Power in Scotland has become too centralised over the last quarter century of devolution, Jack McConnell has said. 

In a wide-ranging and exclusive interview with The Herald to mark the 25th anniversary of the Scottish Parliament, the former first minister said that while he thought the institution was an "accepted part of the Scottish architecture" reform was “long overdue".

The Labour peer also called on the SNP to “admit that they've been getting it wrong” on education and commit to a "radical" review of the country’s schooling.

He said the Scottish Government was “neglecting a generation and doing them a serious disservice".

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The ex-maths teacher was elected to Holyrood in 1999 and became the country’s third first minister in 2001, serving until Alex Salmond’s narrow victory in 2007 saw the Labour-Lib Dem Scottish Executive ousted and replaced by a minority SNP administration

He had long been a proponent of devolution, in part because of his work in the classroom.

“I felt that we had to create a Scottish Parliament to take control of our education system and then drive it to be world class again," he said.

“We inherited in 1999 a system where teachers were demotivated, leaving the profession. Discipline was out of control in schools. The curriculum was out of date. The facilities were falling apart.”

And then there was the SQA exam scandal of 2000 where a series of administrative and computer bluders led to 17,000 pupils receiving inaccurate, late or incomplete results.

He replaced Sam Galbraith as education minister that year.

“We rebuilt the teaching profession and it's morale and quality. We were building schools at pace, including joint campuses, new facilities for a new century.

“We were overhauling the standards of what was taught and how the head teachers managed their schools and dealing therefore with issues of discipline and so on.

“And at the same time looking after the most vulnerable, supporting kids who were who were fostered or in care to have a better chance of education.

“All of that seems to have slipped. And it was slipping before Covid.”

Lord McConnell believes the curriculum is “way off course” and that assessment has “fallen apart".

“We are neglecting a generation and doing them a serious disservice and there needs to be a complete overhaul of the situation."

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"I think for the current cabinet, to make that decision to be as radical and as determined and as focused to make this happen, they would have to, at least privately for themselves, admit that they've been getting it wrong.

"But I think if they were willing to do that, then those of us who cared about Scottish education would get in behind them and help them make the changes that are required.

"I think people would be queuing up to help."

Tomorrow marks the 25th anniversary of the first meeting of the new devolved legislature.

Lord McConnell said it was a “rocky start".

“That’s natural in any new institution and then Donald [Dewar] died  [in October 2020]. The glue that held us together in many ways wasn't there anymore. 

“And you're both grieving but also need to take up the challenge and step up.

“I think the Parliament did step up at that point.”

He said his two terms were “incredibly productive” and points to significant land reform legislation which saw the abolition of feudal tenure, wider access to the countryside and a right to community ownership.

“We'd never have found the parliamentary time at Westminster for to happen, even if there'd been a political will,” he says.

The second term brought the ban on smoking in public places when the peer belives parliament “came of age”.

“People forget that at the start of that debate, the country was split 50/50,” Lord McConnell said.

“I always got a rough time when I walked past the pubs on the Royal Mile.”

The ban was one of the first pieces of major legislation to be passed by MSPs following their move into the controversial new parliament building at the bottom of the Royal Mile.

There were disagreements over the design and the location. 

It opened three years late and cost more than £400 million, far more than the initial estimates of somewhere between £10m and £40m.

The building became a “bit of a problem for us all in those early years,” Lord McConnell told The Herald.

“So I was very conscious that we finally moved into the new building we had to do something that was really significant and could be long lasting for the good of the country.”

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The smoking ban came on the last Sunday in March 2006 when the clocks went forward, giving smokers one last cigarette.

“It was probably the first moment when the Parliament passed a law that a significant part of the population disagreed with," he adds.

“But they all accepted it It was the law of the land.

"It was a law that had been made here in Scotland, that had been designed here in Scotland, had been implemented here in Scotland.

"It hadn't been imposed on us. It wasn't like the poll tax that was imposed from somewhere else.

“Yes, it was controversial. But it was our own elected representatives who were making the decision.

"It was our leaders who were pushing that forward. And people even if they disagree with us, were willing to live with it. And in the development of a young parliament, that is a key moment.”

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Though he is proud of the smoking ban, he belives that his greatest success in office was the introduction of the Fresh Talent initiative.

Under a landmark agreement with the Home Office, overseas graduates from Scottish universities were allowed to stay in the country for two years after finishing their course while seeking employment.

It was subsumed into the UK immigration system in 2008 under then prime minister Gordon Brown.

But post-study work visas were scrapped altogether by the coalition government in 2012, under the then home secretary Theresa May.

Lord McConnell said that lack of flexibility has become something of a pattern for the UK Government.

“We've got into entrenched division that has just stopped people being creative and willing to be flexible, and to want to be cooperative.

“And I desperately want that to come back and it doesn't need two parties that are the same to do that.”

“I don't lay the blame for the current state of Scotland solely on the Scottish Government. I think the UK Government has wandered away from a situation where they embrace the devolution of power to the nations of the UK.”

The Herald:

On devolution of powers, Lord McConnell says that a proper review of local government is long overdue.

There has been little change in the 30 years since the then Tory Scottish Secretary Ian Lang attempted to kill off growing support for devolution with huge changes.

“Parliament has now much more in the way of financial powers than it had when I was first minister, and that's a good thing.

“I'm not sure that that should automatically lead to higher tax rate, but that's a whole other issue.

“I think it's strange that the powers of the parliament have developed, but Scotland has become a more centralised place at the same time.

“The powers of local government have not developed over that time and I think there is scope for improvement and change there.”

“The local government system that we had in 1995, with the exception of the electoral system that we changed, is almost exactly still in place.

“It's still financed the same way. It's still structured the same way, the same 32 councils, that same level of powers.

“The political gerrymandering in 1995 is the one big thing that Parliament's never touched," he adds.

The peer also supports calls for directly elected mayors in Scottish cities and towns. 

Despite Holyrood's problems and the scandals and despite his disagreements with the current administration, the Scottish Parliament, Lord McConnell says, "holds solid".

“I am critical and I have been critical and I'm being critical in this interview and I keep hoping for better days.

“But I do believe that the way that we constructed this parliament, the quality of the original Scotland Act legislation and the preparations for that through the [Scottish Constitutional] Convention, the intellectually robust nature of that decision, it wasn't just about political principle but also about how does it work in practice, stands the test.

“I think that is a credit to everybody who was involved back then in the 90s, and indicates that it'll still be in 25 years time.”