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Devolution delivers

Labour’s first minister Jack McConnell on devolved government in the 300 year union.


hese three centuries have seen the bitter struggles of the early 18th century, the Scottish enlightenment; industrial changes, the growth of the Empire in the 19th century and the world wars and the creation of a modern democratic welfare state in the 20th. During that time Scotland’s relationship with, and identity within, the UK continues to provoke debate, analysis and controversy.

In 1999 the devolution of legislative and administrative powers from Westminster to Scotland was a monumental reform of the United Kingdom. Coupled with the creation of a Welsh Assembly, an Assembly and Mayor for London, the peace process in Northern Ireland - these were arguably the greatest constitutional changes inside the UK for 300 years.

In Europe, in North America and further afield, people look at the development of devolution and marvel at the way such a centralised state as the UK could change so significantly, so smoothly and so swiftly. But we did, and despite the best efforts of a minority on both sides of the border to whip up discontent, devolution is now accepted.

Devolution was always a process rather than an event. Current debate shows that opinions will differ on further change. Constitutional navel gazing will not be a priority in the 2007 Scottish Parliamentary elections – the most difficult for Scottish Labour for a generation. Devolution is about turning Scotland into a more confident and successful place; about lifting Scots from poverty; and about challenging inequality and discrimination.

In an article in Chartist one year after devolution, Gerry Hassan’s review was mildly depressing. It was a story of high public expectation ebbing away in a backlash of disenchantment and disillusion; of debate and controversy, but not much progress. Hassan identified the need to craft a narrative around a different Scotland with a different future. Now, seven years on, the itch is not because devolution is irritating, it is there because demonstrable progress has been made and we are itching for further, radical improvement.

In aspects of politics, economics and in culture, Scotland has taken a different path to the rest of the UK. There are of course the headline policy differences.

While the new Parliament under Labour leadership brought in radical land reform and other measures, the first years of devolution were primarily about paying to provide more. The abolition of university tuition fees and the re-instatement of the student grant. The provision of free personal care to older people who needed it. As devolution has developed, the most impressive progress has been about changing the culture of Scotland and looking further to the future than most governments ever do. We made a firm decision in 2004 to ban smoking in all public places. Now, three months after its implementation it enjoys widespread public support and near complete compliance. I argued that we had to take radical action because Scottish health was among the worst in Europe. It was affecting our economic productivity and sapping our confidence as a country. It was a bold step, but one which will make the single biggest contribution to improving public health for a generation.

We have also created a national full time youth volunteering programme, to give young Scots an additional option in the choices facing them when leaving school. It has been massively oversubscribed. Based on the ‘Americorps’ model – Project Scotland provides youngsters with experiences that aren’t so easy to come by if you are disadvantaged. It builds civic responsibility and entrenches a feeling of national belonging.

Enterprise education has been a quiet revolution in the Scottish classroom. Our internationally recognised programme, Determined to Succeed (DtS) has engaged Scottish entrepreneurs and corporate Scotland in a way never achieved before. This will help young Scots to start and build businesses, and encourage ambition, creativity and teamwork. And, alongside our distinctive Schools of Ambition programme, it is now expanding and improving options in those schools where too many fall behind. Where Holyrood has led Westminster is now following.

Perhaps the most significant policy divergence with the rest of the UK has been our drive to attract Fresh Talent to live and work in Scotland. Population decline has inspired a series of actions to reverse that trend. We want to encourage young Scots to stay and attract more people to settle in Scotland. To achieve our goal, we have negotiated significant changes in the UK immigration system to suit Scotland’s needs (a first for a power completely reserved to Westminster). Now, new flexibilities for overseas students studying in Scotland and a managed migration scheme for Scotland are helping deliver a net inflow of people settling in Scotland. The numbers of Scots graduates choosing to stay has leapt from 79% to 89%. Attracting Fresh Talent is about more than just changing our population trends. It is about the kind of Scotland we are and creating the conditions for a modern 21st century country.

It is about political leaders saying that greater cultural diversity will make Scotland a better, more enterprising, and more successful place. Alongside our efforts to combat racism and sectarianism, we can build a different – and better – country.

These initiatives in our second term have given the Scots and their politicians the confidence to take far reaching decisions compared with the tentative which typified the first few years of devolution. We are now changing what it is to be Scottish.

Our third term must take this further, offering radical options for those youngsters not yet in education, volunteering, training or employment. We will build on Labour’s goal of ending child poverty.

Our aim is a Scotland where equal worth, social solidarity, individual ambition and enterprise, cultural confidence and diversity are the reality for all.

Jack McConnell MSP is First Minister of Scotland