First Minister Nicola Sturgeon reflects on 20 years of the Scottish Parliament

As the Scottish Parliament prepares to celebrate its 20th anniversary, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon reflects on both its journey and her own.
As the Scottish Parliament prepares to celebrate its 20th anniversary, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon reflects on both its journey and her own.

This Saturday, the doors of the iconic Scottish Parliament building in Edinburgh will be thrown open to the public.

For it will mark almost 20 years since the newly re-established devolved Parliament first opened on July 1, 1999.

Among those taking part in the celebrations will be Her Majesty the Queen and some 160 babies born on that iconic date, 20 years ago.

For First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, the anniversary is not only a time to reflect but also to look forward.

In our exclusive Q&A, Nicola shares what the last 20 years have meant to her and what we might be celebrating in 2039.

How did you feel when Scotland first voted for devolution?

As well as jubilation at the result, I vividly remember the sense of relief when it was declared – not just that the question of a parliament had received such overwhelming support, but that the public also wanted Scotland to have tax varying powers.

Many things stick in my mind from that hot, sunny July 1 in 1999 when the Parliament opened.

Edinburgh was full of colour and noise, and there was a real sense of hope and expectation.

Donald Dewar’s speech in the parliament’s first chamber was one of those moments where the hair stood up on the back of your neck.

In my view – as someone in a different party to Donald, with very different views on the ultimate destination for Scotland – that speech was one of the finest speeches in modern Scottish history.

How much of a privilege is it to run the country and how difficult is the top job?

There’s no doubt that being First Minister of Scotland has been the privilege of my life. I get to meet so many inspiring people the length and breadth of Scotland – each of whom are trying to make their communities a little better – and I also lead a team in government of dedicated and hard-working public servants.

Like any job, it has its challenges – sometimes there just aren’t enough hours in the day to do everything you want to do.

And like many people in senior positions, particularly women, I have had moments of self-doubt but I believe it’s important to be open about that and to be a role model to young people.

But more than anything, I am grateful to have the opportunity to help make Scotland a better place to live.

What is the Parliament’s biggest achievement in the last 20 years? 

Twenty years on there are so many achievements that we can be proud of, and that have made Scotland a better place to live, work, study and grow up in. From free personal care to the abolition of tuition fees, the ban on smoking in public places, a minimum pricing for alcohol and the introduction of equal marriage. There’s a long, long list of these individual policies that wouldn’t have happened if we hadn’t had a Scottish Parliament.

Across the world there are other countries now looking to Scotland to learn from the globally ground-breaking things we’ve done on public health, on tackling climate change, and on the work we’re doing around renewable energy.

But above any individual policy, there is a much more fundamental achievement, and that is that, 20 years on, the parliament has reinvigorated Scottish democracy and become an accepted, established part of Scottish life. We should all take great pride in that.

What has been the most difficult challenge the Parliament has faced and you personally?

The sad and unexpected death in 2000 of Donald Dewar – the man who had driven through the Scotland Act and then become the first First Minister – was no doubt a moment of great uncertainty for all MSPs in the early days of the Parliament.

On a personal level, I’d have to say assuming the office of First Minister was my biggest challenge.

Despite having spent 15 years in frontline politics, and seven as Deputy First Minister, nothing can prepare you for the moment where suddenly you are the last word, where there is no longer anyone above you to seek a second opinion on something if you want it – everyone is looking to you.

What is your most memorable moment?

There have been many memorable moments.

The passage of the Equal Marriage Act and the Minimum Pricing legislation are two key ones for me.

I also think the referendum campaign has to be one of them.

It not only saw Parliament at its best – with robust debates and intense scrutiny – but also sparked an enormous outpouring of democratic engagement across the country.

Although the result didn’t go the way I wanted, the legacy of a more politically involved country is one we should all cherish.

I have a lot of memorable moments. It’s not the famous names or the big events, but the stories I hear from individuals around the country that inspire me.

I’ve spent a lot of time lately listening to the life experiences of Scotland’s care experienced young people. Their stories will stay with me forever and drive me to improve their lives and opportunities.

In 20 years’ time, how do you hope the Parliament will have evolved?

It should evolve in line with the way people in Scotland want it to.

The Parliament was established in large part because of the democratic deficit that opened up during 18 years of a Tory government which became more and more unpopular in Scotland.

Despite devolution, Brexit in particular has demonstrated that Westminster is willing to ignore the views of people in Scotland and disregard votes of the Parliament.

I have absolutely no doubt that by 2039 we will have completed the powers of the Parliament and become an independent country.

That means we will have established a genuine partnership of equals with the rest of the UK and will have ensured that people in Scotland always get the governments they vote for.

Are there any people you would like to thank?

We should never ever forget those who campaigned for decades to see a Scottish Parliament – many of whom never lived to see it become a reality.

Then there are those who have worked tirelessly behind the scenes.

We couldn’t do our job without the work of the parliament staff, led by the Parliament’s chief executive, Sir Paul Grice, who recently announced he was moving on to a new job after 20 years.

He might not be well-known by the wider public but, as someone who was there from the very beginning, all MSPs and staff owe him an enormous debt of gratitude.

For me personally, I certainly would not be where I am today without the support of my mum and dad and my husband Peter.

Everyone is invited to join the party

Saturday, June 29, 2019 is gearing up to be a great day.

From 11am to noon, the Queen will address Parliament and each of the party leaders will speak in response. The audience will include those young people who were born in 1999 as well as finalists from a competition for student film-makers who produced a short film on the impact the Scottish Parliament has had in their area.

There will also be a number of performances celebrating the best of Scotland’s culture and music and the Makar will perform a new piece of work.

In the afternoon, the Parliament will open its doors for a day of celebration – a party everyone is invited to join from 3pm to 8pm.

There will be a chance to sit in the Presiding Officer’s seat and see how it feels to take charge, as well as retro games like giant Jenga, Kerplunk and space hoppers. There will also be live music, dancers, face painting and caricaturists.

And of course, there will be birthday cake and food too.

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said: “It will be a great day, full of colour and energy. Parliament always does these events well and brings in so many people from across Scotland.

“I hope we spend the day not just looking back on what has been achieved, but focused on the work the parliament still has to do.

“The public are often sceptical of politicians, but I hope people across the country will reflect on how far we’ve come with the parliament and the difference it has already made to so many people’s lives.”