The Scotland Act at 25

Political guru Brian Taylor previews The Wigtown Book Festival's exclusive panel on the landmark legislation that shaped Scotland.

7 August 2023
Headshot of Brian Taylor.

Panel: The Scotland Act, 25 Years On - Brian Taylor, Henry McLeish, Liz Smith & Nicola Sturgeon

Firstly, it would be good to have a bit of an outline of what you will be covering in your event.

We have become accustomed to the Scottish Parliament as part of our political, constitutional, cultural and social landscape.

I hope the Wigtown event will remind us all that the reconvening of Scotland’s Parliament – to borrow a phrase from the late Winnie Ewing – was a truly remarkable event.

Perhaps, too, by glancing back, we can ponder what might emerge in the future.

I would hope to examine the original intentions of the Act – and discuss to what extent those have been fulfilled.

After that how about a bit of time travel. What did the Brian of 1998 think the Scotland Act would bring for Scotland's future?

I have covered Scottish politics since Braveheart was a boy. Including every twist and turn of the prolonged constitutional debate.

Indeed, it is said that devolution resembles evolution. It just takes longer.

More seriously, I would place the 1998 Act in the context of the cross-party Constitutional Convention which preceded it.

Debates in the Convention were frequently arcane. Progress, at times, seemed grimly slow. But still the structure laid down by the Convention is plainly discernible in the Scotland Act of 1998.

I believed in 1998 that the body politic in Scotland would be transformed. To be clear, there was always distinctive politics in Scotland. The 1998 Act provided a different shape to that distinct nature.

What have the most notable outcomes been?

Parliaments generally have three functions: to legislate, to hold a governing Executive to account, and to ventilate issues of concern to the electorate.

I believe that perhaps two cheers can be afforded to the Scottish Parliament in that regard.

It certainly ventilates issues of concern – from the state of our health service to the (much improved) state of our national football team.

Holyrood also scrutinises our devolved Scottish Government and, prior to that, the Executive. There was scrutiny of Scottish governance at Westminster, often effective scrutiny. But it was sporadic and variable.

The scrutiny now is more sustained. I would encourage MSPs to enhance this role, regardless of partisan concerns.

Legislation too has been effective – with some exceptions. In the earliest days, there was perhaps an eagerness to experiment with the new legislative powers.

Again, I would encourage all MSPs to consider whether legislation is merited – and what shape it should take. Be more quizzical.

Has the Act brought unintended consequences and for whom?

Westminster has had to adapt to the new settlement. Departments of State in Whitehall have to be repeatedly reminded that their remit is – and probably always was – limited.

There have been political consequences. The Conservatives were deeply in the doldrums, losing every Scottish Westminster seat in 1997. They have revived through devolution and through the proportional voting system for Holyrood elections. Both, incidentally, policies they opposed.

The Scotland Act was secured by a UK Labour Government. I do not suppose they envisaged that their role as the leading Scottish party would be usurped by the SNP at the Holyrood election in 2007, and since.

How much has Scottish politics been shaped by the electoral system used by the Scottish Parliament?

I think it has made a substantial difference, altering the colour and texture of the Parliament. It has given a place to diverse parties. The Greens and, previously, the Scottish Socialists.

The system has its critics. Some dislike the role of parties in listing candidates for the second vote. But it has achieved its objective: to match seats gained more closely with votes obtained.

How has Westminster adapted to and accommodated the consequences of the Scotland Act?

One big change has been with regard to the consideration of Scottish issues within the UK Government.

These were previously the responsibility of the Scottish Office. Now rebranded the Scotland Office, their role has completely changed.

Mostly, they have scrutinised events at Holyrood – and reacted accordingly.

Of course, the UK Government, including the Scotland Office, retain a critical role in determining the Block Grant which partly funds Holyrood.

More recently, the UK Government has taken pains to remind people in Scotland that they have two governments, at Westminster and Holyrood. We have witnessed initiatives to underline this point by, for example, channelling funds directly to Scottish projects, rather than through Holyrood.

We have also seen the exercising of UK power through, for example, the move to block the Gender Recognition Reform Act.