Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Murphy's Flaw

Another SI article. What is the point of the Secretary of State these days, except to get in the way? And with his 'activist' approach, will Jim Murphy set an example to any incoming Tory government, thereby marking him out as the midwife of independence?

For students of post-devolution politics, the position of Secretary of State for Scotland is something of a conundrum. With Ministers now accountable to a Scottish Parliament, does Scotland need a territorial minister in the Cabinet any longer? More to the point, if the position didn't already exist, would anyone now bother to invent it?

In days past, the Scottish Secretary was the de-facto Prime Minister of Scotland – the Governor-General minus the feather-plumed hat. With devolution, Scottish Office staff were transferred to the Scottish Executive, leaving the Secretary of State without an empire and in search of a role. It created a political impotence which has been reflected in the chest-beating we've seen from Dover House ever since.

As time progressed it became obvious how little of the role was left. Helen Liddell famously found the position so undemanding that she had time to take French lessons. Alastair Darling and Douglas Alexander held the job alongside the Transport brief, while Des Brown juggled it with Defence. It is only with the accession of Jim Murphy that the position has again been given Cabinet status.

Constitutionally, Murphy's job is to represent Scotland in the Cabinet and to administer the block grant, topslicing the costs of his Scotland Office before passing the rest on to St Andrews House. Yet despite this diminished role, the size of the department has increased dramatically since 1999. From having just 20 employees in 2000, it now has over 60 today, and a budget which has ballooned from £3.7m in 1999 to £7.2m in 2009.

His department has issued just over 100 press releases since the start of the year, mostly welcoming initiatives taken by other departments, or announcing that he had appeared in Parliament to fulfill his responsibilities. Yet if this seems languid, it still marks him out as hyperactive in contrast to his recent predecessors.

While the propaganda machine might be in full flow, the more important functions seem to fall by the wayside. Not a peep was heard when the Chancellor imposed his recent increase in spirit duties. £1bn of Westminster cuts are obscured with spurious attacks on the SNP for poor macroeconomic outcomes in Scotland over which the Scottish Government, through Labour's own design, has little control anyway. The role he's created seems to be that of Labour PR man, rather than any kind of useful ally for the Scottish interest at Westminster.

With their Joint Ministerial Committees and 'compacts', Labour quite sensibly envisaged that direct links between Scottish and Whitehall Ministers would be the norm. Even as these structures fell into abeyance through the use of informal party networks, no significant liaison role was ever envisaged for the Secretary of State. Yet it is in this role that Murphy tries to portray himself as the great conciliator, inevitably in the context of mediating between an exasperated Whitehall and a supposedly fight-picking SNP Government.

Recently, he presented himself as having brokered a meeting between John Swinney and the Treasury over how a replacement Forth Bridge might be funded, despite the meeting having been arranged without his help. While others got on with working out how the bridge might be funded, Jim was busy spinning glory for himself from an inconclusive outcome while casting slights on the Scottish Government for the supposed shortcomings in its approach.

It's a tactic best described as pouring oil on troubled waters before trying to set fire to it. If he was a footballer, he'd be the one constantly pulling your jersey, before throwing himself to the ground in theatrical agony and complaining to the referee that he didn't get a free kick for his troubles. Which takes us to the heart of his new role – that of effective leader of the opposition in Scotland.

Labour in Holyrood has been utterly inept since the SNP's 2007 victory, with successive leaders failing to land a glove on a popular administration. It's debatable whether the next Labour First Minister is even elected yet to Holyrood. Lacking anyone with the talent to discomfit an assured SNP, it's fallen to Murphy to try and take up the job.

Even though he gets a free run from a press corps bored with a narrative of SNP success, he's running out of time, since his position depends not on Labour's performance in Scotland, but rather its performance UK-wide. Even if he holds his seat at the general election, unless Gordon Brown can effect a Lazarus-style political resurrection, it'll likely be David Cameron who appoints the next Secretary of State for Scotland. While Labour's ultra-unionists might not be too dismayed at that prospect, it's still a dangerous tack. For through his approach, Murphy has paved the way for an activist Conservative Scottish Secretary, with all that would entail for the remaining legitimacy of the UK.

Under the current settlement, election results mean that whether we like it or not, Labour has a certain legitimacy in Scotland over matters reserved, although this is not something that will transfer to an incoming Conservative administration. Just imagine, if you will, a Conservative Scottish Secretary trying to pull the same tricks, over matters reserved and devolved, in the face of likely stout cross-party Scottish opposition to a Conservative government at Westminster.

It's not difficult to see happening, at least for a time, nor is it difficult to imagine the likely response from Scottish voters. With Margaret Thatcher described as the midwife of devolution, how ironic it would be if in trying to bolster his party and the union, Murphy's example were to trigger the events which led to a yes vote in a future independence referendum.


forfar-loon said...

Good article. It would be interesting to hear the justification for the Scottish Office's increase in staff and budget over the last decade...

With regard to Labour having a mandate over reserved matters, that is largely thanks to the first past the post Westminster system. If the polls are to be believed the SNP and Labour could well take around 30% at the next GE. Yet Labour will likely return many more MPs as their vote is not spread throughout the country. Now that Scots are all used to PR at Holyrood elections will we see Iranian-style protests..."Where is my vote?!"

Richard Thomson said...

Thanks, FL.

David said...

I think it could be more like
"Strange that the percentage of postal votes in Labour 'holds' are so high?"

DougtheDug said...

Lacking anyone with the talent to discomfit an assured SNP, it's fallen to Murphy to try and take up the job.

I don't think it is anything to do with talent as I don't regard Murphy as a step up from Gray, both are mediocre politicians.

The re-instatement of the post of Scottish Secretary is more to do with the lack of an internal organisation in the Labour Party in Scotland than any desire to have "Scotland's Man" in the Cabinet.

What you see in Jim Murphy is Labour mixing party authority with the authority given by governmental position as they did previously with the post of First Minister.

Only the post of First Minister gave previous Labour MSP group leaders authority over the rest of the Labour Party in Scotland. Wendy was the first leader to face this fact and she only understood it towards the end, that she was a little fish in a big Labour pool.

Iain Gray is also a nonentity in Labour terms and rather than create a Scottish regional structure in Labour to create a unified voice what Brown has done is re-instated the post of Scottish Secretary back to a full-time post and made Jim Murphy the de facto leader of the Labour party in Scotland reporting directly to Brown.

Since the Conservatives already have a regional organisation in Scotland which they incorrectly name the Scottish Conservative Party then they won't need to have a pro-active Scottish Secretary to cover for a lack of party regional organisation.

In fact they might even appoint Annabel Goldie or whoever the regional leader may be at that time as the Scottish Secretary.