Twenty years ago, one of the most momentous pieces of legislation to ever affect Scotland received Royal Assent and became law.
The Scotland Act 1998 set out to establish both the devolved Scottish Parliament with tax varying powers and the Scottish Executive (now Scottish Government), as a direct result of the referendum held in the year prior. The Scottish Parliament is nowadays seen by many as the country’s preeminent political institution, amplifying Scotland’s voice in the British establishment. Furthermore, its establishment was seen as a rejection of Thatcherism and a vision towards the future. In the present day, when the integrity of the Scottish Parliament is at risk and its authority overshadowed by the threat of a disastrous Brexit, it’s important to look back on just how far Scotland has come over the past two decades and to recognise the extent of the achievements of the Scottish Parliament.
The years running up to the millennium saw a growth in the feeling of discontent in Scotland towards the Westminster establishment, a large part of which arguably down to the election of Conservative governments for which Scotland elected relatively few MP’s. This all changed, however, in 1997. Tony Blair relished his political landslide which saw the Conservatives lose all their seats in Scotland, dropping to a mere 17.5% of the vote, much to the gain of his own party as well as the Scottish National Party. Blair’s newly formed government was elected on the manifesto commitment of granting Scotland a referendum for the creation of a devolved Scottish Parliament with tax-varying powers, thus, in September 1997 a referendum was held and Scotland voted overwhelmingly in favour. The first election to the Parliament took place in May 1999, with the devolved powers being officially handed over from the reigns of Westminster in July of the same year.
“The Scottish Parliament, adjourned on the 25th day of March in the year 1707, is hereby reconvened.” — Winnie Ewing.
The first election to the Scottish Parliament saw Donald Dewar become the first ever First Minister of Scotland. The Labour Party were still enjoying their position at the top of the polls, resulting in them winning more seats than any other party in the Parliament. A Labour-Lib Dem coalition was formed and the Parliament met for the very first time on 12 May.
The first session of the Scottish Parliament saw a total of 62 Bills being passed, becoming Acts of the Scottish Parliament. One of the first major moves of the Parliament was to successfully abolish the archaic system of feudal land tenure. In the year 2000 the Parliament brought an end to feudal superiorities and replaced it with a system of outright ownership, as well as officially putting an end to annual feu duties. Having passed in the year 2000 it is known as the first piece of land reform legislation to be passed in the 21st century. One of the most momentous achievements of the first Scottish Parliament was the repeal of Section 28 of Thatcher’s controversial Local Government Act 1988 — a clause which essentially made it illegal for schools to ‘intentionally promote homosexuality’ or to publish material with the intent of promoting homosexuality.
Most notably was that Section 28 was repealed by MSP’s in the Scottish Parliament three years earlier than it was repealed in the rest of the UK. A key pledge from the Lib Dems in the run up to the 1999 election was the abolition of tuition fees, thus in 2001 the coalition government scrapped up-front university tuition fees, widening access for Scottish students of all backgrounds to study in higher education. In its place was a new graduate endowment, meaning students would pay back a portion of their fees after graduating when earning above a certain threshold. Scottish students became the only students in the UK who became able to study at university without the obstacle of tuition fees.
The second election to the Parliament took place in 2003 which saw no change to the overall control of the Scottish Executive. In 2005, the Parliament passed the Smoking, Health and Social Care (Scotland) Act which made it a statutory offence to smoke in virtually all enclosed public spaces in Scotland. The Bill was introduced by Health Minster Andy Kerr, largely down to the campaigns of ASH Scotland (an independent charity which works to highlight the harms of tobacco & smoking) and was the first legislation of its kind to be passed in the United Kingdom. In April 2006, legislation came into force which would grant those over the age of sixty, and eligible disabled people, access to free-of-charge bus travel across Scotland.
The third election to the Parliament came in 2007, which saw the SNP gain 20 seats in the chamber, forming a minority government with support from the Greens. In 2008, the Scottish Parliament voted in favour of scrapping the graduate endowment which was introduced by the previous coalition government; a pledge of the SNP in their 2007 election manifesto, the abolition of the graduate endowment was focused on significantly reducing the burden of debt for those partaking in higher education and eradicating the so-called “backdoor tuition fee”, with Education Secretary Fiona Hyslop saying, “We believe access to education should be based on ability to learn, not ability to pay.”
A significant achievement of the Scottish Parliament came in 2011, with the scrapping of prescription charges, another key pledge of the Scottish National Party in the run up to the 2007 election. The legislation (which came into force on 1 April 2011), meant that prescribed medicines became free to all living in Scotland. It was reflective of similar legislation already passed in Wales and Northern Ireland, leaving only England to maintain such charges. Prescription charges were described by the (then) Scottish Health Secretary Nicola Sturgeon as a “tax o ill-health”. The implementation of free prescriptions came on the very same day that prescription charges in England rose by 20p, up to £7.40 per prescribed item. Just one month after this legislation came into force came the fourth election to the Scottish Parliament, with the SNP winning enough seats to form a majority government.
Legislation allowing same-sex marriage in England and Wales had already been passed in July 2013, with the Scottish Parliament passing similar legislation in February 2014, which was supported by the leader of each party in the Parliament. The Bill was passed by a large majority and came into force later that year. In January 2015 legislation was passed which would entitle all schoolchildren in Primary One to Three with access to free school meals, replacing the previous so-called ‘targeted’ system where only children whose family were in receipt of certain benefits would be entitled to free school meals. Later in 2015, the Parliament passed the Scottish Elections (Reduction of Voting Age) Act, which saw the voting age come down from 18 to 16 for Scottish Parliament and local elections, making Scotland the only part of the UK to enfranchise citizens under the age of 18.
The fifth election of the Scottish Parliament took place in 2016 which saw the SNP remain to be the largest party in the chamber, although losing their overall majority to the gain of the Scottish Conservatives. In 2017 the Scottish Government introduced their ‘Baby Box’ initiative, which would provide essential supplies to the parents of every new born child in the form of a ‘Moses Basket’, with the aim of reducing infant mortality and ensuring that every new born child in Scotland is given the same start in life. It was reported that in its first year running, over 52,000 baby boxes were supplied to the parents of Scotland’s newborns (averaging at 1000 baby boxes per week).
In November of 2017, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon published a Bill in the Parliament which would see thousands of gay men automatically pardoned for convictions under historical legislation which prohibited same-sex sexual activity. The Bill was passed with cross-party support and received Royal Assent in July 2018. To further the Scottish Government’s commitment to equality for all, Deputy First Minister John Swinney announced in November 2018 that Scotland was to become the first country in the world to have LGBTI-inclusive education embedded into the school curriculum — a move which would attempt to rectify some of the destruction caused by the aforementioned ‘Section 28’ legislation.
In just twenty years, Scotland has come so far. Regardless of your political allegiance, it’s undeniable that devolution has been incredibly important for Scotland. With Brexit on the horizon the political outlook for the country is becoming increasingly more uncertain. But if one thing’s for sure, it’s that with the help of our Scottish Parliament, we can continue to shape a fairer, more prosperous Scotland.🔷
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(This piece was originally published on the PMP Blog!.)