Page last updated at 07:34 GMT, Tuesday, 5 May 2009 08:34 UK

One last, lingering look behind

John Knox has been a BBC Scotland reporter for almost 30 years.

He spent the past decade reporting the twists and turns of Scottish devolution.

As the Scottish Parliament approaches its 10th anniversary and he leaves it and the BBC, John recounts his time as part of the Holyrood press pack.


Thirty-four years ago, I was standing in front of the morning assembly at Bali Presbyterian School, Cameroon, West Africa, saying goodbye.

Holyrood
After 10 years Holyrood is now at the centre of life in Scotland
I used the line from Thomas Gray about 'casting one longing lingering look behind' and the boys in my English class smiled.

At least something in my poetry lessons had sunk in.

I told them I was going back home to help with the 'development effort' in Scotland. I wasn't sure which country - Cameroon or Scotland - had been longer at it, but the work is still not finished.

I arrived back from the grasslands of Cameroon just in time to see the first attempt at devolution fail and then to watch the old industrial Scotland die, like an African elephant, during the Thatcher years.

To be fair, it was replaced with a new species of industry but a much more delicate one. The economy only survived because of the public sector.

But for all its faults, it looks like devolution is here to stay. In all the opinion surveys there have been, no one really wants to turn back

Then came the referendum campaign and the first elections, 10 short years ago, and home rule got under way.

I was one of the BBC reporters detailed to chronicle its every twist and turn. We were billeted then in an old police office on the Royal Mile.

Across the road, the first 129 MSPs gathered in another church assembly hall and under its hammer beam ceiling they started their development work.

Since then, the Scottish Parliament has passed 140 bills and staggered through many controversies.

The one that remains most vivid in my mind was the fox hunting bill.

This brought hundreds of tweedy protesters and their hounds and their horns on to the cobbled streets of the Royal Mile in a confrontation between the country and the town.

The bill's sponsor, Labour MSP Mike Watson, who was later jailed for setting fire to the curtains at the Press Awards dinner, had no idea what he was taking on.

In conversation with him, it was clear he hadn't done much homework.

Troublesome trams

Indeed, he didn't even seem driven by the simple city man's belief that fox hunting is cruel and the sport of toffs. He was curiously detached.

Later, Wendy Alexander insisted on repealing Section 28 of the local government act, which prohibited the promotion of homosexuality in schools.

Then there was the Holyrood Project.

I remember being among the first press party to be taken into the concrete and scaffolded labyrinth. We were totally confused, by the scale, the design, the materials, the cost. It all gave devolution a bad name.

But there were considerable triumphs too. Free personal care, land reform, national parks.

There was the continuing achievement of running a budget, holding a coalition of parties together in a united administration, and creating the feeling that government was being brought closer to the people.

In the second term, 2003-2007, the smoking ban came in, big rail projects began in Alloa and Airdrie, and, of course, those troublesome trams in Edinburgh.

There was workman-like reform of the law on tenements, planning and animal welfare.

Has the Scottish parliament made us a better nation? I think so

In all three sessions so far, there have been a lot of bills which have signalled the type of world we want to live in: the abolition of the graduate charge; the regulation of care and charities; the disabled drivers parking bill; the salmon conservation bill and the dog fouling bill.

The parliament too has acted as a national assembly hall. When important announcements have to be made, this is the place do it.

When a national mood has to be captured, this is the forum ... a terrorist attack, an explosion at a factory, a fire in a nursing home, an accident at sea.

It's also the front room where we welcome important guests such as the Queen, visiting presidents, Dali Lamas.

It's a place for receptions, conferences, performances. It's a place where marches start, demonstrations are held and photo opportunities staged.

And it's been the place for debates over the great issues of the day - the war in Iraq, the renewal of Trident nuclear weapons, the state of the economy.

It's also been a forum for discussing the more personal issues such as organ donation and assisted suicide. I've seen, reported and marvelled at them all.

But for all this activity, what I will remember most are the people.

Long experience

Donald Dewar, the tall, thin Glasgow lawyer with large eyes staring out through dark rimmed glasses. He was the unlikely founding father.

Henry McLeish was the peacemaker who found the courage to go ahead with free personal care, despite London opposition.

Jack McConnell, the tough maths teacher, brought stability and rigour to the administration and also found courage for two big projects - the smoking ban and partnership with Malawi.

Alex Salmond is the magician with words, the instant strategist, the sauncy face of home-spun patriotism.

He too has no shortage of courage, and his project is to achieve independence through good government.

Then there are the team players, the ministers and MSPs who beaver away in their departments and in their constituencies to make sure Scotland is well governed.

Sir David Steel and George Reid brought long experience and clear minds. Alex Fergusson has brought humanity

I've found them generally knowledgeable, clever and helpful. They are a whole new cadre in Scottish life - agents for change.

A few personalities have shone brighter than the rest.

On the front benches: Nicola Sturgeon; John Swinney; Mike Russell; Iain Gray; Margaret Curran; Annabel Goldie; David McLetchie and Tavish Scott.

On the back benches: Alex Neil; George Foulkes; Margo MacDonald; Tommy Sheridan and for free-thinking Robin Harper and Prof Christopher Harvey.

The young parliament has been lucky too with its presiding officers.

Sir David Steel and George Reid brought long experience and clear minds to the task. Alex Fergusson has brought humanity.

As time went on, MSPs learned to do the job better. Speeches have become more natural, less repetitive, knowledge of the issues has improved.

The troops know when to cheer on their leaders and when to remain silent.

The only thing MSPs have not learned is how to ask a short question, especially in committee. In fact, committee work could be much improved, especially by stronger convenership.

Too many witnesses go unchallenged, too many arguments remain unpacked. The sessions are simply too long to retain any focus.

The growing practice of skipping opening statements means the committee no longer becomes a platform for a cause or coherent argument. Not much wonder the committee reports lack bite. But for all its faults, it looks like devolution is here to stay. In all the opinion surveys there have been, no-one really wants to turn back.

Local, careful - not to say detailed - rule, is the way all democracies seem to be moving.

We are governed by a pile of institutions sitting on top of each other, like faces in a totem pole . . . the local council, the Scottish Parliament, the Westminster Parliament, the European Union, the United Nations. Each level has its scope for action and, when you think about, each level is dependent on the others.

Has the Scottish parliament made us a better nation? I think so.

It has focused attention on our problems as well as our strengths - poor health, pockets of poverty, minority groups, alcohol and drug abuse.

Even talking about these issues has made us a more compassionate people.

No doubt the Westminster Parliament would have talked about these issues even if there'd been no devolution - but it would have been a more distant discussion, more easily ignored and needing less of a local contribution.

It has spurred our social conscience.




Print Sponsor


RELATED BBC LINKS

RELATED INTERNET LINKS
The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites


FEATURES, VIEWS, ANALYSIS
Has China's housing bubble burst?
How the world's oldest clove tree defied an empire
Why Royal Ballet principal Sergei Polunin quit

BBC iD

Sign in

BBC navigation

Copyright © 2019 BBC. The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.

Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific