Now Scotland has its very own Dome

The Edinburgh skyline at the east end of Princes Street is dominated by a noble-seeming Parthenon, whose pillars and pediments stand proud against the skyline. Proud, that is, except for its popular name: Scotland's Disgrace.

When you get up close, you realise that it is unfinished. It was intended as Scotland's national memorial to the fallen of the Napoleonic wars, but the money ran out, and it has stood for 180 years as a monument to Scottish stinginess.

From there, you can look down into the old town to another half-finished project that already qualifies as Scotland's Disgrace, Mark II. The Scottish Parliament building at Holyrood is another grandiose scheme bedevilled by money problems.

This one will be finished, but nobody knows at what cost. From a mere £40m five years ago, estimates of the final cost have risen inexorably . . . £62m . . . £195m . . . £230m. Any advance on £230m? Well, yes - one critic predicts that the total cost will top £300m, creating "the building with the highest overrun in recorded history". The site at the bottom of the Royal Mile, alongside the Palace of Holyroodhouse, has been described as "a bottomless money pit" and comparisons with England's Disgrace, the Millennium Dome, were inevitable.

However, the significance of the Holyrood project is more than financial. It has become the symbol for all that is wrong in post-devolution Scotland - the overweening arrogance of the still-entrenched "ruling class" of politicians and civil servants, the poor calibre and general ineffectiveness of MSPs, the inadequacy of the parliament's powers, and a national disgruntlement that devolution has not delivered as promised.

Nobody believed the 1997 white paper which specified that the new parliamentary building would cost between £10m and £40m. It was a blatantly cynical attempt, with the devolution referendum on the horizon, to downplay the costs of the new form of government - and was typical of the lordly attitude of the then Scottish Secretary, Donald Dewar.

Dewar chose the controversial site and the equally controversial Catalan architect Enric Miralles, helped by a committee of cronies and personal friends such as the ubiquitous Kirsty Wark of Newsnight. Miralles died early into the project, and his original concept of buildings like "upturned boats" has been cast adrift in favour of a more conventional design.

Instead of standard construction contracts, with tendering, fixed prices and penalties borne by contractors for overruns and delays, the project was pushed ahead on an "organic" (ie, piecemeal, disorganised and blank-cheque) basis. As Margo MacDonald of the SNP has said, it was like having an extension built on to your house and inviting the contractors to tell you the cost when they were finished.

In the unaccountable, blame-free, closed-shop culture of the Scottish civil service, no heads have rolled. Muir Russell, the civil servant responsible since 1998, was accused by a parliamentary audit committee of failing to keep a check on the costs. He has just been knighted.

Although this shambles was scrutinised and approved by Westminster, the bill has to be paid entirely out of the Scottish current account. Unlike local authorities, the Scottish government is not trusted with capital borrowing power. One story that education would lose £25m as a result was vehemently denied by the First Minister, Henry McLeish. He said the money would come out of "reserves", apparently oblivious to the fact that replenishing the reserve must have an impact on money for public services.

Building their own home was the first test of the new MSPs - and they have failed. In a state of mystification and resignation, MSPs have removed the cap on the completion cost, amid contemptuous talk of a flat-pack parliament, fitted out by B&Q, with furniture by MFI and radiators from Plumb Centre.

John Home Robertson, the land-owning Labour MSP who is chairman of the "progress group", said it would eventually cost about £40 per Scot - the equivalent of a pair of trainers, he pointed out. Alas, many poor families in Scotland cannot afford new trainers.

The real bill may be presented at the 2003 election. A survey by the National Centre for Social Research on the second anniversary of the parliament shows that, in place of the pre-devolution optimism, Scots now feel cynical about how they are governed. Margo MacDonald puts it more pithily: "They have made us look foolish, they have made us look like chancers, and they have made us look incompetent."

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