Group: Celtic Nation
Realm: Los Lunas, NM
Downing Street has been given a thinly veiled warning not to meddle in the affairs of the Scottish parliament by Scotland's new first minister, Jack McConnell.
In an interview with the Guardian, Mr McConnell said Holyrood should be left to develop as an institution in its own right without interference.
"I would not expect, in my position, to tell the leader of Glasgow city council or of Moray council in the Highlands what to do with their institution, and I expect us in the Scottish parliament to take responsibility for our own affairs and to get on with the business of governing Scotland," he said.
His comments will be seen as a sharp rebuke, particularly to the chancellor, Gordon Brown, whose patronage has continued to shape politics north of the border.
Mr McConnell's predecessors, Donald Dewar and Henry McLeish, were Westminster men, appointed with the blessing of Mr Brown and Tony Blair. Mr McConnell, however, has never served at Westminster, and his election last month was considered a rebuff for Mr Brown, who favoured the enterprise minister, Wendy Alexander.
Mr McConnell said the prime minister and the chancellor deserved great praise for delivering devolution, but he made it clear that the cord must be cut.
"The first 2 years of the parliament and the leadership of the parliament have to some extent been about implementing and developing decisions and programmes that were in place before the parliament came into being," he said. "We do have an opportunity now to move on and we need to move on.
"The parliament has to recognise what it is responsible for, spend a little less time getting involved in Westminster issues, or debates about powers, and spend more time concentrating on what we are there to do, to tackle the big domestic responsibilities, particularly education, health, jobs, crime and transport." A former maths teacher, general secretary of the Labour party in Scotland and Scottish education minister, Mr McConnell, 41, was the favourite to succeed Mr McLeish after the latter resigned over an office expenses row. But his nomination was overshadowed by rumours of an affair and Mr McConnell chose to go public, holding a news conference with his wife, Bridget, to admit that he had cheated on her in the mid-1990s. He was elected, unopposed, days after the admission.
"It was important that we took control of the situation, and probably more important that we dealt with what had been a threat hanging over us from a number of newspapers," he said.
Mr McConnell admits that devolution has been damaged by the scandals of recent weeks, and by the rising cost of the unfinished parliament building, now standing at £260m, more than six times the original estimate. Surveys show Scots are losing faith in Holyrood and its ability to improve public services.
"Both the parliament and the executive have been distracted from key priorities by events that we ourselves have created, or events that have engulfed us," he said. "It has been a difficult 2 years and clearly it has been a very difficult five or six weeks. For the reputation of the parliament and the reputation of government in Scotland we need to get focused on the key priorities and we need to deliver tangible differences."
A Blairite moderniser, Mr McConnell will not be drawn on whether he will widen the policy gaps between Westminster and Holyrood, but says he is impatient for change and will not be bound by dogma or by what Westminster chooses to do. Scotland has already abolished tuition fees and section 28, moved to ban fox hunting and the smacking of young children, and introduced free care for the elderly.
Mr McConnell has, however, ruled out using the parliament's tax-raising powers. Analysts say Holyrood will be forced to levy charges to pay for all its commitments; Mr McConnell says that is nonsense.
"We already spend in Scotland more money on education and health than we have in England. Our job is to get good value for money for that expenditure and not be considering hiking up Scottish taxes and making Scotland an unattractive place in which to live."
He has committed himself to exploring proportional representation for local government, an issue dear to his Liberal Democrat partners. "I have never been an instinctive supporter of PR but we are in the process of debating what system might be in place for local government elections of 2007," he said. "There are very strong views on this issue. There is certainly a very strong body of opinion inside the parliament that believes that a more proportional system would be appropriate."
Many say his biggest task will be to rebuild faith in the Scottish Labour party, which is beset by allegations of cronyism and chicanery. In recent weeks, three Scottish Labour MPs have come under investigation for their office expenses.
Mr McConnell has pledged to dismantle the old party networks and says there is a genuine desire across the board to address public disillusionment with Scottish politics. "The Scottish parliament can be a force for turning that around rather than accelerating it," he said. "That is our challenge."