Coalitions, tuition fees and scandal: Jim Wallace on 20 years of devolution

Death and scandal in the first Scottish Parliament saw Jim Wallace step up to act as first minister, but two decades on he has revealed how close the coalition government came to not happening at all.

Before the party became kingmakers in David Cameron’s government at Westminster, the Scottish Liberal Democrats shared power with Labour after the birth of devolution, with Mr Wallace serving as deputy first minister until 2005.

Reflecting on 20 years of Scotland’s devolved parliament, Mr Wallace said: “Devolution and the dream of a separate Scottish parliament was one thing that brought me into the Scottish Liberals at university.

“It was very exciting to be there to see it become reality,” he said, adding that two decades on he has “no doubt that Scotland is a better place because of the parliament”.

But before backlash over tuition fees caused such damage to the Liberal Democrats’ reputation, the issue nearly stopped them entering power in Scotland nearly a decade earlier.

With the additional member system used to elect the parliament’s 129 MSPs raising the chances of a hung parliament, during the 1999 campaign the Scottish Lib Dems had pledged to speak with whichever party won the most seats.

But Mr Wallace revealed that disagreements over tuition fees almost ended coalition talks, describing it as the “biggest sticking point” between Labour and the Lib Dems.

“There was at least more than one occasion during the negotiations that I walked away from them because I didn’t think we could reach agreement.”

However, his “sense of obligation”, having campaigned for the creation of the parliament and proportional representation, saw talks resume.

“I always came back to the table to see if we could find an agreement, not least on university tuition fees.”

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Jim Wallace and Donald Dewar shake hands after signing a coalition agreement (PA)

The scrapping of tuition fees was a key plank of the manifesto, and it was agreed that the cabinet would “put a box around it”, suspending collective responsibility on the topic, with the government eventually agreeing to abolish up-front fees for students in 2001.

Nick Clegg, campaigning in the 2010 general election, turned to Mr Wallace for advice about how to form and govern in coalition, with tuition fees a key discussion point.

Mr Wallace said: “From our experiences, we knew that to have a detailed programme of government that the parties agreed on was important, and the coalition in 2010 did that.

“There were other things taken on board – we actually carved out tuition fees in the UK, but somehow they didn’t quite get the right answer there like we did in Scotland.”

The shock death of Donald Dewar after a year in power resulted in Mr Wallace being asked to become acting first minister, and he said it was a “day I’ll never forget”.

“It was just absolutely tragic, I was completely gutted.

“I was in St Andrew’s House when I heard about the fall and him being taken into hospital. Then we just had to wait. It was awful.”

Although he had previously stepped in to lead the government briefly while Mr Dewar had surgery, Mr Wallace said: “It wasn’t a foregone conclusion that I would become first minister when Donald died, but the Labour members of the cabinet asked me if I would, and so I was formally appointed by the presiding officer until such time as parliament elected a new first minister.”

McConnell First minister for Scotland
Jack McConnell (centre) shakes hands with Jim Wallace after being voted in as first minister (David Cheskin/PA)

It was a role he would take up for a second time when, engulfed in the Officegate scandal, Mr Dewar’s successor Henry McLeish resigned.

“In retrospect it was probably inevitable but it played out in slow motion,” Mr Wallace said of the decision amid allegations that Mr McLeish had failed to declare on his expenses that he had sublet part of his constituency office.

“But on a personal level I worked closely with Henry and seeing someone in that situation wasn’t exactly pleasant.

“I think he made the right choice because it would have just distracted from everything else that was going on but again the coalition got through it.”

As for the way his own leadership ended, Mr Wallace was pleased he could step down on a high, following the Liberal Democrats’ good showing in the general election in 2005 and with the party still bigger than the SNP in the Scottish Parliament.

“We were the second party both in terms of votes and in terms of seats which was a very satisfying point at which to go,” he said.

“I remember saying at the time I wanted to go when people were saying ‘why are you going?’ rather than ‘when are you going?’”

Scottish Liberal Democrats – Jim Wallace
Jim Wallace with his wife Rosie (PA)

The lifelong Liberal expressed sadness at the party’s slide from an influential, government-forming force in Scottish and UK politics to having the smallest number of MSPs of any party in the current Scottish Parliament.

“The Liberal Democrats are now struggling to be heard and we need reinvigorating”, he admitted, but pointed to the rise of the SNP and the surprising decline of Labour in Scotland to show that “politics is fluid, now more than ever, and I think that we’ve got to up our game there and show that we’ve got an exciting agenda and don’t get bogged down in constitutional issues”.

“People are still interested in how their hospitals are run and whether their kids or grandkids are getting a decent education.”

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