Donald Dewar’s Glasses
Donald Dewar will be remembered, among other things, as the last Labour figure whom Scots looked upon with any real sense of affection. After his sudden death, while the Parliament he proclaimed was still learning to walk, a movement swiftly gathered to honour his memory with a statue in Glasgow, and less than two years later, in 2002, Kenny Mackay’s nine-foot crumpled monument in rust-green bronze was erected outside the Royal Concert Hall.
But Glasgow isn’t the kind of place to let anyone, even a father figure like Dewar, peer down his nose at people as they tramp up Buchanan Street in the rain. In its first few months the statue’s glasses were twisted out of shape, replaced, and twisted again. And so it went on. Whether it was drunken vandalism or a spirited attempt to crown Dewar’s likeness with the obligatory traffic cone, nobody was quite sure. Mackay had fashioned several pairs of glasses in anticipation of such practical engagement with his work, but he couldn’t keep up with demand. Eventually the spectacles broke off altogether and Dewar was given a more elevated position, courtesy of a new, 6ft high plinth inscribed with his epitaph: ‘There shall be a Scottish Parliament.’ The glasses were restored, but the perspective had changed.
When historians come to write the complete history of the United Kingdom (and it may not be far off now), they will ponder how the Scottish Labour Party’s seemingly iron pact with the people rusted away so quickly. From the start, the devolution project was designed to shackle the potential energy of the SNP. The Nationalists would be permitted influence, but denied power. The proportional voting system effectively stymied any party’s attempts to gain a majority. As a party of perpetual opposition, the Nationalists would wither, and if the demonic prospect of a Tory government in London approached the border, fearful voters would flock back to Labour. Even if the unthinkable happened, the SNP’s ambitions would be tempered by the need to appease an opposition block that was implacably opposed to their core goal.
From the outset Labour conceived the Parliament in terms of what it could not do rather than what it could. It was evident in the decision to list reserved powers rather than devolved ones and Tony Blair’s careless, but telling, ‘parish council’ comment. George Robertson envisaged Holyrood as a squatting hulk that would ‘kill nationalism stone dead’. In Labour’s eyes it was a second-division Parliament for second-tier politicians, an attitude epitomised by Jack McConnell’s mission statement to ‘do less, better’ and his failure to get beyond the first part of that target.
It was entirely in keeping with Labour’s instinct for trivialising and belittling the nationalist threat. In election campaigns Helen Liddell would decry the SNP as the Tories’ ‘little helpers’; John Reid, pugilistically, equated nationhood with spending millions on military hardware; George Foulkes would have us believe that nationalism would founder because nobody could agree on how many tin-hatted border guards to post at Gretna. For years they refused even to utter the word independence, preferring instead to speak menacingly of ‘divorce’. No word could better have summed up Labour’s treatment of Scotland than this: the fear, the meekness, the submissive mindset the party fostered. If the Scots were unhappy with their marriage of convenience, they were not to make a scene or threaten to leave. They would regret it if they showed up their more prestigious partner in front of everyone. Rather, they should be grateful that England had chosen such a low-bred midden of a nation for a consort. And finally, the Union was ‘sacrosanct’, so let that be an end to such ungodly musings. As a stance it reeked of misogyny: ‘divorce’ was a vain notion indulged by flighty, ungrateful creatures with ideas above their station.
However the next few years play out, whether independence becomes a real prospect or a dwindling aspiration, on May 5th Scotland liberated itself from the fearful, degrading rhetoric that has choked the issue. And in the process, the SNP broke Labour’s electoral shackles to score a nine-seat majority. Nowhere was the shift more palpable than in Glasgow, a place whose history is bound up in the best and worst traditions of the Labour movement. Glasgow Southside fell and there was a shudder. Then Cathcart went down and we felt a rumble. And then Anniesland, Dewar’s former fortress, a place he had nurtured and cherished and hauled three stops up the line from Garscadden, cracked and it was an earthquake.
This country has had its fill of dismal little men pursuing dismal little goals. Tory cynicism and Labour anomie have been cast off: the argument about independence will be won or lost on pragmatic grounds, in the best enlightened Scots tradition. The SNP, for their part, have won a famous victory, but a greater challenge lies ahead. They are up against the canniest and most ruthless electorate in the world, a nation that sends Labour members to Westminster to sabotage the Tories’ aspirations and SNP members to Holyrood to punish Labour’s stifling tendencies. They will be tested, like Dewar’s Labour, on the strength of their vision. There will be no statues in their honour if they fail.