From the Daily Record
For reasons of preserving my sanity, I’ve avoided writing about politics lately. That includes the politics of my old homeland, Scotland. However, I feel compelled to type a few words on the topic thanks to the coverage given to a recent interview with Jack McConnell. Oops, sorry, I’ve misnamed him. It should be Baron Jack McConnell of Glenscorrodale. The twitter handle he’s given himself is @LordMcConnell, so evidently these titles are important to him. Baron McConnell was First Minister of Scotland from 2001 to 2007 and the last First Minister to belong to the Scottish Labour Party.
Last week, Baron McConnell was interviewed in the Scottish current affairs magazine Holyrood and had plenty to say about the current state of Scottish politics which, since he was nudged out of power by Alex Salmond’s Scottish National Party in 2007, have been dominated by the SNP. The Baron is not happy at what he sees. He laments that nothing has changed in Scotland since the 2014 referendum on independence (which, of course, his side won), laments that modern Scottish politics has ‘no public debate and no public accountability’, and pines for the good old days ‘of ministers doing their jobs well’.
Indeed, so strongly does he feel that at one point the interviewer notes, “McConnell’s voice starts to break and his eyes well up.” “Sorry,” he says, “I’m feeling quite emotional about it right now… I genuinely feel like we are stuck in treacle and I don’t know how we get out of it.”
Commentators in Scotland’s (heavily unionist) mainstream media have seized upon the article as both an articulation and confirmation of all that’s ghastly about modern-day Scotland, which has had the SNP in power for the past 14 years now and is currently under the First Ministership of Nicola Sturgeon. In the Rupert Murdoch-owned Times, for instance, pundit Kenny Farquharson wrote, “I challenge anyone, of any political stripe, to read this interview with Jack McConnell and not find themselves agreeing with at least some of his analysis of where Scotland finds itself right now.” And in the New Statesman, Chris Deerin opined about Jack – sorry, Baron! – McConnell’s outpouring, “Coming from a politician who is known for his optimism and problem-solving approach, and who rarely lacks a twinkle in his eye, the anguish is all the more powerful. And it is very hard to disagree with anything.”
Incidentally, Deerin has form in lambasting Scotland’s prevailing political orthodoxy. In 2015, in the right-wing online news outlet CapX, he wrote that the place “has become a soft and sappy nation, intellectually listless, coddled, a land of received wisdom and one-track minds, narrow parameters and mass groupthink… It is certainly the viewpoint that dominates our polity and media – an unholy alliance of Nationalists, Greens and socialists. I’m sure many consider themselves to be all three.” I find it mind-melting that the left-leaning New Statesman saw fit to make him its Scotland Editor.
Baron McConnell apparently bewails a lack of vision in modern Scottish politics, though I’m surprised that someone with his broad vision doesn’t acknowledge the fact that in the last decade, by way of being part of the United Kingdom, Scotland has had to deal with the austerity cuts imposed by David Cameron and George Osborne, and then the vote to leave the European Union (powered by anti-European votes in England – every part of Scotland voted to remain in the EU) and its ongoing, toxic legacy, and the Covid-19 epidemic. Not to mention that the UK as a whole is currently governed by a set of Conservative politicians whose moral compass seems to be the same one that Al Capone referred to in the 1920s. I doubt even a Scottish government with impeccable Unionist / Labour credentials headed by the noble Baron himself would appear particularly dynamic having all that to contend with. So, it seems a bit myopic of him to overlook it. Unless, of course, he’s just being disingenuous.
Also, when I think back to the supposed golden age of public debate, and public accountability, and ministers doing their jobs well, and not being stuck in treacle – i.e., Baron McConnell’s tenure as First Minister – I can’t remember much that was outstanding. Well, apart from the ban on smoking in public places, the first such ban implemented in one of the constituent nations of the UK, which made life pleasanter and healthier for non-smokers like myself who liked to visit the pub sometimes. But otherwise, I just remember him making an arse of himself by wearing a pinstriped kilt to a charity fashion show in New York in 2004. (Even my old Dad, not normally one to get worked up about Scottish politics, exclaimed, “Christ, what an embarrassment!”). Oh, and a stushie about him and his family holidaying in Majorca with Kirsty Wark, a senior journalist at the supposedly impartial BBC. And his enthusiasm for promoting Public Finance Initiatives which, by 2016, were projected to cost Scottish taxpayers some 30 billion pounds during the decades to come. And the fact that one year he returned 1.5 billion pounds of devolved money to the London treasury, when there were clearly things in Scotland he could have spent it on.
Still, Baron McConnell must have fond memories of those years. A staunch Blairite, he had the satisfaction of knowing his smiley, warmongering hero was ensconced in Number Ten, Downing Street. Also, the Labour Party was massively powerful in Scottish local politics, and it held the lion’s share of Scottish seats in the Westminster Parliament too. Labour were the top dogs in Scotland. This was their territory. No wonder political commentators joked that Labour votes in Scotland were weighed rather than counted; and in Glasgow you could stick a red rosette on a monkey and it’d get voted into Westminster.
Actually, looking at the evidence, the red rosette / monkey scenario must have actually happened in a number of cases. I’m thinking of such specimens as Lanark and Hamilton East’s one-time Labour MP Jimmy Hood, who once declared he’d oppose Scottish independence even if it made the Scottish people better off – the fact that as an MP he was busy claiming £1000-a-month second-home expenses in London no doubt had something to do with his keenness to keep Westminster running the show. And Midlothian’s David Hamilton, who in 2015 did his bit for the battle against sexism by describing Nicola Sturgeon (and her hairstyle) as “the wee lassie with a tin helmet on”. And Glasgow South West’s Ian Davidson, who charmingly predicted that after 2014’s referendum on Scottish independence the debate would carry on only “in the sense there is a large number of wounded still to be bayoneted”. This shower became known as the ‘low-flying Jimmies’ because of their lack of ambition in anything other than being cannon-fodder for Labour at Westminster and enjoying all the perks that came with being MPs. And with numpties like these populating the Westminster opposition benches during the 1980s and 1990s, it’s no surprise Mrs Thatcher’s Tories had a free run to do whatever they liked in Scotland.
Yes, I know, in 1999, early in Blair’s premiership, Labour did set up the devolved Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh. But I’m sure it was seen as a means of keeping additional numbers of loyal Scottish Labour Party hacks in lucrative employment and was designed not to rock the boat in any way for London. The Scottish parliament was organised so that no party (i.e., the SNP) could never win an outright majority in it and its ruling executive would always have to be a coalition. And the biggest party in any coalition, Blair and co. assumed, would always be the Scottish Labour Party.
It was a shock for Labour when in 2007 the SNP won the biggest number of seats in the Scottish parliament, eschewed coalitions and ran Scotland for the next four years as a minority administration. It was an even bigger shock for them when in 2011 the SNP achieved the impossible and managed to win an overall majority of seats there. Hadn’t Labour’s finest minds arranged things so that this would never happen? And things got even worse in 2015 when, with the Scottish party led by the hapless Jim Murphy, Labour lost 40 of its 41 MPs to the SNP in a Westminster election. Yes, it must’ve been tough for poor old Labour to witness all that. There’s nothing worse than having a sense of entitlement and then not getting what you believe you’re entitled to.
From unsplash.com / © Serena Repice Lentini
Baron McConnell is a good example of a particularly rotten aspect of the Scottish Labour experience. Secure a seat in the London or Edinburgh parliaments, follow orders, doff your cap to your masters, and after a few decades of loyal service you’ll get the ultimate reward – a peerage. Scotland was meant to be not only Labour’s stomping ground, its fiefdom, but also its station of departure for a gravy train running all the way to the House of Lords. These days, in the Lords, the second largest legislative chamber in the world after the Chinese National People’s Congress – which is about as democratic – the good Baron of Glenscorrodale gets to rub ermine-clad shoulders with such other Scottish Labour luminaries as Baron George Foulkes of Cumnock, Baron George Robertson of Port Ellon and Baron Alastair Darling of Roulanish.
No doubt he also enjoys a chinwag with the Margaret Thatcher-worshipping former Secretary of State for Scotland Michael Forsyth, who was supposedly booted out of power in 1997 – I can’t remember his title, but I assume it’s something like Lord Freddy of Krueger – and another of Chris Deerin’s heroes, the former Scottish Conservative Party leader Ruth Davidson, whom I believe nowadays calls herself Baroness Colonel Davidson of Jar-Jar Binks. Obviously, there are plenty of former Conservative Party treasurers to fraternise with as well. Accountability, eh?
In the Holyrood interview Baron McConnell talks about how in the Labour party “there was an absolute commitment to the redistributive nature of the UK.” But isn’t that the real reason for mediocrity and poverty of imagination in Scotland? Isn’t it the message that Scots have to stay in the UK because their country is a basket case and their wealthy neighbour – well, part of it, London – has to continually redistribute money to them? Wouldn’t it be wiser in the long run to remove the dependency set-up, through independence, and give Scots the powers to make their own decisions, implement their own courses of action, make their own mistakes and hopefully learn from them? But that would necessitate dismantling the cosy British constitutional system that the Baron and his friends currently do so well out of.
Ironically, there is a part of the UK where the local Labour Party doesn’t feel obligated to kowtow to London and is prepared to do its own thing. I refer to the Labour Party in Wales, whose leader Mark Drakeford bucked the dismal losing trend set by Labour in England and Scotland and won the biggest number of seats in the Welsh Senedd election earlier this year. During the Covid-19 pandemic, Drakeford has won plaudits by refusing to work in lockstep with London – which I suspect Baron McConnell would have done, had he still been Scottish First Minister. Instead, Drakeford has followed his own instincts and implemented health measures he thinks are appropriate for Wales.
Just the other day, it was announced that Drakeford’s party has come to an agreement with Plaid Cymru, the Welsh pro-independence party, so that legislation can be passed smoothly in almost 50 policy areas. Could you imagine a similar agreement being reached in Edinburgh? No way. Not with the idiotic ‘Bain Principle’ still holding sway, and Scottish Labour being so obsequious to their head office in London, who would frown on any moves by Labour in Scotland that might not play well with voters in England. Plus, some Scottish Labour members would sooner chainsaw off their legs at the knees than have anything to do with the hated SNP, those frustraters of their sense of entitlement, those derailers of their gravy train.