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Holyrood at heart of our public life

'WHAT has the Scottish Parliament ever done for us?" ask Jack McConnell and Jim Wallace, tongues slightly in cheek, in today's Agenda column on the page opposite.

On the 15th anniversary of the state opening of Holyrood and with the referendum on Scotland's future now a mere 78 days away, it is a good time to pose the question.

Their riff on the Monty Python film Life Of Brian - the moment when the revolutionary People's Front Of Judea reluctantly reach the conclusion that their Roman oppressors had, after all, done quite a lot for them in terms of building roads and the like - serves to make a serious point, of course.

Over the past decade and a half, the Scottish Parliament has produced some significant achievements: the ban on smoking in public places; land reform and the right to roam; the introduction of free care for the elderly; the abolition of university tuition fees; and equal marriage have changed the country profoundly. In addition, Scotland's police and fire services have been radically reformed; the school curriculum has been brought up to date hand in hand with a new focus on empowering teachers and preparing pupils for the fast-changing modern world; prescription charges have ended; and everyone over the age of 60 gets a free bus pass.

Not all of the reforms have gone smoothly and, in a time of severely squeezed public finances, questions remain about the continuing affordability of many popular policies. But as former First Minister Lord McConnell will remind us in a speech in Edinburgh today, Scotland is a healthier, better educated and more confident place than it was in 1999.

There have also been serious failings and omissions by successive governments: NHS Scotland may have avoided the creeping privatisation seen south of the Border, but reforms demanded by the increasing pressure on its services have also been avoided; the council tax was ripe for reform in 1999 but a combination of timidity and party-politicking has repeatedly scuppered hopes of a shake-up that could improve services and revive local democracy; and the most ambitious targets in the world for reducing greenhouse gas emissions have been widely lauded but consistently missed.

And a report due out today is expected to provide a depressing picture of child poverty in Scotland, despite improvements in the early years of devolution. Ultimately, the Scottish Parliament and the devolved government it embodies is only as good as the men and women we elect. That said, it has come a long way. Who predicted that Holyrood would be setting half the income tax collected in Scotland by 2016? Who might have guessed that a Parliament designed to prevent a Nationalist majority would become the focus for a referendum on independence?

The Parliament will continue to evolve regardless of the result of September's vote. What will endure, though, is its greatest single achievement to date: from an unsure start, the Scottish Parliament has established itself firmly at the heart of Scottish public life. After 15 years, it is impossible to imagine Scotland without it.

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