1999 - Opening of new Scottish Parliament

The Opening of the New Scottish Parliament

The new Scottish Parliament opened on 1 July 1999. Matthew Engel of The Guardian took an irreverent look at the festivities.


Lord Steel called it the most historic event in Scotland for nearly 300 years, which does not say a huge amount for the past three centuries. Sean Connery called it the most important day of his life, which rather confirms the view that film stars actually lead lives of surprising emptiness.

Connery was flamboyantly present, in a ruff and kilt in green McNotice-me tartan. Other Scots celebrities refused to bother, and the advance publicity was dominated by news of the no-shows, ranging from A-list celebs like Sir Alex Ferguson to F-listers like Sir Malcolm Rifkind.

Among those also absent was the Prime Minister. This was not a sign of Scotland's liberation from his yoke. It was a sign that even on such a day Scotland was not the most urgent priority among the four constituent parts of the UK.

For some time, sophisticates in Edinburgh have had trouble using words like 'historic' and 'important' without sniggering. Since the high point of enthusiasm reached at the referendum in 1998, the popular view of the Scottish parliament has slumped nearer to apathy, cynicism and recrimination - i.e. political business as usual.

Finally, the history is out of the way. Yesterday the Queen officially opened the parliament in its temporary home, on loan from the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland. The funny thing was that it actually worked brilliantly. On one of those clear and fresh breezy mornings which in Edinburgh pass as high summer, substantial crowds - mostly enthusiastic - lined the streets. Inside, there was a short and nicely-judged ceremony.

The secret was that there was something for every political taste. This is a Labour project, run jointly with the Liberal Democrats. It is welcome to nationalists as a service station on the clogged motorway that might lead to independence.

And even the Tories had plenty to cheer on the day they had resisted for so long.

There was Her Majesty, and the Duke of Hamilton carrying the crown of Scotland on a velvet cushion, and Lord Lyon King of Arms, and various heralds dressed for a big budget Hollywood production of Shakespeare, and enough military flummery to suggest the New Scotland will not be entirely anathema to them.

The exception may well have been the leader of the Westminster Conservatives. By a quirk of protocol, William Hague was not in the main procession and therefore had to sit in his seat in the assembly for almost an hour and three quarters before the Queen arrived.

The same fate befell both Paddy Ashdown, who might have regarded staring into space as reasonable practice for retirement, and Mr Connery, who walked out until the show started. Mr Hague just sat there looking more and more thunderous.

He was eventually joined by Betty Boothroyd who outmatched him in the spectre-at-the-feast contest.

From the moment the brass section of the Royal Scottish National Orchestra appeared in the chamber, it became clear that this parliament would be doing things very differently from Westminster. And when the MSPs paraded in to a specially-composed fanfare, her expression suggested that this was not the sort of thing that would ever be allowed to happen in a serious legislature.

The speeches were brief and dignified. There were only three, from Lord Steel, the presiding officer (he is calling himself Sir David up here, as though his peerage were a secret - why not plain Mr Steel for a new parliament?), the Queen and Mr Dewar, Scotland's First Minister.

The other party leaders had to speak in Parliament Hall, the scene of the old parliament, while the Queen was still in Holyrood. This saved her from the danger of hearing even the tiniest hint of subversion from Alex Salmond.

Lord Steel greeted Her Majesty as Queen of Scots, not Queen of Scotland, a technically correct reference to a fine Scottish distinction. Queen of Scotland would imply ownership of the land. Since most of us are familiar only with one previous holder of that title but know precisely what happened to her, this caused a considerable frisson.

This possibility did not seem to bother the Queen. She was wearing saltire blue, with plaid. 'I have trust in the good judgment of the Scottish people,' she said, 'and I am confident in the future of Scotland.'

But the speeches were overshadowed by two other items in the programme Lord Steel had put together. First, the traditional singer Sheena Wellington sang Rabbie Burns's 'A Man's A Man For A' That':

Their tinsel show, an a' that
The honest man, tho e'er sae poor
Is king o men for a' that . . .

Then, for the last verse, all the MSPs spontaneously joined in. Betty Boothroyd looked more horror-struck than ever. The last recorded outbreak of community singing in her chamber is believed to have been the brief snatch of the Red Flag attempted after the 1945 election, and the next, her expression suggested, would be over her dead body.

But it was a magnificent moment, and by the end of it I think even she was won over.

There followed something even more remarkable. One of those magnificently soigné, auburn-haired girls Scottish schools seem to turn out with perfect ease read a humorous poem beautifully. She was Victoria Joffe, 17.

Most astonishingly of all, it was supposedly written by an 11-year-old, Amy Linekar from Thurso. It was called 'How to Create A Great Country':

Take: Several heroic battles,
Some kilts of tartan fine
A clearance's worth of emigration,
A thistle's worth of spike,
And a rebellion or two.

Mix together with a spoon of fate and add:
Granny's best mince n' tatties
Corned beef hash or tattie soup
Oor Wullie's sense of mischief
Add a clove of Gaelic
And a broad Scots tongue . . .

It might not be Burns. But if an 11-year-old really did write that, it is hard to see how her country ever bowed the knee to anyone.

That was it, more or less. The Queen left to watch a few hundred children and Concorde parade past. And the day dissolved into various minor events, to which no one had bothered to invite her.

Six people were arrested, three of them for jumping the crash barriers during the parade and shouting 'Disband the RUC' at the royal carriage.

They were identified by other members of the crowd, proving their loyalty.

The MSPs will be back at 9.30 this morning, to question the Executive. And Scotland's future will be now made evermore on days like that, sans Queen and Connery. Quiet, unimportant, unhistoric days.

Matthew Engel, The Guardian, 2 July 1999. © The Guardian

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