I am an advanced devolutionist. Decisions affecting people and communities are best made at the level where they are most effective and those responsible are accountable.

Nobody can claim that political devolution to Edinburgh has delivered that for Scotland. Instead, a new centre was created which hoards powers and resources unto itself; the antithesis of my definition.

Centralisation and constitutional polarisation. These are the two stand-out characteristics from 25 years of Holyrood. It would be pleasing to say instead that the highlights have been lasting social reforms but there have been far too few.

The most pernicious “success” has been to change the dynamic of Scottish politics, which really took hold since 2014. It is no longer about haves and have-nots; the powerful and weak; deep-rooted injustices of poverty - dividing lines which matter and around which change is built.

The Herald: Holyrood hasn't delivered, says Brian WilsonHolyrood hasn't delivered, says Brian Wilson (Image: free)

Instead, we have a permanent argument about the constitution. I know nobody on the left who came into politics to be a “unionist”. Yet this false dichotomy has become the dominant fault-line of Scottish politics.

In 1979, I opposed political devolution because I feared that Scottish politics would become bogged down in a permanent argument about “powers” rather than outcomes. Maybe I wasn’t all right but I wasn’t all wrong either!

At that time, there was a more acute understanding that advances in British society – on health, education, housing, rights of working people and everything which shaped lives and opportunities – had been made together. Many saw devolution as a threat to the unity of these progressive forces.

The Thatcher years created a different narrative. Devolution offered a third way which would, in future, protect Scotland from the worst excesses of a Tory government it hadn’t voted for. When described as godfather of devolution, Donald Dewar replied it had only one godparent – Margaret Thatcher.

I hoped Holyrood would succeed while remaining acutely aware of the implications if it fell into hands of those whose vested interest was in proving its inadequacy rather than its potential. I wasn’t wrong about that either.

Its principal promoters never really considered that possibility. The consensual Parliament with its hemispheric chamber would work for the best of all possible worlds within “the settled will of the Scottish people”. That proved illusory.

This background is a reminder of what the Scottish public expected of Holyrood. The vast majority did not want an endless constitutional debate. Rather, they bought into the potential for Scotland to do things better and for the Parliament to provide protection when needed.


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I suppose it is some kind of success that this is still the prevailing view. However, the “settled will” school of thought has had to endure a torrid couple of decades which have dulled early hopes for what the Parliament would deliver.

A generation has grown up which is told nothing of what was done differently and better in Scotland before Holyrood existed – our NHS, our education system, local government, our legal system and so on. The real test of devolution is whether it has done more of this stuff better.

Of course there have been successes but so much more could have been achieved. There are plenty powers that have never been used and from the start, Holyrood was well funded. A combination of Donald Dewar and the Barnett Formula took care of that.

But just as a permanent argument over powers was inevitable once the Parliament fell into Nationalist hands, so too was the constant demand to “send more money” as a defence against every failing.

Holyrood got off to a terrible start with the saga of the Parliament building. Then Donald died. He despaired of the negativity towards the new institution displayed by sections of the Scottish media – including those which had demanded it most loudly. It was as if they wanted it, only to give it a kicking.

The Henry McLeish interregnum ended over what, by current standards, would be regarded as a minor transgression. Jack McConnell’s six years as First Minister were undoubtedly the best so far in terms of delivery and change.

I lost interest when Alex Salmond took over with Tory support. They were neither doing great good nor great harm but that changed when a referendum loomed. That was a game-changer which entrenched polarisation around the constitution from which Holyrood has never recovered.

The Herald: Kate Forbes and John SwinneyKate Forbes and John Swinney (Image: free)

Experience tells us that once a Nationalist party wins, it can take a long time to shift because of grievance buttons it alone can press. If true, Scottish politics will remain as sterile as they long have been while ailments which devolution was intended to cure remain as acute as ever.

The alternative route demands a complete re-set, which we certainly did not see this week. It needs new people, new ideas, new openness and, going back to where I started, a genuine belief in real devolution.

A Scottish Government which on its first day returned powers to councils, agencies, communities where they belong would send out a message that Scotland can breathe and hope again. But first, devolution must be in the hands of people who actually believe in making it work.

Brian Wilson is a former Labour energy minister and long-time devolution sceptic