DEPUTY SNP leader John Swinney was in the first intake of MSPs in 1999 and recalls a sense of history being made...

I was elected as a Member of Parliament at Westminster in 1997, just months before the historic devolution referendum which would lead to the establishment of the Scottish Parliament two years later.

And one of the great joys and privileges of being part of that 1997 intake to the House of Commons was arriving in London knowing that I would have a chance to play my part by voting to establish the parliament in Edinburgh which so many in my own and other parties had fought so long to see.

The vote came in 1998 and the following year I was delighted to become one of the first intake of 129 MSPs taking our seats in the Church of Scotland’s Assembly building on the Mound.

I still vividly recall the day on which we were all sworn in as members. There was a palpable sense of not just excitement but of history being made. None more so than when Winnie Ewing, as the most senior member of the new parliament called colleagues to order and with a bang of the gavel declared: “The Scottish Parliament, adjourned on the 25th day of March in the year 1707, is hereby reconvened”

Looking back 20 years, what is still memorable is that everyone who was elected to that first parliament was – notwithstanding our party differences – intent on doing their very best to build a new and better Scotland.

The Parliament immediately brought the questioning of Government closer to home and democracy closer to the people. It addressed a longstanding democratic deficit that had, in the two decades or so before the parliament’s establishment, become so acute that the status quo simply could not have endured any longer.

Having a national parliament in Edinburgh again, after a gap of almost three centuries, meant that it was possible to begin to address many issues that had not had adequate attention at Westminster over many years and decades, such as the protection of vulnerable adults, land reform and free personal care.

The Parliament has over the last 20 years made, in my view, a profoundly positive impact on the lives of people across Scotland.

It has taken forward the abolition of student tuition fees, seen the expansion of early years education for children and taken measures to make the Scottish economy more productive. It has legislated on global issues such as climate change, in which Scotland is an acknowledged world leader.

And it has passed landmark legislation in the public health sphere, with the ban on smoking in public places leading the way for the rest of the UK and, more recently, the introduction of minimum unit pricing being another genuinely world-leading initiative.

The journey has not been all smooth of course – indeed, it has been bumpy at times, especially in the early days, and in particular with the difficulties of the cost of the Parliament building itself. And there will of course always be critics of some of the policy measures the Parliament has taken forward.

However, I believe that the overwhelming majority of people across Scotland believe that the Parliament has made a positive difference and that the country as a whole is the better for having it.

Increasingly, people identify primarily with Holyrood rather than Westminster as the focus of the nation’s political and democratic life. And the proposition that there should not be a Scottish Parliament at all, with the country once again solely governed by Westminster, is very much a minority point of view.

Those of us who believe in an independent Scotland will continue to make that case, with passion, enthusiasm and respect, while those who oppose independence will do likewise. But the future of Scotland, whatever it may be, must always ultimately be trusted to the people to determine, democratically.

My experience in the Parliament has been shaped by eight years in opposition, 12 years in Government and 20 years representing the people of Perthshire.

I am one of relatively few remaining members who have served continually since that day the first MSPs were elected in 1999.

It has been the greatest privilege I could ever had hoped for in my professional life and I will continue to do all that I can to make sure that the Parliament continues to improve the quality of life for all of us who chose to live in Scotland.