‘The fall of Scottish Labour’ – random signposts but no exploration

‘The fall of Scottish Labour’ – random signposts but no exploration

Last night’s BBC Scotland programme on the decline of the Labour party was a shallow tour d’horizon of passing interest on the decline of the Scottish Labour Party from a position where its values defined the essence of Scotland to the drifting hulk it is today.


This was a lazy and complacent programme with no originality of concept and no cutting edge of genuine investigation.


Its dramatis personae were limited. Where was Gordon Brown – recognised as the shaping force and Capo di Capo of Scottish Labour? Where were the Alexanders? Douglas screwed up two crucial elections – 2010 and 2015; and Wendy screwed up a First Ministership she had never earned. Where was Jim Murphy – who has recent knowledge of the layout of the graveyard.


Where were the succession of Secretaries of State for Scotland since devolution – the figures who literally bridged the gap between Holyrood and Westminster?


Where was there a perspective on the Scottish operation from the Westminster party? Did they ever think about it enough to evaluate it or did they just gratefully scoop up the ritually delivered seats until the waterhole dried up?


Where was there an outsider’s perspective – an opposition perspective? The SNP’s analysis of the decline of Scottish Labour was manifestly the most acute of all – they have stolen Labour’s role, recruited its electorate and have directly replaced it in pole position in Scotland. What did they see that Labour did not? There are SNP figures who, as the victors and beneficiaries, must have valuable insights into the collapse of Labour.


In terms of visual impact, the film was overexposed, with the features of the capable anchorwoman, Jackie Bird, often bleached out. Tbis weakened its interest and made the production look amateurish.


In its detail it was slack, failing to glide a necessary correction when one contributor rightly talked of the disease of ‘entitlement’ that, amongst others, had affected Scottish Labour. But he said: ‘They got to the point where they thought the voters were entitled to vote for them.’ This needed a subtle shift from the presenter, in agreeing and saying something about the dangers in feeling entitled to the support of the electorate.


With the virtually sole exception of recourse to Gerry Hassan, the programme allowed the politicos to provide the analysis of their own failures. If they had been so perceptive, the party would hardly be in the position it is right  now.


Except for two contributors who identified the damaging seeds sown at the outset, the programme offered nothing we hadn’t heard before: complacency; a movement that hadn’t evolved with its social context; New Labour; Iraq; Better Together….


None of these actual incidents was a contributory factor. Every one of them was the result of a fundamental inertia, a lack of independent thought, analysis and action.


In its essential parochialism, the programme avoided with no more than passing references the deep problems within the Scottish Labour party: the corruption, the gripping power of the Unions, the influence of Gordon Brown. If you were already a Labour insider, you would have filled in the gaps in the story for yourself. If you weren’t, the horrors of Monklands – simply named as such – went unexplored. Falkirk never got a mention.


David Whitton was a journalist who, in 1999, was made Special Adviser to the first First Minister, Donald Dewar and Official Spokesman both for Dewar and what was then known as the Scottish Executive; and who became a Labour MSP in 2007.


In 2000 – so very soon – Whitton is recorded in Wikipedia as establishing ‘his own public affairs consultancy with clients including Scottish Enterprise, The Scottish Council for Development and Industry, The Al‑Maktoum Institute for Arabic and Islamic Studies.’ This seems eagerly and improperly opportunist and, one might say, so very old – or should that be new? – Labour.


One of the least attractive participants in the programme, with that certain still menace one finds in many media relations managers, Whitton was pressed on nothing. He was allowed simply to indicate that Gordon Brown’s influence may have been as negative as it was positive – and was not even asked for a single illuminating example of how that duality made itself manifest in operation.


The programme’s main interest came close to the macabre, in glimpses of the succession of Labour Leaders in Scotland post devolution, demonstrating a major part of the problem – each manifestly weaker than the one before.


The Bad Seeds


What seems to be the actual heart of the matter was raised by only two participants: former Labour MP Ian Davidson, one of the many dispatched in the SNP rout at the 2015 General Election; and Susan Deacon, former MSP and Health Minister in the first post-devolution Scottish parliament and the first of a series of Labour-led coalitions with the Liberal Democrats.


The Northern Leader of the hopeful late 18th century movement, the United Irishmen, Henry Joy McCracken, in Irish playwright, Stewart Parker’s illuminating play, Northern Star, is given the line: ‘We botched the birth’.


Listening to Deacon and Davidson, it is clear that the birth of the Scottish Parliament, an enormously hopeful development, led by a man who was made legend largely by the moment, Donald Dewar – was botched; and botched by Dewar.


This takes us into the delicacy of sacred cow territory because Dewar’s shockingly sudden death in early office brought him a form of political beatitude.


Deacon, at the time the best of the ministers in the first Dewar cabinet and who stood down as an MSP in 2007, remains perceptive and honest. She and Davidson testified to the fact that Donald Dewar was ‘an intellectual snob’ who virtually hand picked those permitted to stand for Labour in the first Scottish election to Holyrood.


Davidson said that Dewar wanted ‘Glasgow University debaters and lawyers’ and ruthlessly expunged any would-be candidate who did not fit the bill. Out went Davidson himself and Denis Canavan – right from the start, grossly wrong and damaging decisions in every possible way.


Those who were regarded as ‘not one of us’ were told they were welcome to put themselves forward for nomination but advised to avoid the humiliation of certain rejection. Davidson and Canavan put that modus operandi to the test and found it in good working order.


Deacon supported Davidon’s view and added the critical insight into the driver of the Dewar administration: not governing Scotland but ‘How to stuff it to the Nats’. Cabinet discussions appear to have  been endlessly focused on this – winning the weekly First Minister’s Questions against what was already the second largest party in Holyrood; getting the best headlines; making scores in a very parochial game of Nat-bashing.


This makes sense of an early crass stunt which could not more clearly identify that tribal drive which Deacon described.


In the allocation of offices in the new Parliament Building, the Dewar team sniggeringly placed the SNP MSPs in a second-rate location –  ‘down by the bins’.


If Dewar’s sacred cow status is set aside and his record examined objectively, it is indeed correct that many of the ills besetting Scottish Labour have their origin in his formative period of office.


The Scottish Government was not even given its proper name at that stage but dumbed down in the bureaucratic nonsense of ‘The Scottish Executive’. When Alex Salmond won enough seats in 2007 to form and lead the SNP’s minority administration, the first thing he did was rename the thing properly. The mass public response to that single action – who did not rise to it? – was alone proof of how mindlessly astray Labour had been from the outset.


Dewar presided over an elite who regarded the Scottish parliament as their personal playground, resource and laboratory. Egos were everywhere, entitlement was rampant, minnows grew tail flukes.


Remember ‘the Big Macs’? Dewar’s three ‘special ones’? Henry McLeish, Jack McConnell and Tom McCabe? They strutted their stuff around Holyrood for a while. The first two succeeded Dewar as short-term First Ministers themselves.


Remember Wendy Alexander – heavily overpromoted by Dewar to immediate and important ministership – all pouts, tantrums and demands. Dewar was a close family friend, admiring of Ms Alexanders theoretical intellect but blind to another identifying feature she shared with her competitive brother Douglas down at Westminster – a fatal lack of sound judgment. For her own good, Dewar should  have managed her progress, not prematurely rocketed her to the heights where she became a notable Icarus.


Dewar should also have stopped down at source the prompt personal profit taking from his position evident in his Special Adviser, David Whitton’s action in setting up his own external media relations consultancy with Scottish government agencies as his clients.


It is arguable that it was this laissez faire culture at the heart of Dewar’s administration, with its lordly disregard for the common proprieties, that led to the carelessness over his office expenses  – the ‘muddle not a fiddle’ – that forced the early departure from office [in just over a year] of Dewar’s successor. This was the biggest of the Big Macs, Henry McLeish, christened McCliche for his then less than relaxed public utterances.


Dewar’s lack of care for process and accountability was evident in his cavalier breeding of the disaster that was – and is – the Scottish parliament building. This was not a matter for consultation but comething closer to decree.


He was alight with ambition in the opportunities of his unprecedented position in Scotland – where a distant Westminster left him to get on with it as he wished. Like so many, Dewar had been galvanised by what the architect Frank Gehry’s unforgettable Guggenheim Museum had done for the economy and reputation of the struggling Basque city of Bilbao in northern Spain.


With the best will in the world and no rein of common sense or scrutiny to temper and properly direct his ambition, Dewar effectively chose the site [problematic]; chose the architect – Enric Miralles  [relatively unknown and with a modest portfolio to his credit]; approved the design [little more than a sketch]; and set the budget – saying it would cost no more than £20 million [always a risible figure and, in an almost wholly unmanaged project, rising to a gasping £414 Million and running over three years late – to 2004 from 2001].


Miralles died a scant two years after being awarded the design contract in July 1998. His wife and partner in their architectural practice, Benedetta Tagliabue, took over as the only one likely to be  able to interpret Miralles’s as yet less than fully defined intentions.


It was a car crash, with design development and ‘project management’ masterclass examples of ad hockery. Dewar, who died as tragically as Miralles and only three months later, knew nothing about the saga of this building still to come.


The Dewar legacy to Scottish Labour


a modus operandi of benevolent dictatorship, no serious consultation, no serious democracy. What did the later SNP governments at least appear to do? Consultations galore, community empowerment and a hijackingof the land reform which was a Lalour initiavie under First Minister Jack McConnell.

a downgrading of the reality of what was from the start a hefty devolved government – to ‘The Scottish Executive’. What did the SNP do as soon as they got th chance? Reidentify it properly as ‘The Scottish Government’ – a seminally potent move.

a coterie of favourites in office. What did the SNP do? Much the same – but the cannon fodder rather expect it.

a casual attitude to public money – in the semi-fledged idea for the Scottish Parliament. What did the SNP do? Put money into major public-access entertainments with a nationalist cast – the serial Homecomings; Brave; Bannockburn; the Commonwealth Games. No contest.

a false priority- concerned more with the game of duffing the Nats, with little if any thought to governing Scotland. What did the SNP do as soon as they got the chance in 2007? Get down to a serious, capable and obvious government of Scotland. This was their fundamental vote swinger, a game changer that produced a radical shift in public attitudes to the SNP. And look who’s doing the duffing these days.

a limited understanding – failing to realise that a Scottish Government could be a serious player, not an ersatz plaything for superannuated Westminster politicians. What did the SNP do? Took the formal reality of the Scottish Government seriously and made it manifest, played the game to that level and raised national expectations.

a patronising demonisation and alienation of the SNP that left scars to be picked and scores to be settled – as they have been.

Remember that all of this had been Labour’s to take and create.

It was a Labour UK administration that gave Scotland the opportunity to choose devolution.
It was a Labour UK administration that presided over the writing of the Scotland Act that established that devolution.
It was a Labour led coalition at Holyrood under a Labour first First Minister of Scotland who had the signal opportunity to put a shape on that devolved government.

Scotland was Labour’s to electrify. Scottish Labour could have crank-started an increasingly self-confident Scotland permanently welded to Labour. ‘Scottishness’ was theirs to determine and to bring under their ownership.

They blew it.


It has repeatdly been the SNP whose eyes were wide open, who recognised what mattered and whose eyes stayed fixed to the prize.


It is a matter of profound concern that they have taken so manipulative, intimidatory and authoritarian a direction but no one can deny their relative right to the position of absolute dominance they now occupy.


They – no one else – saw the opportunitities, developed and implemented the strategies to capitalise on them – and can take the final win next year, if they have the bottle.