Reflections on 20 years of devolution: a public debate

Peter Lynch, Senior Lecturer in Politics and Director of the Scottish Political Archive, discusses the public event to mark 20 years of the Scottish Parliament and the launch of a crowdfunder for the book The Scottish Parliament: A Graphic History. The event featured MSPs Jackie Baillie (Dumbarton), Keith Brown (Clackmannanshire and Dunblane) and Linda Fabiani (East Kilbride) and draws on their reflections of 20 years of life in and around parliament.

The discussion panel: Dr Peter Lynch, Linda Fabiani MSP, Jackie Baillie MSP, Keith Brown MSP, and Dr Emily St Denny

2019 signals the 20th anniversary of the establishment of the Scottish Parliament. Despite the electoral ups and downs of the parties since then, there are still some of the original MSPs serving at Holyrood from the first election. They know a lot and also remember a lot – not least about the founding ethos and symbolism of the parliament and how its committee system was supposed to operate. They also understand the proximity point about devolution – with local, accessible politicians and a parliament trying to connect with the public through public events, petitions and accessible language.

Holyrood Lives

The three MSPs all had varied parliamentary lives – as Ministers, frontbenchers, backbenchers, committee convenors, committee members, Deputy Presiding Office, sponsor of a member’s bill, etc. There’s a huge amount of experience there as well as pre-parliament histories in local councils, public organisations, parties, etc. Jackie Baillie was elected in Dumbarton and found herself immediately appointed as a Minister in Donald Dewar’s coalition administration – no preparation, no parliamentary apprenticeship, just straight into government. Linda Fabiani began as a regional list MSP involved in the thorny task of overseeing the construction of the Holyrood building. Keith Brown had a decade in local government before winning his seat in 2007, then 9 years as a Minister.

What to change?

We asked our MSPs to reflect on what they would change at Holyrood after its 20 years of functioning. Jackie Baillie wanted parliament to be more assertive – with committees using their powers to create legislation and stronger committees generally. Linda Fabiani wanted stronger committees too, with more permanent memberships to develop policy expertise and more independent committee chairs. For Keith Brown, the manner in which the finances of Holyrood would function was a current and future challenge, given the limits on resources and the operation of the fiscal framework that funded devolution.

The Crystal Ball

One of the things we asked the MSPs to focus on was the next 20 years of the Scottish Parliament – what would the future look like and how would the parliament deal with it? For Jackie Baillie, the biggest challenges were not institutional ones, but about the global economy and an aging society – how would we cope with new technology, artificial intelligence, social care and healthcare in a rapidly changing world? For Linda Fabiani, some of Holyrood’s future challenges were already clearly observable – with a capacity problem for parliament in policy and scrutiny as Holyrood powers expand but parliament itself remains small. For Keith Brown, some of the future challenges involved Holyrood’s response to Brexit and how Brexit effected the UK’s devolution settlement in the short and longer term – in terms of policy and political challenges.

​What were the hardest questions asked of the three MSPs? First, which was your favourite First Minister and why? That brought discussion of the different administrations of all of the FMs and their impact. Second, if Margo MacDonald had marked their homework, what would she have given them out of 10? Probably a 6 out of 10 and an instruction to try harder in future.

The Scottish Parliament: A Graphic History project is being funded through a crowd-sourced campaign. More information can be found on the crowdfunder page.  

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