About a week ago, BBC Parliament re-broadcast coverage of the 1997 general election.

It was quite a nostalgia trip. There was Robin Cook being drily articulate, Michael Forsyth being defeated in Stirling and, of course, Alex Salmond being grilled about the Labour landslide by reporter (and future SNP MP) John Nicolson.

Now that a Scottish Parliament was going to be a reality, asked Nicolson, where did that leave the SNP’s opposition to devolution? In response, Salmond said his party would not “obstruct” any referendum, but remained unconvinced that Tony Blair would actually deliver.

Such cynicism hasn’t, for obvious reasons, aged well, for Labour – and its then leader – did deliver, a point made by the Scottish Labour Party over the weekend, part of a belated attempt to remind voters that it was responsible for the Parliament now dominated, ironically, by the very two parties opposed to its creation: the SNP and Scottish Conservatives.

I watched the BBC’s 1997 general election coverage as an undergraduate. It was my first vote, and within months I had another, in the devolution referendum which took place 20 years ago today. I voted Yes/Yes on the rather technocratic basis that administering purely Scottish affairs in Edinburgh rather than London was common sense.

Now perhaps I’m projecting my sceptical 40-year-old self on to that student, but even at the time I remember being unconvinced by some of the loftier claims made about devolution, that it would boost economic growth, improve education and tackle inequality.

It’s easy, of course, to assemble lists of the Parliament’s achievements. Recently Alex Rowley listed the Labour-led Scottish Executive’s as the smoking ban, free bus travel for pensioners, free personal care and the abolition of tuition fees. And in last week’s Programme for Government, Nicola Sturgeon also claimed the SNP had “removed” tuition fees (she meant the redistributive graduate endowment) while “protecting” free personal care.

That is all well and good. Only a fool would claim the Scottish Parliament has done little or nothing, but the better judgment is whether it’s lived up to those early expectations when it came to inequality, economics and education. And by any standard measurement, Holyrood can only be found wanting. This isn’t an #SNPbad point, but the responsibility of all parties and none.

Nigel Smith, the driving force behind the “Scotland Forward” campaign at the 1997 referendum, made exactly that point in his own reflection on today’s anniversary. Yes, he acknowledged, the Parliament had done “a number of good things”, but when it came to the “big areas of policy-making” such as education and the economy, Smith found himself “disappointed” at the lack of progress.

Quixotic aspirations, however, have long dogged Scottish constitutional reform. Even those agitating for the relatively modest measure of a “Scottish Office” and responsible minister in the mid-1880s appeared to believe a new government department would lead to national rebirth, while in the 1970s, writing amid familiar debates about devolution and independence, the former Scottish Secretary Willie Ross said Scots’ expectations were “approaching the archangelic”.

And given the experience of the last two decades, it’s no surprise that those archangelic expectations have now attached themselves to independence. While the SNP has achieved great things over the past decade, the argument runs, it can only be expected to properly improve education, boost the economy and reduce inequality with the “full powers” of independence. Well, my 40-year-old self is as unconvinced by that as I was back in 1997.

Only now, for example, 20 years since voters equipped the Scottish Parliament with tax-varying powers, are we promised by the First Minister a proper “discussion” about income tax and the redistribution of wealth. That speaks to the real failure of devolution, that is the political timidity and small “c” conservatism of all its leading protagonists, many of whom – and not just Nationalists – have tended to talk big while acting small.

Another problem is the polarisation of Scottish politics between Unionism and Nationalism, which has left little space for devolutionism to establish itself. The former Welsh first minister Rhodri Morgan made this point in an interview shortly before his recent death, refusing to describe himself either as a Unionist, as they’d been “against devolution in the first place”, or a Nationalist, because they didn’t really “believe in devolution”, claiming it didn’t go far enough.

Rather Morgan considered himself a “passionate devolutionist”, someone who didn’t see it as “a half-way house to independence” or something “conceded to the nationalists”, but “a belief that the British constitution is much healthier for having devolution since 1999”. Amen to that. But, of course, Scottish politicians have generally found it easier to talk about extending devolution rather than taking a political risk by using the powers they already had.

Policy discussion, meanwhile, has rarely progressed beyond appointing a commission on this, a minister for that and, ultimately, someone saying: “We should devolve that and all will be well.” The SNP continues to see devolution as a stepping stone to independence, while the Scottish Conservatives view it as a bulwark against that same end point. Devolution has hardly had room to breathe.

In a speech today, Nicola Sturgeon will repeat her justified (yet also over-stated) claim that Scottish devolution is under “threat” from a Brexit “power-grab”, which reveals the extent to which the SNP has assumed ownership of the Scottish Parliament (which it opposed), regularly invoking the Claim of Right (which it didn’t sign), as well as the “sovereignty of the people” (exercised in 2014 and largely ignored).

Perhaps now the independence tide has receded, and 20 years after Scotland voted Yes/Yes, sincere devolutionists might find the political space to reassert themselves.