Aerial group portrait shot of the members of the first Scottish parliament, held in the General Assembly Hall of the Church of Scotland, a large, wood-panelled room.

Holyrood at 25: The foundation of a humanist parliament

Joe Higgins, Policy and Campaigns Officer

May 15, 2024

As the Scottish Parliament celebrates its 25th anniversary, our policy and campaigns officer Joe looks back at the devolved parliament’s first debate on 18 May 1999. How has the faith and belief landscape of Scotland changed since devolution? What has Holyrood achieved to reflect our increasingly secular profile? And what comes next?

A quarter of a century ago this month, Scots headed to the polls to choose who should represent them at Holyrood for the first time. In the weeks that followed, newly elected MSPs began gathering at the General Assembly Hall of the Church of Scotland. Many people will remember this as their temporary meeting place before the official parliament building opened in 2004. What most won’t remember, however, is the topic of MSPs’ first ever debate: should prayers be held in the new parliament?

In the UK Parliament, it remains a steadfast tradition for Anglican prayers to take place before the start of business each day. As our colleagues at Humanists UK have rightly argued, this arrangement gives primacy to the views of Christians above all others, and should be reformed. 

What most won’t remember is the topic of MSPs’ first ever debate: should prayers be held in the new parliament?

Joe Higgins, Policy and Campaigns Officer

In a promising start to devolved decision-making, the inaugural Holyrood debate revealed a broad consensus for a more open and inclusive approach than the one taken at Westminster. MSPs spoke about ensuring the new Parliament reflected the “multiplicity of faiths and beliefs that encompass Scottish life.” In practice, they felt that any time reserved for prayer or contemplation should welcome representatives from all of Scotland’s faith and belief groups, including non-religious communities. It is worth noting that this appetite for a more secular format was in keeping with Holyrood’s founding principles of openness, accountability, and equal opportunities. Humanism was even mentioned directly in one contribution, by John McAllion, Labour MSP for Dundee East:

Of course, there are not just Protestants and Catholics; there are also humanists. I know that some people will say that that is not possible in Scotland—that they are either Protestant humanists or Catholic humanists—but humanists’ beliefs and traditions must be kept in mind.”

We have to recognise that not only is Scotland multi-faith, it contains people who do not have any faith in God. They have every right to hold that principle and to have their views respected. I would not like their rights to be imposed upon by a majority, even if there is a religious majority in the chamber, in this very noble building.

The new Holyrood parliament building under construction in 2003, with cranes rising up against the Edinburgh skyline.

“Not only is Scotland multi-faith, it contains people who do not have any faith in God. They have every right to hold that principle and have their views respected.”

John McAllion, Labour MSP for Dundee East, during the first Holyrood debate in 1999

Later that year, MSPs agreed to establish a non-denominational Time for Reflection that would “follow a pattern based on the balance of beliefs in Scotland.” Every Tuesday before the start of parliamentary business, contributors from a broad range of faith, belief and civic backgrounds are invited to address MSPs. Time for Reflection has involved a number of our own celebrants over the years. They have all used this opportunity to speak about important humanist values of empathy, compassion, dignity, and full and equal human rights for all. 

It is also striking to look back and consider how much Scotland’s relationship to faith and belief has changed since Holyrood’s inception. Between 2001 and 2011, the number of non-religious people counted in the Scottish census rose from 27.5% to 37%. Conversely, the number of people identifying as Christian fell from 65 to 54%. The data on religion from the 2022 census will be published next week and we expect this trend towards a more secular Scotland to continue. 

These trends have also been reflected in the make-up of Holyrood. In 1999, the then first minister Donald Dewar predicted that roughly 15% of his MSP colleagues attended church every Sunday. This was reflective of the Scottish population at the time. By 2017, Church Census figures showed that only 7% of Scots were regular churchgoers. The MSP who brought the inaugural prayer debate, Alex Fergusson, pointed out that two-thirds of MSPs opted to take an oath and swear their allegiance in the name of God. Fast forward to the 2021 election and roughly half of MSPs chose instead to make a secular affirmation.

The era of devolution has brought a number of important secular reforms championed by humanists: the repeal of Section 2A, which banned the “promotion” of homosexuality in schools, in 2000; the extension of fostering and adoption rights to same-sex couples in 2009; the introduction of civil partnerships and, later, full marriage equality for LGBT+ people in 2014.

Joe Higgins, Policy and Campaigns Officer

In line with this diminishing religious influence, the era of devolution has brought a number of important secular reforms championed by humanists: the repeal of Section 2A, which banned the “promotion” of homosexuality in schools in 2000; the extension of fostering and adoption rights to same-sex couples in 2009; the introduction of civil partnerships and, later, full marriage equality for LGBT+ people in 2014. Most recently, Holyrood passed legislation giving children equal protection from assault and embedding children’s rights within everything that public services in Scotland do.

Nevertheless, there is still much to do to make Scotland a more secular, rational and socially just country. Christian privilege remains entrenched in our education system. Terminally ill adults are denied the right to a dignified and compassionate death. Women and pregnant people continue to face harassment and intimidation from anti-abortion protesters when exercising their right to healthcare. And the LGBT+ community still has no legal or civic protection against harmful attempts to “cure” them of their sexuality or gender identity. These are the issues we’ll be asking MSPs to reflect on as they look forward to the next 25 years of the Scottish Parliament. 

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Title image: First meeting of the Scottish parliament, 12 May 1999. Various artists/CC with acknowledgements to National Galleries of Scotland.

Body image: The new Scottish parliament under construction in 2003. David P. Howard/CC.

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