IT was a blunt — and prescient — warning, delivered 20 years ago when Donald Dewar unveiled his devolution blueprint.
‘For the Nationalists, every frustration, tension and grievance between Westminster and Edinburgh will be used as a battering ram to try and break the unitary state’, the Mail’s leader column warned.
Those words were published precisely two decades ago, the day after Mr Dewar had told cheering Labour MPs that Scotland would have ‘a new parliament for the new millennium’.
Michael Ancram — later Lord Ancram and then the Tory spokesman on constitutional affairs — said it was a ‘sombre day for Scotland’ because the Government’s proposals would lead to the break-up of the UK.
As a student at the time of the ensuing referendum in September 1997, I agreed with that stark assessment — and voted against a Scottish parliament.
But about three-quarters of the electorate disagreed, on a turnout of 60 per cent, and the parliament was created and first met in May 1999.
Doubtless there were many in the years to come who regretted their decision to vote Yes, as the price-tag for the parliament building spiralled out of control, triggering a public inquiry.
The initial estimate in Mr Dewar’s White Paper for the construction of Holyrood was about £10million.
Ultimately it cost more than £400 million to build and Lord Fraser, who chaired the Holyrood building inquiry, reporting back three weeks before the new parliament opened in 2004, memorably concluded that ‘the ancient walls of the Canongate have echoed only to the cry of “it wisnae me”.’
Yet, like other Unionists, I accepted the result of the devolution referendum, hoping that it would ‘share power with the people’, as Mr Dewar had promised.
Two decades after his White Paper, the parliament — with all its myriad flaws — is here to stay.
Indeed, it is stronger than it was in 1999, thanks to sweeping new powers over taxation and welfare transferred from Westminster.
And yet it is an institution that has dramatically failed to live up to its initial promise, and which has been abused by the Nationalists, who have indeed attempted to use it as a ‘battering ram’ to try and break up the UK.
Much of the blame for the ongoing failure of the parliament rests with the SNP, the party that has been in government for nearly half of Holyrood’s existence.
Its overwhelming focus has been on driving forward the independence agenda, eschewing radicalism in every other area of policy bar the constitution.
It hasn’t done very much and what it has done it has done badly, making many voters pine for the days of Jack McConnell’s uninspiring slogan ‘do less, better’.
The main policy triumph of those days, under Labour and the Lib Dems, was the ban on public smoking, back in 2006.
But that was a move duplicated elsewhere in the UK soon afterwards — and which may well have happened without devolution.
Nowadays, precious little legislation of any worth is passed by MSPs.
The SNP’s bid to impose a minimum price on alcohol, launched five years ago, is still mired in a marathon legal battle which continued yesterday at the Supreme Court in London.
Ironically for a ‘family-friendly’ parliament, currently in the midst of a two-month recess, the only other legislation of note it has passed was the law paving the way for the hugely intrusive Named Person scheme.
It was ruled largely unlawful by the Supreme Court and is now a husk of a policy that the SNP clings to purely for reasons of selfish pride: it would rather be associated with a partial failure than a total failure.
Then there are the anaemic parliamentary committees, supposed to act as a substitute for a second chamber.
In reality, their members over the years have had all the inquisitorial flair of a wet sponge — and less in many cases.
True, latterly some MSPs have proved effective scrutineers of the single police force, but the unified service is itself a product of the parliament, instigated by the SNP with the Lib Dems the only main party offering sustained opposition.
This was despite a majority of Scots being opposed to amalgamation of the old eight regional forces, according to pollsters — so much for ‘sharing power with the people’.
The quality of oratory in the parliament, while improving, is still largely poor; specialist trainers from a company in England have been brought in to help MSPs grill ministers and other witnesses.
Party leaders aside, there is a vast battalion of faceless parliamentarians, who appear to be just making up the numbers, each earning a basic salary of £61,778.
There is little intellectual cut-and-thrust: Midlothian Nationalist MSP Colin Beattie infamously lodged a parliamentary motion bemoaning the reduction in chocolate in Toblerone bars.
Is it any wonder that Holyrood election turnouts have repeatedly hovered around the 50 per cent mark?
When it has not been trying to remedy its own errors, or attempting to dodge responsibility for them, the SNP has used the costly debating arena at the end of the Royal Mile to further its campaign for independence.
In March came the spectacle of a two-day debate (interrupted, grudgingly, because of the terror attack at Westminster) on a Scottish Government motion seeking support to call for Westminster permission for a second independence referendum.
With the help of the Greens (effectively de facto SNP backbenchers), it was passed, confirming that the gap between public expectation of our law-makers and the bleak reality — a chasm the parliament was supposed to close — is growing ever-wider.
That disconnect was highlighted again in February, when Finance Secretary Derek Mackay froze the higher rate income tax threshold at £43,000 — when it will rise to £45,000 in the rest of the UK.
That was passed at Holyrood after another shabby deal with the Greens, as Mr Mackay denounced higher earners such as senior teachers and nurses as ‘rich’, leaving Scots saddled with the highest income tax in the UK.
This proved beyond doubt that the ‘new parliament for the new millennium’ exists in a bubble, far removed from the everyday reality of most voters’ lives.
During the EU referendum campaign, Holyrood abysmally failed to reflect the strength of opposition to EU membership north of the Border.
The Brexit process could have been seized upon by Nicola Sturgeon to ensure that the SNP was seen as the custodians of fresh powers for the parliament.
Instead, she immediately began agitating for another referendum.
And yet so much could have been done in the last 20 years to create a dynamic economy in Scotland — cutting taxes and embracing new fracking technology — and to reshape our failing health and education systems.
Devolution since that historic day in July 1997 has been little more than a litany of missed opportunities.
Shamefully, the ordinary Scots who bankroll this costly charade are paying the price for the rank incompetence and complacency of our law-makers — and will be for many decades to come.