The Moment that Scottish Labour finally got serious about its future
Jim Murphy appears to believe that it was the Labour party in Scotland that failed the Scottish people. He is quoted in the Scotsman (2nd November, 2014) as follows:
“I want to apologise because twice Scots have said they didn’t think we were good enough to govern in Scotland – in 2007 and 2011. We didn’t listen to them. That has to change. I want a Labour Party that is as proud and confident as the country we seek to govern. I want people to feel a sense of passion and pride in voting Labour again. But for that to happen I know that I have to apologise because too many Scots thought we weren’t up to the job in the past. I know that Scottish Labour has to change if we are to govern in Scotland again.”
Notice how Murphy begins with “we”, a term we might expect to be all-embracing in Labour, but is then vaguely identified with “a” Labour Party, before being associated with “voting Labour”, and evolving into its final mutation as “Scottish Labour”; the sole, culpable body-politic. It is Scottish Labour that must change; not the whole Labour Party; still less Westminster Labour, or Westminster itself that must evolve. Murphy’s chosen characterisation of the problem is unlikely to be accidental: but may be seen as an attempt to shape the direction of the Labour debate along predictable and convenient paths; principally to the advantage of Westminster Labour and Mr Murphy. We have been here before, too many time before.
All the reminders of a bad-taste remembrance of things past have gathered round the Murphy candidacy. A fatally familiar cast of apparatchiks, Westminster Labour courtiers and media hacks is assembled; the usual suspects of Westminster’s moribund, self-serving complacency. A story is spun that turns dross into gold; a kind of low-grade political alchemy drafted beyond its time in an improbable effort, post-referendum, to persuade who-knows-whom? Let us look at some more examples of this finely spun dross; look carefully at the beautifully clustered dates of the articles selected. It is all just coincidence they come out together like this; the natural result of our good fortune that Jim Murphy chose to stand, spontaneously celebrated by nature’s authentic political groupies.
Here is Damien McBride (Mail Online, 2nd November) continuing the Murphy characterisation of Scottish Labour’s failure, without any sense of responsibility on the part of the Labour Westminster machine. Scottish Labour had a ‘hapless’ leader and were in ‘panic’. The call goes out to Westminster for a heavyweight, but in vain:
“Many Labour figures have tried to persuade Gordon Brown to take the helm again, in the naive hope his paternal presence could bring order to the squabbling children. The trouble is, he knows from years of experience that the cracks in the Scottish Left run so deep, no one can just paint them over. The big divisions are clear: Glasgow versus Edinburgh. Catholic versus Protestant. Westminster MPs versus Holyrood MSPs. Beneath those are thousands of tiny but bitter feuds, built up over decades.
Managing the intricacies of that infighting is like working out the seating plan at a mafia wedding. That’s why the six different people to serve as Scottish Labour leader over the past 15 years have done so with ever decreasing impact.”
There is a strange logic at work here; Brown is too important, too clever, or the Scottish Labour Party is simply too far gone even for Gordon Brown to save it; but Jim Murphy, some considerable way down the Labour intellectual and status pecking-order, is the answer; or at least, good enough for naive Scotland. McBride wants to be both a critic and grudging admirer of Murphy:
“… to be fair, he is just that rare thing in politics – his own man – and that leads to suggestions he’s not a team player or a true believer.”
We may suspect this is choreographed spin; Murphy’s trifling vices are presented only to be discovered as major virtues. McBride theorises excitedly about Murphy’s talents, self-less compassion (which I am sure Mr Murphy is too modest to wish me to repeat – not least because it is toe-curlingly embarrassing) but here is an example anyway:
“When Murphy travelled to the Philippines last December to see the aftermath of Typhoon Haiyan with my old employers, the aid agency Cafod, the staff he met spoke glowingly about how he’d helped the relief work. I smiled cynically that the pictures of him mucking in must look great. ‘No,’ they replied, ‘there weren’t any cameras.’”
Such modesty cracks the cynicism of even the most seasoned hack; which, with impeccable discretion and in tribute to Mr Murphy’s anxiety for modesty, he splashes over the Mail Online on announcement of Murphy’s candidature. The article is peppered with mock-heroic episodes of like kind. McBride goes on to embrace, if not take-for-granted (?) Murphy’s likely success, ending as a glowing Murphy advocate:
“it’s been a long while since Scottish Labour had a leader with that authority. If Murphy succeeds, Ed Miliband could yet be Prime Minister next May”.
Enough. Here is John McTernan in the Scotsman (2nd November):
“Ladies and gentleman, Jim Murphy has entered the building. The long-anticipated moment has arrived – a hugely experienced and talented Scottish politician has decided that his future lies in the Scottish Parliament, not the House of Commons. It’s a moment. The moment that Scottish Labour finally got serious about its future, and – more importantly – about Scotland’s.
…. it’s not just the geographical breadth he understands, it’s the social and economic breadth too. As Secretary of State for Scotland, he had to be Scotland’s man in the Cabinet – making the case for the country at every turn – rather than being the Cabinet’s man in Scotland. He had to know all devolved policies inside out and most reserved ones too. Leading a trade mission of Scottish SMEs to Shanghai, he took a side trip to Beijing to argue the case for pandas coming to Edinburgh Zoo. When John Swinney wanted extra borrowing powers to finance the Forth Road Crossing, Murphy persuaded Yvette Cooper, then Chief Secretary to the Treasury, to find £1bn for the Scottish Government. And he was central to organising the Pope’s visit to Scotland.”
This gushing guff is so extravagantly over-the-top it reads like unconscious satire. Not content with hyperbolising a machine-politician operating the archaic Labour machine, McTernan completely loses place and plot by invoking Hugh MacDiarmid (a nationalist!) and even more improbably, poetry – in the fevered service of Murphy:
“And why Jim, and why now? Hugh MacDiarmid sums it up:
‘The rose of all the world is not for me.
I want for my part
Only the little white rose of Scotland
That smells sharp and sweet—and breaks the heart.’
Jim loves Scotland – we’ll find out if it loves him back.”
A peculiarly vapid choice to select from MacDiarmid’s rich and sharp-tongued opus. His poetry was noted for its directness, its political anger (more than judgement) and its acute sociological awareness. Given the Labour Party’s over-friendly indulgence of City irresponsibility before, during and after the Crash, I suspect MacDiarmid might have chosen something else. How about this excerpt from A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle (1926); more appropriately providing MacDiarmid’s commentary on the London Scots’ complacent, annual salute to another Scottish poet much misused by all and sundry: Burns?
“Croose London Scotties wi’ their braw shirt fronts
And a’ their fancy freen’s, rejoicin’
That similah gatherings in Timbuctoo
Bagdad – and Hell, nae doot – are voicin’
Burns’ sentiments o’ universal love,
In pidgin English or wild-fowl Scots,
Ane toastin’ ane wha’s nowt to them but an
Excuse for faitherin’ genius wi’ their thochts
A’ they’ve to say was said afore
A lad was born in Kyle to blaw aboot
What unco fate mak’s him the dumpin’-grun’
For a’ the sloppy rubbish they jaw oot?
Mair nonsense has been uttered in his name
Than in ony’s barrin’ liberty and Christ.
If this keeps spreadin’ as the drink declines
Syne turns to tea, wae’s me for the Zeitgeist!
Rabbie, wad’st thou wert here – the world hath need,
And Scotland mair sae, o’ the likes o’ thee!
The whisky that aince moved your lyre’s become
A laxative for a’ loquacity
O gin they’d stegh their guts and haud their wheesht
I’d thole it, for “a mans a man,” I ken
But though the feck ha’e plenty o’ the “a’ that”
Their nocht but zoologically men.”
Mr McTernan clearly lacks all sense of irony, or wit. I can only assume that both he and Murphy have no sense of humour either. Poetry and the Labour Party? Perhaps not.
Iain Martin in the Telegraph (1st November) provides the carefully presented Westminster Labour background to the case for Murphy that the Labour machine is now clearly disseminating throughout the media. Murphy may be an enemy of Milliband (if there is a Labour ‘family’, we can say with some degree of probability that nobody in Labour seems to have any friends), but Martin lets slip that the unattributed whisper has gone out:
“But as a Labour frontbencher puts it, blaming London for the failings of Scottish Labour is a “cheap shot”. The real blame lies with a Scottish party that has failed utterly to adapt to the constitutional changes it inflicted on the UK.”
It is all Scottish Labour’s fault. No cheap shots there. Murphy, supported by the Westminster Labour machine, thus identifies the problem principally in a way that manages to carry the unstated implication that his great virtue is that he has had nothing to do with Scottish Labour; critically, that all of the Party and people in Scotland, the whole mess the Labour Party finds itself in in Scotland, is absolutely nothing to do with him: some recommendation.
Jim Murphy is a Scottish Labour MP who begins his leadership campaign (eventually for the political leadership of Scotland) by washing his hands of responsibility for Scottish Labour’s historic failure. Murphy rose through the ranks of Labour, became a Scottish Labour MP, was appointed to high Government office as a Labour Cabinet Minister, but yet miraculously, there is nothing at all that connects him to Scottish Labour; not the slightest tincture of failure in the whole modern Labour party in Scotland has anything at all to do with him. A cordon sanitaire presumably descended round him at some undefined date that ensured this precious, and presumably not very representative figure in the notably dysfunctional history of the Labour ‘family’ (about as endearing a family as the Plantagenets in the 15th century), was propelled towards political sanctification in Westminster Labour, without ever having to grub in the Gorky-an lower depths of Scottish Labour.
It has never seemed surprising how easily Labour politicians slide into the House with the red seats in Westminster; because the Labour Party’s critics so doggedly associate it with cronyism, quasi-feudalism, patronage and the endless formation (or attempted formation) of family dynasties, that it seems a peculiarly appropriate destination: John Harris, Guardian (16th November, 2012) “Some, in fact, would say that nepotism has long been a pathology deep in the Labour movement’s being”.
There is, perhaps, a Ph.D to be had charting a comparison of trends in party nepotism and dynastic ambition between the 20th-21st century Labour Party and the 17th-18th century Whigs and Tories.
Jim Murphy is the answer to a question that only he would think to ask – who is the only media-savvy Westminster Labour politician with so little of his future career to lose, that he would wish to desert the Westminster greasy-pole to defend a party in Scotland so lacking in credibility or viable policies, it is reduced to staking its reputation on something as anodyne, as bereft of real content, as vacuously inoffensive; as substantively empty and utterly meaningless as – “Labour values”? Notice also the subtle intrusion of a parasite idea carried in this argument; discreetly, by implication, he presents a case that Jim Murphy and Westminster Labour is riding to the rescue. The problem becomes the answer. It is a reminder of the principles of communication and politics that has informed Unionism for at least a generation; up is down, back is front, black is white, right is wrong, war is peace; above all, anything can be made to mean anything at all. We are in the world of Orwell’s Newspeak.
We have seen that same characteristic approach in all it its luminous variety over the last twenty years in Westminster whoever is in Government; orchestrated (often scarcely bothering to be behind the scenes) by a species of political advisor that we should in future define as ‘politico-paths’ (if only to dissuade young people from joining this ‘youngest profession’ – so closely related in the popular imagination to the oldest), but which goes by the more conventional name of ‘spin-doctors’: like the physicians of old they bleed the patient to an early death.
Most people in Scotland, including Labour supporters, including the last Labour leader in Scotland, thought Westminster was the problem. How wrong they were! What matters what anyone in Scotland thinks outside the charmed Westminster Labour media-political circle (circus); Darling, Milliband, Murphy, McBride, McTernan, Wilson et. al.? To paraphrase a Talleyrand paraphrase, Westminster Labour are like the Bourbons; they learn nothing and forget nothing. But I do the Bourbons a disservice, for at least they had foresight. They saw the end coming; “après moi, le déluge” (attributed to Louis XV).
In Scotland the impending flood does not appear to be arrested by the triumphant, staged entrance into the building of Labour’s hugely experienced and talented master plumber, Jim Murphy. The latest YouGov poll (fieldwork 27th-30th October) provides the following answers to two questions selected from the results:
All that effort for such a small return …. ….