Sunday, February 18, 2007

Nicol Stephen - the Arsene Wenger of Scottish Politics?

Scottish Liberal Democrat leader Nicol Stephen makes much of his party's 'positive' approach to politics, and of how the Lib Dems eschew the name calling and dirty tricks of all the other nasty parties. Now, anyone who's ever had any kind of involvement in politics, be they Labour, Tory or SNP, knows perfectly well that this claim is a load of pious, hypocritical nonsense. However, his party is cynical enough to play on the fact that you can fool all of the people some of the time and some of the people all of the time. And up until now, it has tended to work fairly well for them.

How unfortunate, then, that following what was by all accounts a well-received speech by Stephen to his party's conference in Aviemore, Lib Dem MSP Jamie Stone decided to prove the adage that it's better to stay quiet and be thought a fool than it is to open your mouth and remove all doubt. For in commenting on his leader's speech, in trying to take a pop at the SNP, he elected to scrape the bottom of the barrel by calling the party 'xenophbic'.

Accusing the SNP of xenophobia, or anti-Englishness, is usually the last refuge of a thick unionist who is losing the argument. However, the tendency to cock a snook or blame every misfortune on our English neighbours has a long and undistinguished history amongst all our politicians. Ian Lang, for instance, once ranted about the 'bloody English' when the government of which he was a member handed the refit work for Trident submarines to Devonport instead of Rosyth. And who could forget the outcry caused by Jack McConnell's ill-judged 'anyone but England' stance at last year's World Cup?

For the 'nice' party, we need only go back to 2002 when Ross Finnie, at a CBI function, was overheard referring to then Director General Digby Jones as an 'English Prat'. It wasn't big and it wasn't clever, but a fulsome and immediate apology from Mr Finnie was enough to save his career. That, along with the fact that he is generally well-liked helped him enormously, with even opponents realising that while his chosen adjective was as offensive as the outburst was out of character, it was difficult to fault the accuracy of his choice of noun.

Perhaps predictably, the SNP has cut up rough. But they are absolutely right to do so. This sort of language only cheapens debate and as Alex Salmond rightly points out, how can he be expected to sit round a cabinet table with someone who considers both him and the party he leads to be xenophobic?

Now, Jamie Stone is an obscure irritant, and in many ways a complete distraction from the fuss he has caused. He is regarded widely in Holyrood as a buffoon, being better known for his myriad references in debate to the family cheese factory than for any conspicuous political ability. While today's pitiful explanation of his comments falls well short of the apology required, it's probably only to be expected. What matters more is the deafening silence from his leader, Nicol Stephen.

This is a real test of leadership for Stephen. If he wants to show the statesman-like qualities that might get people to stop laughing when his cheerleaders talk him up as a future FM, he needs to distance both himself and his party from Stone's remarks and do so quickly. Then he needs to get Stone to apologise unreservedly for a set of remarks which were grubby, puerile, imbecilic and plain wrong.

So far, it doesn't look good. The Arsene Wenger defence of 'I cannot comment because I did not see the incident', barely cuts it in a Premiership post-match interview - using the same tactic here is a spineless cop-out from someone aspiring to political leadership of their nation. The longer he stays silent, the more it will look like he condones Stone's intemperate idiocy.

Scottish voters are entitled to know before they cast their votes whether Stephen shares his colleague's view of the SNP. It's not overstating the case to say that how Stephen handles this over the next few days could determine whether his party remains in office post-May. As things stand, if the SNP emerge as the lead party after the elections, the temptation to try and find a means of keeping the Lib Dems out of government might prove overwhelming.


Anonymous said...

Richard, this post is totally out of order. Wenger is a genius!

Richard Thomson said...

Yeah, but you have to acknowledge the similarities with Nicol Stephen - not least the fact that both are destined to finish in 4rth place later this year...

BellgroveBelle said...

Nice one!

Anonymous said...

The latest catchphrase from the FibDems is 'breaking down barriers not building them'. What barriers? There are no barriers in the EU except the ones invented by them. It's time that we said we were Scottish Internationalists and started to expose the dubious campaign techniques of these fraudsters.

Richard Thomson said...

Exactly, anonymous. I've heard Dick Gaughan muse at more than one of his gigs about how nationalism is a prerequisite of internationalism. The clue, as he says, is in the bit of the word that comes after 'inter' :-)