MANY HAPPY RETURNS? It Was Meant to Herald a New Dawn in Our Nation's Politics. Now, 10 Years Af Ter the F Irst Scottish Parliament Elections, Following a Decade of Scandal, Greed, Sleaze and Incompetence, All That Early Hope Appears to Have Been Destroyed

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Byline: MONDAY ESSAY by Allan Massie

JUST ten years ago, we voted in the first Scottish parliamentary elections. One week later, the new parliament met for the first time in its temporary home, the Church of Scotland's Assembly Hall on The Mound in Edinburgh.

The SNP's Dr Winnie Ewing, victor in a historic by-election more than 20 years previously, declared: 'The Scottish parliament, adjourned on the 25th day of March 1707, is hereby reconvened.' It was a dramatic moment; she had, gushed one commentator, 'uttered the simple, astonishing truth'. In fact, she had done no such thing.

The parliament adjourned in 1707 was the legislature of an independent state; that which came into being in May 1999 was a subsidiary body, created and granted limited authority by an Act of the Parliament of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

So there was falsity or self-deception from the start, though in the general euphoria of that May morning, this passed almost entirely unremarked.

Ten years on, many of the high hopes entertained by those who had campaigned most enthusiastically for the parliament have been disappointed. The New Scotland we were promised looks very much like the Old Scotland. Most things have gone on much as they did before; few of the nation's problems have been solved.

Yet the parliament has become established. It has been criticised as much as admired. It has provoked grumbling and derision at times. But it is not going to go away. We are stuck with it. The Scotland Act which brought it into being will not be repealed.

At the same time, if hopes have been disappointed, the worst fears of those who opposed its creation have not been realised. The parliament has been something more than 'Strathclyde Regional Council writ large', as some predicted it would be. It is, for better or worse, a truly national body.

Some had been against it because they feared that, in the words of the most inveterate Labour opponent of devolution Tam Dalyell, it 'would put Scotland on a motorway to independence with no exits'.

Yet, even though there is now an SNP minority administration, we are arguably no closer to independence than we were in 1999. .

NEVERTHELESS , the Labour hope that devolution would lead to the withering of support for the SNP has proved as unfounded as that fear.

The parliament came into being on a surge of goodwill and with the advantage of having in the Presiding Officer, Sir David Steel, and the First Minister, Donald Dewar, two experienced Westminster politicians who commanded general respect.

That couldn't be said of all the new MSPs. Too many were party officials, too many drawn from the ranks of local government.

Few of the more talented Labour MPs had chosen to transfer to the new parliament in Edinburgh.

The optimistic claim that it would draw on a range of ability from beyond the small political world was immediately disappointed. It wasn't long before critics were talking of 'a parliament of numpties'.

This was unfair, for there were men and women of ability among the 129 members - but it was a measure of how quickly illusions were being shed. That one of the parliament's first acts had been to award all its members commemorative medals impressed few.

The Assembly Hall, though a suitable and, in many ways, satisfactory meeting place, was only a temporary home. There was fierce debate about a permanent base. The old Royal High School on Calton Hill had been refurbished in the late 1970s as the intended home of the Scottish Assembly to be set up by the Callaghan Government's Scotland Bill. It had lain empty, scarcely used since the failure of the 1979 referendum.

Many thought it suitable and indeed, in the intervening years, it had been unofficially re-named the New Scottish Parliament building. But Dewar was against it. He said the Royal High School was 'a Nationalist shibboleth', though nobody knew quite what he meant by that. …