I spent over five years in the run up to the Scottish Parliament referendum in 1997 working in the STUC to deliver its “Power for Change’ report. We didn’t want a new Scottish Parliament for the sake of it, or simply to add direct democracy to the powers of the Scottish Office. We wanted power for a purpose, to make the economy and our society different and better.
The campaign for devolution had existed for some time but it took on a new energy and urgency with the election of a right-wing Tory Government that broke the post-war consensus and unleashed an ideological attack on the gains for working people won by the labour and trade union movement. The list of the Tory attacks on the poorer in favour of the richer is a long one. None more so than their war on the miners. The forces of the state were aimed at destroying entire communities whose life and culture revolved around the pit.
The Poll Tax, introduced in Scotland a year before being rolled out in England and Wales as a result of pressure from Scottish Tories replaced a rates system based on property value with a tax per individual. This was a regressive tax with large families in smaller houses subsidising the rich.
We also witnessed what organised Labour could do to mitigate this – Trade Unions rallied round and Labour Councils offered support to defend, and literally even feed, those who were at the sharp end of the Thatcher boot. But we knew more could be done. We knew a Scottish Parliament with real power would be able not only to protect and defend working class communities in Scotland but also expand and create new and better opportunities.
The Campaign for a Scottish Assembly gave birth to the Scottish Constitutional Convention to push for Scottish devolution. All of Scotland’s mainstream political parties, except the Tories, supported it. They were backed by Scottish local government as well as trades unions, business organisations, the voluntary sector and churches. History records that it did not take long for the SNP to walk out – taking an ‘all or nothing’ approach.
And so, twenty years ago the referendum on devolution was won and the Scottish Parliament established in 1999. The nation was hopeful and optimistic that the Parliament would grow and mature, building on our reputation as providing a world-leading education system, a population with a strong work ethic and a belief that we should care for those less fortunate. A nation that did not pass by on the other side. Early signs were good – legislation to protect and promote the rights of adults with incapacity, land reform legislation improving land access, giving communities the right to buy their land and the crofting community the right to own. We passed legislation on homelessness that was widely recognised as being the most radical in Europe.
Then in 2007 – ten years ago, the SNP formed a minority government. They relied, ironically on the Conservative and Unionist Party to pass each of their four budgets.
Over the past 10 years we have heard the SNP complain that they do not have enough power – while refusing to use the powers they have.
Following the independence referendum in 2014 and the Scotland Act 2016 the Scottish Parliament has a raft of new powers available to it. The power to set rates and thresholds of income tax, to help carers and enhance disability benefits. These are real fiscal responsibilities on top of existing Parliamentary powers. Yet the SNP have steadfastly refused to exercise these powers – indeed their instinct on tax is to cut it – and to cut it for the rich. Remember their promise to cut corporation tax to 3% less than in the rest of the UK and their current proposal to cut Air Passenger Duty? These would benefit most the richest in our society, whilst they contemplate the future of concessionary travel for our older citizens.
Meanwhile over a quarter of a million children are living in poverty, our educational standards are falling, our NHS is crying out for investment and too many people are in precarious jobs with low pay and zero or minimal hour contracts.
Those that had the vision the passion and the energy to fight for a Scottish Parliament did so to erect a buttress against uncaring and out of touch Tory Governments. They never anticipated that a Scottish Government would be a conveyor belt for Tory cuts. That’s what the SNP in office has done by cutting the wages to the workers who deliver these and other important public services and the public .
Those who gallantly fought for the creation of the new Scottish Parliament throughout the 1980’s and 1990’s did so precisely because we wanted a distinctive economic, political and social path for Scotland. This was at no time more important than when the Tories were in power. So now is the time for the Parliament to use all the powers that it has for the purpose of growing jobs and industry sustainably, of investing in not cutting public services and the workers who deliver them, and start seriously acting to close the growing inequality gap which has widened over the last decade.
The new Parliament is now 20 years old. It is time for it to rediscover its purpose and use its power for change.