A Parliament in Scotland at last

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A Scottish Parliament at Last

Many Scots still see the 1980s and much of the 1990s as one of the darkest periods in modern history.

They regard the Conservative years as a wilderness era during which industries were destroyed, hundreds of thousands of people thrown onto the dole and the entire country used as an experimental zone for unpopular policies such as the poll tax.

Margaret Thatcher's time in Downing Street caused Scots to slip into a deep depression as the country found itself having to adjust to a massively painful economic upheaval.

Yet the long period of Tory rule has been followed by a remarkable period of change. Tony Blair's Labour government delivered on its promises to give Scotland its first parliament - albeit with limited powers, and still in the context of the United Kingdom - for the first time since the Act of Union in 1707.

When Margaret Thatcher took over as the leader of the Conservatives in the seventies, she quickly made it plain she was an arch-unionist who would have nothing to do with any form of Scottish devolution.

She came to power as Prime Minister in 1979, only weeks after Labour's referendum on a Scottish parliament had failed to produce the 40 per cent necessary to secure a yes vote. The issue of home rule, it seemed, was now completely off the agenda.

The Tories ensured that Scots soon had plenty of other things to take their minds off constitutional change. The Thatcher government tore apart the old order which had seen Scotland's traditional industries encouraged and its economy supported by state intervention.

Instead of being subsidised, lame duck industries were closed down, made to fend for themselves or sold off to the private sector. And other things that Scots held dear to their hearts - low rent council houses, for example - were sold off in a revolutionary right-to-buy scheme which would give people the chance to own their own homes for the first time.

Tories saw the changes as a necessary assault on the Scottish dependency culture, while their opponents viewed these policies as an outright attack on traditional Scottish values.

The effect of the changes on Scotland's economy was dramatic. There was hardly a traditional industry north of the border which did not find itself under threat from the government's refusal to bail out companies which were no longer commercially viable.

Some of the first and biggest casualties were the giant manufacturing plants which had been established in Scotland during the fifties and sixties. The car plants at Linwood and Bathgate and the giant aluminium smelter at Invergordon became casualties of the Thatcher revolution, throwing thousands onto the dole and causing misery and despair.

The biggest industrial icon of them all, the giant Ravenscraig steel plant, lasted a little longer, though it was no longer viable in an increasingly globalised and cost efficient steel market. When British Steel was privatised in the mid 80s, the decision was taken to run down the plant, and it finally closed its doors in 1992.

The Tory policy which caused the most fury, however, was the poll tax. Thatcher decided to use Scotland as a launch pad for her radical change to the way local government was funded.

The plan was to ensure that everyone paid their share towards council services, but the scheme caused fury because it took absolutely no account of income - the duke and the dustman had to shell out exactly the same amount of money, regardless of the huge disparity in their wealth.

Hundreds of thousands of people simply refused to pay the tax, leading to a headache for councils and a nightmare for the government. When Thatcher was ousted from the Tory leadership in 1990 and replaced by John Major, the hated poll tax was the first of her policies to be quickly abandoned.

As frustration with Conservative attitudes towards Scotland mounted during the eighties, so pressure for a parliament began to grow again.

The full extent of Scottish anger at Tory policies became clear in the 1987 general election, in which the Tories lost 11 of their 21 Scottish seats.

The, the following year, the case for devolution took a massive step forward when the firebrand SNP politician Jim Sillars won a by-election in Glasgow Govan, overturning a huge Labour majority to take the seat for the nationalists.

Sillars' victory made the Labour party realise - just as it had in the seventies - that it had to take serious steps to try and secure a Scottish parliament if it was to head off an SNP advance.

The result of the nationalists' Govan victory was the establishment by Labour, the Liberal Democrats and other interest groups - the Conservatives and SNP refused to take part - of a constitutional convention designed to draw up a cross party framework for a Scottish parliament. Its final report, launched in 1995, established the foundations for the 129-member body we have today.

Many Scots thought that Thatcher's replacement by John Major as Prime Minister meant that the Conservatives would soften their hard line towards Scotland.

They were to be proved wrong. Despite the obvious will of the Scottish people for constitutional change, Major was as stubborn as his predecessor in opposing any measure of home rule. In 1995 he even went as far as to appoint Michael Forsyth, the hard-line right-winger regarded as one of Thatcher's favourite henchmen, as Secretary of State for Scotland.

In fact, Forsyth turned out to be a good deal more sensitive to Scottish interests than anyone had expected: he even carried out the audacious step of returning the Stone of Destiny to Scotland in 1996.

However, the die was cast. Scots were preparing to take their revenge on the Tories for what they saw as a generation of misrule over Scotland and at the general election of 1997, they took it.

Labour stormed to victory with a 179-seat victory at Westminster, but it was in Scotland where the punishment against the Tories was handed out most strongly. They lost every one of their 10 Scottish seats, with voters kicking out Forsyth as well as other government heavyweights such as Foreign Secretary Malcolm Rifkind and Trade Secretary Ian Lang.

Labour's landslide win installed Tony Blair as Prime Minister - yet it was only a twist of fate which installed the Edinburgh-educated Labour leader into Downing Street instead of one of his colleagues.

Until 1994, the man leading the Labour party and destined to take over from Major was John Smith, MP for the Lanarkshire seat of Monklands and a dyed-in-the-wool Scot for whom a Scottish parliament was a personal crusade - or, as Smith himself put it "unfinished business". Yet tragically, Smith died of a heart attack while still in opposition.

In the leadership contest which followed, Blair emerged as the clear winner, and he made it clear that he regarded the establishment of a Scottish parliament as a priority.

His announcement that there would be another referendum to approve the change caused some anger, but the result in the 1997 vote on the issue was absolutely decisive - 72 per cent of Scots opted for a parliament, with 60 per cent agreeing in a second question that it should be given tax-raising powers. There was no 40 per cent rule this time, but even if there had been, it would have easily been passed.

And the rest, as they say, is history. The Scots went to the polls to vote in their first parliamentary elections since 1707. The outcome - Labour as the largest single party, but able to secure a majority only through a coalition with the Liberal Democrats - was a thoroughly democratic one, laying the ground for a new, unpredictable, and consensual style of politics.

The birth of the new parliament was not easy, and it still has some way to go before it fulfils the hopes that have been invested in it by the voters. But it is a powerful and meaningful symbol of this country's new place in the world, and of its desire to shape a better future for all Scotland's people.

A new parliament, its own politicians, a re-invigorated people: Scotland is, as we turn this millennium, unquestionably a nation again. Our path into the future is still far from certain, but, as one of Europe's oldest and proudest countries, we will tread it with confidence and fortitude.

The past 1000 years have been divisive, exciting, colourful, bloody, joyful, difficult and a million things besides. Above all, they have been fascinating, and have forged the character of Scots as a people.

How wonderful it would have been if we could have lived through all of those thousand years. And how wonderful it will be if the next thousand years are even half as interesting as the last millennium has been.


Meanwhile...

  • 1988 Australia's bicentenary - celebrations mark the arrival of the first Europeans
  • 1988 Salman Rushdie's, "Satanic Verses" is publishes
  • 1988 President Reagan and President Gorbachev sign the INF Treaty, agreeing to eliminate all medium-range land-based weapons
  • 1988 Sandy Lyle becomes the first British golfer to win the US Masters
  • 1988 A PanAm 747 airliner explodes over Lockerbie in Dumfriesshire, killing all passengers and crew, and 11 people on the ground
  • 1990 Glasgow becomes European City of Culture
  • 1992 British Steel closes the Ravenscraig Steelworks

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