What does Edinburgh mean to you? To many, it probably means ancient, winding, cobbled alleys; or gothic spires that puncture the sky with a kind of savage grace. To others, it conjures up images of bagpipe rock blaring from ‘Scottish Novelty’ shops out onto pavements soaked with rain and various other fluids not to be mentioned.
But to others still, it symbolises the birthplace of a new, exciting democracy.
A visit to the Holyrood Parliament will probably begin with a sense of civic duty, but the experience is enough to make Boris Johnson a Scottish Nationalist.
First to set the scene: Scotland got its current parliament by virtue of the Scotland Act 1998. This followed on the heels of the 1997 Referendum, in which the Scottish people voted overwhelmingly to create a new Scottish Parliament, and to give it powers over tax raising. The historian Tom Devine describes this as the “most significant development in Scottish political history since the Union of 1707”.
Nowadays this new cradle of democracy sits next to Holyrood Palace, at the bottom end of the Royal Mile (a street that begins and ends with royal associations). With the sun gleaming down over the crags, this modernist monstrosity sits like a tangled, twisted maelstrom of metal and wood. Everywhere are jutting angles that jar and clash in a way that is strangely…graceful. The building itself could not be further removed in style from the city that nurtures it; with its cold, rational Presbyterian stone. True, there is eccentricity in its elevations, spirals and deviations, but that quirkiness is no match for the full-throated wackiness of the Parliament.
The contrast between town and Parliament is an interesting one, but there remains a more rewarding contrast. It is a thought that cannot escape you when you walk into that wide, open debating chamber. How utterly different from the political scenes we are used to. Opposing rows of green leather studded seats, facing each other from across a barren No Man’s Land; the sound of hoarse jeering a constant, deafening background. Compare that, if you dare, to these modern, distinct wooden chairs that fan outwards from the Presiding Officer’s seat in concentric semi-circles.
A helpful man told me that the Parliament was designed by a Spanish Architect, Enric Miralles, who tragically died before the building reached completion. I asked him if he liked it, and why. He said he loved the openness of it, and the warmth of it. Scottish politics is a savage thing, but it says a lot about this country that politics carries on in a place built with a deliberate openness.
Outside are tranquil lawns and long, flat water features that ripple gently in the East Coast wind. This scene is a far cry from the inane bustle of Westminster Bridge. The wind catches the three flags that stand beside it: a Union Flag, a Saltire and 12 gold stars on a blue background. Those stars seem to flutter sadly now: they seem to know that they are no longer welcome. And when they go, the fragile settlement that supports the crazy, beautiful building behind it will also find itself under threat.
Currently the MSPs that hold their discussions in the Debating Chamber have power over these areas: health, education, housing, justice, rural affairs and the environment. In the struggle to disentangle ourselves from the European Union, Westminster and Holyrood are trying to avoid the coming collision of constitutional crisis. The powers that come back from Brussels have to go somewhere, and Nicola Sturgeon’s government is determined that they won’t be held in London. Exit from the EU complicates Scotland’s place in our union in myriad ways. If our politics is now a culture war, Holyrood seems pretty firmly on the side of urban, liberal cosmopolitanism; and as Sir Walter Scott wrote: “naebody’s nails can reach the length o’ Lunnon”.