Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Where Might It All Go Wrong?

There’s been some further flutters in the Scottish Labour doocot over the last few days. This time, the cause has been the apparent leaking of a memo written by Adrian Colwell, a former Special Adviser to Jack McConnell, in the aftermath of the SNP’s defeat of Labour in May’s elections.

Colwell seems to suffer from appalling luck where his private memos are concerned. However, from what I’ve read of his analysis, it all looks pretty well spot on. Perhaps predictably, though, given their current state of denial, Labour figures are busily dismissing Colwell’s views, painting him as a ‘peripheral’ figure, somehow ‘distant’ from the campaign.

No-one should underestimate how traumatic an experience the last few months has proved to be for Scottish Labour. Nevertheless, if Colwell’s memo can be dismissed in such a summary fashion; with any campaign post-mortem being held in private; with a simple coronation of Wendy Alexander as leader to follow; and with the party grassroots continuing to be treated with disdain, it seems to me that Labour is extremely unlikely to experience any kind of recovery any time soon.

Quite simply, their self-inflicted organisational, political and financial problems are far too deep-rooted to be tackled in such a cosmetic fashion. Rather than gloat, though, it did set me thinking, about how people have reacted to the SNP government since May, and how its fortunes might fare as political criticisms, as they almost certainly will over time, begin to build in credibility.

So far, the SNP has been doing well in government. Labour’s criticisms of the SNP prior to the election – over the economy and seeking conflict with Westminster – have been shown to be little more than mendacious, self-interested scaremongering. These pre-election boilerplate criticisms have sapped Labour’s credibility, which means that their post-election critique is falling largely on deaf ears, at least for the moment.

Their discomfort is palpable. After all, Labour’s response to the SNP from the 1960’s onwards has always been to stress its ‘pro-Scottish’ credentials as the real national party of Scotland. But that starts to look like empty posturing when you always have to look over your shoulder to Westminster for guidance. Post-devolution, this became a conjuring trick that was increasingly hard to maintain.

Previously, Labour had the Scottish Establishment so stitched up with members of its own Nomenklatura that most nationalist sympathisers in public life opted for a quiet life, telling only as much truth as the times allowed. However, as it began to look like there might be ‘regime change’ in Scotland, more and more figures in business and public life began to raise their heads above the parapet. Civil servants now relish the opportunities to think more freely – a dynamic which is not necessarily nationalist, but is one which most unionist politicians always tried to keep tightly under control. As Alexander McCall Smith writes here, this change has left us with a ‘politically healthier society’.

How can Labour tackle this? Put simply, they shouldn’t even try. If the spirit of the times is running against you, you need to find a new vocabulary; a new frame of policy references with which to express your values. It took the SNP years to learn this, and despite the periodic explosions from certain donors and frustrated careerists, it’s a lesson which the Tories in England only now look like they are beginning to take on board.

However, some people will take the right course of action only after trying every possible alternative. So in attempting to counter the present Zeitgeist, we hear Labour continue to accuse the Edinburgh government of stirring it with London. They tried it over the case of the Lockerbie bomber, and fell flat on their faces. Some, like Jim Devine MP, even tried to do the same over the Glasgow Airport attack, blaming the SNP for ‘politicising’ the terrorist threat – a charge spoiled only by the public praise for the Scottish Executive response offered immediately afterwards by Prime Minister Gordon Brown.

By relying on freelancers? We’ve had Professor Tom Gallagher, a lefty internationalist (to be contrasted with all those reactionary tartan tories like me, of course), claiming that by embracing the Moslem community in Scotland the SNP was somehow pandering to extremism. And let’s not forget the ‘Bleak Midwinter’, who now decries the ability of the government at Holyrood to set an annual budget as “profoundly undemocratic” - a constitutional nicety which never appeared to trouble him unduly before now, not even when Jack McConnell first made noises about running a minority Labour administration.

By accusing the SNP of arrogance for wanting to introduce policies for which there does not appear to be a majority in parliament, such as a referendum bill on Independence? Possibly, but didn’t the other parties shun government to allow the SNP to form an administration, and wasn’t it Jack McConnell himself who was arguing recently for parties to bring their forward their manifesto pledges unreformed? How outrageous that those dastardly nats, havng been placed in government, might then actually then try to govern! That wasn’t in the script!

By criticising proposals to alter Scotland’s international role? Well, that would also take some chutzpah, given the determiniation of Jack McConnell to crowbar his way to the fore each year during Tartan Week and to carve out a role for the Scottish Executive in Malawi. And wasn’t it the late Robin Cook who once appeared before the European Committee of the Scottish Parliament to claim that there were ‘no no-go’ areas for the Scottish Executive in the EU?

By accusing Alex Salmond of using power for the financial gain of himself and his party? The accusations about taking ‘two cheques’ always seemed very tawdry and personalised, especially coming as they did from the Labour and Lib Dem parties which drafted between them the Scotland Act, which of course says nothing against having a Westminster/Holyrood dual mandate. The whiff of bitterness from the Lib Dems in particular was exceptionally unpleasant. Surely nothing at all to do with Alex having turfed them out in the Gordon constituency?

And what to make of the latest blusterings of George Foulkes, a man who has never knowingly passed up a free dinner in his life, claiming that Alex Salmond hosted a dinner at Bute House to reward high-profile SNP supporters like Sir Tom Farmer, Sir George Mathewson and Sir Sean Connery? It’s a great theory, I’ll give him that. What a shame, though, that it’s foiled only by the attendance of pro-union tycoon David Murray, and the invitation extended to House of Commons Speaker Michael Martin. Better luck next time, George…

Well, is it then about accusing the SNP of neglecting the ‘bread and butter’ issues, by deploying constantly the coma-inducing, debate-closing mantra that all that matters are ‘the real issues that matter to ordinary hard working families on their doorsteps in their local communities from day to day in their daily lives’ (c. Cathy Jamieson/Nicol Stephen/Annabelle Goldie)? Well, you know, in the long run, actually it might very well be.

All of the above mentioned hoop-lahs are of themselves exceptionally trivial – most of the headlines have already been used to wrap fish suppers and are now blowing away down the street into someone’s garden. This is just the currency of trying to discredit a so far popular government. And since it’s something the SNP developed to an art form in opposition, it would ill-behove any nationalist to start complaining too vehemently about how unfair it all is now. It comes with the territory, and we’d better get used to it. Fast.

However, the Teflon coating which allows all of this to slide off harmlessly starts to wear down after a time, and can only be replenished by an ongoing perception of competence. People are prepared to indulge the SNP a little just now - most seem quite happy to watch Holyrood spreading its wings a little, and if it eventually flies off to the high veldt of independence, then so be it.

However, this acceptance will wear off pretty quickly if things start to go off the rails domestically. It was SNP figures like Kenny MacAskill and George Reid who previously made the argument that an SNP administration would first have to prove itself in government before any more powers would reach Holyrood. These attacks are bouncing off harmlessly just now, but should serve as a constant reminder of what we need to do and keep on doing if we are to make progress on that higher agenda.


Anonymous said...

An excellent post Riccardo and some good stuff to ponder there.

Glad to see the London air isn't dampening those thoughts of yours!!

The Party will certainly need to be ready to handle the harder times that now doubt lie ahead of us now we're taking the big decisions. I've no doubt we're up to the challenge though, but it will be interesting.

Richard Thomson said...

Cheers Ewan. I'd always thought that with its balmy climate, London would be more likely to dry things out than anything else.

Still, nothing a visit to take on fluids at the Rob Roy wouldn't sort out, especially now the season's started again ;-)

Anonymous said...

Aye very true, just hope that last Saturday's performance (or lack of it) at Tannalice isn't what we've got to look forward to this year!

Still put a few past the Jambos on Sunday and all will be forgotten.