Devolution in Scotland - 20 Years On

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Devolution in Scotland - 20 Years On

Look back and learn from some significant policy wins for charities in Scotland, and consider what Brexit will mean for the third sector there.
Peter Dawson

This summer, the Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh celebrated it’s 20th anniversary. One of the lasting legacies of New Labour’s historic UK General Election success in 1997, the Scottish Parliament set out to be a parliament that would act and behave very differently from the one that spawned it. With its semi-circular chamber layout and more proportional electoral system, the Parliament would aim for a more consensual and compromising approach to its politics as opposed to the adversarial and tribal like politics of Westminster. And it is fair to say that Scottish politics has evolved in a remarkable fashion these past two decades. We’ve seen coalition, minority and majority governments come and go, a swanky new Parliament building in Holyrood, and of course a historic referendum on independence back in 2014.

As such, the narrative surrounding devolution in Scotland throughout the past 20 years has been one of immense success, and in turn has helped feed into an atmosphere of renewed confidence across the Scottish political sphere. But while looking backwards, the 20th anniversary has also focused minds on the present and future, bringing into focus the current contrast between Holyrood and Westminster with the current deadlock and chaos the UK Parliament is experiencing as a result of Brexit.

On a political front, Brexit has provided Holyrood with another opportunity to further distinguish itself from the chaos-inflicted Parliament in Westminster. With Westminster almost entirely consumed by Brexit, Holyrood by contrast presents itself as a parliament that is getting things done. Where Holyrood is competence, Westminster is chaos. Where Holyrood acts, Westminster prevaricates. But despite all the attempts at differentiation, none of this can hide the fact that Scottish governance along with the Scottish third sector will face just as large implications as that of the rest of the UK when it comes to Brexit.

Concerns in the Scottish third sector are rife. As well as dealing with sector wide issues (nfpSynergy data shows that public trust in Scottish charities has declined from 69% in 2010 to 55% in 2018) questions of where future funds will come from in the event of leaving the EU dominate concerns. In 2014, nearly €1bn was allocated to the Scottish Government from the European Structural and Investment Funds to be spent across 6 years on programmes operated by the Scottish Government and third sector organisations. Indeed, this is something that is not lost on First Minister Nicola Sturgeon.  Given all that, the sector could well be bracing itself for tough times in the future, which is sad news when you consider that Scottish charities have been front and centre in some of the most notable pieces of legislation passed through Holyrood in the past 20 years.

Take the Smoking, Health and Social Care Act of 2005 for instance[1]. Coming into force in 2006, this piece of legislation ensured a ban on smoking in all public places which saw the rest of the UK follow suit soon after. In this particular case, ASH Scotland, a leading anti-tobacco charity, found itself at the forefront of the smoking ban debate and in using its wealth of health research, the charity was able to successfully campaign the public and politicians in making them aware the dangers of second hand smoke. As a result of their actions, Scotland became the first nation in the UK to implement a public wide ban on smoking.

In the case of land reform, a long-standing issue in Scottish society, numerous bills passed in Holyrood (such as the 2003 and 2016 Land Reform Acts) have helped empower local community charities as well as inspire the creation of new ones, most notably in the form of Community Land Scotland back in 2010.[2] In this instance CLF’s extensive campaigning helped lead to the establishment of the Scottish Land Fund, a scheme funded by the Scottish Government and partly delivered by the National Lottery Community Fund and Highland & Islands Enterprise. As such, a number of local community charities up and down Scotland have been supported since its establishment in 2012, with 61% of applications to the fund proving to be successful.

The influence of charities in parliament very much reflects the strong position that charities hold in Scottish society. This is very much reflected within our own Celtic Charity Awareness Monitor research which shows that two thirds of the Scottish public believe that charities in Scotland play a vital role in society.[3] The work charities have done in Holyrood and the important role they are perceived to play in society by the public is testament to the vital role that charities have played in a devolved Scotland.

But most of all, these examples are proof to the empowering effects that devolution has had on many charities in helping influence and in many ways dictate the policy agenda across the country. In providing such an arena through which to campaign, influence and change (and away from the congestion of Westminster politics) the Scottish Parliament acts as a major platform by which the voice of charity can be heard loud and clear. But with Brexit threatening to hit the third sector hard in Scotland, how this will affect their role in Holyrood is up for serious questioning. And that is a real shame given that the third sector in Scotland can lay claim to being one of the cornerstones in making devolution such a success.

If you want to find out more about our research into the charities engaging with the devolved parliaments, click here. We also conduct public research in Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland; you can find out more about that here.

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