Swinney laments ‘changed days’ at Holyrood on 25th anniversary of first election

It has been 25 years since Scots first voted in a Holyrood election – but the man who will almost certainly be the country’s next first minister has said there have already been “changed days” at the Parliament as a result of the “aggressive” Westminster Government.

On Monday, exactly a quarter of a century after Scots first went to the polls to elect their MSPs, John Swinney will become either the leading or the only candidate to be the new SNP leader – and is therefore expected to go on to be Scotland’s seventh first minister.

Mr Swinney, who has held a series of senior posts in the Scottish Government and was deputy first minister for more than eight years, was one of the 129 politicians elected into the brand new Parliament 25 years ago.

But speaking last week, on the same day that Humza Yousaf announced his resignation as First Minister, Mr Swinney complained about the “hostile outlook from the UK Government towards devolution”.

Monday is the 25th anniversary of Scots going to the polls to elect the first ever batch of MSPs (PA)
Monday is the 25th anniversary of Scots going to the polls to elect the first ever batch of MSPs (PA)

At an event organised by the Resolution Foundation think tank, Mr Swinney added: “For most of the devolution years, the UK Government has been a rather benign presence in the operation of the devolved structures. That is different now.

“Should future UK governments take the same attitude, it would pose a real threat to the prospects and effectiveness of devolution.”

Speaking about the “changed days” the Scottish Parliament is now operating in, he cited the Fresh Talent initiative from 2004, which allowed international students to stay longer in Scotland, as one area where Scottish ministers had previously been able to act in a reserved policy area.

Mr Swinney said: “It is inconceivable that the current, rather aggressive United Kingdom Government would countenance any encroachment by the Scottish Parliament or the Scottish Government on currently reserved areas, certainly not on an issue of migration and population growth.”

He said Scotland is “better” as a result of devolution, but he raised fears Holyrood’s powers could be “eroded” – calling on the next UK government to work to “re-establish the purpose of devolution”.

However constitutional expert Professor James Mitchell argued devolution has seen the Scottish Government itself become a “power hoarder”.

Speaking to the PA news agency, Prof Mitchell said: “I think one of the saddest things about devolution is the way in which central government, the Scottish Government, has accumulated power.

“It has been a power hoarder. It has absolutely undermined local government.

“The focus on our Parliament, and on our Government, at the expense of localities has been one of the worst things that has happened post devolution.

“I never thought we would be where we are today where we have got a Scottish Government that is more centralising, more dictatorial towards local authorities than the Tories.”

He said that under the Scottish Government, local authorities are “becoming just an arm of central government to an extent that was not the case in the past”.

Constitutional expert Prof James Mitchell called for consideration to be given to limiting the number of ministers at Holyrood (Jane Barlow/PA).
Constitutional expert Prof James Mitchell called for consideration to be given to limiting the number of ministers at Holyrood (Jane Barlow/PA).

He urged both the Scottish Parliament and the Government to “up its game”, suggesting Holyrood should have more MSPs and fewer ministers.

While Holyrood’s powers and responsibilities have grown over the 25 years since the Scottish Parliament was first created, the number of MSPs remains unchanged.

Prof Mitchell, of Edinburgh University, said Scotland has “129 members, and far too many ministers”, speaking out about the “bloated membership of the ministerial team”.

He added: “Unlike the House of Commons where there is a limit on the number of ministers that can be appointed, there is no such limit.

“I think one of the things we desperately need is to look at that and consider if we should place a limit on the number of ministers.

“God knows what they are all up to, frankly. Because you don’t need that many ministers, there is no doubt at all about that in my mind.”

He said that as a result, “there aren’t that many MSPs available to fill committee positions”, describing this as a “major weakness” in Holyrood’s arrangements.

Prof Mitchell said: “We need stronger committees, we need more committees and frankly the committees have not lived up to the independence that was hoped of them, that members would go in and leave their partisan hats behind. They have become much more partisan.

“I would like to see the resourcing of the committees increased. If you look at the size of the Scottish Government, but also the officials, they have grown over the course of devolution.

“But the Parliament hasn’t, so there has been something lagging behind in terms of these things.”

Scottish Conservative MSP Murdo Fraser said: “The misfiring SNP are out of ideas at the helm and history books over the next 25 years will judge them for the sheer scale of their ineptitude, not the Scottish Parliament.

“The Scottish Parliament was built to enhance local decision making and co-operation between all parts of the UK, for everyone’s benefit. It is truly one of the most powerful devolved governments in the world.

“But 17 years of having the SNP in charge has left many Scots wondering whether decisions are being made to bolster an obsession with independence, rather than making the right calls for Scotland.

“Devolution has been good for Scotland, but the SNP has spent more time criticising the UK Government than it has focused on using these powers for good.”