ONE of the interesting discombobulations of teaching undergraduate students is that you’re brought into constant day-to-day contact with the next generation and their experiences, preconceptions and social outlooks.

Sometimes, what you find is common ground and common experience. In many ways, in terms of culture and music, the generational differences between the young, the nearly young and the increasingly ancient have contracted. Today, you’d be unstunned to find the same music tracks on mother and son’s Spotify, or the same movies and shows on their Netflix calendars.

But you can never forget that the generations chasing after yours always retain the capacity to surprise you. Some of us are born old gits, some achieve gitishness and some have old gitishness thrust upon us.

On social issues, this generation has taken tepid live-and-let-live liberalism, episodic in my own teenage years, and fully embraced it. Contrary to what you might have read in the pages of other newspapers, young folk aren’t snowflakes inclined to melt, or corseted by political correctness, on a hair trigger to be outraged and offended.

But this isn’t a rebel generation either. Many of my students were the 16 and 17-year-olds Holyrood enfranchised in 2014. All who could vote, did. But most aren’t overwhelmingly political. Sure, you encounter the odd diehard Nat and the committed Tory – but day to day, I don’t see much evidence of the grander claims that the independence referendum “politicised a generation”. Blame it on the lawyering if you like, but these youngsters aren’t particularly inclined to smash the system. On the contrary, most of them seem to have quiet faith in Scotland’s public institutions – sometimes, I think, a little too much faith.

Most take the equality of men and women for granted – but many of the young women are leery of understanding this conviction in explicitly feminist terms. They’re digital natives, who can’t conceive of the analogue world that made up the greater part of my own upbringing. They have, as you would expect, a kaleidoscope of views on the constitution. Whatever those views, almost none of them articulate anything resembling the Scottish cringe of old.

Students come in all shapes and sizes. These days, many reach universities later in life, taking backwood paths, hard roads and scenic routes. But the overwhelming majority of my law students today were born around the turn of the millennium. Most were toddlers when the Twin Towers fell, three or four when President Bush’s coalition of the willing launched its bloody escapade into Iraq, seven or eight when Tony Blair demitted office. They were just glints in the milkman’s eye when Blair led his party into Downing Street, and in utero when Scottish devolution was born.

Politically, technologically, socially, folk of my vintage just rode the crest of the wave which surged through these youngster’s childhoods. The changes we lived through were the basic facts of their lives. For most of my undergrads, devolution might as well be 200 years old. The notion that Scotland has its own government, and laws, and parliament is taken so much for granted that political life in Britain, ruled by a unitary parliament in London with limited executive devolution to the Scotland Office, might as well never have existed. Devolution is a banal fact of life. That banality is its strength.

But unlike my students, I can remember a time before all of this, when it couldn’t be taken for granted. I realised this week that when the first MSPs were sworn in, when Winnie Ewing uttered the immortal words – that “the Scottish Parliament, which adjourned on March 25, in the year 1707, is hereby reconvened” – I was just 12 years old.

In foggy sepia, I can just about recall the official opening in July 1999, see the bright spot of colour of Sheena Wellington in royal blue, hear her electric, diaphanous rendering of A Man’s A Man For A’ That in the Assembly Hall. There’s a clear before and after.

As you read this column today, 20 years have passed since Holyrood sat for the first time. If the 1707 Union represented the last bars of the “auld sang” of Scotland’s independence, then devolution, the veteran Nationalist said, represented an opportunity to “begin to write together a new Scottish song, and I urge all of you to sing it in harmony – fortissimo”. I like the fortissimo.

Looking back over the two decades, the melody has been more unchained than any of us could have imagined. The Labour Party’s mantra used to be that they are “the party of devolution”, claiming an exclusive stake in delivering constitutional change. They still trot out the line, from time to time, but you can’t help but feel their hearts aren’t really in it anymore. Two decades into the adventure, you wonder if Richard Leonard’s colleagues look on their work – and what it has wrought for Labour – with more ambivalent eyes.

IT wasn’t supposed to work out this way. It all began so well. Just as planned, Donald Dewar became the country’s first first minister. Just as planned, the electoral system installed a Labour-led administration in Edinburgh in coalition with the LibDems. Just as planned, the SNP were consigned to the doldrums of opposition, a comfortable 10% in the polls and 21 seats short of Dewar and his colleagues.

In fairness, some Labour politicians and campaigners saw devolution as an end in itself. A point of principle, come what may, whatever the future of Scottish politics might hold. But the worldlier and more cynical folk in the party had a different theory. Devolution, from their perspective, would fulfil two handsome tasks.

Firstly, Holyrood would anchor Labour party rule in Scotland. Secondly, the theory went, new institutions of home rule would strengthen the Union. Labour’s Goldilocks version of Scottish nationalism with a small “n” reckoned that the status quo was too cold, independence too hot, but a little devolution just right. In George Robertson’s phrase, “devolution will kill nationalism stone dead”.

Tom Nairn summarised this thinking acidly back in 1977 when devolution was first seriously explored by the Labour Party. “With limited degrees of self-government in domestic matters,” he wrote, “it was believed that the regions would soon relapse into their traditional subordination. Are they not full of basically loyal folk who may have a few grievances but know that Britain is best? Once reasonable note is regally taken of their grudges, surely they will fall into line again, acknowledging their limited yet honoured place in the greater scheme of things?”

Irony of ironies, the opposite has happened. Independence strengthened and organised by devolution – while its Labour architects have seen their electoral machine shudder to a halt. By dint of proportional representation, reaction effects to the first independence referendum, the atrophying of the LibDems and the wheels coming off Labour’s party machine, devolution has now created a springboard for a Scottish Tory revival. It is a political arc with lessons for everyone, for both winners and losers. As John Dryden said, “even victors are by victories undone”.

As Nairn saw so clearly decades ago, devolution was premised on leaving the centre of British political life untouched. Now, that centre is increasingly dysfunctional, intemperate, indifferent to the constitutional boundaries which have gradually accumulated.

Power devolved is, classically, power retained. Westminster remains sovereign. And Brexit has powerfully reinforced the Tory preoccupation with that sovereignty. Labour had the imagination to establish assemblies and parliaments elected by proportional representation, but was “unable to contemplate radical reform of the centre” of British political life. That was true in the 1970s, true in the 1990s, and remains true today. Today, Scottish devolution celebrates its 20th birthday. But with Brexit, its future is on a precipice.