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Last Updated: Friday, 30 March 2007, 20:58 GMT 21:58 UK
Another chapter ends at Holyrood
John Knox
Political reporter, BBC Scotland

"And so farewell".....the last words of George Reid, the presiding officer, as he brought down the gavel on the second term of the Scottish Parliament.

George Reid (pic supplied by the Scottish Parliament)
George Reid brought parliament to a close with a swing of his gavel

"Return to your constituencies and prepare the next chapter in Scotland's story," he told MSPs.

The parliament breaks up for the election on May 3rd in much better heart than four years ago but it also sets off into a more uncertain future. The two main parties, Labour and the SNP, are much closer in the opinion polls than last time.

The debate over the 300 year old Union is more intense. The possibilities of coalition after the election are mathematically more complex.

And it all takes place against a background of a departing prime minister at Westminster and a new proportional system of voting in the council elections on the same day that will change the local political landscape like the passing of a glacier.

The excitement was reflected in a two hour debate on "the future of Scotland" on Thursday morning in which each party laid out its election stall and tried to kick over the others. It was followed by a rowdy question time.

Bread and butter

The SNP's Nicola Sturgeon accused Labour of "breaking promise after promise". Council tax had not been reformed, youth crime had increased by 20% rather than the target reduction of 10%, and the Scottish administration had failed to stand up to Westminster on a string of matters, including immigration, the war in Iraq, nuclear power and Trident.

"The Labour Party has forfeited the trust of the people of Scotland," said Ms Sturgeon.

First Minister Jack McConnell said the people would never trust the SNP when they tell untruths. Council tax was being reformed. The number of violent crimes was down, by a thousand last year.

Trident and the war in Iraq were matters reserved to Westminster and diversions from the real issues at home.

The Conservative leader Annabel Goldie said: "Labour and their cronies the Liberal Democrats have squandered the first eight years of devolution." She accused them of not addressing "bread and butter issues" and of talking in apocalyptic terms of the end of the Union.

Track work - Pic: Network Rail
14 miles of track will be reinstated between Airdrie and Bathgate

By contrast she said Conservatives were outlining policies on drug rehabilitation, affordable housing, and support for families.

Mr McConnell said the 200,000 people in new jobs, the thousands of children in new schools and patients being treated in a transformed health service did not regard the first eight years of devolution as being squandered. "It was progress never possible under the Tories," he said.

The last act of the present parliament was, appropriately enough, to pass another railway bill. This is the fifth. The re-opening of the Airdrie to Bathgate line will not just involve reinstating 14 miles of track but will up-grade the links at each end to Glasgow and Edinburgh.

It will thus offer an alternative to the 40,000 people who commute from Central Scotland to the two big cities, easing congestion on the main cross-country line and on the M8 motorway. The total cost will be 300m, but it's estimated it will bring benefits to the Central Scotland economy worth more than 700m.

The Airdrie Bathgate line is the 66th bill passed in this four-year session of parliament. The best remembered, of course, is the bill to ban smoking in public places. There have also been important bills on anti social behaviour, on planning and animal welfare, on family law and court reform.

There have been less sparkling bills too. The licensing bill and the crofting reform bill ended in confusion.

Parting shots

Debates, there have been a few......750 actually, in the last four years. The ones that stick in my mind were on Trident, on nuclear power, on Malawi and the G8 Africa agenda. For the record, there have been 1,700 committee meetings, 140 inquiries calling 7,000 witnesses, and the pioneering petitions committee has now considered more than 1,000 petitions.

Other achievements this session have been the Futures Forum and the Festival of Politics, bringing people from other sectors of Scottish life into the parliament.

But the biggest achievement of all has been to "move in" to the new Holyrood building, in September 2004, and to "move on" from the whole debacle over its cost.

This week George Reid was praised for his skill in handling the affair, finally nailing down the cost to 414m and convincing the nation that "democracy is more than a building."

His parting shot was that MSPs need to reform their system of allowances. He now "retires" to lead a European Union mission to the Caucasus, to lecture at Glasgow University and to become a "freeman" of his home county of Clackmannanshire where his political career began 33 years ago.

Scottish Parliament chamber
The parliament chamber will have a new look when business resumes

Other MSPs retiring are Jim Wallace, the former leader of the Liberal Democrats and deputy first minister; Lord James Douglas Hamilton, the former Conservative minister; John Home Robertson, the former Labour minister; the independent MSP for Falkirk West Dennis Canavan: and veteran backbenchers Donald Gorrie and Phil Gallie.

Others are "moving on" to other careers: Susan Deacon, the former health minister, Janis Hughes, Kate Maclean, Frances Curran, Bruce McFee and Brian Monteith.

The rest of the 129 MSPs are hoping to be re-elected on May 3rd. The contest has already begun. Alex Salmond was in the Grassmarket in Edinburgh as soon as parliament broke up launching the SNP campaign. The other parties will follow in short order.

And so farewell to Holyrood for the next five weeks. Devolution is being put to the test for the third time. We are entering Shakespeare's "brave new world". And what play was that? The Tempest!

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