Devolution at 20: Why Holyrood has still to forge its own identity – David Mundell

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Two decades into devolution, with Holyrood firmly established, Reform Scotland asked prominent Scottish politicians what they would change to make the Parliament work better.

Steven Camley, The Herald’s devastatingly droll cartoonist, rarely misses.

He certainly didn’t when I found myself in his sights after offering some thoughts on the 20th anniversary of the Scottish Parliament.

I’d let slip that I learned of my election, as a South of Scotland regional MSP, on the morning after the vote via the now long-extinct medium of Teletext.

Quick on the draw, Camley depicted a puzzled-looking teenager who, glimpsing life all of two decades ago, declares: “I’d love to know more about ancient times.”

In some ways, that first Scottish Parliament election of 1999 does feel like ancient times.

How young we all look in the photographs, for a start. And that feeling of hope and excitement – in the Parliament and right across Scotland – captured a moment that, however special, now seems quite distant.

In the scheme of things, though, 20 years is not a long time. Holyrood is a young institution. It is still growing, still evolving.

Twenty years on, I am as firm a believer in the Parliament, and its power to improve the lives of the people of Scotland, as I was the day I was elected. 

Holyrood certainly has achievements to be proud of. The ban on smoking in public places was brave and bold, changing Scotland and improving people’s health. Setting a minimum price for alcohol might, in time, also have a positive impact on public health. And MSPs have made a serious effort to reform Scotland’s outdated land laws.

But for me, its huge potential has not yet been fulfilled. That’s not the fault of Holyrood as an institution. Rather, it is down to the Scottish governments that have held the levers of devolved power.

Successive administrations have failed to live up to the founding idea of a Parliament with the tools and imagination to develop distinctive Scottish policy solutions to Scottish problems within the UK.

Instead, for more than a decade, our Parliament and politics have been dominated by a narrow constitutional agenda that the majority of Scots have never supported.

Issues like education, justice, transport, health – the things we all care about and that Holyrood was created to address – have played a very quiet second fiddle to an endless debate about independence.

That is a great disappointment.

It is particularly frustrating because Holyrood has gained substantial new powers down the years, greatly increasing its scope to act.

As a UK Government minister I’m pleased to have played a role in delivering extra powers following the Calman Commission and, more recently, the Smith Commission, the cross-party agreement on further devolution which came after the independence referendum in 2014.

Holyrood has become one of the most powerful devolved parliaments in the world and I’m heartened that control over much of income tax, for example, has already begun to change our politics. Scottish ministers must now account for how they raise money, not just how they spend it, and that has to be good news for voters.

Looking ahead, I’m hopeful that Holyrood’s wide-ranging new welfare powers will not only be used creatively and effectively but that they will end the sterile Westminster ‘blame game’ that occupies too much time for too many MSPs.

There are other things that could make Holyrood more effective. 

In the early days, we convinced ourselves that Holyrood’s committee system was a ‘jewel in the crown’ – a reservoir of independent thinking and a robust challenge to government.

There was some justification for that at the time. By and large, the newly created parliament was populated by a more independently-minded cadre of MSPs than now. I’m thinking about people like Donald Gorrie, John McAllion and Margo MacDonald. And, at the time, Westminster’s committee system lacked the teeth it bares today.

Sadly, things have changed for the worse. Newer intakes of MSP seem less clear about their duty to distinguish between their twin roles as parliamentarian and party politician.

Stories of ultra-loyal backbenchers turning up to question a Scottish Government minister armed with a list of questions drafted by the minister’s SpAd are all too common and a shocking indictment of the system.

Improvements at Westminster followed the introduction of elected committee conveners. I’d advocate the same for Holyrood. It is a great shame, in my view, that Tricia Marwick – a good Presiding Officer – saw her attempts at reform blocked.

But it is an idea whose time has not only come, it’s overdue. When the committee system fails, ministers are let off the hook, legislation is not properly stress-tested and the Parliament as an institution is diminished.

Twenty years after its inception, the Scottish Parliament still needs to forge a clearer identity. It needs to foster much greater public understanding of its role and not allow itself to be confused with the Scottish Government quite so readily. For many people the idea of ‘Holyrood’ encompasses a hazy world of Scottish Parliament and Scottish Government. It’s all just a blur of politicians trying to run the country.

Westminster, the ‘Mother of Parliaments’, and an enduring, historic institution, stands distinct from the governments that come and go. Holyrood, however, still needs to explain its role. Politicians haven’t helped – even the Scottish Government’s constitution minister, Michael Russell, is wont to conflate the two institutions.

As Scotland has reflected on its 20th anniversary, there has been widespread agreement that one of Holyrood’s most important achievements to date has been to embed itself in the life of the nation. I go along with that conclusion but there is still more to do.

There remains a real danger that Holyrood is routinely mistaken for an arm of the executive. If people are not to lose faith in their Parliament, they must see it as a place where governments are held to account, not where decisions are meekly rubber-stamped.

A third area I’d like to see explored is the possibility of joint working between Holyrood and Westminster.

Could committees conduct joint inquiries in future? Often there is an overlap between the work of Westminster’s Scottish Affairs Committee and committees at the Scottish Parliament.

I believe collaboration between the parliaments could strengthen the way UK and Scottish government ministers are held to account. I also hope it would lead to greater understanding of devolution.

We should not forget that the Smith Commission, in addition to agreeing further powers for Holyrood, said efforts should be made to ensure people understood the roles of their two parliaments and governments.

I accept we need to do more to achieve that, but it could only help if Holyrood and Westminster stopped acting like strangers to each other.  

I’m sure the problems I see are teething troubles. Two decades on from taking my seat in the old Kirk General Assembly building, I remain as positive as ever about the parliament, its role in our national life and the great things it is capable of achieving.

Of course, I’m incredibly proud that Oliver, my son, who attended the opening ceremony as a little boy, now sits at Holyrood as an MSP himself.

I know he and his colleagues are as determined to make a difference to people’s lives as we were in the ‘class of ’99’. 

David Mundell is the Secretary of State for Scotland. He served as an MSP for the South of Scotland from 1999 to 2005, and is the Conservative MP for Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale.