25 Years of Devolved Power

This week marks the 25th anniversary of the Scottish Parliament. It is being celebrated with events throughout the year which will include multiple panel discussions about the virtues of devolution. What is needed in these discussions is a candid conversation about how Scotland can do better to make devolution work for marginalised and under-represented communities. 

On the establishment of the parliament in 1999 commitments were made to ensure it was a “family-friendly parliament” which included debate times within traditional office hours, learning from Westminster’s late night voting schedules and parliamentary recess in line with school holidays. The Scottish Parliament was also the first in Europe to have a creche open to both MSPs and members of the public allowing those with caring responsibilities of pre-schoolers to participate with ease. Whilst this may have been the intention in 1999, the “family friendly” commitments of then have not lived up to expectation. 

The purpose of being family friendly was to be accessible and enable more people from a wider set of backgrounds to be involved in politics. Yet debates in the chamber are increasingly lasting longer and, due to the pandemic, the creche remained closed until late 2023; although, when it was open, it was only able to provide four hours of care per child. This, along with harmful and misogynistic abuse, has been stated as reasons for not re-standing by previous women MSPs and potential MSPs. 

In 1999, Scotland returned 48 women MSPs, the highest in Scotland’s history, more than had at that time been collectively elected via Scottish seats in Westminster. This was largely down to the campaigning efforts of trade union women pushing for 50% representation. Over the course of our 25 year history, the representation of women dropped significantly in the 2007 election to 33% and 2011 with 35%. However, the re-launch of the campaign for quotas and 50% women MSPs; Women 50:50, reignited the need for political parties to respond and created a spotlight and expectation on candidate selection that has been, one of many influential factors contributing to the current record of 46% women MSPs. Whilst the 2021 election saw many historic firsts; the first permanent wheelchair user being elected and the first woman of colour, I cannot imagine that the architects of devolution and the women behind the first 50/50 campaign are inspired by such basic “historic moments” as a parliament that is representative of Scotland’s people 25 years later. Indeed, it remains unrepresentative; those in the chamber do not reflect Scotland; not Scotland’s communities of colour, not our migrant communities, not working-class communities, not disabled communities and many others who are marginalised in Scottish society. 

Donald Dewar’s opening address in 1999 has been recited and commended repeatedly by politicians of all hues. But this anniversary is for those politicians to do some real reflection on what his words meant. 

He states in this speech: “When men and women from all over Scotland will meet to work together for a future built from the first principles of social justice.” Do people from all over Scotland meet and influence in the Scottish Parliament? No, it remains a privilege largely afforded to those who have the means and access; we have not delivered a “peoples’ parliament” and we will not unless we tackle gross inequality and prioritise those furthest away from power, opportunity, and wealth.

There will be those who point to the numerous consultations published by the Scottish Government as an indicator of how “men and women from all of Scotland” influence policy, but that is of course farcical. The majority of consultations assume a level of knowledge that acts as a barrier to participation and feel inaccessible to many. It is not surprise then that it is often the same groups and those with access to information if not also, resources, who engage in these activities. Whilst there has been a drive to improve participation through “lived experience” engagement and deliberative democracy methods, all of this work exists on the periphery of influencing, often without resource and often without the element that matters most; power re-distribution. Instead, the concept of lived experience expertise is often co-opted, with panels of exceptional people who are asked to share their stories of inequality and trauma to inform change rather than supported with the authority to lead change.

Donald Dewar also said in his opening remarks: “This is about more than our politics and our laws. This is about who we are, how we carry ourselves” Indeed, yet the most the general public see of the chamber is the pantomime of First Minister’s Questions – how might most of us describe the way in which parliament carries itself? Across a range of issues Scottish politics has become hostile, divisive and with growing levels of misinformation. Too often now the focus is the low-bar win, attack lines and the click-bait headline that can be grabbed to promote your party’s position. All the while poverty and inequality rise. 

Devolution is and should be considered a success. There have been big wins which have also been “firsts” within the UK; equal marriage, domestic abuse policy which recognised coercive control, social security, and the smoking ban. But we have not pushed devolution to its limits to be able to tackle gross inequality, we are not pursing the devolved powers we have with the boldness it deserves. The parliament was established to bring power closer to the people of Scotland, it did, as far as Holyrood, but then it stopped. Rather than centralising power, we can and must see devolution as an ongoing project within Scotland, and devolve further to enable community-led, local, decision-making.

The 25th anniversary is a chance to reflect and commit to doing better. There are a few places for us to start. Real investment and prioritisation of public participation and deliberative democracy which has direct influence and power redistribution at its core. Across the chamber, across government (and indeed across Scotland as a whole) skills building on how effective accountability is delivered, and finally, unapologetic, radical, pushing of devolved powers to tackle systemic and rising inequality and poverty. 

Comments (6)

Join the Discussion

Your email address will not be published.

  1. jeanette hill says:

    a great article can I comment on it for our News for Scotland podcast tomorrow 8th May?

  2. Ann Rayner says:

    Can I also remind readers and current MSPs of the words of our first National Scottish Makar, Edwin Morgan, on the occasion of the opening of the Scottish Parliament in in its new home at Holyrood in October 2004.
    Quoting from the 3rd stanza, he says –
    What do the people want of this place? They
    want it to be filled with thinking persons
    as open and adventurous as its architecture.
    A nest of fearties is what they do not want.
    A symposium of procrastinators is what they do not want.
    A phalanx of forelock tuggers is what they do not want.
    And perhaps above all, the droopy mantra of ‘it wisnae me’, is what they do not want.

    i hope that is enough to demonstrate how far we have been failed by our elected representatives, particularly in the years following the 2014 referendum. That is certainly my opinion, though many may disagree with that judgement.
    Finally, I suggest that we revert as soon as possible to the 4 year electoral cycle with was the rule at the beginning of the parliament, and only changed by London to avoid a clash with a UK wide General Election. That should not have been agreed even the one time, and certainly not to have become the norm as it is now. Five years is far too long for the people not to get a voice.

    1. 240508 says:

      Aye, it wisna me; it wis Westminster.

      Of course, we should have more frequent elections. Party leaders should also have limited terms, standing down at the end of each parliament to be succeeded by their deputy. And multi-member constituencies, like our local councils have, with the additional ‘list’ members forming their own second chamber. We also need much greater subsidiarity, with only decisions that can’t be made nationally being referred ‘up’ to the UK government and only decisions that can’t be made locally being referred ‘up’ to the national governments.

      It’s all about limiting the power that government can exercise over our lives.

  3. Satan says:

    As far as I am aware, people were astonished by how crap MSPs were 25 years ago, in 2024 they are a lot worse but people no longer expect better.

    1. Hugh says:

      Quality of our MSPs? You have a point! but isn’t it a general question on how do we the people, get adequate political representation? Assuming we need a parliament, (yes, we think so) and most Scot do enjoy home-rule, how can we make them make better decisions? Too many laws look half-baked.
      Important issues, but what are the answers?

Help keep our journalism independent

We don’t take any advertising, we don’t hide behind a pay wall and we don’t keep harassing you for crowd-funding. We’re entirely dependent on our readers to support us.

Subscribe to regular bella in your inbox

Don’t miss a single article. Enter your email address on our subscribe page by clicking the button below. It is completely free and you can easily unsubscribe at any time.