance in key areas like health and education or tackle problems like housing or transport.

But much has been achieved – free personal care for the elderly, free eye and dental checks, land reform and the right to buy, free tuition fees, free school meals and equal marriage.

Scotland has also led the way with the smoking ban, freedom of information and climate change targets.

And perhaps most significant of all, decisions on a vast range of issues are now taken for Scotland here in Scotland by representatives elected here.

The days when Scotland was run by a Scottish Secretary and a handful of junior ministers, often from a party with no majority support here, now seem as distant as the days when all MPs were white men.

The SNP, of course, is not content to settle for devolution and will continue to press for independence, even if another referendum on the issue is currently on the back burner.

In the meantime, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has been hinting that she could use Holyrood’s increased powers and raise income tax. Labour and the Lib Dems have both argued for such a move.

The original tax power the parliament was given in 1997 – to vary the basic rate by up to 3p in the pound – was never used. But the wider-ranging, more flexible powers Holyrood now enjoys give more scope to target any increases.

It will be another historic moment if the parliament, 20 years on, finally gives effect to the second half of that “Yes Yes” vote.