THE Scottish Parliament celebrates its quarter-century this year – whoop, whoop.

It’s 25 years since the parliament first opened for business in 1999 and doubtless there will be retrospectives aplenty with low points, landmarks and some head-shaking over the big changes that followed the SNP’s astonishing win in 2007. But I’d guess any BBC Scotland review/celebration will be dutiful. And limited.

We need much, much more.

It’s true that very few folk were dancing on the tables back in 1999.

The Guardian’s Matthew Engel wryly observed: “Sean Connery called it the most important day of his life, which rather confirms the view that film stars actually lead lives of surprising emptiness … and advance publicity was dominated by no-shows, ranging from A-list celebs like Sir Alex Ferguson to F-listers like Sir Malcolm Rifkind. Also absent was the Prime Minister.

"This was not a sign of Scotland’s liberation from its yoke. It was a sign that even on such a day Scotland was not the most urgent priority among the four constituent parts of the UK.”

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Of course, the day perked up with a spontaneous chorus of the great and good as Sheena Wellington sang Rabbie Burns’s A Man’s A Man For A’ That. And many were moved to tears by a poem written by 11-year-old Amy Linekar from Thurso, How to Create a Great Country.

So, has devolution done that thing – created a great country?

Parking for a minute the obvious obstacle created by Scotland’s continuing membership of the UK, it’s surely legitimate to ask – is Holyrood today all it could be?

Back in 1999, big promises were made for better democracy – some have come to pass but many haven’t. The new voting system – which seemed radical compared to Westminster’s archaic and unfair first past the post – now looks a bit tired. If STV is good enough for local elections, why not make Holyrood fully proportional too?

Mind you, let’s not get carried away. Scotland doesn’t really do local government today. Over 25 years, quangos have hoovered up powers, Holyrood has limited local autonomy via ring-fenced budgets and a council tax freeze and while it’s presided over a benign revolution in community ownership, there’s been a matching decline in local democracy.

The National: Holyrood building

Put simply, our councils are almost the largest in the developed world. Highland Council is larger than Belgium and it’s no wonder remote Highland communities are teetering on the brink of viability – all the high-paying council jobs have been centralised to Sneckie. This was not the vision in 1999, when the Consultative Steering Group demanded that the new Scottish Parliament “should embody and reflect the sharing of power between the people of Scotland, the legislators and the Scottish Government”.

Holyrood sharing power?

Not really.

But what could/should have been?

And do broadcasters have the energy or political courage to ask?

It’s a bizarre situation.

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The 50% of Scots who are Yessers regard Holyrood as inherently unsatisfactory – a halfway house that’s hardly worth spending time to improve. Yet the 50% who back the Union (or don’t know) regard talk of improvement as unwelcome and unnecessary rocking of the British boat by troublemaking independence supporters (that’s us folks) who have no desire to see Holyrood work better.

So, across the piece there’s little public pressure to make 2024 a watershed year – no head of steam demanding a far-reaching review of Scottish democracy. No party that wants a sizeable overhaul or even an MOT 25 years on.

Just about everyone aims to stumble on with the existing hardware since they all have bigger/smaller fish to fry.

Everyone in Scotland, that is.

Meanwhile in Wales, the 25th anniversary of the Senedd will be friskier, for reasons that should interest all Yessers.

The National: Mark Drakeford

In late 2021, the Welsh Government under Mark Drakeford (above) established an Independent Commission on the Constitutional Future of Wales which concluded that neither the status quo nor unwinding devolution are viable options and has focused on three alternative futures – entrenched devolution, federalism or independence.

Yip, a Labour Welsh Government has let voters back independence as one of the options most likely to improve life in Wales. Astonishing.

In the meantime, the Senedd has set up a Future Generations Commissioner to help public bodies consider the long-term effect of decisions. Such a commissioner in Scotland would surely have pushed real land reform to let young Scots own land, build truly affordable homes and live in the Scottish communities of their choice.

But naw. Nothing that zingy has come out of Holyrood. The Welsh Constitutional Commission’s final recommendations may provide more surprises in two weeks’ time, but it’ll be business as boringly usual in Scotland. Why?

Because an amazing thing happened in the first Senedd Assembly elections in 1999, that most Scots missed completely. The independence-supporting Plaid Cymru got 28% of seats – better than the SNP’s 27.1% in the first Scottish parliamentary elections.

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Plaid won traditionally safe Labour seats like Rhondda and Islwyn in the South Wales Valleys, and came within hundreds of votes of victory elsewhere. It was the kind of political sea-change that didn’t happen in Scotland until 2007 and scared the living daylights out of Welsh Labour.

According to Professor Richard Wyn Jones, director of Cardiff University’s Centre for Wales Governance, in my latest podcast: “Plaid had an astonishing election, frightened the life out of Welsh Labour who rebranded literally and metaphorically, draping themselves in the Red Dragon and becoming a small ‘n’ nationalist party.

“They played regional politics game very well, standing up for their part of the state against the Centre, whether the Tories or Labour were in power in London.”

Of course, it helped that Tony Blair viewed the Welsh Labour leader, Rhodri Morgan as a rival and imposed his own guy Alun Michael on the party.

This was a massive mistake.

Michael was deposed in the rebranding exercise that took place after 1999 and Morgan took over.

Morgan, who died in 2017, was dubbed the Father of Welsh Devolution, and cut a very different cultural figure to Donald Dewar.

His native language was Welsh, though he was obviously fluent in English, plus French and German. His mother was one of the first women to study at Swansea University – she also read Welsh.

The National: Sir Tony Blair (Steve Parsons/PA)

So Welsh Labour was on the right side of the country’s cultural and linguistic divide and had no problem differentiating itself from New Labour in London because everyone knew their leaders didn’t get on.

By contrast, Scotland became a New Labour fiefdom thanks to the presence of prominent Scots at the heart of the Blair/Brown project – and that made it hard for Scottish Labour to differentiate itself from London.

A difficulty compounded by Better Together in 2014.

As Professor Wyn Jones puts it: “In the first decade of devolution, Labour decided to become the tribunes of London in Scotland and that was a huge political error.

“Later, Welsh Labour were very conscious of the hole Scottish Labour dug itself into by essentially allying with the Conservatives against the SNP – another centre-left party – and has been determined not to alienate its independence-supporting members.”

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That’s what led to “nationalist” Welsh Labour doing the unthinkable and running a government with Plaid Cymru advisers. And it led to First Minister Mark Drakeford openly defying Tory prime ministers at every turn.

That’s not to say devolution, everyday life or national politics is a progressive bed of roses in Wales. Far from it.

But thanks to the electoral shock of 1999, and the deep vein of cultural nationalism running through Labour, the Welsh may have more to celebrate in this 25th birthday year than the Scots, who started off with substantially more devolved powers.

In short, we all know Holyrood needs an overhaul.

It would be easy to blame inertia on the terrified Unionists of Scottish Labour.

But in this anniversary year, what are Scottish Yessers going to do about it?

You can listen to Lesley’s full interview with Professor Richard Wyn Jones in the latest episode of her podcast, which can be found at