2007 - 2021

Angry Lord Tears


From the magazine that famously put the (now indicted) Steve Bannon on their front cover this week came an interview with Jack McConnell, aka Lord McConnell of Glenscorrodale. Holyrood Magazine’s editor Mandy Rhodes interviewed her old student pal, former “firebrand” and now Baron about what had all gone wrong for Scotland because of devolution (‘Labour Pains‘). The lengthy and interesting interview unleashed a stream of nostalgia amongst Scotland’s commentariat and gatekeepers, all bemoaning the good old days when their pals in Labour held power.

Kenny Farquharson of the Times excitedly wrote: “I challenge anyone, of any political stripe, to read this interview with Jack McConnell and not find themselves agreeing with at least some of his analysis of where Scotland finds itself right now. His is not a party political argument but one about a failure of politics itself.

McConnell, and this network are perceived as neutral, above politics, honest brokers and simple souls. There is a smattering of these ex-politicians who find themselves, if they are not given a place in the House of Lords, taking up work as lobbyists or think-tank chiefs operating as a sort of 4th Sector, rejected by the electorate but sustained by Labour’s residual networks.

Farquharson had previously suggested that ‘Gordon Brown should ask Sturgeon to help him rewire Britain’. Citing Sturgeon’s 2019 conference speech in which she indicated she wanted to work with other parties and politicians: “To those parties, let me say this . . . my door is open …you may not share the SNP’s view of Scotland’s destination as an independent country. But in Scotland’s journey of change, we can still travel a fair way together. If you want to be part of that journey, we will welcome you with open arms” … Farquharson suggested now was the time for just this. Brown we’re told is “working on a new blueprint for a rewired Britain with a stronger and more autonomous Holyrood” and Sturgeon should go and help him fix it.

I mean it sounds like a great idea but then when you think about it, Nicola Sturgeon is the elected First Minister of Scotland and Gordon Brown is just Gordon Brown endlessly working on blueprints. His track record on endless plans and promises for endless reforms that never happen is lamentable. This was pure unadulterated nostalgia to match Baron McConnell’s.

The Regret for Times Gone By was everywhere among Unionist editors, columnists and think-tankers. Chris Deerin in The New Statesman (‘The Tragic Failures of Devolution’) joined the lament: “In an emotional interview with Holyrood magazine this week, McConnell bares his soul. At times angry, at times despairing, even tearful, the lifelong campaigner for devolution passes withering judgement on how the Scottish parliament is performing, how the independence debate has devastated the capacity for serious debate and action on public services and the economy, and how little hope there seems to be that this will change. Coming from a politician who is known for his optimism and problem-solving approach, and who rarely lacks a twinkle in his eye, the anguish is all the more powerful. And it is very hard to disagree with any of it.”

The ‘capacity for serious debate’ here is loaded. ‘Serious debate’ is what happens beyond the notion of actual sovereignty, ‘serious debate’ is a cherished notion even from a party that denies Scotland the opportunity for an actual referendum. You can either have the ‘independence debate’ or you can have ‘serious debate’. This is eye-watering logic from a political class that has never come to terms with its electoral defeat (partly because they remain much of their positions of influence despite being electorally insignificant).

What’s ironic, and comic about much of this are two things. First the un-reflective nature of it all. The Good Guys are now the excluded, everything’s gone to hell, devolution’s been a disaster, Scotland is ‘worse than it ever has been’, nothing will ever change. That’s the story the lead writers and editors and chief columnists pump out. There’s no place in this framing for a bit of self-reflection in which the inertia they describe might be because they themselves are a part of an immovable Scottish establishment, or because the institutions of the British state are un-reformable and irredeemable. Second while the world has moved on and Labour’s previously impregnable network has been largely removed from office, their vanguard, their pals and scribes remain in place. So we have a political commentariat in situ permanently seething about the Scotland they now see before them.

The ‘Stuckism’ that McConnell and Farquharson and Rhodes and Deerin and Massie and Co complain about comes from the intransigence of the British government to relent to a second referendum. It’s their resistance to democracy that is the problem.

It doesn’t strike any of these people that Labour’s infatuation with the House of Lords might actually be a problem.

McConnell explains about his journey from angry young activist to Baron: “I don’t know if I’ve ever actually stopped being that radical person,” he laughs. “I’ve always been angry. But I’ve also always been very good at containing the anger and using it for a purpose. So yeah, I’m still angry. I’m angry about lots of stuff around the world. Right now, I’m very angry about what’s just happened in Afghanistan, for example. And I spent most of August being very angry, so angry…”

He’s an Angry Lord.

Very little of Baron McConnell’s analysis makes sense. His explanation of how Scotland has changed is interesting:

“I think the SNP identified in the 90s that the only way that they were going to put themselves in a majority position would be to replace the Labour Party in Scotland and not to coexist with them. And I think that was a very clear strategy for them.”

“I think on the Labour side, particularly in older generations, there was an absolute commitment to the redistributive nature of the UK that meant that they saw nationalism as being directly opposed to the social democratic objectives. They would find different ways of expressing that, not everyone would have articulated it in that way, but essentially, that was the core problem.

“So, on one side, the SNP replaced Labour to become dominant. On the other side, traditional Labour people were instinctively pro-Union because British institutions had largely been at the centre of redistribution for 40 years in the periods of Labour governments and what you’ve now got, in the 21st century, is the question of has that now been a thing of the past and so, therefore, how does Scottish Labour respond to that?”

When he says that the SNP had decided to ‘replace’ Labour rather than ‘co-exist’ with them, you wonder how he understands about competing political parties with distinct policies and goals? The temerity of a political party to gain office!

He continues:

“So being pro-Union became a value at certain levels, for some people in the Labour Party, rather than being pro-redistribution through the Union, which would have been a much more politically logical and interesting.”

In none of this is the question why is the UK, the Union and Labour needed as a permanently ‘redistributive’ force? Unconsciously this rhetorical trope comes through again and again (particularly by Brown). Labour is here to save the poor, and Scotland is impoverished. But why? Why do levels of endemic poverty remain in Britain and why is Scotland so impoverished? Why is this state seemingly a permanent one? If the Union is such a wonderful success why do we need to be supported by our wealthy and benevolent southern neighbour?

This long lament ends in tears. There is we’re told no public debate and no public accountability in Scotland anymore:

“And this is the exact opposite of what I believed and hoped for from the age of 18 about devolution… [McConnell’s voice starts to break and his eyes well up] …sorry, I’m feeling quite emotional about it right now. I mean, I spent my whole adult life, from the age of 18 to the age of 38, trying to get that Scotland Act passed because I believed that if you had a devolved parliament in Scotland, you could create a new quality of public debate in Scotland, that we would see us making, mostly, the right choices and vitally, improving life across every part of Scotland.

“I absolutely believed that’s what it would mean, and I think we tried to do that. But I think we’re in a situation now where probably Scotland is worse than it has ever been. And I find that just incredibly sad. I’m really, really, sad. Really, I mean, really.”

There’s more than a hint of self-pity in this impassioned interview but little self-reflection on the role that Labour and Scottish Labour have in the present impasse. Are we in a constitutional stalemate? Yes we are. Does Scottish public life suffer from a binary constitutional code? Yes it does. But none of this changes by evoking a halcyon past or regurgitating Labour’s unthinking stale constitutional positions over and over again.

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Comments (32)

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  1. J Galt says:

    The idea that the British State would suffer itself to be “re-wired” by the likes of Gordon Brown with, or without, the assistance of Nicola Sturgeon is Galactic level delusional!

    And I have not the slightest doubt that “Baron Crocodile Tears” knows this fine well.

    Once a con-man always a con-man.

  2. SleepingDog says:

    The Labour Party in power has always been a party of Empire, even if some dissidents rose to ministerial rank. The redistribution of imperial loot from British institutions never happened under their governance (although I believe Jeremy Corbyn promised to return the Elgin Marbles to Greece if elected). Apart from some measures to alleviate the poorest, inequalities were rampant under Blair/Brown New Labour. If Labour ever seriously planned to end structural inequalities in the UK, they would have abolished private schools, brought in a new codified constitution and dismantled the legislation protecting royal privileges and vast private landownership. Blair packed quangos and Lords with political backers, and redistributed university places to the most able to pay the new fees.

    Having said that, the Blair parliamentary majorities did give opportunities for constitutional reforms. How might constitutional reforms be achieved across party lines in the UK? It is difficult to see much opportunity, especially given the history of failure (like the Alternative Vote fiasco for replacing First-Past-the-Post) even in coalitions.

    In any case, Labour’s more recent record on making British institutions less elitist have been as unimpressive as the Conservatives, no doubt feeding forward from those Blairite burdens on higher education. I suppose Gordon Brown deserves some credit for raising child poverty and colonial debt up the political agenda in the UK, but his government’s actions were comparatively feeble.

    Perhaps most of all, by failing to distinguish themselves from Conservatives in foreign policy and domestic practice, Labour has enabled Conservative corruption and malfeasance in office to a great extent. I was just watching a repeat of Janina Ramirez’ archealogical documentary Raiders of the Lost Past episode on The Lion Man, with its depiction of German National Socialist takeovers of university departments and two chief diggers who were both in the SS, and it is a matter of serious concern that institutions are being captured by political parties in the UK today.
    https://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/m0008c5c/raiders-of-the-lost-past-with-janina-ramirez-series-1-2-the-lion-man

  3. Robert Thomson says:

    Has there been a sort of “levelling up” in Scotland since devolution? When one considers 1) free higher education , at the point of entry; 2) free prescriptions; 3) free national bus travel for the over 60s; 4) free personal care for the elderly. Yes, there are variations of these above policies but generally they have benefited the vast majority of of those living in Scotland.

  4. George S Gordon says:

    I’ve not read the interview, as the shedding of tears by a Labour Lord was sufficient to put me off – so many thanks for your summary of the salient points.

    I’m sure Labour shed many a tear when they were annihilated in 2015 for their participation in Better Together – but did they learn anything? I won’t bother reciting their failed attempts to recover in Scotland, using every tool (leader) at their disposal. Their message is the same every time, as you pointed out; the appeal to UK redistribution, and their conclusion that this means no borders.

    Much has been written to “explain” that Scottish attitudes are no different to those in England, but does anyone really believe that a Scottish Government behaving like that of Boris Johnson would be tolerated like it is south of the border. I’m close to “shedding a tear” for the Starmerites (Blairites)who have failed on most opportunities to expose the UK Government’s ineptitude. Instead they kept their powder dry until the government’s sleaze gives them an excuse to complain about Boris Johnson and his cronies. They will argue that it’s tricky to oppose the government in a pandemic. In reality, it’s tricky for Labour at any time due to the attitudes of the UK media, but they are their own worst enemies (e.g. the attacks on Corbyn).

    Leaving aside their failure to properly expose the UK government’s pandemic response, Labour’s worst failure has been their VERY last minute attempts to raise the spectre of NHS privatisation. It must have taken a lot of effort to persuade Starmer to allow the recent stunt led by Barry Gardiner, in which he delivered an invoice to #10 for the PM’s treatment by a privatised NHS. Perhaps they were worried that the media would raise the PFI scandal (which was mainly deployed by the Tories), or would remember Blair’s attempts to push more medical treatments into the hands of the private sector. The latter criticism could only be deflected by disowning Blair, which is unlikely in the extreme with this bunch of Blairites. Yet another reason why they had to destroy Corbyn and hang their grassroots out to dry. Just as Scottish Labour are prepared to let us suffer from the neoliberal policies of a UK government. What they can’t admit, even to themselves, is that Starmer is just as neoliberal.

  5. Daniel Raphael says:

    Well written and argued.

  6. David McCann says:

    I’m really, really, sad. Really, I mean, really.”
    And I’m really really sad I lost my seat as MSP and 1st Minister of Scotland, but delighted to be Baron McConnell of Glenscorrodale,!
    In 2019 McConnell claimed £68,781 for attending 149 sessions of the Lords and spoke 30 times in the chamber. That’s about £382 an hour!
    Multiply that by 11 years and you might just get the picture!

  7. Mons Meg says:

    I find myself having to agree with Lord McConnell (even though he’s nocht but a jumped-up sh**psh*gg*r frae Arran) that the Scottish parliament has failed to deliver the quality of public debate that we were promised it would. As I expected, it very quickly became just another ‘wee Westminster’, riven by party politics, rather than a genuinely national assembly.

    Mind you, he’s got a bit of a neck, greitin about this now, gi’en that he was ane o the c*nts that tuirn’t it intil sic a roup.

  8. Mons Meg says:

    I find myself having to agree with Lord McConnell that the Scottish parliament has failed to deliver the quality of public debate that we were promised it would. As I expected, it very quickly became just another ‘wee Westminster’, riven by party politics, rather than a genuinely national assembly.

    Mind you, he’s got a bit of a neck, greitin about this now, gi’en that he was ane o the clowns that tuirn’t it intil sic a roup.

    1. It’s true sometimes the quality of debate is dire, though its markedly better in committee away from the cameras which suggests that part of the problem is the performative nature of the spectacle.

      1. Mons Meg says:

        Indeed! And that’s often said in mitigation of the Big Westminster too.

      2. John McLeod says:

        And also the steady stream of government consultations that allow anyone to have a say. A very significant, but not sufficiently appreciated, aspect of democracy in Scotland.

        1. Mons Meg says:

          In the past 12 months, the UK government has conducted 339 public consultations and has 67 currently ongoing. Last month, I took part as a citizen in its public consultation on making vaccination a condition of deployment in the health and wider social care sector in England and Wales.

          Engaging directly with the public in this way is hardly a distinctive feature of Scottish government.

  9. GordonD says:

    The working class can kiss my arse
    I’ve joined the House of Lords at last

    (And, as Leon Rosselson noted, true to their principles they will sing the Red Flag once a year)

    1. Liz Summerfield says:

      And verse 2 for the rest of us:
      “Ah’m oot o wark an oan the dole
      so stick the reid flag up yer hole”

  10. Duncan Sutherland says:

    Jack, whom I knew at the University of Stirling from the time of his second successive year as president of the Students Association, a salaried position enabling him to run a car of his own, which was just as well, as he had written off the association’s minibus, started his political career as a member of the SNP, ditching it when its fortunes suffered a blow at the end of the 1970s.

    At that time it was plain to see that the SNP could only go so far, and not far enough, unless it could demolish the Labour Party in Scotland, as that cosy network of empire loyalists had mammoth majorities in its Scottish constituencies, which could not come close to being overturned by the sorts of election swings which the SNP had been achieving. So he switched horses in mid stream.

    How galling it must be for Jack to realize that his most important self-serving political calculation turned out to be wrong. True, a form of legislative devolution, which I never heard him talking about at the uni, came to pass, and he managed to elbow talented Labour Party rivals out of the way to become king of that little castle . . . and thus become the Labour First Minister of Scotland who let in the SNP, who cannot now be removed, apparently. Much wailing and gnashing of teeth to know that one is responsible for a development the impossibility of which one had gambled upon.

    A politician of conviction rather than mere calculation could not have made this mistake, of course. So we need not feel sorry for this common wee Labour lord as he peers tearfully into his brandy glass in some bar in the Palace of Westminster, where the staff may well be wondering what such a pathetically mournful figure ever did to wind up there. What Jack did was what he does best: he used his sharp shoulders against conviction politicians who got in his way and who, if they had not been pushed aside by him might have provided better leadership for Scottish Labour

    The noble lord had his chance. He blew it. He ran Scottish Labour into a ditch. In so doing he has probably made British Labour unelectable at Westminster. Quite an achievement. Let no one say that Jack never achieved anything.

    1. Jim says:

      Absolutely correct. I too recall Jackie boy as an SNP member who jumped ship to Labour to advance his political career (imho)

  11. John Monro says:

    When one party, in Scotland’s case, the SNP, rules so completely for so long, then there’s bound to be a point at which stasis rules, indeed where a whiff of corruption becomes noticeable. The SNP would appear to earn its popularity because voters seem to accept its claims that it is the party of Scottish independence (and even here stasis is beginning to rule), but otherwise is a confusing mishmash of conflicting political, social and economic principles. If other parties supported independence, then SNP would suffer hugely. Now I don’t expect the Tories to ever agree to independence, Scotland is just like any other English ruled colonial country, too valuable in this relationship, but Labour? Why is the Scottish Labour party so opposed to independence? I live 12,000 miles away so cannot always keep up with Scottish political policy and aspirations. It seems to me, and please correct me if I’m wrong, that a truly Scottish Labour party, devolved from the UK Labour party but remaining an associate of the Labour parties in the rest of the UK, could do very well in the present Scottish devolved parliament, and present a real, much needed socialist challenge to the SNP’s cozy comfort – hopefully, like the wee, sleekit timorous beastie, the cruel coulter of political reality will be able turn the SNP out of its cozy nest of sticks and stibble in Edinburgh to a political winter’s uncomfortable reality. Is this analysis in any way correct?

    1. John Monro says:

      I should add that a Scottish Labour party could still partake of UK general or constituency elections, in which case it would be fascinating to see what the English Labour party would do in this situation. Would they dare put up their own candidates, and split the vote? That seems manifestly unlikely. They’d do their best to welcome Scottish Labour MPs as a coalition in opposition or power, even if mindful of the fact that they’d be relying on the support of a party who wished ultimately to leave the Palace of Westminster in perpetuity. Again, does this analysis bear any critical and expert evaluation?

    2. Mons Meg says:

      I can’t see the Labour Party ever making a comeback in Scotland, John. It’s a dinosaur, which can’t throw off the legacy of its industrial heritage. It’s rhetoric and ideology is still geared to mobilising a mass proletarian working class that no longer exists and hasn’t existed since the Thatcher revolution of the 1980s.

      Middle Scotland (the largely apolitical constituency of ‘aspirational’ average income earners, who live in debt to mortgage and credit providers, and for whom Labour has nothing to offer, given the party’s history of high redistributive taxation; roughly 40% of the electorate) has largely been won over by the SNP with its history in government of providing so-called ‘middle class’ benefits, such as free university tuition, free prescriptions, free treatment of diseases of affluence, free national bus travel for everyone over 60, free personal care for everyone who’s assessed as having that need, etc. Labour has failed to compete with the SNP’s populism and has, as a consequence, lost out big time in votes in the local, national, and UK political markets.

      What the SNP has so far failed to do, however, is translate the level of support it enjoys among the voters of Middle Scotland for its populist welfare programme into support for independence, with the latter still stubbornly lagging way behind the former. But that hardly helps Labour.

      What Scotland needs is not a revitalised Labour Party, but a national assembly that represents the general will of society and not just the sectional will of this or that majority. That’s what the Scottish Constitutional Convention envisioned; that’s what Lord Jack and his ilk failed to deliver.

      1. BSA says:

        What is ‘populist’ about a decent welfare programme ?

        1. Mons Meg says:

          There’s nothing populist about a decent welfare programme. But we’re not talking about a decent welfare programme here. We’re talking about a programme of policies that strives to appeal to ordinary people who feel that their concerns are disregarded by established elite groups, such as ‘the Tories’, ‘Westmonster’, ‘the English’, etc.

      2. SleepingDog says:

        @Mons Meg, athwart as I am to much of your ‘Middle Scotland’ mince, I can agree that Scottish Labour is a political dinosaur, and would also anticipate a democratic awakening during a public constitutional convention engagement, in a post-political-party-patronage epoch. For example, the lackey-legal ruling against public interest in the latest sealed-royal-will case, is an abomination of secrecy and abuse of the British public:
        https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2021/nov/20/what-fresh-hell-must-philips-will-contain-to-make-the-royal-family-look-any-worse
        Will Scottish Labour ever get round to a committed republican stance?

        1. Mons Meg says:

          Are you denying that there is in Scotland a ‘largely apolitical constituency of “aspirational” average income earners, who live in debt to mortgage and credit providers, and for whom Labour has nothing to offer, given the party’s history of high redistributive taxation; roughly 40% of the electorate’?

          And Labour will never assume a republican stance; a political ideology centred on citizenship in a state organised as an expression of the general will is just too alien to its constitutive mission of capturing the power of the state and using that power to further its own special ideological interests.

  12. Stuart Swanston says:

    I sometimes wonder if Jack McConnell had grown up in Linwood with a Dad who was in a trade Union and worked shifts on the line at Rootes earning good cash wages, well above the West of Scotland average, rather than growing up on a tenanted hill farm on Arran where local kids believed his family to be well off because they had a farm, a wee grey Fergie and perhaps an old Landy too but who had to thole seasonal cash flow difficulties in the days before tax credits he would have stepped forward so eagerly to don the feudal ermine as the Baron of Glen Scorrodale. His school friends would have imagined that his family was well off but he would have experienced the consequences of zero cash flow for months on end and merchants calling monthly for prompt settlement of credit which had been extended to a small hill farming business. He has not been in the forefront for radical land reform in Scotland nor is his name one that comes first to mind when the rights of trades unions are debated. He was a child of his time.

  13. Duncan Sutherland says:

    https://youtu.be/K21yj2lEgrA

    There is something magnetically compelling about uniformity and unquestioning conformity to the requirements of the group. In a dance group such as the one shown in the above video of the the Igor Molyseyvich Ballet this even goes so far as the wearing of identical fixed smiles throughout the gruelling but grimly impressive routine. There is not a shred of individuality to be seen anywhere. The whole exhibition can be taken to be a brilliant illustration of the degree of loyal support which certain societies require of their members. This is a quality which Baron Glenscorrodale privately professed to admire in what he took to be the typical Scottish Labour supporter in the 1980s: staunchly and unquestioningly loyal.

    Such extreme loyalty, of course, means that supporters keep beautifully in step, toe the line impeccably and do not dream of doing anything so disruptive as think for themselves, which would undermine the organization of the operation, which benefits that organization at the expense of the interests of the individuals who surrender their individuality to support it and provide a cushy life for its leaders.

    The SNP has broken that loyal support by getting people to think for themselves. The Scottish Labour loyalty racket has thus been exposed and shattered and their stage performance is entirely disrupted. The sham of their smart steps and fake fixed smiles is completely exposed. The people of Scotland have begun to throw off their chains, beginning with the ones fashioned for them by Scottish Labour.

    Instead of dedicating their country to serve the interests of the one next door on the grounds that class loyalty requires it, the people of Scotland are thinking for themselves. One cannot perhaps tell where this will lead, but it is unlikely to lead us to get back into step with Scottish Labour, I venture to suggest.

  14. Bill says:

    Funny how Keir Hardie, was a proponent of Scottish Independence. Sad that the Scottish Labour party have not had the same vision. It is also very sad that the quality of our politicians has deteriorated so markedly of late.

    Bill

    1. Mons Meg says:

      Wasn’t he a proponent of home rule rather than of independence?

      And isn’t this constant hearkening back to a bygone age precisely what’s f*ck*d the Labour Party?

      1. Duncan Sutherland says:

        Jack was certainly a member of the SNP before moving over to Labour, although he was only ever an elected representative of the Labour Party. When pressed, he has admitted to having been a supporter of Scottish independence, even when questioned about this in the Scottish Parliament when he was First Minister. So it is a matter of public record.

        I remember when he unsuccessfully ran against Henry McLeish for the Scottish Labour leadership mischievous Stirling students had fun publicly asking Labour MSP s if they were voting for the Labour candidate or the SNP one.

      2. Bill says:

        As I recall, the Irish sought Home Rule as a stepping stone to Independence. Scottish Labour embracing the cause of Independence would not be a hearkening back but a progressive step forward

        Bill

        1. Mons Meg says:

          Indeed, Hardie supported Irish Home Rule to court the Catholic vote among the Mid-Lanarkshire miners in the 1880s; in exchange for this support, the Irish National League supported his electoral campaign through the registration of Irish voters in his constituency. Gladstone’s Home Rule programme for the whole of the UK led to the formation of the Scottish Home Rule Association in 1886, of which Hardie was a vice-president. The founding programme of the Scottish Labour Party in 1888 included Home Rule for each separate nationality in the British Empire, with an Imperial Parliament for imperial affairs.

      3. Duncan Sutherland says:

        Sorry. I didn’t initially realize you were referring to Keir Hardie.

  15. David B says:

    Meanwhile in Wales, Labour and PC have just announced a co-operation deal. One Labour MS has commented that Welsh Labour’s continued success is due in large part to maintaining “clear red water” between itself and UK Labour during the Blair years

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