Suddenly, Edinburgh has it all

The opening of the Scottish Parliament will bring a welcome injection of new faces, talent, gossip and money, writes
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The Independent Online
THE JOLLY JUDGE bar in James' Court, a narrow alley off Edinburgh's Royal Mile, is expecting a change this summer in its usual drinkers, tourists, bankers and the occasional red-nosed lawyer.

Proximity to the law courts gave the bar its name. But even closer, no more than 50 yards away, is the back of the Church of Scotland Assembly Hall.

From this severe sandstone edifice the Judge's new customers will be drawn - not clerics but a breed even more given to gossip and intrigue.

From next month, the Assembly Hall will be temporary home to Scotland's first parliament in 293 years. And with that comes a new sub-culture for Edinburgh: legislators, journalists and lobbyists congregating in the nearest watering holes.

The boost to business at the Judge is a small example of how life is going to change in the city after the elections on 6 May.

Edinburgh, with its big vista, civic grandeur, palace and castle has always looked like a capital city, but without a parliament and political milieu it has lacked a heart.

Government offices, ruled by the Scottish Secretary, bankers, academics and an introverted legal establishment have given the place an air of serious purpose. Now comes an invigorating shot of democracy and all the rumbustious extra-curricular life that goes with it.

Home Rule will bring an additional 200 civil servants; public relations and lobby companies are multiplying and most newspapers have strengthened their political teams, with 40 to 50 extra journalists.

Increased diplomatic activity is also adding to the feel of full-blown capital city in the making. Ireland has recently opened a consulate - other European countries are well established - and the European Parliament has opened an office, as it has done in Barcelona, "capital" of devolved Catalonia.

Not that the fathers of Home Rule want to replicate Westminster in Edinburgh. Canon Kenyon Wright, one of the leading lights of the Scottish Constitutional Convention which 10 years ago paved the way for devolution, hopes the parliament will be "less party-dominated, more consensual and genuinely share power with the people".

The election name-calling dismays the 66-year-old clergyman, but the fact that he can stand as an independent candidate with a fair chance of winning a seat points up the fact that Scotland's democracy will be something different.

For a start, no party is likely to have overall control of the Home Rule government. Replacing the Westminster winner-take-all with a system of proportional representation will give smaller parties, including Greens and hard-Left socialists, or even individuals like Canon Wright, seats in the horseshoe-shaped chamber (supposedly a less confrontational geometry).

One of the biggest differences from Westminster will be Edinburgh's "family- friendly" hours, with no bleary-eyed, late-night legislating and, it is hoped, fewer broken marriages. Working hours will be 9.30am to 5.30pm with Mondays free for travelling, and knocking off early on Fridays.

Most MSPs will come from central Scotland and should be able to sleep in their own beds each evening. The easier hours were cited as one reason for paying MSPs pounds 5,000 less than members of the Commons - a basic pounds 40,000 a year.

But the arrangements are not family-friendly enough for the Highlands and Islands Alliance, whose MSPs still face weekly exile from home and the remote communities which elect them.

The Alliance has proposed "job share" MSPs. Electoral officials have been sceptical but on Friday the Alliance claimed a breakthrough when a nomination paper with two names in place of one was accepted as valid.

Six days after the election the first MSPs will be sworn in and elect a presiding officer, the equivalent of the Speaker. Lord (David) Steel is the front runner.

Then on 1 July, the Queen will officially open the parliament.

There will be no Westminster-style state opening flummery. The Queen will not wear robes and there will be no playing-card figures walking backwards with white sticks. "Dignified but modern" is the desired effect, with MSPs, civic leaders and hundreds of youngsters in procession from Parliament House - in name only since the 1707 Treaty of Union - to the Assembly Hall.

Political and constitutional rows apart, the biggest potential controversy on the horizon is over the parliament's future home.

Close by Holyrood Palace, the old offices of the Scottish and Newcastle brewery are being demolished to make way for the "upturned boats" building designed by Catalan architect Enric Miralles. But there are doubts whether the project will be finished by the target date of September 2001, or within its budget of pounds 50m.

Some pounds 7m has been spent fitting out the Assembly Hall as a temporary chamber and converting offices. But would-be MSPs are not complaining yet, and any delay which keeps the political circus at the top end of the Royal Mile will certainly be welcome at the Jolly Judge.