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The 1999 Club: 12 founding MSPs tell the Scottish Parliament’s story

Scottish Parliament 1999
The 1999 Club: 12 MSPs tell the story of the Scottish Parliament. Picture shows; MSPs from the 1999 intake of the Scottish Parliament.. N/A. Adele Merson/DCT Media Date; 24/09/2020

The opening of the Scottish Parliament in 1999 was hailed as a “new experiment in democracy” for the country and an opportunity to promote a new form of politics.

Some of Scotland’s most experienced politicians from the 1999 intake will stand down ahead of this year’s Scottish Parliament elections in May, paving the way for a raft of new faces to make their mark on the country’s future.

Among the figures retiring from the parliament are some of the SNP’s “big-hitters” in the form of cabinet secretaries Roseanna Cunningham and Michael Russell, taking with them a wealth of political acumen.

The north-east region will also say goodbye to two of its regional members who were first elected in 1999, Scottish Labour MSP Lewis Macdonald and Scottish Liberal Democrat MSP Mike Rumbles.

‘Incredibly exciting’

As part of our series, we spoke to Ms Cunningham, who represents Perthshire South and Kinross-shire, and takes the title of Scotland’s longest-serving parliamentarian.

The Cabinet Secretary for Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform told us that being elected as MSP for Perth in 1999, on the advent of devolution, was “huge and incredibly exciting”.

The 69-year-old had contemplated standing again in the 2021 election but the Covid-19 pandemic caused her to reassess her situation.

Scottish Parliament 1999
Elected to the Scottish Parliament in 1999, Roseanna Cunningham had considered running again.

She said: “At the beginning of the year I was going to go for it and then Covid-19 happened and I thought, you just don’t know what’s round the corner, and that sort of had an impact on the way I was looking at things and the sense in which I could see a way not to do it.

“I still struggle a little with it; I’m not going to pretend otherwise. I still don’t feel absolutely 100% gung-ho about it 100% of the time but I am getting more comfortable with it having made the decision.”

‘Always there for the people of Scotland’

Argyll and Bute MSP Michael Russell is one of the most high-profile politicians to say goodbye to Holyrood, stating another five years covering the 23 inhabited islands that make up his constituency would be “too much”.

However, the 67-year-old is not stepping back from his work in the SNP, as he was successful in being appointed the party’s president last year, a role traditionally held by a senior, long-serving politician.

The Cabinet Secretary for the Constitution, Europe and External Affairs said the establishment of the parliament has “transformed Scottish politics”.

He added: “It has, in my view, after a bit of a shaky start, done well. As a fully independent parliament it will have to learn those rules and learning is always tough but I think the question isn’t has it fulfilled its potential but has it done its job?

“To the best of the ability of its members, it has done its job. It needs to keep its feet on the ground, it needs to be very accessible.

“We should be conscious of the fact we are always there for the people of Scotland.”

A ‘partisan’ parliament

North-east MSP Mike Rumbles said one of the reasons behind his decision to step away from elected politics is the change in how “partisan” the institution has become.

The former army officer, who failed to get elected in 2011 for one term, later returning in 2016, noticed a “huge difference” in the way the parliament was operating, following the 2014 independence referendum.

The 64-year-old said: “I realised that, actually, the party in government was not interested in making the devolved Scottish Parliament work.”

Scottish Parliament 1999
Lewis Macdonald MSP.

Another north-east representative standing down is Scottish Labour MSP Lewis Macdonald who believes it is time for his party’s next generation of politicians to take over.

He said: “I very much want to encourage the people who will lead us in that new period of change and I’m very optimistic that they will set a different agenda going forward than the one we’ve seen in the last five to 10 years.”

On the Scottish Parliament, the politician said after a “rather difficult infancy” the institution is growing in maturity and makes a “real contribution to the democratic life of the country”.

He added: “I guess the test of that is: who can imagine Scotland without the Scottish Parliament?”

 

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