The Scottish Parliament Election – 25 years on

Election night 1997. The tv room at the count in Chesterfield. Two people in the room – me and Tony Benn who was eating a white chocolate magnum and ignoring me. He might have been ignoring me because I was blubbing a bit because I was so happy that we were finally, after years of campaigning, going to have a Scottish Parliament.

The cross-party co-operation that had built the case for that Parliament across political and civil society was a great model. The Conservatives opposed the idea but even the SNP were eventually persuaded to come on board.

Fast forward two years to 6 May 1999 when the first elections to the new Parliament took place, with a nice shiny new proportional electoral system. 129 MSPs, 73 representing constituencies and 56 on regional lists were elected. The campaign had seen Alex Salmond and the SNP get into disfavour for not backing the NATO airstrikes on Kosovo aimed at stopping the humanitarian disaster and ethnic cleaning.  Paddy Ashdown and the Lib Dems were strongly in favour of this action.

Our big issue was tuition fees – we opposed Labour’s plans to introduce them and were very clear about our position on that. And we honoured that.

I couldn’t vote in this election because I lived in England. In fact, on election day, I was, at 37 weeks pregnant,  running a committee room in Chesterfield whee we boosted our Councillor numbers from 9 to 19.  Those were very happy times.

However, I was very invested in what was happening back home. I was up at the crack of dawn watching the final results come in the next day.

The Scottish people had elected 56 Labour MSPs, 35 SNP, 18 Conservative, 17 Liberal Democrats, 2 Greens and a Socialist. The whole system was meant to encourage co-operation and no party was meant to have a majority.

The coalition that eventually emerged after a few twists and turns between us and Labour did some amazing things in its 8 years – abolition of tuition fees, free personal care, free eye and dental checks, land reform, STV for local Government among them. It wasn’t perfect, but it was a functional partnership that was prepared to wring the neck of the powers we had to get stuff done. Our Jim Wallace was Deputy First Minister and Ross Finnie became Rural Affairs Minister.

Alex Cole-Hamilton reflected on the anniversary:

I am proud of the part Scottish Liberal Democrats played in delivering a Scottish Parliament and in the successes we have delivered through it.

In government, the Scottish Liberal Democrats delivered pioneering legislation like the abolition of upfront tuition fees, the introduction of free personal care and the smoking ban. We also legislated for the building of the Borders Railway, gave communities the right to buy land, made dental and eye tests free, introduced free bus passes, and opened up the business of government to proper scrutiny through Freedom of Information law.

These are Lib Dem successes delivered because of devolution, and without which we would never have achieved them.

So what do I want to see our powerful Parliament do next?

The next great liberal reform can come with my colleague Liam McArthur’s Assisted Dying Bill, which will deliver dignity for those with terminal illness at the end of life.

We also need a Scottish Government which will take action to boost local health services and recognise the importance of accessible, high-quality care for all, close to home.

I also want to see more devolution within Scotland, with a power surge to councils through longer term funding deals and more powers over economic development.

As the Scottish Parliament continues to evolve, it will need to become more accountable, transparent, and effective in addressing the needs of the Scottish people.

With the SNP in apparent freefall and no clear sign that John Swinney will be able to turn the tide, change is coming and with it a chance to make devolution work as it should. Scottish Liberal Democrats will be part of what’s next



* Caron Lindsay is Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and blogs at Caron's Musings

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  • Except the Scottish Parliament electoral system is not proportional. How can it be when The SNP got 50% of the seats from 40% of the votes? This is largely due to the fact that Scotland (unlike NZ and Germany who also use AMS) does not deal with the overhang. I don’t understand why more SNP voters don’t vote Green, given their party vote is virtually wasted. By rights they shouldn’t have have got the 2 party seats they did get given their constituency seat haul. Perhaps refer to the Scottish system as more proportional?

  • Mary Fulton 6th May '24 - 1:16pm

    I agree with most of your comments except ‘longer term funding deals’ for local government – I would be more radical than that. What we need is for local government to have control of its own tax base so councils can raise and spend whatever amount local voters wish. That could be in a variety of ways, from Land Valuation Tax, to local income or spending taxes, but the point is that it should be free from Scottish Government interference. ‘Longer term funding deals’ still leave local councils constrained by Holyrood.

  • David Warren 6th May '24 - 6:02pm

    If you don’t mind me asking why were you in Chesterfield for the 1997 General Election Caron?

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