THE past few days have seen Scottish politics shaken to the core. Humza Yousaf terminated the SNP-Green Bute House Agreement bringing the prospect of a vote of no confidence.

This could end his premiership and SNP rule and even result in a special Holyrood election before the coming ­Westminster contest. In such a febrile atmosphere, no-one could be sure how voters would act in a surprise poll, or who they might blame for calling it!

Politics in Scotland hasn’t always been this ­intoxicating – and full of high drama. Twenty-five years ago, on May 6, 1999, the first-ever democratic elections to the Scottish Parliament occurred. Thus began a new chapter and story in modern Scotland and our collective history – with consequences to this day.

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A couple of weeks ago Yousaf tried to claim that ­devolution – and the campaign that produced it – was an SNP achievement. He stated that the SNP “led” the cross-party pro-devolution campaign in the 1997 devolution referendum and “won” it, leading to the first elections and establishment of the Parliament.

This is one strand of the devolution settlement – as parties and traditions attempt to position ­themselves as advocates and champions of the ­Scottish ­Parliament with all the implications that then follow. Once Labour did this and saw devolution as their story; now the SNP do the same, aiming to present independence as the culmination of devolution.

Another potent and seldom critiqued strand of the past 25 years is that of “official” Scotland’s sense of entitlement, of its place and importance, and clear self-regard. For example, a recent Holyrood Sources event on the 25th anniversary saw a host of ­former Scottish Parliament grandees such as ex-first minister Jack McConnell reflect uncritically on the ­achievements of the institution and their own roles in it.

History in the making: The setting-up of the Scottish Parliament in 1999

The establishment of a Scottish Parliament in May 1999 was an achievement that dramatically changed the landscape of Scottish politics. Yet its creation resulted from a variety of forces. One was the ­growing awareness that the old system of direct rule from Westminster – given the euphemism ­“administrative devolution” – had become ­irretrievably broken.

Another was the emerging home rule ­consensus of the 1980s and early 1990s that had grown ­stronger and deeper in the face of the collapse of the ­ancien ­regime and time-honoured way of ­governing ­Scotland. A ­major catalyst was Margaret ­Thatcher and ­Thatcherism which had little time for the ­paternalism and noblesse oblige of the Scottish ­Office and consensual Tories.

These currents strengthened an increasingly ­assertive, confident, pro-autonomy politics. This was not owned by one party - Labour, LibDems, Greens, SNP – as all played their part as did those outisde the political spectrum, including the churches, STUC and the voluntary sector.

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This home rule consensus had extensive reach. In March 1989, when A Claim of Right for ­Scotland ­proclamation was published asserting “the ­sovereignty of the Scottish people”, every Scottish Labour MP signed it (except Tam Dalyell) including Gordon Brown, effectively affirming an unapologetic Scottish nationalist document.

No party has a straightforward story to tell. The SNP famously decided to boycott the Scottish ­Constitutional Convention in the 1980s and 1990s – an idea they originally suggested. Humza Yousaf’s comments cited earlier about the SNP’s leadership role in the campaign for devolution were selective and disingenuous. They were an attempt to place the SNP unambiguously as the party of devolution and independence.

Ewan Gibbs of Glasgow University noted about the SNP and devolution in 1997 and Yousaf’s remarks: “Salmond did manage to convince the SNP to come out for a Yes vote but he had to fight with entrenched hardliners in his own party to achieve that.”

He concluded that such a perspective – put ­forward to mark the 90th anniversary of the SNP – is “a ­rather sad and thin overview of the SNP and the party’s ­history”.

The limits of 'the official story' of devolution

The Scottish Parliament may have altered the political landscape of the country and become an accepted institution, where once there was a ­democratic void and chasm. But has it been a success in its achievements beyond what it represents?

The official story of the Scottish Parliament – that it is a modern, inclusive, empowering body; the voice of a diverse civil society and the ­embodiment of progressive, ­enlightened Scotland – needs scrutiny and ­questioning.

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A key problem with the official story and narrative is that it is self-congratulatory. It believes in its own mythology and the rhetoric of a “new politics” that was spun about the Parliament in the years pre-devolution. This was going to be a co-operative, consensual Parliament, where people worked across the party and political spectrum for the common good.

The Scottish Parliament turned out to be unsurprisingly a political institution filled with party politicians - far removed from what Joyce McMillan called “the fantasy Parliament” that campaigners dreamed of pre-devolution. That was for some a disappointment, even a loss.

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Something more questionable is at work in the official story of devolution. It is mostly the story of those who have been centre-stage, who have gained most from the establishment of the Parliament – the parliamentarians, insider classes, and civil servants and advisers who work within and with the system.

This official story presents the ­Parliament and the administrative class as knowing how to govern, without ­having to address power imbalances and lack of voice and influence in wider ­society. Everything can be addressed by official consultation in a system similar to the old Scottish Office grandee system of trusting the great and good, but with a veneer of a democratic Parliament in front.

Professor James Mitchell of ­Edinburgh University notes: “Devolution was sold and over-sold – as commonly done with any new policy – in a way that was ­always ­likely to lead to disillusionment. The ­absence of much opposition – ­especially after the 1997 election – meant that the case for devolution was hardly ­challenged. There were many issues that were neglected that are now all too ­obvious and require attention.”

The difference of the Scottish Parliament and Government

Major shifts have occurred. There is the election of a Parliament via proportional representation. The Parliament’s electoral system has seen no party gain overall majority in five of the six devolved elections since 1999. Thus each party is a minority that has to make deals on an ad hoc or longer-term basis. The exception was in 2011 when the SNP under Alex Salmond won an overall majority of seats on a minority of votes.

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The Parliament has mattered more ­under periods of minority government, in particular, the minority ­administration of Alex Salmond in 2007-11, and in ­periods of crisis and instability, such as the ­short-lived premiership of Henry McLeish, and perhaps, the similarly short premiership of Humza Yousaf.

The quality of political leadership ­matters. Scotland has now had six first ministers. The quality of the political classes and political discourse over the period has been mixed, with the calibre of MSPs, first ministers and ministers variable – and in places, questionable.

Take the post of First Minister. The ­Labour holders – Donald Dewar, McLeish, McConnell – particularly the latter two seemed content to be ­administrators and the equivalent of ­junior figures in comparison to senior ­Labour Westminster politicians.

This changed under Salmond and ­Nicola Sturgeon. The former reinvented the role of first minister, but perhaps not surprisingly an increasingly ­presidential style of government came with the ­baggage of negative consequences still ­being worked through. Yousaf took on the role after the SNP had been in ­office for 16 years, and currently seems a ­minor figure dealing with the debris of his ­predecessors with little room to make his own agenda as the events of the past few days have confirmed.

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Small parties such as the Scottish Greens or Scottish Socialists before them can have power – and can overplay their influence. Individual MSPs can on ­occasion have a major impact such as ­Margo MacDonald and ex-SNP, now ­current Alba, MSP Ash Regan who could be the kingmaker in the future direction of Scotland in the next few days.

As well as these dynamics, there has also been the growing power of – and ­increasing decision-making by – the ­Scottish ­Government. This has ­sometimes ­deliberately diminished or ­bypassed the Scottish Parliament while taking power into the hands of the ­political centre.

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This brings us to the question of what a parliament and government are meant to do, namely spending and dispersing monies and making laws. In terms of the spending powers of the Parliament, it does not have full powers of tax and spend, but over the piece has taken consequential decisions about public spending.

Across the 25-year period, for all the rhetoric of social justice, the Parliament has not engaged in systematic redistribution from the more affluent to those most in need. Rather through signature ­policies – such as council tax freezes, free ­university tuition, and free care for the elderly – the Parliament has taken a ­conscious decision to distribute ­resources to those with above-average and ­affluent households. This has blunted the ­effectiveness of social justice rhetoric.

Jim Sillars, former SNP depute leader, takes this view about the Parliament: “It has failed to deal effectively with other important aspects of poverty – profound disparities in the education of the young between the well-off areas and those ­families in receipt of the child payment, and failed to provide adequate numbers of good-quality social houses.”

The Scottish Parliament has passed a welter of legislation – some good, much well-intentioned, some poor, even ­counter-productive. An example of the latter is the recent Hate Crimes Act which seems created to waste police time. ­Before that, the Offensive ­Behaviour at Football Act (now repealed) and the “named persons” legislation had at their heart state creep and air of ­authoritarianism.

There have been transformative laws and initiatives. Esther Roberton, once co-ordinator of the Constitutional ­Convention, cites “the smoking ban, ­minimum alcohol pricing, same-sex ­marriage, and PR for local government to name a few”. Another example, the Scottish Child Payment, has been described by social policy expert Danny Dorling as “far-reaching” in improving the lives of hundreds of thousands of children.

The need for accountability and democratisation

This connects to the wider topic of accountability. The Scottish Parliament was meant to shine a light of scrutiny on the dark recesses of public life, public bodies and power, making them more accountable and increasingly effective.

This has not worked as much as was hoped. Take for example the ­Scottish Arts Council and then Creative ­Scotland, its successor body. As the Arts ­Council ­pre-devolution, there was limited ­examination of its operations, decisions and processes, up until the establishment of the Parliament.

With the arrival of Creative ­Scotland a decade after the Parliament, was ­accountability, scrutiny and hence ­decision-making improved? The ­opposite turned out to be the case. Instead, ­repeated controversies surrounded ­Creative Scotland, alongside a lack of ­support and championing of cultural ­policy by the Scottish Government – of which refusing to fund Aye Write, Glasgow’s book festival, is but the latest.

A missing element has been that of ­further democratising Scotland. It should be remembered that the ­Scottish ­Parliament, and what became the ­Scottish Government were institutions in the space previously occupied by the Scottish Office. Indeed, the Scottish ­Executive, as it was first called, inherited most of the powers, personnel, buildings and culture of the Scottish Office.

Pre-devolution, the Scottish Office was a Whitehall institution that acted as a ­mediator between the interests of ­Westminster and Scottish elites in a pre-democratic manner. These cultural norms were inherited by the new bodies of devolution and while they have not wanted to act in such a patrician, paternalist manner, they have been shaped by this legacy of practice and mindsets.

Edinburgh University professor of public policy James Mitchell observes: “The Scottish Office had been a concession to ­Scottish distinctiveness but neglected Scottish democracy. A civil service ­accountable to Parliament at ­Westminster with ­infrequent opportunities for elected MPs to question and with a tiny band of ­politicians unrepresentative of the ­Scottish public appointed by the Prime Minister was replaced by a system that involves more accountability and ­democratic input into decision-making.”

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An agenda of democratisation would look at dispersing power throughout ­Scotland – developing an empowered, emboldened local democracy; public ­services which are truly public, with a wider programme of challenging vested interests and breaking up closed shops of privilege. None of this has been ­forthcoming, irrespective of who has been in charge.

Writer Neal Ascherson makes the ­sanguine assessment that devolution has been characterised by “the decay of ­innovative energy in the Parliament itself, so that – for instance – the committees, designed to be independent sources of new legislation and public consultation, have ossified under stultifying party ­pressure”.

“Incredibly, the Westminster select committees are now much more lively and outspoken.”

Taking a wider picture of the Scottish Parliament, no political institution let alone a devolved one has control over all public life. A significant element of ­public life that has impacted the ­Parliament has been mass media and the public sphere – part of which has been ­consistently hostile to devolution, let alone the SNP.

This has led to an abrasive public discourse and, in Ascherson’s take: “The failure of Scottish Parliaments to bypass the merciless, sneering hostility of the Scottish media and communicate their visions to the people.”

Assessing the past 25 years and need for a new story

An overall assessment of the past 25 years is mixed. We are overall better for having the Scottish Parliament than not having it. It has corrected a wrong – a gap and democratic void which pre-devolution was at the heart of our politics. It has been able to provide a shield and barrier against the worst excesses of Westminster and Tory rule.

What it has not been able to do is to live up to those early promises, to the official story, or to transform lives in the areas for which it has responsibility. It has not shifted power within Scotland, nor challenged vested interests, or given adequate voice to those disadvantaged. The limits of Scotland’s centre-left politics and sentiment have been revealed for all to see.

Understanding this necessitates seeing the threadbare nature of the official account of devolution and the Scottish Parliament that is taken at face value by too many. Aiding this is a deliberate confusion between defending the idea and existence of the Parliament as an institution and reviewing its actions.

A more helpful and mature way of judging the success of the Parliament is to put less emphasis on it as the central institution and more see it as one of several agencies in the public environment.

For example, the SNP have traditionally spoken of independence to mean the country would have “a Parliament with the full powers of a normal Parliament”, attempting to normalise the idea and road to independence.

Perhaps this is the wrong way to frame things. Instead we maybe need to start thinking about the wider political and public environment, how we make laws, hold power to account, and contribute positively to the common weal of Scotland.

Maybe 25 years on we need a different politics and idea of the Parliament. A Parliament which is not an end in itself but a means to an end. Less an intrinsic idea of it as a political institution, and more an instrumental one, based on action and change.

A politics which is less about politicians and the insider class and more centred on the diverse, multifarious Scotland and the vision of self-government in its wider sense – empowering people and communities throughout society.

The events of the past few days have been difficult for some, challenging how they see politics and power in Scotland. This has to be seen in a longer perspective – of the need for politicians to lead and have authority and political capital, and also recognising the hollowness and emptiness of much of what passes for political discourse and exchange on all sides.

All Parliaments and political systems have their crises but can this one be a wake-up call not just for the SNP but for Greens, Labour, LibDems and Tories to recognise how alienating and off-putting so much of professional politics is?

Are they able to change – and if not, does the public have the determination to make them change? The Scottish Parliament has many things we can be proud of, but we can do so much better.