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Gary Younge
End of the beginning

Donald Dewar's much lamented departure is now having a similar effect on the Scottish parliament. While he was alive, the governing body he had done so much to create had been embraced by Scots in principle but was struggling to inspire confidence in practice.

Rightly or wrongly, the new administration was regarded as profligate (the building for the new parliament ran six times over budget), irrelevant (paralysed by rows about fox hunting and sex education in schools) and besieged. In March, Labour not only lost a byelection in Ayr to the Tories, it slumped to third place; the Liberal Democrats, Labour's coalition partner, came fifth, behind the Scottish Socialist Party.

The administration was assailed by populists on the left (the Scottish National party and former Labour party dissidents such as Tommy Sheridan and Dennis Canavan) and the right (the millionaire owner of Stagecoach, Brian Souter, ploughed thousands into keeping section 28, which discriminated against lesbians and gay men). Worse still, since at least the aforementioned difficulties were of the administration's own doing, it also started to look like a magnet for bad luck. While the rest of Britain's economy was booming, Scotland's started to contract slightly. Then in August came the exam fiasco, in which thousands of university hopefuls received the wrong grades.

In the referendum on devolution in 1997, 74.3% of Scots voted for a Scottish parliament. Two years later, one poll showed 72% believed the parliament was either doing a bad job or didn't care how it was doing.

But less than a month after Dewar's death, things are starting to look up. The Scottish executive has just announced that the elderly will now get free long-term nursing home care, unlike their counterparts in England and Wales. Canavan, a life-long Labour party member who stood and won against Labour after he was not selected to stand for the Scottish parliament, has embarked on a process of reconciliation with the party. Dewar's successor, Henry McLeish, has conducted a thorough and deft reshuffle. The entire Scottish Qualifications Association, which was responsible for the exam debacle, has been persuaded to resign. The economy is showing signs of growth. As England and Wales wade through muddy flood waters, even the sun is shining on Edinburgh.

This does not mean that Dewar was a failure or that McLeish is a success. Far from it. Dewar, one of Labour's unspun heroes, had a genuine personal following in Scotland; very few Scottish people have much of an opinion about McLeish one way or another. It is more a sign of the times. For Dewar is not the only person Scottish politics has lost suddenly and recently. Shortly before he died, Alex Salmond resigned as leader of the SNP. Within a month, Scottish politics lost the two men who, together, have dominated the landscape for the past decade and oversaw the transition from Westminster to Holyrood.

When Salmond became leader of the SNP, in 1990, the Tories were using Scotland to test-drive the poll tax and the SNP, the smallest party in Scotland, had branded Labour's Scottish MPs "the feeble 50" because of their inability to do anything about it. By the time Dewar died, Scotland had a parliament that had voted to abolish poindings and warrant sales and Salmond was the leader of the opposition.

But while both Dewar and Salmond were synonymous with Scotland, they bore the indelible imprimatur of Westminster. It was on Westminster's terms that they made their names - for there were no other terms - and fought their battles. They came to Holyrood gladly, but they did not come from there. Their successors are a different story altogether. Both are virtually unknown outside Scotland; indeed most Scots would struggle to pick out John Swinney, the new leader of the SNP, in an identity parade. Their performance at the despatch box this week - the first time they have duelled togther - was dire.

Undoubtedly they will grow into their respective jobs, although it is too early to tell in what direction they will take their parties. McLeish seems to be heading for a more populist agenda. His principal achievement so far is changing the name of the culture and sports portfolio to sports and culture - less Puccini and Bach, more pies and Bovril. He has said he wants to concentrate on "core issues", such as health and education, rather than gay rights and fox hunting. It is true that he has not travelled as far as Dewar, but that also means he is carrying less baggage. He could persuade Canavan not to resign his Westminster seat and force a byelection that Labour would probably have lost. Dewar could not because he and Canavan had a long-standing feud.

Swinney, meanwhile, has declared himself more of a gradualist. He wants to show that the SNP is fit to govern on bread-and-butter issues in Holyrood before he moves on to the big prize of independence by referendum.

But their low profile south of the border and scarcely developed agendas are no bad thing. For it is less important where they are going than where they have come from. Their big chance has come not in Westminster but Holyrood. Their success or failure will be defined in terms of how they fare in Edinburgh, not London. As the past 18 months have demonstrated, the terms of debate are very different up here. Scottish politics is more religious and less rural than that of Britain as a whole; the indications so far are that Scotland is likely to be less socially progressive but more economically redistributive. To hold its own here Labour must look to its left not its right.

The parliament has a higher proportion of women than the Commons but no ethnic minorities. Scottish backbench MPs in Westminster have taken to complaining that they cannot get their voice heard here because the media are too busy covering Holyrood. That is the way it should be. "Devolution creates institutions whose leaders have to have the confidence of those institutions rather than Westminster," says John Curtice, a politics professor at Strathclyde university.

It is a truism Tony Blair has had to learn the hard way; the consequences go beyond Scotland. Now that McLeish is in charge in Holyrood the four men Blair wished to carry his mantle during the first wave of devolution have all gone. Their careers have been cut short - by disgrace (Ron Davies), death (Dewar), defeat at the polls (Frank Dobson) and defeat in an assembly (Alun Michael). The two men the Labour machine fought hard, and at times dirtily, to deny the top jobs in Wales (Rhodri Morgan) and London (Ken Livingstone) are both in place. And, despite dire warnings to the contrary, the sky has not fallen in. The political institutions are in place: now the political cultures must flourish. The transition period is over. Like Dewar, may it rest in peace.

gary.younge@theguardian.com

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