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The Scottish Parliament

irene_mcgugan.jpg (26999 bytes)The following is an edited version of the address given by Irene McGugan. MSP (SNP) at Trinity College. Dublin on the 26th. Nov. at a meeting organised by An Comhaontas Ceilteach (Celtic Alliance, TCD) and the Irish branch of the Celtic League (with early assistance from our Scottish branch).

At the beginning of her speech Irene referred to the historical connections between Ireland and Scotland and recent initiatives and continued:

"I also want to mention briefly another linking of our communities.

Buite (Bwee-ha) (Booeechie) or Boice in English. the founder of Monasterboice died on the same day that St Columba was born. Monasterboice is a small community in south county Louth and has just twinned with my own village of Letham, Angus in the east of Scotland.

Astonishingly this is alleged to be the first official twinning between Scotland and Ireland. Even more asionishingly this restores a 1,500-year-old link between our parishes.

The aims of this twinning are to further investigate the historical connections between the two communities and to foster an understanding of our different cultures, particularly religious differences, since we are a Protestant communitv and Monasterboice is of course a Catholic one. Educational, exchange visits are already well established and have included young people particularly, and I think this is a really good example of a millennium project.

And finally on this point. I want to remind you, or tell you if you didn’t already know it, that Irish President Mary McAleese inaugurated Aberdeen’s Research Institute of Irish and Scottish Studies exactly a year ago tomorrow on St Andrew’s Day. As an MSP for the North Fast of Scotland, which includes Aberdeen, I am very pleased that this connection has been established, with Tom Devine, the eminent historian as the current Chair of the faculty. I would venture to suggest however that this is a very tardy development, and that such links should have been established decades ago. If we had not been so busy learning about our imperial past, we might have given more thought to our nearest neighbours, and our common endeavours. parallel aims and mutually fortifying achievements. In any case, the Institute of Irish and Scottish Studies will now allow us to explore across this narrow strip of water, how Scotland and Ireland can liaise in matters of trade, fishing, tourism, transport links, education, culture, the Gaelic language and indeed politics.

So moving on, I intend to give a brief synopsis of some recent events in the history of the SNP, then tell you a bit about the establishment and workings of the new Scottish Parliament, before outlining our party’s view of the way forward from here.

The Scottish National Party has been at the forefront of the campaign for Scottish self-determination for almost 70 years. The evolution of the SNP has been paralleled by the political evolution of Scotland herself —from an almost totally unionist country to a nation on the brink of independence.

In 1945 the party scored its first electoral victory when Dr Robert McIntyre was elected with 51.4% of the vote in a straight fight against the Labour Party at a by-election. Labour regained the scat shortly afterwards, at the General Election, and it was to be 21 years before the next SNP MP was elected. Nobody said it would be easy!

Nevertheless, nationalist sentiment throughout Scotland was growing. On Christmas Day in 1950 the Stone of’ Destiny on which the Kings of Scotland were crowned. was taken from Westminster Abbey and returned to Scotland by 4 Glasgow University students. They were led by Ian Hamilton, who stood as an SNP candidate in the Scottish Parliament elections in 1999 some 49 years later.

Throughout the 1960s membership rose and the party extended its base of support. The importance of this cannot he underestimated, because the SNP then as now received no money from big business or trade unions but relied totally on its membership for funds.

In 1966 the SNP fought its largest ever number of seats at a General Election and won 14.3% of the vote.

However the first real electoral breakthrough came in November 1967 when Winnie Ewing won a famous victory at the Hamilton by-election.

During her 3 years at Westminster, Winnie had an electrifying effect on Scottish politics. She subsequently represented Highlands and Islands in the European Parliament where she became known as Madame Ecosse. She now sits in the Scottish Parliament, and is a great source of support and encouragement to political newcomers, like myself.

During the 1970s the SNP launched one of its most influential campaigns — Its Scotland’s Oil. The perception that the Scottish people were being excluded from the economic benefits generated by the discovery of oil and gas in the North Sea transformed Scottish politics and gave the SNP a major boost in both membership and votes. The campaign strengthened the economic arguments in favour of independence and underscored the need for Scotland to control her own resources. This has been an important theme running though Scottish politics every since.

The General Elections in 1974 were a breakthrough for the SNP — with 7 MPs elected in February and 11 MPs elected in October. This massive leap forward forced the pace of the political debate and the Labour Government was compelled by public opinion to legislate for Scottish devolution.

In March 1979 a referendum on the Scotland Act took place, under the burden of the notorious 40% rule. It meant that devolution could not he passed by a simple majority hut required the support of 40% of the electorate. This resulted in a situation where people who wouldn’t or couldn’t vote (including the dead) were effectively counted as No voters. The Yes campaign won a majority hut only 32.9% of the electorate voted. When the Conservatives won the ensuing General Election, most commentators believed that the issue of Home Rule for Scotland was dead.

Indeed after the crushing disappointment and disillusionment of the referendum result, the SNP retained only 2 MPs, and the 1980s were a difficult time for the Party.

But it was not only the SNP who found this time difficult. The imposition of Tory policies by a government who had not been elected by the Scottish people (Scotland always returns a majority of Labour members), was widely seen as constituting a democratic deficit, which had to he addressed.

A revival followed, and the fortunes of the Party were once again on the up. Towards the end of the decade, the Party Conference passed a number of important policy decisions. committing themselves for example, to the use of civil disobedience to defy the Poll Tax and endorsing the policy of Independence in Europe. And in 1990 Alex Salmond became the new leader.

In the 1992 General Election the SNP gave its best performance since 1974. But this increased share of the national vote did not translate into increased seats because of the first past the post system used at Westminster elections.

On average in 1992, it took 23,324 votes to elect a Labour MP; 42,651 votes to elect a Liberal Democrat; 68,359 to elect a Conservative — and 209,851 votes to elect an SNP MP!!!!!! I’m sure from that you can guess our policy position on PR.

At the end of 1992 a European Summit was held in Edinburgh to mark Britain’s Presidency of the EU. Nothing could have so clearly demonstrated Scotland’s status as a nation without a voice and a remarkable 25,000 people demonstrated, demanding that the Scottish Parliament be recalled. The "Scottish Question" was far from settled.

The 1997 General Election saw the end of Tory dominance at Westminster and the first Labour government since the 1970s. In Scotland the Tories were quite simply wiped out — not a one left - and the strength of the SNP vote (22.1%) forced Labour to deliver on their promise to legislate for devolution early in the new Parliament. A referendum on the proposals for a Scottish Parliament, and whether it should have taxvarying powers, was held in September 1997.

The Referendum Campaign saw an unprecedented level of co-operation between the 3 main parties campaigning for a Yes/Yes vote, which many hailed as evidence that the new Scottish politics could, and should, break the adversarial Westminster mould.

On a turnout of over 60%, 74.3% of Scots voted Yes to a Scottish Parliament and 63.4% voted Yes to tax varying powers.

The first elections to a Scottish Parliament were set for May 1999. Some senior Labour politicians predicted that devolution would "kill off" the SNP - however their confidence was greatly misplaced.

Fought under different rules, which introduced an element of proportionality into the electoral system, the SNP could expect that their share of the vote would be translated into actual seats.

Any hopes people may have nurtured that the new Scottish politics would be more consensual and less confrontational than the Westminster model were shattered by that campaign. The SNP faced an unprecedented onslaught, not only from their unionist opponents, but also from the unionist owned Scottish media.

Under funded, under-staffed and underresourced, the SNP fought a hard campaign without the aid of focus groups or influential journalists. As always the party depended on its own members to drive the SNP campaign forward.

The result was 35 SNP members of the Scottish Parliament, 7 elected on the first part the post constituency vote and the remainder elected as additional members - enough to become the official opposition.

When the Scottish Parliament met for the first time on the 12th May 1999, it was given to Winnie Ewing, as the oldest member present, to open the proceedings. She did so with the words:

"The Scottish Parliament, adjourned on the 25th March 1707, is hereby re-convened."

The opening of our Parliament was a very different occasion from state openings of parliament at Westminster; no imperial pomp and circumstance; the Scottish crown not on the Queen’s head but set in the centre of the chamber as a symbol of the entire community; and the whole assembly singing Robert Burn’s song of egalitarian internationalism, inspired by the French revolution, "A Man’s a Man". It was, said one commentator, "a Scandinavian rather than a British day."

The Parliament itself looks as much a child of Europe as an institution sired by Westminster. It is elected proportionally, using the same constituency-list system as Germany. Unlike the House of Commons, its business is determined collectively — like most of Europe — by a Bureau. For internal appointments, it uses the d’Hondt system, invented by a Belgian. It has electronic voting. And it sits, not two sword lengths apart like the Commons, but in a classic European hemicycle. We speak, by the way, for 4 minutes which makes this speech approximately 10 times longer than my usual contributions.

Another principal is equal opportunity. I am proud to belong to a legislature where almost 40% of the Members are women. I would not be alone is saying that the culture of a legislature where there is near parity between the sexes is significantly less aggressive and more concerned with the practicalities of the issues.

And there is a determination across the parties that what we are building is an inclusive society to which all who live in Scotland can belong, regardless of their race, religion or colour.

I also mentioned accessibility. The very fact that we are back among our own people ensures that there is often a lively, and public debate, not least in the Scottish media, about issues before the Parliament. But all the business of the Parliament is available on our website which is updated overnight. So for the academics and students among you who have requested research papers, the Official Reports of proceedings, discussion documents on the new Parliament which we are building at Holyrood, I can reasonably say "Go to www.scottish.parliament.uk on the Internet." You will find everything in total transparency there.

So far, so good. However, let me be clear what devolution is. While we have virtually complete authority over our domestic business, foreign affairs, defence, social security, macro-economic policy and the constitution remain vested in Westminster.

The position of the SNP — the second largest party and the official opposition in Edinburgh — is that devolution is a stepping stone to Independence. Only independence and the real powers of a normal country will unlock Scottish resources and potential and make a difference to the quality of life for the people of Scotland. That is the message we will continue to preach, but we are not averse to getting there bit by bit. And it is becoming increasingly accepted that devolution is a process, not an event.

As Alex Salmond said at the opening ceremony of the Scottish Parliament on July 1st last year, "This is not the end of Scotland’s journey". We are moving all the time from dependence to independence — and there will be a restoration of Scottish democracy.

Scotland has not yet reached the end of the constitutional road — and neither in consequence has the rest of the UK.

And though not major determinants of Scottish identity, we have 3 languages:

English, Gaelic and the Scots Leid, which have also contributed to determining who we are. I am currently the President of the Scots Language Society.

Surveys as recently as earlier this year, confirm that Scots do not have the same difficulty with nationality as the English — only 9% of Scots residents describe themselves exclusively as British; 3% as more British than Scottish; 27% as equally British and Scottish; but 28% as more Scottish than British; and 32% as Scottish not British.

It was the Irish poet Yeats who said, "nationality is the velvet glove through which one reaches out to touch a wider world."

We are a party with a positive outlook on European and international co-operation. The Scots are back in Europe as a distinct entity.

We argue that Scotland — with roughly the same population and gross domestic product as Denmark — will be best served as an independent state within the European Union.

But how would we manage, you might ask? There are still probably 40 — 45 years of oil production in the North Sea. Since the 1970s thousands of millions more pounds of taxation went out of Scottish waters into the UK economy than we got back.

If you take OECD statistics quoted in the House of Commons, Scotland is number 7 in the league table of richest countries and Britain is number 18. The point is that Scotland is a rich country but not yet a rich society.

There is substantial poverty in my country and I want to see some of these resources used in the way they have been used in Norway, to guarantee a communitarian, caring, compassionate, socially just Scotland.

The crucial factor is to ensure that the economy of Scotland works to the lasting benefit of our people. That means power over fiscal policy. To illustrate that point, we have suffered recently from an extraordinarily strong pound. This is killing Scottish exports, in a country that lives by exports. If we don’t sell what we produce, the future is bleak. But British macro-economic policy, damping down our economy because the city of London is overheating, is having an extremely adverse effect in Scotland. It is treating us for an illness we don’t have.

The SNP is a moderate-left-of-centre party with its message in tune with the mainstream of Scottish tradition. So what then is involved in the process of transition to become a party of government in an independent Scotland? I think we need to have clearly understood policies that address the key concerns of the public. We also need to have a passionate and boundless ambition to raise the sights and the expectations of our people and to make our independent country a nation renowned for its fairness, its justice and its prosperity.

We want to encourage and promote an ambitious Scotland. We know that the people who live there have high hopes and high expectations — for themselves, their families and for their nation. But we need only look around Scotland to see that things must get better.

A nation where 350,000 children live in poverty is not a nation fulfilling its ambitions.

A nation where our old folk are forced to sell their homes to pay for their care is not a nation living up to its ambitions.

A nation where jobs are lost, hospital beds are closed and schools are crumbling — that is not an ambitious nation fulfilling its potential.

But the ambitions of our nation are constrained at the moment. Out nation can only deliver on its ambitions when the powers of our parliament are completed with independence, and when improving health, eradicating poverty, creating jobs and educating our children, become more than targets, when they become reality.

The Scottish people have invested a lot in their Parliament, but already there is a growing realisation that it has limited powers and in key areas, is totally subservient to Westminster. It is the job of the SNP to argue the case for an independent Parliament and to demand greater power for the parliament we have — power over key policy areas such as employment, welfare and broadcasting. The SNP believe that Scotland is in the process of moving towards Independence. It is our role to complete the transition from Scotland’s second party of government and in doing so to provide the Scottish people with a direct route to independence".

Irene McGugan MSP
2000-11-26

Irene McGugan, MSP was elected to the Scottish Parliament (NorthEast Scotland) in May 1999. She has been an SNP member for 20 years and led the campaign against the toll on Skye Bridge. She is Shadow Deputy Minister for Children and Education (which includes a remit for Sport, Broadcasting and Gaelic). She is a member of Rural Affairs and Equal Opportunities Committees.

 

 


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