LORD McConnell recalls the day when a somewhat anxious Tony Blair asked him down to London to discuss a big Labour announcement he had in mind for Scotland.

“He had decided the pre-legislative referendum was a good idea and he was clearly very nervous about what my reaction would be because I had a history of being a very strong supporter of devolution.

“It was late morning/lunchtime. I went into his office; there were a couple of his top advisors there. I was offered a glass of wine, which was something that had never happened to me before. I knew there was something afoot.

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“But I had actually guessed and at the moment he told me I was enthusiastic about because I knew the pre-legislative referendum was the thing that would make sure that the Parliament happened and that neither the House of Lords nor anybody else here could put extra rules down or amend the scheme; if we put it to the people and they voted for it, then it wasn’t going to be amended by the Lords or Commons.

“It was a masterstroke and people at the time called him a traitor for it. But it was inspired leadership. It’s that kind of big picture leadership we need now. We don’t need all these machinations and tactics to undermine the Union or save the Union.”

Looking back, the Labour peer says the day Holyrood came of age was when it enacted the controversial smoking ban.

Asked what he thought the Scottish Parliament’s biggest achievement was in its first 20 years, he does not hesitate. “The biggest legislative one was the ban on smoking in public places. We were ahead of the UK but also we were ahead of public opinion.

“Although young people were definitely in favour of it, the population was very split and we had a very well-financed corporate campaign against it. Parliament legislated for it; a very brave, brave thing to do and then made it work.

“That was the moment the Parliament grew up in my eyes. The people of Scotland accepted a law which a lot of them didn’t want but everyone accepted it was a legitimate law because it had been passed by their parliament. That was a real moment in the 20 years.”

The former First Minister also notes the importance of having a range of ministers “speaking for Scotland”.

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He explains: “If you look back to the Scotland of 20 years ago, it wasn’t just a place where the education system had a low morale, where there was a very bad public health record, a very bad environmental and recycling record, with real problems in the criminal justice system and so on and so forth.

“And you look at Scotland today, more relaxed socially. The early argument about Section 28 seems a lifetime ago now. Scotland is very relaxed about equal marriage and all these kind of issues but crucially in relation to our approach to immigration, the thing I am most proud of is the Fresh Talent Initiative that went out and said we do not want Scotland anymore to be a country that people leave to get on. We want Scotland to be a country where people come to succeed.

“When we promoted the immigration visa, we also promoted Scotland and we created vehicles and support for people to come into the country, we ran the Scotland Many Cultures campaign for years to celebrate diversity rather than create tensions that exist in most of western Europe.”

Lord McConnell argues there is a “direct link” between the Fresh Talent Initiative, One Scotland Many Cultures, promoting immigration, reversing depopulation and having an increasing population, and the Remain vote in Scotland.

“People see Scotland as a more outward-looking but diverse place that welcomes diversity that helps explain in many ways the vote in Scotland and Brexit.

“So, what we did culturally with Scotland 15 years ago is still there today and that’s about having Parliament and a First Minister, who can speak for the country and isn’t just part of a national Cabinet and therefore has to toe the line.”

Asked if devolution has helped strengthen the Scottish identity, he replies: “It’s made Scots much more comfortable with their identity. Scottish identity was always very strong but there was an element of cringe around it. That element of cringe is still there but is much less than it used to be. We’re a more confident, relaxed people than where we were.”

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The former Scottish Labour leader was also asked if Donald Dewar, one of devolution’s founding fathers, would be proud of the Parliament today.

“Donald had a great vision but he was also a very practical person and he would be really chuffed that the Parliament has done the serious business of over 270 pieces of legislation, 20 budgets year on and year, spending the money well.”

And the coming to power of the Scottish Nationalists? “Well, he would have understood that the political administration would have changed from time to time.”

He lays the blame for the SNP’s supremacy in Edinburgh with London.

“The reason why it’s 12 years of SNP Government in Scotland is not because of devolution, it’s because of the political parties’ response to devolution. It’s not the fault of devolution that that has happened. It is the fact that the system of government here in London and the UK political parties have failed to respond properly to devolution and we have paid a price for it in Scotland.”