The fight for Scotland's democratic soul

Scotland reclaimed: the inside story of Scotland's first democratic parliamentary election by Murray Ritchie (Saltire Society, Edinburgh, £10.99)
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Three years ago, Murray Ritchie was summoned from Brussels to Glasgow to become Scottish political editor of The Herald. His diary of Scotland's first election campaign, ending on 6 May 1999, invokes two moments in an otherwise quiet revolution. One was Sheena Wellington singing Robert Burns's idea of a republic to, and then along with, the new parliamentarians:

"Then let us pray that come it may

As come it will for a' that.

That sense and worth, o'er a' the earth

Shall bear the gree, an' a that..."

The second was the sudden death of Kenny McIntyre, Ritchie's terrier-like oppo at the BBC. In its way, his death was a shock as great as that of John Smith, five years earlier.

The Scots journalist used to be a political voyeur. We weren't good at it, but we loved to see others doing it; hence a succession of gifted Westminster writers - "students of politics" such as Bob Carvel and Ian Aitken, - who, at their best, could reach the pamphleteer level of original Scottish superhack Thomas Carlyle.

Now politics has moved close up and generated a dozen books in which the Scottish Parliament appears a costly hive packed with drones. But, for a' that, it has taken root. As in most European regional bodies, committees matter more than debates, and the legislation evolving in them will bring long-overdue changes in Scotland's health, environment and transport. Ritchie pertinently raises the Westminster question: what are those 73 Scottish MPs doing down there?

He also shows how the media, not the MPs, have become pillars of the Union. Birt's BBC wanted the Scots under restraint, and Gus Macdonald, of the Scottish Media Group, joined the Government. Murdoch switched the Scottish Sun from the SNP to Blair, while the Barclay brothers bought The Scotsman and installed the Unionist Andrew Neil as editor-in-chief.

The 1999 election was media-driven, and Ritchie confirms what a Gordon Brown aide blurted out to the FT: the repercussions of "taking a baseball bat to the SNP". The latter had hitherto swum in friendly, anti-Tory waters. It now found the Scots economy on the slide and slumped from 14 points ahead of Labour in mid-1998 to the same distance behind in March 1999.

Labour sniffed an absolute majority, and Alex Salmond, the SNP leader, miscalculated his "Penny for Scotland" campaign (to withhold Brown's income-tax cut). That, and party doubts over war in Kosovo, were principled stands as risky as John Smith's "alternative budget" in 1992. The punters weren't that rational.

Ritchie is an engaging journalist to whom the "student of politics" tag applies. But there are gaps. Much of the control freakery had already occurred, in the vetting of candidates not just for the "lists" required by proportional representation but for the constituencies. Able but awkward characters such as Labour's Mark Lazarowicz and Stephen Maxwell of the SNP were ditched. "Excluded Scotland", the third of the country that endures the dole and decrepit housing schemes, remained precisely that. Ritchie rejoices in the gang of three independents who still made it - Dennis Canavan, Robin Harper and Tommy Sheridan. So should we all.

Since last May, the media have turned their baseball bats on to Labour. Two-thirds of Scots buy draught inanity from the Daily Record and The Sun. And even with Ritchie, personalities tend to win out over policy analysis. Last autumn's "lobbygate" scandal, in which big business loitered with intent around the Edinburgh parliament, was a forewarning.

The parliament should be more important than Megabuck Man, and it has done its bit with an enlightened Freedom of Information Act. Further, with over a third of its members - and most of the brighter ministers - women, the convention that journalists of the calibre of Joyce MacMillan or Ruth Wishart can write on ideas, but only Kirsty Wark gets to play with the boys, must end.

The reviewer is professor of British Studies at Tübingen University