ONLY a cynic could look back on the first 20 years of devolution and conclude that the Scottish Parliament has been a failure.

Government is geographically much closer to voters, MSPs are accountable for their decisions, and many institutions under devolved control have been reformed for the better.

Scotland has also led the way on the public health agenda. The smoking ban, legislated for in 2005, has been replicated across the UK, and the current SNP administration pushed through minimum pricing of alcohol.

Nobody with any credibility wants to abolish the Parliament, which has become the epicentre of Scottish political life. The late Donald Dewar was paranoid that the Tories would scrap Holyrood, but his fears were groundless. It is here to stay.

Professor Michael Keating: We were promised a liberating ‘new politics’. Has Holyrood delivered?

However, consider Dewar’s first Programme for Government speech in 1999 and judge whether MSPs have lived up to the high bar he set. Our late First Minister spoke of the “fight against poverty” and the need to “unlock opportunity and to raise standards”.

He informed MSPs: “We have to move on all fronts, as the social justice agenda is not some narrow field of activity; we all have to join in. We have also to co-operate with the policies of the UK Government and work together for common aims.”

If you look at Holyrood through this lens – reducing inequality, and improving the life chances of those with the least – the record is dismal. Child poverty stands at around 240,000 (a rising total that is the fault of the UK and Scottish Governments) and the attainment gap in schools is still shamefully high. Devolution is not delivering for the poor.

One analysis is to see the first 20 years in two chapters. According to this argument, the period of Labour and Liberal Democrat rule between 1999 and 2007 focused – in a fairly uninspiring way – on making use of Holyrood’s existing powers. The SNP’s twelve years at the helm have shifted the narrative to the powers that the Parliament does not hold.

This critique of Holyrood has an element of truth, but is ultimately unsatisfactory. There has been a recurring theme to policy-making since 1999, one that binds the Labour-led and Nationalist administrations. Since day one, MSPs have made decisions that have benefited Middle Scotland at the expense of the folk at the bottom.

I cling to an old-fashioned view – made obsolete by the current dominance of populism – that politics should be about who gets the spoils, rather than about identity. Resources, when they become available, should be targeted to improve the lives of those who are struggling. It should not be about making the lives of the wealthy more comfortable.

20 years of Holyrood: John Swinney recalls a 'sense of history being made'

In the early days of devolution, Labour and the Lib Dems legislated for a concessionary travel scheme – since expanded – which means that everyone over 60, regardless of wealth, can get free bus travel all over Scotland.

The legacy of this regressive policy can be seen on any rush hour bus trip. Sixty-year-olds, who have paid off their mortgages or are close to doing so, get a free ride to work. Meanwhile, workers in their early twenties, many of whom will have insecure jobs, pay full whack. Social justice, Holyrood-style.

A similar mistake was made, albeit on a much bigger scale, when Holyrood legislated for free personal care for the elderly in 2002. Under the previous system, older people with little or no money received care for no charge, but by making it “free” MSPs diverted hundreds of millions of pounds to a policy that disproportionately benefited the better off. Former Labour Cabinet Minister Sam Galbraith, who criticised the decision at the time, ruefully described it as “right-wing” and a subsidy for the “elderly rich”.

A progressive case can be made, at a stretch, for replacing means-tested services with universal coverage, but only if you recoup some of the money from the higher earners who benefit from the freebies. However, for most of Holyrood’s existence, MSPs did not possess the powers to tax the better off. Middle Scotland got something for nothing.

The distinction between eligible voters and actual voters explains why Holyrood has consistently made these types of choices. In theory, lower earners are in the majority; in practice, election turnouts of around 50% mean that the power shifts to the middle. Every party flocks to where the voters are.

Twelve years of SNP rule continued a trend set by Labour and Lib Dems. Until 2011, over 90% of prescriptions were dispensed free of charge, a policy that benefited the poor. People such as myself were asked to pay a small sum that ended up in NHS coffers. Abolishing prescription charges simply transferred another chunk of public funds to individuals who did not need help.

Another shibboleth was “free” higher education. From 2001, graduates were asked to make a modest contribution towards grants for poorer students. The £2,289 fee recognised that, if you have a university degree, you possess a passport to a better life. Graduates on average earn more than non-graduates. But it was abolished under the SNP and the funding available for grants has come under pressure.

Nicola Sturgeon: Parliament has been a success and force for good

Twenty years on, MSPs are still obsessing about policy areas that are of primary interest to middle income earners. Universities, not colleges. Train fares rather than rip off bus prices. Council tax, not council services. The political parties have also launched more internal reviews and commissions on the constitution than on the poor state of the education system. Holyrood has become an engine room of inequality.

The next two decades could be different. As a starting point, MSPs could hone in on the child poverty statistics and use their powers to make annual cuts to the total. The challenge is turning Dewar’s words from rhetoric into reality.