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Scottish Parliament opening Monday, 28 June, 1999, 16:13 GMT 17:13 UK
A new career in a new parliament
By Ian Jenkins, Scottish Liberal Democrat MSP for Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale

What a responsibility and what a culture shock! After 36 years as a teacher to be catapulted into a new lifestyle in the heart of Edinburgh as a brand new MSP is exciting, daunting and stimulating all at once.

For years I haven't worn a watch. A bell would ring every 40 minutes in school to tell me precisely what time it was, where I should be and who I should be with. Not any more.

The days so far are shapeless, meetings are scattered around without pattern, procedures haven't been established, facilities aren't quite ready, we can't yet employ secretarial help, official stationery is in short supply or not available.

It's all a bit frustrating behind the scenes and I guess it will be so till after the summer recess, by which time things will have come together both in the parliamentary structures and in the support services.

Momentous things

And yet momentous things are happening: people see the parliament in session; they read of important appointments, of historic agreements and hyped-up disagreements.

And here I am, a new boy in the midst of it all, enjoying myself most of the time and pinching myself to make sure I'm not imagining the whole thing.

The swearing-in ceremony was a bit odd, with two continuous processions of MSPs coming to the front of the chamber and intoning an oath or an affirmation of loyalty to the Queen, creating a conveyor belt of anonymity about the process.

But there were already stars in the making and publicity seekers emerging. The handsome, well-dressed, balding, fist-clenching Tommy Sheridan added colour (a sort of unnatural orange-bronze tan), as did Dorothy Grace Elder in a strange acid-yellow creation which only served to her naughty attempt to re-word the affirmation.

The teacher in me was pleased when she was brought back later and forced to say it properly. And I hope she got 50 lines or had to do detention at four o'clock!

'Emotional moment'

For us it was an emotional moment when David Steel took his place as the first presiding officer.

No-one has been a more accomplished and influential ambassador for Scotland and the Scots, on both the UK and international stage, and no-one has argued more effectively for a devolved Scottish Parliament.

I am proud to have worked for him in Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale and I am especially proud to be the first Member of the Scottish Parliament to succeed him in a constituency which he represented with such distinction.

Donald Dewar's election as first minister was a happy, friendly occasion and led us to hope that this would indeed be a less confrontational parliament.

Sir David Steel
Sir David Steel: "An accomplished ambassador"
Members spoke informally, sometimes on first name terms, and David Steel displayed a light touch in handling Denis Canavan in his role as the slightly anarchic cheeky chappie who tried to steal the show.

Since these first public occasions, two other stories have emerged to engage the headline writers.

Firstly the Partnership Agreement between ourselves and Labour and, latterly, the suggestion that the parliament should look again at the planned move to the Holyrood site for the new Parliament building.

Liberal Democrat MSPs feel we have had a pretty poor treatment from the press in their reporting of the Partnership.

It was not an easy decision to go into government with Labour. On many items of policy we see things differently.

But in the negotiations we managed to forge a kind of manifesto which we could work on together to make things better in Scotland.

'Greater investment'

This document includes many items of Liberal Democrat policy taken from our own election manifesto, including, for example, a 14m Access Fund to combat student hardship, greater investment in school books, equipment and teachers, and the creation of a Ministry of Rural Affairs.

On the vexed question of tuition fees, critics accuse us of "selling out", whilst others accept that the proposed inquiry into Higher Education funding is a good thing.

Our position is this: we are opposed to tuition fees; we welcome an inquiry into funding; we will argue the case for against tuition fees and expect the inquiry to acknowledge that they act as a disincentive to students.

The inquiry may well make other points about funding. Nevertheless, I, and others of my colleagues, will feel bound by commitments made in our election campaign and will maintain our opposition to tuition fees, even to the point of voting against the Partnership Government if that should prove necessary.

'I quite like the Mound'

Personally, I quite like the chamber on the Mound, though a close-up view reveals the temporary nature of the furniture, but I fear the office space and other facilities are simply not good enough for the parliament's permanent home.

There are no facilities for MSPs to meet constituents in privacy and comfort, there is no high quality provision for school pupils to visit as we promised; there is no concourse where exhibitions could be mounted, where presentations and protests could be made and where the people of Scotland could feel their representatives might gather together in a single symbolic location.

A location which would speak of a confident forward-looking nation, embodying the best of art and craftmanship both in its style and in its substance.

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