Holyrood has failed Scotland and made real reform impossible

By Graham Grant

DEVOLUTION is a ‘dangerous game’, as you never really know where nationalist sentiment ends and an appetite for outright separatism begins.

So Tony Blair warned in his memoir (in which he also complained of ‘prickly’ Scots – who did he have in mind, one wonders?), reflecting on the birth of Holyrood.

It’s no shock that Blair himself – a pragmatist driven mainly by the desire to retain power, as quaint as that may be in modern Labour circles – was never a ‘passionate devolutionist’.

Two decades on, it’s remarkable that a man who once compared the Scottish parliament to a parish council (though he always claimed his comments were misinterpreted) should have made it happen, despite his own profound, and prescient, misgivings.

Holyrood has become a crucible for the separatism Blair feared so much, devoting two days in 2017 to a Scottish Government motion calling for a second referendum – a gruelling debate grudgingly interrupted because of the terror attack at Westminster.

I voted against devolution because I feared the parliament would become a wedge that prised apart the Union, but accepted the result (another quaint notion in today’s political landscape).

Like Blair, I was never a ‘passionate devolutionist’: the Jack McConnell years were defined by a kind of plodding managerialism – although nowadays, amid the tumult of Brexit, we might look back rather fondly on a time when the greatest controversy was over his daring choice of a pinstripe kilt.

I didn’t buy the argument that a vote for the SNP wasn’t necessarily a vote for independence – one that was often advanced by the Nationalists themselves.

But it was a tactic that paid off in 2007 when, against the odds, the party won the election and formed a minority administration.

An institution which Donald Dewar hoped would ‘share power with the people’ became a mechanism for advancing independence at every turn after the SNP’s outright victory at the polls in 2011, when the SNP decided that a vote for them was, after all, a vote for constitutional change.

The melancholy poetic genius Philip Larkin once wrote that life is ‘first boredom, then fear’, and for Unionists the same could be said of Holyrood – with fear accompanied by an unrelenting diet of division.

A government can hardly fulfil its ambition of representing an entire country when it is dedicated to tearing it out of a centuries-old partnership, even if in the process it risks economic ruin.

Holyrood has also failed to meet expectations not solely on the basis that it has been hijacked by separatists – it has also failed as an agent of genuine reform.

It is a petty parliament with default prohibitionist tendencies, banning almost everything in sight, even non-existent fur farms – remember the landmark Fur Farming (Prohibition) (Scotland) Bill?

The introduction of minimum pricing on alcohol has triggered an increase in the amount of alcohol consumed – well, perhaps that’s what 12 years of SNP rule does to you; you have to seek solace somewhere…

There was an abortive bid to outlaw parental smacking in the early days of devolution and now the Greens have driven the idea back onto the agenda, a measure that can only be explained by a bad bout of political amnesia.

The latest ban is on driving to work – or at least that may be the net effect of the levy on ‘workplace parking’, a barmy sop to the SNP’s Green allies.

Named Person, the preposterous Big Brother scheme to place children under mass state surveillance, was approved by MSPs and then deemed to be largely unlawful by the Supreme Court in a damning judgment in 2016.

It has taken seven years for MSPs to begin an investigation of subject rationing in Scottish schools, a by-product of a curriculum foisted on Scottish education by a government in thrall to trendy experts – whose daft theories they swallowed without argument.

Anaemic committees have jolted into life sporadically when confronted with scandal, including the mess of the single police force, but overall their performance has proved inconsistent.

Parliament is stuffed full of placemen who applaud the First Minister’s platitudes in the same way as politburo members at the height of Stalinism; they attend principally to pick up the pay cheque (more than £63,000 a year after a recent salary hike).

The debating chamber sometimes resembles a parallel universe: in 2016, Green MSP Ross Greer, who recently described Churchill as a ‘white supremacist mass murderer’, lodged a motion that congratulated a teenager on ‘successfully campaigning to be given the option of opening a bank account under a ‘non-binary gender identity’.

Structural reform has been a virtual impossibility from day one, because the parliament is a prisoner of liberal interest groups which put a stranglehold on radical solutions to endemic failures in public services.

It took 16 years for educational change to become (allegedly) a priority for Holyrood under Nicola Sturgeon, despite copious evidence at the launch of the parliament that state schooling was a postcode lottery.

We can gauge the intellectual heft of our parliamentarians by their vendetta against fee-paying schools, now being spearheaded by the SNP Government with the eager backing of its Green partners.

The planned abolition of business rates relief has left the sector facing a £7million bombshell which threatens to ramp up fees, and could lead to the merger or outright closure of some schools.

The NHS remains in a parlous condition, with family doctors closing their patient lists or shutting surgeries down entirely, while the public finance watchdog Audit Scotland warns that in its current form, the health service is financially unsustainable.

Tax raids, again motivated by bankrupt socialist dogma, are working to ensure Scotland is a no-go zone for investment, driving away talented young professionals and entrepreneurs.

Police Scotland, the unification of territorial police forces, was the most ambitious project of reform initiated under devolution, for the worst of reasons – the need to cut costs – and its first six years have been marred by financial and hierarchical chaos.

The Auditor General Caroline Gardner has warned there is a ‘significant risk’ the Scottish Government will fail to deliver billions of pounds of devolved benefits on time.

These are failings by a government which requested the trust of the electorate to allow it to govern, and then systematically betrayed it.

Indeed, you might argue that Holyrood itself can’t be blamed for the deficiencies of whichever party happens to be in charge at the time.

Nor can the parliament be condemned purely on the basis that MSPs are, with some honourable exceptions, a lacklustre bunch – some of them with all the oratorical flair of a wet dish-cloth.

But it is a deeply flawed institution that has failed to keep the executive in check, failed to foster radical innovation, and succeeded only in perpetuating the Left-wing statism that has held Scotland back for decades.

I don’t regret my decision to vote against devolution for a moment, but perhaps Blair was wrong in one important regard – the average parish council functions far more effectively than Holyrood…

Home Affairs Editor, columnist, leader writer, Scottish Daily Mail. Twitter: @GrahamGGrant Facebook: @sdmnewspaper