Varied Surroundings

There is more to being human than travelling around the world sampling its many delights, and recent reading has taken me deeper into subjects like philosophy. Though I am a scientist by training, the humanities continue to appeal to me, and various life events have led me to explore them more than otherwise might have been the case. That is now the main thrust of what you find here, along with other things that have a use in navigating life’s journey.

A Parliament in Its Second Decade

Somewhat frighteningly for me, more than two decades have elapsed since the restoration of Scotland's parliament. Back then, I was living in Scotland and so witnessed this dramatic political development near enough to my doorstep. So, here is my personal-potted history of the institution, with a summary timeline of events at the bottom of the page.

Constitutional Arrangements

Westminster's parliament may continue to hold sway over many matters, but Holyrood makes the real decisions over bread and butter issues that affect everyday life, such as education, health and transport. Reserved areas such as foreign policy are still controlled by the U.K. parliament at Westminster in London, with Scotland being represented at the U.K. government level by the Secretary of State for Scotland.

Returning to domestic affairs, the passage of Scotland's enlightened countryside access legislation into law has proved to be a devolution dividend, as has been the reopening of a number of railway lines in the Central Belt. We only can hope that the enlightenment has staying power. After all, Scotland now has the capability to do things differently.

Until now, that different way has been restricted to matters of a purely domestic nature with only the recent compassionate release of Abdelbaset Ali Mohamed al-Megrahi, the only person ever convicted for the bombing of Pan Am 103 over Lockerbie, bringing it to considerable international notice. The decision that was made is not something that I could see a U.K. government doing and has raised hackles in places, with the U.S.A. being understandably vocal. It all puts Jack McConnell's certain fondness for Malawi into context, a development that might have raised a few eyebrows at the time (mostly belonging to those worried about there being any fraying of the constitutional fabric of the U.K.) but nowhere approaching the extent that Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill's announcement did.

The 2011 election did raise another conundrum of a constitutional nature. Thanks to both Labour and the Liberal Democrats doing poorly, the SNP has formed a majority government. That brought forward the prospect of a referendum on Scottish Independence. After all, this is a manifesto commitment for the SNP, but it also needs the Scottish Government to work with their Westminster counterparts, the Conservative/Liberal Democrat coalition, to make it happen. So, the nationalist Edinburgh and unionist London governments need to discuss this following a spot of positioning earlier this year, producing a stated date of autumn 2014 for the referendum. Apparently, there appears to be a majority in favour of greater devolution as opposed to independence at the time of writing.

Alex Salmond would like that to be on the ballot paper, but his opponents prefer a simpler yes/no question of whether Scotland should be independent. Could the lack of the so-called "Devo Max" option on a ballot paper result in a vote for independence? It wouldn't be the first time that a Westminster government bungled home rule, and it happened both in Ireland and in America. These look like interesting times, and the outcome of an independence referendum will be no less so.

An Open Sore Healed? (1979-1999)

In contrast to the higher stakes of deciding for or against nationhood, the campaign for a devolved Scottish Parliament seems an altogether different one. Thanks to the efforts of the late John Smith, Tony Blair's Labour government remained committed to, as Winnie Ewing put it, reconvening a Scottish Parliament even if the then prime minister himself was lukewarm about the proposal.

After the failed referendum of 1979, there had been a growing clamour for the parliament's re-establishment and years of Conservative government had accentuated this, particularly due to what happened when Margaret Thatcher was prime minister. In contrast to its predecessor eighteen years before, the September 1997 referendum was held by a strong Labour government and was pre-legislative as well. There were no such hobbles as the requirement for 40% of the electorate needing to support devolution, as was the case in 1979; this was the price of support from MP's in the north-east of England. Then, turnout was 63.8% with 51.6% of those supporting devolution. Since that meant only 32.9% of the electorate, the referendum failed. In 1997, turnout was lower at 60.4% but 74.5% of these voted for devolution and 63.5% supported tax-raising powers.

The first election of the reconvened parliament was held on 6th May 1999 and that's the date you see in the banner above. Behind the banner is the New College of the University of Edinburgh, home to the new parliament until its more permanent residence was built at Holyrood. The photo was taken a few days before that historic election, and it seemed that there was a real buzz in the air too. It was a far cry from the dissolution of the previous parliament in dubious circumstances in 1707. Then, bribery was suspected and two Jacobite rebellions followed in 1715 and 1745. With the coming of devolution, that got consigned to history without any sense of unfinished business, and a brief summary of important intervening events follows.

Timeline to Restoration

Labour/Liberal Democrat Coalitions (1999-2007)

The new Scottish Parliament opened at its temporary home in May 1999 with the swearing-in of the new parliament members, known as MSP's, and the election of the Presiding Officer and the two Deputy Presiding Officers. Sir David Steel, a.k.a. Lord Steel, was elected as presiding officer. On the following day, the late Donald Dewar was elected as First Minister. Despite these activities, the parliament was not fully operational until after the first day in July 1999 when it was officially opened by Queen Elizabeth.

With the glorious return out of the way, there was a shaky start to the re-established Scottish governance. Two First Ministers in as many years, one through health and another through scandal. Donald Dewar, who seemed to be a father of devolution, died as a result of a brain haemorrhage on October 11th 2000. His successor, Henry McLeish, had to resign due to financial irregularities connected to his constituency office. He was replaced by Jack McConnell, who then was First Minister until May 2007.

Elections in 2003 resulted in the re-election of the Labour-Liberal Democrat coalition, a decrease in the number of MSP's from the Scottish National Party and an increase in the representation of smaller parties such as the Scottish Socialist Party and the Green Party. The retirement of Sir David Steel allowed for a new presiding officer, but it still had to await its ever more expensive permanent home near Holyrood Palace in Edinburgh.

The budget overruns and political wrangling (MSP's thought they weren't getting enough office space) ensured that the new building attracted a considerable share of controversy. The design was contentious too and seemed a world away from the more usual building styles seen around the host city. Nevertheless, the edifice did get completed and is now being used for the intended purpose, even if it did open with its architect having died. Hopefully, it'll become part of the Edinburgh environment now and no one will object to its being there.

SNP Rule (2007-)

2007's election saw a resurgence of SNP fortunes at the expense of smaller parties and Labour. The result was a minority SNP administration with Alex Salmond at its head. A consequence of this is that the issue of Scottish independence reared its head to a greater degree than before and the SNP is asserting its influence with the new title of Scottish Government in place of the previous label of "Scottish Executive", a perhaps more apt title considering its lack of a governing majority.

With all the furore surrounding expenses revelations engulfing the U.K. Parliament, any marking of the tenth birthday of the Scottish Parliament was bound to be swamped, at least outside of Scotland. 2009 was also the year of Homecoming Scotland, timed to coincide with the 250th anniversary of the birth of Robert Burns and with many events organised to attract the Scottish diaspora back to the home country, but the rest of us were no less welcome either. As if the focus on Westminster affairs weren't enough to ensure a lower-key commemoration, there was an economic downturn and an outbreak of the H1N1 strain of influenza. None of those prevented the Scottish Parliament from organising some events.

As remarked earlier, 2011 saw the continued rise of the SNP with their being able to form a majority government for a five-year fixed term (it was extended from four years to avoid a clash with the Westminster election in 2015), something that some suspect that the proportional representation system of voting was supposed to prevent. That had made possible an independence referendum that the previous SNP administration couldn't get through parliament. It has meant engagement with the U.K. government and really makes Scottish constitutional affairs more interesting. Only time can tell what is going to happen.