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The Working Life of Christina McKelvie MSP
23rd March 2011

On September the 11th 1997 Scotland voted for the re-establishment of the Scottish Parliament. Not a full Parliament but a legislature with restricted powers, its movement hedged about with ‘do not enter’ signs; we weren’t given the option of full independence – plus ça change, plus c'est la męme chose! We also voted for Parliament to have restricted, very restricted, tax powers; we weren’t given any further options there, either. In 1998 the legislation was passed at Westminster that re-established the Scottish Parliament – not only ringed with prohibitions but also a creature of statute of another legislature. The Parliament envisaged by the framers of that legislation was formed out of the deliberations of the Constitutional Convention, a body the SNP did not participate in as a result of the absolute, point-blank refusal of the other parties to discuss independence. They should have known that you cannot hold back a river with a twig.

In 1999 the first election to our renewed democracy nudged things a little. Almost imperceptibly at first, the Scottish people began to look to our own Parliament, our own legislature, first. Holyrood became the place we all looked to for action before we considered looking furth of Scotland. Westminster, Brussels and Strasbourg became a little more distant, politics and law-making became a little more real for every individual and every group and every community in Scotland. Little by little the wheel turned; bit by bit the rainbow of Holyrood began to outshine the dull grey of Westminster. Labour was still in power in Scotland, continuing the long, slow choke of Labour rule that had been the case in Scotland’s councils for half a century – but that hand was being prised away, that choke-hold was being eased day by day, Scotland could begin to breathe again.

When Donald Dewar died Labour lost one of the shining lights it had in Holyrood (I’m not one for the hagiography of Dewar which was trumpeted after his death but I will allow that he had an intellect); and Labour had already denied itself the services of people like Denis Canavan through its bizarre loyalty test. As Labour Members with some character fell by the wayside that diminution of its potency became more and more marked. John McAllion, someone who tended to stand up for what he believed in, went when he was beaten by Shona Robison; Sam Galbraith, a brutal politician who I don’t believe kept to principle but who was very effective, retired; Henry McLeish, not the greatest star ever to shine but a man who honestly had a vision for Scotland and a belief that our country could be better, left elected life under a bit of a cloud – something which he has since cleansed himself of with continuing sterling public service. Interestingly, I think, that shrinking of the philosophical Labour base in Holyrood from Donald Dewar to Iain Gray has been mirrored by a shrinking of its philosophical base in Westminster – contrast the Westminster Labour benches of 1997 with the equivalent today. Even more starkly, ask where the latter-day Robin Cook or Tony Benn is or even, whisper it softly, the new John Reid.

Labour’s shrinking has rolled on but it is not the shrinking of Scotland; Scotland has outgrown it and now outshines it and can never be grasped in that hand again. Scotland’s Parliament has flexed its muscle, found elbow room on issues, found new ways to work and radical new paths to take – and we’ve led the way time after time, forging ahead and choosing new directions, putting social justice back at the heart of Scottish politics, making Scotland a more collectivist place, a better place to live. Holyrood has had four Presiding Officers (I count Winnie, she was really the first) and four First Ministers – Donald Dewar, Henry McLeish, Jack McConnell and now Alex Salmond – our Parliament has developed and grown and keeps stretching the chrysalis, determined to realise its fullness.

The SNP winning the third Scottish election by one seat was a watershed, the trickle turned into a rush as the stodgy majority coalition Scottish Executive became the nimble and quick minority single party Scottish Government. No more would Ministerial decisions be steamrollered through Parliament courtesy of the whips; now majorities would have to be negotiated day by day, vote by vote, negotiation by negotiation; and with the only two parties who would form a majority if they reached agreement on the issues being the SNP Government and the Labour majority opposition (and with Labour willing to vote against everything it said it stands for just to inflict a defeat on the SNP) it meant that nearly every vote required more than two parties to agree. It was said it would never last, that the Government would fall within weeks and then within months. As it became clear that the skills of our Ministerial team and the tireless work of Bruce Crawford and his team would mean that this Government would not fall, the tactics of the opposition changed – they couldn’t bring the Government to its knees, they couldn’t force it off-course, they couldn’t force the agenda in Parliament so they took it out of Parliament. They created the Calman Commission; set up, like the old Constitutional Convention, to deliberately block the preferred SNP position of independence. That’s bad enough when it’s a major political party in the country which is excluded, and worse when it’s the party that has constitutional change at the heart of its policy platform. It’s incredibly barren when that party has become the party of government in Scotland and the first party to plough a lone furrow since the advent of devolution.

Scotland’s party was excluded, Scotland’s other strong voices were not even engaged as they were in the Constitutional Convention – no Kenyon Wright, just Kenneth Calman, little or no input from Scotland’s unions, Scotland churches, Scotland’s member organisations, Scotland’s councils. Scotland civic voices were stilled for the Calman Commission and the Calman Commission created a report which was wan and pale, with little of substance. No visionary, radical path for Scotland mapped out here, no reimagining of Scotland’s possible futures, nothing of any great substance. This wasn’t anywhere near as forceful as the Claim of Right for Scotland, nothing like as powerful as the report of the Constitutional Convention, it was an arranging of the deckchairs on the liner that had been left back in port as we headed out on the good ship Scotland. The new Scotland Bill is now wending its way through Westminster, our creature of statute being modified by another statute – and it’s tinkering, it’s moving a wee power to Holyrood, taking another power back to Westminster, they’ve said it gives us greater tax powers – it just imposes a tax straitjacket on us, it’s not a block grant and it’s fiscal autonomy. They’re trying to hook us back in, to control what they no longer understand, but they’ve missed the point.

This is no longer a creature of statute, it is no longer waiting quietly by for permission to think. Scotland’s Parliament, re-established by the will of the Scottish people and now growing as a result of an election decision of the Scottish people, is growing and finding its own way. The election of an SNP Government in 2007 drove Scotland forward in a way that was never imagined before, they’d never considered that we’d elect people who had a passion and a drive to make Scotland better, they never knew that it was possible, they never knew that Scots had the capacity to rebel, to take control of our own lives and decide for ourselves where our nation is headed. They never knew then – well, they ken noo!

We’re headed into the fourth election for Holyrood, the third Parliament has ended, the term of the first SNP Scottish Government has run its course and we have a record to defend (a very, very good record) and now it’s time for Scotland’s people to decide again, time to choose the next part of our future, and time to map a long-term direction of travel. It’s time for us to put our case and debate the issues, time for us to point to the weaknesses in the case made by the opposition, and time for us to put ourselves in the hands of our fellow Scots. I go into this election with a sense of hope and a sense of purpose, a determination to do the best for my country; and I go into this election with confidence and with some caution. I believe we can and will win but the decision is in the hands of the people across the country with their ballot papers in hand. There’s a lot of work to do and a lot of work I’m looking forward to doing. We can make Scotland better and drive on to independence, Scotland is waiting.

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