Scottish politics did ‘ burst into life’
ritain has changed more fundamentally than it yet realises. The writ of our Westminster Government no longer runs untrammelled throughout the United Kingdom.” So wrote The Scotsman in May 1999 after the first Scottish Parliament election saw the creation of a Labour- Liberal Democrat coalition.
Two years earlier, voters had supported the establishment of the Parliament by 74 to 26 per cent and agreed that it should have “tax- varying powers” by 63.5 to 36.5 per cent, both decisive majorities that left no one in much doubt about its mandate.
The ‘ will of the people’ – if such a thing can ever actually exist – was clear.
Two decades on, there is no longer any significant debate. The Scottish Parliament is firmly established as part of the democratic make- up of Scotland and, indeed, the United Kingdom.
There were some concerns at its birth that the new electoral system – virtually designed to produce coalition and minority governments – might bring trouble. “The Italians, French and Irish among our European partners know from bitter experience that coalition partnerships can fall apart more quickly than they are formed,” The Scotsman wrote at the time.
But this has unquestionably been one of the parliament’s successes; successive stable governments may have had to make concessions from time to time but, still, there has been no descent into the feared chaos.
And while it’s far from perfect, the standard of debate is head and shoulders above the ‘ yah- boo’ style of Westminster where, particularly on the most important issues, discussions all too often take on the character of exchanges between rival fans at a football match.
Life in Scotland is different to that south of the Border. Overall, we pay slightly more tax, but have free prescriptions and free personal care for the elderly; we banned smoking in pubs earlier than the rest of the UK; land reform has enabled community buyouts.
One thing the parliament quite obviously didn’t do, which former Labour Defence Secretary George Robertson and others claimed it would, is “kill nationalism stone dead”.
However, it is fair to say that at least one Scotsman prediction from 1999 came true: “Devolution will certainly create new thinking ... Scottish politics is set to burst into life.”