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!
“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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