Road To Referendum: Devolution’s early years

Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon celebrate election success in 2007. Picture: PA
Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon celebrate election success in 2007. Picture: PA
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SCOTLAND’S new devolved democracy got off to a troubled start. MSPs and ministers – some of them completely new to elected office – found themselves under intense scrutiny from the beginning.

Within two-and-a-half years, the country was already on its third First Minister.

And, of course, there was the long-running controversy over the new parliament building.

Labour’s Donald Dewar –later dubbed “Father of the Nation” for his key role in delivering devolution – had switched from being Scottish Secretary in Tony Blair’s Cabinet to become the first First Minister of what was then called the Scottish Executive.

But the new parliament contained only a handful of Westminster MPs – Labour’s 
Malcolm Chisholm (Edinburgh North & Leith) and Liberal Democrat Donald Gorrie (Edinburgh West) among them. But it was later claimed Mr Dewar had discouraged MP colleagues from making the change.

And there were several high calibre would-be Labour candidates for the parliament who were blocked by the party hierarchy.

Most prominent was veteran left-wing MP Dennis Canavan – described by Mr Dewar as “not good enough” – who went on to stand as an independent and won the biggest majority in the parliament.

Susan Deacon, who later served as health minister, was also initially rejected, but won an appeal and was duly elected MSP for Edinburgh East.

Mr Dewar led a coalition of 56 Labour and 17 Lib Dem MSPs. To secure the deal, Labour agreed to Lib Dem demands for the abolition of up-front tuition fees, though going to university instead meant paying a “graduate endowment” at the end.

But the new parliament, based in its temporary home at the Church of Scotland General Assembly Hall, was dogged by the problems with the new building slowly being constructed at the bottom of the Royal Mile.

Mr Dewar had chosen the former brewery site at Holyrood for the new parliament after a prolonged public debate about the rival merits of two other locations – Calton Hill and the Waterfront at Leith.

He had also led the selection panel which chose Catalan architect Enric Miralles to design the building.

But in the rush to get the project under way, the Scottish Office had agreed to a type of contract which left most of the financial risk with it rather than the builders.

The devolution white paper had unhelpfully quoted a figure of £40 million for the cost of the new parliament – it ended up at a final cost of £414m. The building was also intended to be ready within a year or so of the parliament’s launch in 1999 – but it was October 2004 before MSPs were able to move into their permanent home.

Critics of the building twice forced votes in the parliament on halting the project. Some argued they could stay where they were at The Mound. But presiding officer Sir David Steel persuaded MSPs to carry on.

Miralles tragically died on July 3, 2000, leaving his widow and fellow architect Benedetta Tagliabue and Edinburgh-based partners RMJM to finish off the building.

Meanwhile, Alex Salmond took everyone by surprise when he announced on July 17 that he was quitting as SNP leader. The party had won 35 out of the 129 seats in the first Scottish Parliament election – a slightly disappointing performance – and there had been a lot of in-fighting in the party. But Mr Salmond offered little explanation for his decision beyond the observation that most SNP leaders had stayed in office for about ten years and his decade was now up. John Swinney was elected his successor after a contest with Alex Neil.

If Mr Salmond’s resignation came as a surprise, there was an even greater shock in October with the death of Donald Dewar. He had been forced to take three months off earlier in the year after a heart operation but seemed to have recovered. However, he had a fall on October 10, 2000. He later suffered a massive brain haemorrhage and died the next day in the Western General Hospital.

Henry McLeish was the most obvious candidate to take over as First Minister, but first he had to see off a challenge from Jack McConnell – which he did by just 44 votes to 36.

One of his first acts in office was to reopen the issue of free personal care for the elderly – a policy recommended by former Edinburgh University principal Lord Sutherland in a report commissioned by the UK Government. Westminster had rejected the idea and Mr Dewar followed suit. But Mr McLeish decided to take another look and, backed by the Lib Dems, pressed ahead with what was another important departure from the policies being followed south of the Border.

But Mr McLeish’s term as First Minister did not last long. A row whipped up over the sub-letting of part of his constituency office in Glenrothes and a botched attempt to explain and defend the arrangement led to his resignation in November 2001, just over a year after he took office.

Mr McConnell – the only candidate for the succession – became the first First Minister without a Westminster background. He led Labour to victory in the second Scottish Parliament elections in 2003, but saw the party’s MSPs reduced from 56 to 50, and renewed the coalition deal with the Lib Dems. The SNP, under new leader John Swinney, also saw its numbers fall – from 35 to 27. The big winners from the election were the Greens, who won seven seats, the Scottish Socialists, who won six, and a raft of independents including the redoubtable Margo MacDonald, who had left the SNP after being ranked too far down the regional top-up list to stand any chance of re-election. The wide range of MSPs led it to be dubbed the “rainbow parliament”.

By now, Scotland was getting used to taking a different approach to issues from Westminster. Mr McConnell pioneered overseas links with Malawi – which had a special connection with Scotland because of David Livingstone – and also made Scotland the first part of the UK to introduce a ban on smoking in public places.

But there was still a feeling that Labour was having to “look over its shoulder” at what London was doing.

And in the 2007 election, the SNP emerged as the biggest party at Holyrood, winning one more seat than Labour. The Lib Dems refused to have coalition talks, leaving Mr Salmond to become First Minister of a minority government. There was much speculation about how long the SNP administration could last in power. But Mr Salmond and his colleagues quickly got down to work. In an important symbolic statement of intent, “Scottish Executive” signs were replaced with “Scottish Government” ones.

Tolls on the Forth Road Bridge were axed, prescription charges phased out and student fees abolished.

Despite the SNP’s lack of a parliamentary majority, the opposition parties only rarely managed to come together to defeat it – perhaps most memorably when they combined to stop the SNP abandoning the Edinburgh trams scheme.

Labour, struggling to come to terms with its loss of power, elected Wendy Alexander unopposed to take over from Mr McConnell in September 2007, only to see her quit in June 2008 after a row over campaign expenses, and be replaced by East Lothian MSP Iain Gray.

But during her brief reign, Ms Alexander worked with the other anti-independence leaders at Holyrood to set up the Calman Commission to look at more powers for the Scottish Parliament. It was seen as a panic reaction to the SNP’s election victory, but the eventual package it produced – including more power over income tax – was more substantial than some had expected and formed the basis of the 2012 Scotland Act.

Ms Alexander also challenged the SNP to call an immediate independence referendum – but her “bring it on” remark in a TV interview did not meet with the approval of prime minister Gordon Brown. Labour’s days in power at Westminster were numbered, but the Tories failed to win a majority at the 2010 general election. In Scotland, Labour held all its seats. For a party that had been preparing for disaster, it put a spring in its step as it looked forward to the 2011 Holyrood elections. But the hopes raised were to prove false.