LISTEN: 20 Years Since Devolution Vote

11 September 2017, 06:34

Scottish Parliament Holyrood

It is "unthinkable" that Scotland would be without its own parliament, 20 years on from the devolution vote, a former Holyrood presiding officer said.

Sir Alex Fergusson is one of five MSPs who have been elected to the role in the Scottish Parliament - which is similar to that of the Speaker in the House of Commons.

The creation of the devolved parliament has "radically altered" life in Scotland, he said.

Since it was set up MSPs have passed landmark legislation, introducing free personal care for the elderly, making Scotland the first part of the UK to ban smoking in public places and abolishing fees for Scottish students at universities north of the border.

"We now have almost a full generation of young people who have never known life without a Scottish Parliament, and I think the thought of a Scotland without its own parliament is an unthinkable one," he said

"It has become, and did become in a very short space of time, totally established within Scottish life and I think that is one of the things that is so notable about a brand new parliament quickly becoming part of life in Scotland."

The former Conservative MSP, who was knighted after standing down from Holyrood in 2016, spoke out two decades after Scots voted Yes to devolution.

In a ballot held on September 11 1997, 74.3% backed the creation of the new body, while almost two thirds (63.5%) said it should have limited tax raising powers - with MSPs then allowed to alter the basic rate of income tax by up to 3p.

Now Holyrood has far greater powers over income tax, with members responsible for setting the rates and bands that apply north of the border.

Those new powers were brought in after the independence referendum - in which Scots voted by 55% to 45% to stay in the UK - with current Scottish Secretary David Mundell saying this put right a "flaw" in the original arrangements, under which Holyrood lacked financial power and was not directly accountable for the money it spends.

The lack of substantive tax-raising powers saw Holyrood dubbed a "pocket money parliament", as it was reliant on Westminster for its budget.

In statements released by the UK Government to mark the 20th anniversary of the 1997 ballot, Mr Mundell said: "The Scottish Parliament is the most powerful devolved parliament of its kind anywhere in the world, the challenge it has now is to use those powers for the benefit of the people of Scotland."

It was Tony Blair who, after sweeping to power in 1997, arranged for referendums on devolution to be held in both Scotland and Wales.

Prior to that Margaret Thatcher's government had left many Scots feeling alienated from Westminster, as a result of decisions such as the one to bring in the so-called poll tax first in Scotland.

But Mr Blair, campaigning ahead of the 1997 referendum, said devolution would "show the whole of the United Kingdom that there is a better way that Britain can be governed, that we can bring power closer to the people, closer to the people's priorities".

Two decades on from that vote, former Labour first minister Jack McConnell said that "the Scottish Parliament has really realised its potential".

Lord McConnell, in his time as first minister, spearheaded the smoking ban, which came into force in March 2006.

He said: "If the smoking ban for example had been brought in by Westminster as an experiment in Scotland there would have been revolts on the streets, but instead there was a national consensus and it worked and it led the way for the rest of the UK."

Looking back at Holyrood's work, he hailed "massive reforms to land ownership in Scotland" and claimed the "landmark acts of the new Scottish Parliament in my view justify the creation of a devolved Scottish Parliament and show us what a devolved parliament can actually achieve".

Lord McConnell was one of the first batch of MSPs elected in 1999, with the Scottish Parliament's members then also including Mr Mundell and the current First Minister Nicola Sturgeon.

The former Labour MSP recalled the "sense of emotion, the sense of history that was in the air".

He said: "I think one of the most remarkable things about the Scottish Parliament is how we have moved from its creation being one of the most controversial issues in Scottish and British politics throughout the 1980s and the 1990s, to a national consensus that having the Parliament mattered and it was the right thing to do and now very much a feature of everyday life in Scotland."

Meanwhile Sir Alex recalled: "One of the defining moments for me was when we had the 10th anniversary of the Parliament in 2009. I had the honour of being presiding officer at the time and we opened the doors to over 140 children who had been born on July 1 1999 and threw an almighty birthday party.

"And to my mind it defined the ethos of the Parliament, we opened the doors to the people and they took over the building and I thought that was a wonderful occasion that underlined what this Parliament is all about, to be open, accessible, and there for all the people of Scotland."

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