In an age of nepotistic knighthoods, dodgy peerages and now even returned CBEs, it is easy to understand the general cynicism around the honours system. Too often it is used to reward politicians for failure rather than success, loyalty rather than achievement, and party rather than principle. None of that, however, applies to Jackie Baillie, who will today officially become the first sitting MSP to be invested as a Dame at a ceremony at Holyrood Palace.
The Scottish Labour member bestrides the devolution era like a colossus. Elected for her constituency of Dumbarton at the first Scottish parliament election in 1999, Dame Jackie has held it – much to the SNP’s chagrin – at every election since. This makes her the only non-nationalist to continuously hold the same seat over 25 years of devolution. Her reputation is so strong locally that at the 2021 election, even as Scottish Labour slumped to its worst result of the devolution era, she increased her majority by almost 1,400 votes, helping to deprive Nicola Sturgeon of her much-coveted SNP landslide in the process.
Such political longevity has – for better and worse – given Dame Jackie a ringside seat for Scottish Labour’s brief success and extended decline. Following Donald Dewar’s victory in the first Holyrood election in 1999, she rose to become Minister for Social Justice and founded a widely-respected homelessness taskforce, work that was included in her damehood citation. This was a period where the promise of devolution had yet to be tainted by questions of constitution and referenda, and Dame Jackie thrived in it.
It was during these heady early years that she also began to cement her reputation as a great parliamentary character.