Friday, 27 April 2012

A moment not a crisis

I'm going to start with not one but two anecdotes.

On the 10th of November 1988, Jim Sillars won the (second) Govan by-election for the SNP. Now the consensus, then and even now, is that this was a hugely important political event. And I do not for a moment disagree. Whether it forced Scottish Labour into joining the Constitutional Convention or whether it simply strengthened the hand of those of us already so inclined is probably an argument that will never be resolved but that it was an important factor is beyond dispute.

Four years later however, Iain Davidson was charged with regaining the seat for Labour at the General Election. And his Election Agent was one Johann Lamont.

Telephone canvassing was then in its infancy but given that Labour had few other challenges in the West of Scotland, we had, for the time, a sophisticated and activist rich operation at our disposal. But at the same time we were novices in its application.

And for the first few days the response was beyond our widest dreams, so much so that we doubted not the electorate but the method. So Johann, as the election agent, decided to break one of the golden rules of canvassing: when assured that the respondent would be voting Labour, instead of a simple thanks, the interviewee would be faced with a further question: "Does it make any difference that Jim Sillars is the SNP candidate?"

It didn't. Not because Sillars had proved a disappointment (he was, by unanimous opinion among the political class, a dedicated and hard-working MP as well as being a significant national figure). No, the electorate was altogether less sophisticated: "No. we've always been Labour" from households about whom our own canvass indicated something else; "We live in Penilee, Jim Sillars is in Govan" from those unaware that Sillars had always been their representative from the moment of his election; most depressing of all "Who is Jim Sillars?" over and over again from people who must, in some numbers, have shaken Scottish politics to its very roots by voting for that self same man.

And come polling day, Govan returned safely to the Labour fold, not with a bang, or even much of a whimper, but simply as footnote while most of us were crying over Neil Kinnock's concession speech on the steps of Walworth Road.

So that's my first story.

My second comes from the last few days. I spoke for the first time for some weeks to a long standing friend, not so much equally obsessed with politics as even more so than yours truly. We discussed Levenson, the possible outcome next Thursday, whether the coalition would hold together and, inevitably, as everyone in Scotland does, whether Salmond's bubble saw any sign of bursting. As an aftermath we inquired as to the wellbeing of our respective nearest and dearest and he then volunteered for the first time that his partner was actually in the hospital for an operation. Not, I should hasten to add, for any life threatening condition but, nonetheless. involving a general anaesthetic.

The reason for that was not that he was unconcerned but rather that political people are not normal. Despite all the effort we, of all Parties, are currently putting in, the one certainty next Thursday is that something well short of half the population will regard it important to express an opinion of any sort. I've banged on here and on twitter about my own thesis that there is not going to be an Independence Referendum because the SNP know they can't win it but amidst all of those politically engaged denouncing or tentatively endorsing that proposition, during my "real life" over the last year I have been repeatedly interrogated by people of otherwise reasonable intelligence, aware of my political interests, along the lines of "Do you really think there is going to be a referendum?" This group are not engaged with the arguments for and against but rather start from an only vague awareness of this being some sort of possibility.

So, the idea that Alex Salmond  having had dodgy dealings with Rupert Murdoch is something which is dominating the day to day lives of ordinary people in Scotland is, I am afraid, a wholly illusory one. Many will have no idea who Rupert Murdoch is and, regrettably, a good many will only have a general idea who Alex Salmond is.

So, on one view this is all just an amusement. Marking Johann up or Eck down as to how they did at First Ministers Questions without this being of interest, or importance, to anybody very much outwith the ranks of those already decided.

But, and there is always a but.

People vote not based on specific events, or even specific policies. They do so based on an overall perception of what Parties stand for: That Labour defends working people; that the Tories are good at managing money; that the Libs are independently minded; that the SNP stands up for Scotland.

That's not all however. All Parties have secondary characteristics, appealing to some at least: that Labour is ultimately anti-establishment; the Tories for "order"; the Libs a bit crazy and, crucially, for the SNP that they somehow have a higher calling.

And anything that damages that secondary character can often be very damaging even if the primary one remains undiminished. That's why, in turn, Labour suffered so badly over Iraq; the Tories, currently, over basic governmental competence; or the Libs over ever doing a deal with (let's be honest) either of the major Parties.

So the problem for the SNP is not the detail of the deal Salmond did with Murdoch but rather that he did any deal at all. That the SNP has turned out just to be like any other Party. Concerned mainly as to their own political advantage, even if it involves supping with the devil.

To this extent the defence that Salmond has done nothing more than Blair or Cameron did, which is the best even his most loyal sycophants can offer (and is, I concede, the worst that can be said against him) is actually no defence at all. It is an admission of defeat.

It won't be the furore of the last few days that will damage the SNP; it is the fact that on any future occasion when they try to claim the visionary high ground they will inevitably be brought back to earth with two words: Rupert Murdoch. Just as, after Iraq, Blair could never be believed about anything ever again. And like the water dripping on a stone, eventually, something is worn away by that process.


  1. Well it's a view Ian, a hopeful one. Another way of using the drip drip idea is to say those in power are always inevitably tarnished. If not by the obvious, then the less obvious. Salmond will come undone at some point, particularly with the weight of Union and media against him and his party. That said, the SNP is activist rich. It's the largest membership based party in Scotland and critically it's young. Contrast with Labour with people like Ewan Aitken retiring, the indomitable Willie Dunn leaving active politics - two Labour stalwarts leaving!

    The opposite of the drip drip tarnishing is the inundation and that's what's happening with the Nationalist movement, sure Salmond's ill-judged cosying up to the powerful may be his undoing. The nationalist movement, is much more powerful than Alex and that's what will carry it to it's final destination of Independence. Look at the Labour beneches in Holyrood, older, less sophisticated types left bereft because their leaders took the Westminster route, rudderless and flailing. Your argument about individuals equally applies to political movements. The Liberals are ruined in Scotland by the coalition in Westminster and the Tories are likely to remain in power in Westminster whilst in Scotland they diminish further as they lose their best talent. All three corroded by the nationalist surge.
    That too will pass, then there will be a time when in Scotland a modern politics will re-emerge beyond the Union Nationalist split. I guarantee not Labour, not Liberal nor Tory will then exist. The ideas central to their broad coalition will and they will resurface in different guises. The short to medium future is Scottish Nationalist, it depends on the responses of the other three whether they will exist in any form after Independence. Given their current leaderships that is highly unlikely.

    To use one more watery metaphor, the Union will be swept away, rightly in the tide of History, what remains thereafter is in the hands of the intellectual leadership of those parties. So far, from what I see there is little to suggest they will exist in their current form and that is a tragic inflexible waste in the face of the real politik of Nationalism - the sooner one or better all Unionist parties move to that position then there is hope there might be plurality on Independence. It's distinctly unlikley if intellectuals like yourself remain mired in personality and cannot see the broader movements that are driving the Union toward break-up and the Nationalists to victory.



  2. Aye, on the whole you're maybe right. But vile though his papers have been (and not just in phone hacking), can we put tens of thousands of deaths at Rupert Murdoch's door? Not really equivalent to supporting an illegal war, is it?

  3. "that Labour is ultimately anti-establishment"

    Yeah. We're all sure that when the workers' revolution finally comes, Barons Foulkes, McConnell and the rest will be using their ermine robes to string up the enemies of the people from lamp-posts...