Former First Ministers Nicola Sturgeon and Henry McLeish today clashed over Scottish devolution during a Wigtown Book Festival panel discussion.

The sold-out event, which was chaired by former BBC Scotland political editor Brian Taylor and also included Conservative Liz Smith, MSP for Mid Scotland and Fife and Shadow Cabinet Secretary for Finance and Local Government, on the panel.

The Scotland Act, 25 Years On explored all that has happened since the legislation was passed on 19 November 1998 – paving the way for a devolved Scotland. 

Key topics included how it’s all turned out, what a quarter of a century of Holyrood government has taught us and, in a turbulent political year, what will happen next?

Sturgeon said she still believes that Scotland will become independent, attacking the current Westminster government for “democracy denial” in refusing a fresh independence referendum.

She also stated that she is no longer entirely confident that the Scottish Parliament will survive and claimed: “We have a government that has no respect for the Scottish Parliament”

Sturgeon added: “If we aren’t careful we will wake up one day in a few years and will wonder whatever happened to our Scottish Parliament.”

According to Sturgeon the ability of the Scottish Parliament to act in the interests of the country is being eroded as Westminster increasingly challenges its policies and decisions in a way that did not happen for the first 20 years of devolution.

However she said that the continued refusal to hold a referendum was “unsustainable” and that “Scotland will have a choice and that choice will be independence”

McLeish condemned the SNP saying: “I think Scotland has stalled on a number of major issues, and it’s been stalled by the relentless focus on independence.”

He argued that “the dial has not shifted, there are no more people in favour of independence than there were in the past and the momentum has gone out of the independence movement.”

For the next five years, he said, there must be a complete focus on sorting out issues around the economy, health service and education and said that the next general election must be treated as an opportunity to remove a Conservative government which is destroying services with policies that promote “private affluence and public squalor”.

McLeish said there needs to be an evolution in the powers available to all the UK’s devolved administrations and a framework agreed so they can more readily adapt in the face of changing times and challenges.

However he also attacked Westminster saying that he believed that the Scotland Act and the devolution it brought has been far more respected in Scotland than elsewhere in the UK.

And he warned that unless UK governments showed proper respect for devolution then “the seeds of the end of the union could lie in Westminster”.

Both former FMs agreed that Scotland needs more powers to address its own affairs.

They, along with Smith, also agreed that politics has become toxic and new ways need to be found for people and politicians to debate and disagree with respect.

She said: “Politics is toxic. Politics and politicians are deeply unpopular and we have to tackle that.

“I believe what the people of Scotland really want is for us to be addressing the problems that confront us all and to see both parliaments working together to make this happen.”

– Ends –


About the panellists 

  • Liz Smith is the MSP for Mid Scotland and Fife. Following her long-serving role as Shadow Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills, she was appointed Chief Whip in February 2020 and, in August 2020, she was appointed Shadow Cabinet Secretary for the Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform. After the 2021 Scottish Parliament election she was appointed Shadow Cabinet Secretary for Finance and the Economy, later renamed Finance and Local Government. She chairs three cross party committees: those on Colleges and Universities, Sport and Outdoor Education. She currently has a Member’s Bill in Parliament seeking to ensure that all young people in Scotland have an opportunity to experience residential outdoor education. Liz lives at Madderty in South Perthshire and was a teacher for 16 years prior to serving in politics.
  • Rt Hon Henry McLeish began his political career as an elected member in local government in 1974, and was leader of Fife Regional Council for five years. In 1987 he was elected as a member of the UK Parliament and acted as Minister for Devolution and Home Affairs in the Labour government from 1997 to 1999. In the first Scottish Parliament he was Minister for Enterprise and Lifelong Learning from 1999, and in 2000 he became First Minister of Scotland, until 2001. Retiring from politics in 2003, he is now an adviser, consultant, writer, author and broadcaster, and lectures in the USA and elsewhere on the European Union and politics. He chaired the Scottish Prisons Commission, which produced a report into sentencing and the criminal justice system entitled ‘Scotland’s Choice’. In 2010 he conducted a major report on the state of football in Scotland, which had been commissioned by the Scottish Football Association, and chaired a commission into sport requested by the Scottish government. He is now an honorary professor at Edinburgh University.
  • Nicola Sturgeon was born in Irvine and went on to study law at the University of Glasgow. She worked as a solicitor before being elected to the Scottish Parliament in 1999 and currently represents the Glasgow Southside constituency. Nicola became First Minister of Scotland in November 2014 – the first woman to hold the role. She resigned in March 2023 as the longest serving First Minister since the position was created. In her spare time, Nicola is an avid reader and enjoys going to the theatre.

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For more about Wigtown Book Festival see

For media information: Matthew Shelley at [email protected] or 07786 704299.

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