Celebrate 20 years of Holyrood? They should keep all the champagne on ice…
By Graham Grant
AS you struggled through the rain to work on a rail replacement bus, the festive break was probably already a rapidly receding memory.
The circular and ever-more divisive Brexit debate has re-emerged from temporary cold storage to dominate the papers and the airwaves.
But amid the January gloom comes a thin shaft of sunlight: the Scottish parliament is planning a year of ‘celebration’ to mark its 20th anniversary.
Exact details are still a closely guarded secret but we know there will be an exhibition, and the parliament will ‘open its doors to the people of Scotland for an afternoon of celebration and commemoration’.
The parliament is also starting a nationwide search for the babies that were born on July 1, 1999, to invite them to take part in an event on June 29.
Perhaps the tagline for this lengthy – perhaps even gruelling – jamboree should be ‘haud me back’ – because this isn’t so much a party as a festival of back-slapping.
Talking of ‘commemoration’, why not cast your minds back to the late 1990s, and some of the grand promises made for devolved politics, including Donald Dewar’s pledge that the parliament would ‘share power with the people’ – and Tony Blair’s vow that the ‘era of big, centralised government is over’?
Neither promise has been fulfilled – government has never been more centralised, morphing into a nanny state that alternates between tax raids and unenforceable bans.
Nor is there much evidence of public engagement with Holyrood – the turnout for the last two Holyrood elections in 2016 and 2011 was around 56 per cent and 50 per cent respectively, compared with 69 per cent and 66 per cent for the last Westminster polls, in 2017 and 2015.
Perhaps the half of the electorate who failed to participate remembered the earliest days of devolution, which were overshadowed by a row over the awarding of commemorative medals to all 129 MSPs.
The medals were designed and produced by the Royal Mint at a cost of over £7,000: in some ways this was tactically astute, because little about the performance of our parliamentarians since has been worthy of any such recognition.
This year, MSPs’ wages rose by 2.3 per cent, taking their basic salaries to £63,579 apiece – although our tribunes don’t have a say on their wages, of course, which are linked to public sector pay.
And yet if you’re not lucky enough to be on the payroll of a quango or a government department, and your private sector pay has been frozen this year, you might wonder if this salary boost is justified.
After all, of the legions of MSPs returning to work today, after their fortnight off, how many would you be able to identify in a line-up, discounting those who have won a higher public profile for all the wrong reasons, like former SNP minister Mark McDonald?
He was briefly consigned to the basement of the parliament building after allegations about lewd text messages.
Apart from the current and former ‘stars’ of the devolved legislature, such as Alex Salmond – now under police investigation over claims of sexual misconduct – the benches are filled with the political equivalent of extras.
It’s a little like the rest of the Oasis line-up – frankly something of a mystery once you ventured beyond the Gallagher brothers.
Scottish Labour leader Richard Leonard, despite over a year in post, is unlikely to be troubled by invitations to the celebrity jungle, like his predecessor Kezia Dugdale, and could safely wander through any amount of heather without having to fear setting it alight.
Patrick Harvie will be all too recognisable to most aficionados of Scottish politics as the SNP’s great facilitator, the man who enables its ‘progressive’ tax hikes.
Yet beyond the heavily subsidised eateries and watering-holes of Holyrood, there are many lucky enough not to have heard of Mr Harvie, or his achingly right-on cohorts.
The Scottish parliament building itself, opened in 2004, cost more than £400million to construct, leading to a public inquiry, and still requires costly maintenance.
In 2017, the old lighting in the debating chamber was faulty, so parliament chiefs replaced it with 38 elaborate light fittings, each with 129 bulbs, reflecting the number of MSPs.
This cost £1.75million – or £357 a bulb – though Holyrood managers insisted it will save money because the new lights will not need to be replaced every year.
Then there are the ‘thinking pods’ in MSPs’ offices, where they can gaze down on all the taxpayers who fund their expenses – now at a record high of £16.2million.
The public purse bankrolls hundreds of short taxi journeys of less than a mile, which our representatives can enjoy while lecturing the rest of us about the need to get out and walk more.
It is this gratuitous self-aggrandising which undermines those early commitments by champions of devolution to an institution that reflected the lives and priorities of those who voted for it (albeit on a turnout of only 60 per cent).
Some believe the structure itself, and the lacklustre bunch who populate it, may not be the problem – it’s the way in which it has been hijacked by separatists.
It was back in 1995 that George – now Lord – Robertson declared that ‘devolution will kill nationalism stone dead’, long since exposed as a forlorn hope.
Former Labour minister Brian Wilson wrote at the weekend that the parliament will never achieve its full potential until independence is ruled out.
SNP MSP James Dornan tweeted back to him an image from the Fawlty Towers episode where Basil warns his staff there are German guests, and the war mustn’t be mentioned: ‘I mentioned it once, but I think I got away with it all right.’
Mr Dornan said the meme showed ‘Brian Wilson when he’s reminded he’s a Scot’ – with the implication that no true Scot would question the legitimacy of the parliament.
Mind you, the SNP boycotted the Scottish Constitutional Convention, and indeed opposed devolution at the 1997 General Election, so perhaps back then they, too, were self-loathing Scots.
Respect has to be earned, and two decades after its inception the parliament hasn’t done enough to earn the trust either of those who backed it – or of those who were strongly opposed.
The notion of celebrating an institution that for many Scots still hasn’t proved its worth is a misjudgment, the latest in a long line of them stretching back to those Royal Mint medals.
It’s time for MSPs to get back to their ‘thinking pods’ – and reflect on why so many of their constituents think the champagne should be kept firmly on ice during the year of self-congratulation that lies ahead.
*This column was published on January 8, 2019.