Holyrood urged to be ‘more forward-thinking’ in next two decades
Professor James Mitchell said the first 20 years of devolution had been ‘driven by short-termism’ and had been ‘disappointing’ for local government.
“There shall be a Scottish Parliament. I like that.”
Those were the words famously uttered by Donald Dewar – who went on to become the original first minister at Holyrood – as he unveiled the legislation that led to the creation of the devolved administration.
After decades of campaigning and two referendums – one in 1979 and one in 1997 – it was Tony Blair’s Labour Government that established the Parliament in Edinburgh that came into being 20 years ago.
On May 6 1999, Scots went to the polls to elect the first group of MSPs.
Among those voted in were Mr Dewar – who had been Mr Blair’s Scottish Secretary – and the current first minister Nicola Sturgeon.
They were joined by former TV weather presenter Lloyd Quinan and the UK’s first elected Green parliamentarian, Robin Harper.
In his speech at the official opening of the Parliament, Mr Dewar hailed it as a “turning point” and the “day when democracy was renewed in Scotland”.
Two decades, on politics expert Professor James Mitchell said the “most striking thing” about the Parliament is how it has established itself at the heart of Scottish life.
“It just seems part of the furniture of politics and is just taken for granted,” he said.
But Prof Mitchell, of the University of Edinburgh, said for the “most part” Holyrood had been conservative in policy-making and “has not been particularly bold”.
Speaking to the Press Association he said: “It hasn’t satisfied those who hoped it would take Scotland in a different, radical direction.”
While devolution saw Scotland become the first part of the UK to outlaw smoking in public places, Prof Mitchell said: “Most people forget the Executive was opposed to the smoking ban initially and it had to be pulled into what was happening by private members and learning from elsewhere.”
He claimed the Parliament had been “conceived as a negative, as a way of defending Scotland from Conservative rule”, recalling: “It was the ‘stop Thatcher at the border’ rhetoric of the 80s and 90s, and in that way it has been successful in that there are a lot of policies where … Scotland has gone its own way.”
As well as the smoking ban, the Scottish Parliament has introduced free personal care for elderly people and has scrapped tuition fees for Scottish students at the country’s universities.
Prof Mitchell said the early years of devolution had benefited from the “phenomenal growth in public expenditure across the UK, not just in Scotland”.
He argued this gave ministers a “wonderful opportunity” to introduce a more radical, preventative policy agenda, aimed at ending inequalities in areas such as health and education.
But he said they had “failed to do it”, claiming that administrations at Holyrood had been “unimaginative” in this respect.
In the next 20 years it could be time to look at the relationship between local government and the Scottish Parliament Professor James Mitchell
He also argued devolution had been largely “bad” for local government, claiming that over the 20 years of the Scottish Parliament there had been little change in the relationship between councils and central government.
“If you go back 20 years there was a hostile relationship between local government and central government,” he recalled
“The relationship between Scottish local government and the Scotland Office was awful.
“You had Conservatives in the Government and Labour in control of local government, and the Scotland Office just ran roughshod over them.
“But I don’t think it really has changed. The Scottish Government and Executive have made demands on local government, underfunded them but expect them to deliver.
“The autonomy of local government has shrunk. Devolution in that respect has been disappointing.”
Prof Mitchell said: “In the next 20 years it could be time to look at the relationship between local government and the Scottish Parliament and the Scottish Government because it hasn’t fulfilled the promise that was there.
“We’ve got to be more forward-thinking, I think policy-making has been very immediate, it’s been driven by short-termism, by headlines and not outcomes
“I would love to think the parliament might be able to break out of the short-termism and be a much more forward thinking parliament than it has been.”