An early assessment of the Scottish Parliament

  • Arnold Kemp
  • The Observer, Sunday 16 December 2001 00.41 GMT
  • The legendary Irish heroine, Grace O'Malley, who led a band of 200 sea-raiders from the coast of Galway in the sixteenth century, found her enemies among the Irish as well as the English, and was eventually pardoned by Queen Elizabeth. The Scots turned to the same Queen to help them get rid of Rome and the French.

    The old political truth, that your enemies are not necessarily those who sit on the opposite benches, has emerged to haunt the Labour Party in Scotland. It has been in many ways a wretched couple of years since our new parliamentarians took the stage. The death of Donald Dewar, the embarrassment of Henry McLeish and the private troubles of our new First Minister, Jack McConnell, have damaged the standing of the Parliament, though mostly in the eyes of those who didn't much value it in the first place.

    And there is more trouble brewing. When the number of Scottish MPs falls after the Boundary Commission report, the ranks of constituency members of the Scottish Parliament should, according to statute, be reduced by the same amount. This is being resisted, on the arguable grounds that list MSPs should not be allowed to preponderate over constituency members, but also, less altruistically, because it will lead to a severe outbreak of turf wars among those scrabbling for seats.

    Indeed, McConnell went to Westminster last week to call for an end to such conflicts and to call upon MPs and MSPs to respect each others’ territory. It remains one of the undoubted problems of devolution that the public is not usually interested in where power lies, but in its effect. Their general cynicism with politics may be fed by confusion about where to lay the blame.

    But the record of the Parliament so far is not as bad as it has been painted. It has passed 24 pieces of legislation in 28 months, and 18 more are on the way. Some of it is very challenging – notably the land reform bill which gives crofting community rights to acquire land. This is an extremely complex undertaking since the Parliament is bound, in all its law-making, to conform with the European Convention, which protects, among other things, property rights.

    Yet civil servants struggling to draft a serviceable law should reflect that Tolkien began The Lord the Rings after scribbling ‘In a hole in the ground there lived a Hobbit’ in a moment of boredom while supervising an exam, and wondering how far he could take the idea. Land reform, to correct what is perceived as a historic wrong, is something of an emotional necessity for our Parliament.

    And it helps to define the reason for having it in the first place. Some academic commentators have taken the view that the Executive has simply been an agency of the London administration. And it is true that policy co-ordination takes place. It would be surprising if it did not when the dominant party in the Scottish coalition and the UK party of government are one and the same.

    Life would, of course, become more interesting should that ever change. The Lib Dems have some experience of co-operating with Labour, not just in the coalition but during the Lib-Lab pact in the Seventies, when David Steel and his friends kept the Callaghan Government afloat. The Nationalists still seem only half way up the hill on their climb to office, although most Scots would accord them the status of official Opposition. Their trouble, perhaps, is that the thrust of their policy is often Labour with knobs on. John Swinney is finding it difficult to achieve a distinctive image.

    I have to confess I look upon our new politics more indulgently than some, for we have waited for our Parliament for a long time. After that bleak night in 1979 when Scotland lost its nerve, I thought I should never see it in my lifetime. Now I can see that the delay may have been beneficial. The first Scotland Act, repealed after 1979, would have led to endless litigation because it specified all that a Scottish parliament could do. A senior civil servant once told me that even before its repeal there was a growing certainty that it would have to be amended even before the Parliament came into being.

    The second Act benefited from this embryonic process, and from the work of the Constitutional Convention. Ironically, although the SNP stood outside the convention, it has been a significant beneficiary of devolution. Its MSPs generate a flow of research and other funds which have broadened its financial base.

    In this difficult period for the Parliament, there are other crumbs of comfort. An opinion poll suggests that Scottish voters do not attach much significance to McConnell’s private life. Nor have the party’s public misfortunes much damaged its electoral standing.

    Perhaps next year the Parliament can be allowed to settle down and be criticised for what it does rather than because of an ideological dislike directed at it by newspaper editors working for external owners. The Parliament must be given time to grow up, but is already looking a sturdy child.