Next year is the 25th anniversary of the founding of the Scottish Parliament. By now, Holyrood only counts as a new legislature in relative terms – it is well established, plays a dominant role in Scottish life, and its key people are significant national figures. The laws it passes make a difference to the way we live.
The vast majority of Scots support devolution, and many continue to see it as a process rather than a destination – some would like full independence, others a more federal UK. There are few, Lord Frost and his small band of acolytes aside, who want to see it put into reverse, and for powers to be returned to Westminster.
This does not mean that Holyrood should be viewed as an overwhelming success. It has too often been a toothless parliament dominated by the executive. Its committees, which, in the absence of a second chamber, are vital, often split on party lines and provide an easy ride for ministers. The chamber has hardly proved itself a home to memorable oratory. For all the heat and bluster, there remains something small about it.
This is not the fault of devolution, or of the necessarily limited powers granted to Edinburgh. Rather, it is down to those who have populated Holyrood, and led it, and who have not used or led it well enough.
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Government – unambitious, self-interested, centralising and cautious – has been a perennial problem. Genuinely impactful changes over the past quarter century have been few: say, the smoking ban, free personal care for the elderly, the tackling of period poverty, an expansion in childcare, the Scottish Child Payment. There has been a constant tendency towards making more things free, like prescriptions, university tuition and eye tests, and very little wrestling with more complex challenges. I’m tired of writing it and you’ll be tired of reading it: schools, hospitals and the economy have not nearly had the levels of attention they deserve, which is odd given health and education are the two major policy areas entirely in Holyrood’s control.
The constitutional permawar has made a mockery of the benevolent intent behind the horseshoe-shaped debating chamber. There is little to separate the tone and nature of Scottish politics from the two-swords’ length approach of Westminster.
A further problem with Scotland’s government has been identified by a Finance Committee inquiry into the effectiveness of decision-making by the executive. A report in today’s Times reveals evidence given by former ministers, mandarins and special advisers that describes the process as inconsistent, “rushed, unclear and unstructured”. Clear financial rules were at times seen as “optional” and the failure to properly prepare policy meant immediate problems when it “hit the real world”. The “pace of decision-making was directing things”.
There is no lack of proof for this. In his first major policy speech as First Minister, Humza Yousaf was forced to delay a variety of measures rushed through by Nicola Sturgeon, including plans for a National Care Service, a bottle-return scheme and a ban on alcohol advertising. Then there has been the Named Persons plan, the Hate Crime Act, the Gender Recognition Reform Bill, all of which have failed in one way or another, and the ferries catastrophe. Sturgeon’s administration seems to have been run along the lines not of proper cabinet government, or even sofa government, but as a throne room.
The 25th anniversary offers an opportunity to pause and have a closer look at where devolution is failing. There are processes that are evidently unfit for purpose, some of which could be fixed through tweaks, others through more serious reform. This should be done on a cross-party, collaborative basis – this, after all, was one of devolution’s founding values, if long since abandoned. A quarter of a century in, Scotland deserves better than the parliament and the governance it has.
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