Lord McConnell hails Scottish Parliament’s role in improving people’s lives

The Scottish Parliament has “definitely made a huge difference in people’s lives”, former first minister Lord McConnell has said.

In an interview with the Press Association to mark 20 years of devolution, the Labour peer, who was first minister from 2001 to 2007, said the establishment of a Scottish Parliament enabled targeted action to deal with long-term problems in the country.

He said there would have been “riots in the pubs” if Westminster had used Scotland as a test case for the smoking ban, brought in north of the border in 2006 and followed by the rest of the UK  in 2007.

Enacting the legislation at Holyrood meant people in Scotland got on board, he said.

Lord McConnell (centre) with school pupils and a cake marking the smoking ban coming into force in Scotland in 2006 (David Cheskin/PA)

“The Scottish Parliament is not only good for democracy because the decisions are made in Scotland for Scotland but also more decisions can be made,” Lord McConnell said.

“If the smoking ban had been an experiment by Westminster in Scotland there would have been riots in the streets – or riots in the pubs – but because the decision was made in the best interests of the people of Scotland, everyone, even if they didn’t like it, went along with it and they helped make it work.”

He added: “I think it’s really important to look back at what Scotland was like in 1999.

“We had a worldwide reputation as a unhealthy country, despite all our great natural assets, and that was best epitomised by the high levels of smoking and second-hand smoke.

“We had a bad reputation, particularly in Glasgow, for knife crime and violence.

“We had the second-worst record for recycling in Europe, behind Turkey, and our education system’s morale had been at the bottom for a decade or more.

“If you look at it in that context … Parliament has definitely made a huge difference in people’s lives.

“These four areas are areas of real, long-term change.”

Jack McConnell is sworn into office
Lord McConnell being sworn into office as first minister in 2001 (PA)

The former MSP said: “Autonomous government within the UK has given us a chance to take action that is specific in dealing with long-term Scottish problems.”

He said an example of this was the Fresh Talent Initiative, which he launched as first minister in 2004 to encourage people to come to live and work in Scotland to reverse a declining population.

“That would never have been done under the old system of Westminster government, as a specific issue for Scotland, ” he added.

“We went from a declining population to an increasing population from about 2004 onward.”

Questioned about what might have been done differently, he said he would have liked to have won the 2007 election to take more action on education, which he said would have become his Government’s number one priority.

Alex Salmond at the Scottish Parliament
Lord McConnell looks on at Holyrood as SNP leader Alex Salmond (unseen) is voted in as First Minister in May 2007 (David Cheskin/PA)

He said: “I would have liked to have more time as First Minister to make more changes.

“We were getting to the stage in 2007 of bringing up the education system to compete with the best in the world again.”

Lord McConnell said his party had plans to raise standards at the top of education and help those who were struggling.

“I regret the fact I didn’t have the chance after 2007 to take that further, ” he said.

While Lord McConnell praised the work of the Scottish Parliament in the past 20 years, he stressed more could be done.

He said: “There are areas that still need attention.

“I don’t think that either the Scottish Parliament or the UK Parliament has really tackled the big challenge in the Scottish economy since the decline of the banks in 2008-09.

“In terms of economic policy, in Edinburgh and London there needs more to be more debate on that.

“Education is slipping back and we need more attention there.

“The area that 20 years on we need to give most attention to is how to revitalise our democracy.

“I think in the Scottish Parliament we need to look to improving what we created, not just being complacent about it.”

He called for stronger local government in Scotland, more accountability from MSPs – with less party loyalty and more engagement for the benefit of constituents.

Lord McConnell also urged reform at Westminster, scrapping secretaries of state for the UK nations, replacing the House of Lords with a senate of the nations and regions and reducing the dominance of London.

Asked what Holyrood might look like by 2039, he said: “I hope that Holyrood is a bit less party political and a bit more open and engaged with Scotland outside of politicians.

“I hope that local government is stronger and in a much better place, raising more money of its own and having more powers.

“Most of all I hope the UK Government has changed and reflects the UK since devolution, rather than before.”

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