The New Britain: Scots end 292-year adjournment

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The Independent Online
"THE SCOTTISH Parliament was adjourned on 25 March in the year 1707," declared Winnie Ewing, taking the chair as the house's oldest member. "It is hereby reconvened." And with that understatement, Scotland's Parliament yesterday erupted into spontaneous and loud applause.

The 129 freshly sworn-in MSPs knew they were privileged to see this day. High on the Mound, overlooking Edinburgh's splendid spired skyline, they were the lucky ones to be in a Parliament whose recreation had first been agreed in the House of Commons more than a century ago.

The air was thick with history. A bagpiper played on the Royal Mile. Outside, next to a new parliamentary sign in Gaelic saying "Parlamaid na h-Alba", stood Scots in 18th-century traditional dress, wearing belted plate and carrying broadswords. They were a reminder of the riots which attended the Parliament's abolition, when Daniel Defoe, spying for the English, described a 1,200-strong mob "crying out `all Scotland will stand together. No Union, English dogs'."

Inside the chamber there were other ironies. Lord James Douglas Hamilton, the Parliament's only hereditary peer, elected on the Tory list thanks to PR, made his oath of allegiance. It was his ancestor, the Duke of Hamilton, who plotted the demise of the last parliament by bribery, arm-twisting and changing sides at a crucial moment. "A parcel of rogues," Robert Burns called them.

Mrs Ewing, who led the modern revival of nationalism, with her famous 1967 SNP victory in the Hamilton by-election, referred to those days in her opening statement. She recalled the words of the Earl of Seafield when signing the Act of Union: "There is ane end to ane auld sang." Now Scotland had a fresh opportunity, said Mrs Ewing. "We can begin to write the new Scottish song."

Yet, for all the weight of history, this felt like a modern parliament. The MSPs are housed temporarily in the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland. But the dour wooden benches have been removed, replaced with plush turquoise seats and bleached wood desks that could be straight out of the Ikea catalogue.

The sight of even Donald Dewar, a seasoned parliamentarian, apparently lost, opening one door then another, emphasised the newness and difference of everything. As did Keith Raffan, a former Cosmopolitan Hunk of the Year, and now a Lib Dem MSP, who was the only member brave enough to wear a kilt.

There were plenty of female faces - 48 of the 129 MSPs - leaving only Sweden and Denmark with more women members of Parliament. Their impact is already being felt: working hours from 9am to 5pm and a creche.

Instead of the bear-pit of the Commons, the seating is in a horseshoe shape, with Labour and the Liberal Democrats taking the middle, Tories on the right, SNP to the left. As a husband and wife, Fergus and Margaret Ewing, made their oaths together in front of his mother, the community nature of Scottish society spoke through. "I hope," said Winnie Ewing, "that we will try to follow the consensual system of the European Parliament and say goodbye to the badgering and backbiting one associates with Westminster."

Yet the auld tribes also distinguished themselves. Each of the SNP members wore white roses to recall the words of poet Hugh MacDiarmid: "I ask only for the little white rose of Scotland that smells sharp and sweet and brak's the heart."

The SNP's republicanism was as plain as Donald Dewar's unionism. "Our primary loyalty is to the people of Scotland," declared Alex Salmond, before affirming loyalty to the Queen and all her heirs and successors. So poor was the pledge made by one of his MSPs, Dorothy Grace Elder, that she had to return to make it a second time. The new politics will not be tame. That was clear from the Glasgow firebrand Tommy Sheridan, sole representative of the Scottish Socialist Party. Mr Sheridan said that his vision was of a socialist republic where sovereignty lay with the people of Scotland not an unelected monarch. "I make this oath under protest," he declared. The Duke of Hamilton must be turning in his grave.