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5 March 1999

Scotland – A new political generation in Scotland that looks rather like the last one

Home rule campaigners once hoped a Scottish Parliament might usher in a different breed of politicia

By Kirsty Milne

High-profile factories may threaten to close in Scotland, but a big job-creation scheme is on its way: the Scottish Parliament. In May, 129 successful candidates will begin their new careers as “MSPs”. From Aberdeen, Argyll and Ayr, they will travel to Edinburgh, to the dark, twin-towered Assembly Hall where the parliament will squat until its new Holyrood home is ready in the autumn of 2001. Space will be limited, carousing constrained. These being Church of Scotland premises, no drink is permitted.

One ill-disposed businessman has said that the most useful thing the new arrivals could do would be to commit collective suicide – raising a vivid image of them leaping off the Mound like lemmings. For this is not the “new politics” that home rule campaigners once envisaged. They thought the parliament would herald the rebirth of “civil society”, with a new breed of Scottish parliamentarian coming from outside conventional politics. They imagined the green activist and the women’s refuge worker debating with the church minister and the Asian businessman.

But the lists of candidates will be all too familiar to anyone who knows Scottish politics: prominent councillors, ex-MPs, hacks who have stood for Westminster – all are queueing up to be 21st-century, online parliamentarians. A hundred flowers are not blooming.

“The hopes of some – that people who’d worked in the political parties and people who’d worked in civil society would co-mingle in the parliament – have been quite dashed,” says Kevin Dunion, director of Friends of the Earth Scotland.

Instead, the political parties have taken over. The top-up “list” system, which could have been used to bring in a different type of candidate, has been abused in two ways: politicians already standing as first-past-the-post candidates have used it as an insurance policy; or those who could not get selected in a constituency seat have used it as a refuge. Innovative ideas – such as the request from the Highlands and Islands Alliance that its candidates be allowed to job-share – have been given the cold shoulder.

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The grip of the party machines has taken its toll. People who felt they could not pass a strict loyalty test did not apply to be candidates – a self-denying ordinance which ruled out many small “n” nationalists on the cusp between Labour and the SNP.

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Others put themselves forward and failed. The result has been that some of those who worked hardest to create a consensus behind the idea of a parliament – like Isobel Lindsay, a former SNP activist who defected to Labour – will not be there to see it happen.

There is some excitement and innovation. Women are likely to make up at least a third of MSPs, according to the latest polls – much higher than the 18 per cent at Westminster. This is thanks largely to Labour’s painful policy of “twinning” constituencies and making the pooled membership choose one male and one female candidate.

On the other hand it looks as if Holyrood will be an all-white parliament. A woman who was Scotland’s first non-white female councillor this week launched a case, backed by the Commission for Racial Equality, against Labour for not selecting her as a candidate.

Business is also poorly represented, with about 70 per cent of MSPs likely to have a public sector background. The development quango Scottish Enterprise – whose annual budget equals the entire “tartan tax” available to the parliament – is already briefing candidates. This exercise may be given urgency by the SNP’s anti-quango campaign.

If there is to be a “new politics” it could emerge in new alliances. We could see rural MSPs co-operating to campaign for a rail link. Or Liberal Democrats lining up with the SNP and the Labour left to attack the Private Finance Initiative. A network of environmental groups is already targeting sympathetic MSPs on issues such as renewable energy, waste dumping and opencast mining. Don’t rule out a breakthrough for red/green politics in Scotland.

Kirsty Milne is political editor of the “Sunday Herald”

This week Donald Dewar unveiled his election team of 20 “campaign spokespeople”, hailing the emergence of “a new political generation in Scotland”. The idea is to raise the profile of candidates who are virtually unknown while deploying them in tussles with the SNP.

Until now Dewar has resisted doling out election briefs, reluctant to feed suspicions that individuals were being groomed for ministerial jobs. But his choices are a guide to the thirtysomething stars of the new intake – and those closest to the leadership. They include Wendy Alexander, 35, a galactically bright ex-adviser of Dewar’s who is standing in Paisley North, next door to the seat her brother Douglas represents at Westminster. She will share the industry and economy brief with Angus Mackay, 35, the tax-cutting chair of finance at Edinburgh council, who has worked as a researcher for Mo Mowlam and Henry McLeish.

Glasgow’s leader, 36-year old Frank McAveety, famous for being the only councillor in Scotland to support elected mayors, will speak on housing in the campaign. The fast-talking former schoolteacher, who has slashed council staff, is facing stiff Glasgow opposition to Labour’s policy of transferring council housing to community groups.

Jack McConnell, 37, who made a few enemies in his old job as Scottish general secretary, is to speak on agriculture and fisheries though, as a former teacher, he might prefer education. Some predict that the battle for succession when Dewar, 61, retires, will be between the shrewd, media-friendly McConnell and Alexander.

Dewar has also found a spokesman’s job for the Dundee East MP John McAllion, 51, who promptly upset the high command by claiming that Scots “should not in principle be opposed to independence”. McAllion, who resigned from the opposition front bench over Tony Blair’s decision to hold a two-question referendum, is an experienced anti-SNP campaigner. He is also regarded as a focus for left discontent, and a possible rival to the Scottish Office minister Henry McLeish for the deputy first minister’s job.

The trade unions did well in Labour’s selection process, gathering nominations for favoured candidates and manoeuvring against Blairites who were seen as over-hyped and under- talented.

Will this spawn a left-wing caucus, as some newspapers have suggested? Not necessarily. Trade union MPs at Westminster have often demonstrated unswerving loyalty. Some unions opted to back well-known modernisers – the Transport and General Workers’ Union, for instance, campaigned for Wendy Alexander.

Rather than a left-wing caucus in Holyrood, expect left-wing candour. Far from the Mill- bank monitoring machine and secure in a strong activist base, MSPs will speak their minds on issues their Westminster counterparts would air only in private.

The SNP is the only party to field an entire dynasty. Holyrood will be a home from home for the matriarch Winnie Ewing, her son Fergus, daughter-in-law Margaret and daughter Annabelle.

Alex Salmond, often attacked as the only well-known member of his party, unveiled his “cabinet” last autumn. His deputy, John Swinney, 34, is marked down for the Treasury brief. Under a Labour-Lib Dem coalition, Swinney would be well-placed to chair the Holyrood equivalent of the Public Accounts Committee, overseeing the parliament’s £16 billion annual budget.

Emerging from the shadows will be the SNP’s chief executive, Michael Russell, 45, a clever, cigar-smoking documentary film-maker who trained as an Episcopalian priest. But Salmond’s clannish inner circle is dominated by baby whizz-kids such as Andrew Wilson, 28, an economist for the Royal Bank of Scotland, and Nicola Sturgeon, 28, who is fighting the Govan seat she lost at the general election.

All six of the SNP’s Westminster team are running for the Scottish Parliament. Like other MPs, they will “twin-track” until the next general election. Some who have languished in London, like Roseanna Cunningham, 47, could bloom in Edinburgh.

But the big shock for the SNP has been the return of Margo MacDonald, 53, the former MP and TV presenter, who was unexpectedly placed top of the Lothian regional list by SNP activists. MacDonald and her husband, Jim Sillars, now a business consultant, fell out with Salmond years ago. An internationalist in outlook and a populist in style, MacDonald could lead a dissident “fundamentalist” faction in the parliament.

Liberal Democrats
The Liberal Democrats relish their role as Holyrood kingmakers. Whichever party wins the most seats will need their help to form a coalition government, or at least their support on a vote-by-vote basis.

Although it is usually assumed that this means Lib-Lab co-operation – not least because of the close understanding between Donald Dewar and the Scottish Lib Dem leader, Jim Wallace – there has been some dalliance between the Lib Dems and the Scottish Nationalists. (The stumbling block would be the SNP’s demand for a referendum on independence.)

The practical experience of David Steel, 60, could come in useful here. The party is already cudgelling its brains about whether, aside from big cabinet posts, it should be demanding junior ministers’ jobs or the chairmanship of key committees.

The Lib Dems have a more eclectic group of candidates, including the outgoing president of the Scottish National Farmers’ Union, George Lyon, 42, and the journalist Neal Ascherson, 66, who is unlikely to break through in West Renfrewshire. The former MP Nicol Stephen, 38, standing in marginal Aberdeen South and at the top of the North-east list, is seen as a possible future leader of the party.

A black mark against the Lib Dems is their failure to field more than a couple of women in winnable seats.

The Conservatives have suppressed new, impatient talent in favour of the old guard. With the elections offering their first chance to regain a foothold in public life, there is some resentment that defeated MPs Phil Gallie and Lord James Douglas-Hamilton will probably pick up two of the Tories’ predicted catch of between nine and 15 seats. Their group will be led by David McLetchie, 45, a solicitor, who has so far failed to make his party’s voice heard in the devolution debate. His deputy, Annabel Goldie, 49, described by the former Scottish secretary Michael Forsyth as “a formidable lady of Thatcherite quality”, is seen by some as a future leader of the Scottish party.

But the Tories are suffering from the loss of Forsyth, a hero to many younger right-wingers, and the detached stance of Malcolm Rifkind, who wants to return to Westminster. Younger candidates have been shoved down the regional “lists” where the Tories are expected to pick up most of their seats. Don’t rule out a grassroots rebellion as the right revives.

13 April – deadline for nominations to the Scottish Parliament, Civil Service stops advising ministers, formal opening of the campaign 6 May – elections for Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly. Two ballot papers, one lilac (for the constituency member), one peach (for the top-up “list”). Local elections the same day 7 May – election results 12 May – MSPs take their seats for the first time in the Assembly Hall, Edinburgh. Members take the oath and elect a “presiding officer” (the equivalent of the Speaker). Possible candidates include David Steel and Winnie Ewing. From May to 1 July – Horse-trading, probably with the aim of forming a coalition. The parliament has 28 days to elect a first minister. Carve-up of ministerial posts, key committee posts. Some of the new arrivals will “shadow” existing Scottish Office ministers – Helen Liddell, Calum Macdonald and Gus Macdonald – who are returning to London 1 July – state opening of parliament by the Queen. Break for Scottish school summer holidays September – parliament resumes and begins working on legislation