A quirky characteristic of Labour in Scotland is that, while they field formidable and subtle politicians, such abilities traditionally, with rare exception, head South. Once there, such contributions as they do seek to make back here in Scotland are drowned out by a combination of sheer distance, local media gone native and the balance of their party still here, now in their fifth year of hissy-fit strop at not being in charge.
The result is stultifying: the more creative pro-actively disagree with all comers; the more pedestrian simply wait for the SNP to act, then complain about it. Edifying, it is not. What turns off those few Scots who do follow the Holyrood hothouse are their MSP’s predictable, one-dimensional postures: Michael McMahon finds SNP duplicity lurking in everything but (including?) the cafeteria menu; Jackie Baillie finds faults with the NHS, none of which she noticed pre-2007; Johann Lamont sticks to women’s issues to finagle the First Minister into agreeing; Iain Gray spends all his time jabbing at SNP policies in unconscious parody of Monty Python’s argument clinic.
The uncoordinated opportunism leads to some pretty bizarre contradictions so it’s as well the Scottish media still gives Labour an easy ride for old times’ sake. How can Labour credibly call for a VAT cut when they declined to vote against Osborne’s increase in the first place? Labour-run councils refused to join all other parties in CoSLA’s acceptance of Swinney’s financial settlement, yet offered no alternative. Their leadership contest is so irrelevant even Milliband forgot who’s running in it.
So opposition in Scotland falls to the exiles, especially the MPs. Ian Davidson gets called to speak most but he is so much a product of the Glasgow nomenklatura that his obvious venom and frustration get in the way of him saying anything memorable. Jim Murphy, after a period of studied reasonableness while he was Scottish Secretary of State, has reverted to type and the ‘big beasts’ Brown and Darling have gone to ground.
Which leaves—although this surely cannot be from any deliberate decision by Labour—Lord George Foulkes of Cumnock. It’s hard to believe that Labour chose him to lead their charge but, given what’s on offer elsewhere, it’s more likely that he chose himself. Anyone who has followed his career as MP, MSP, Hearts Director and now peer will not find this surprising. So venal is his hatred of the SNP and all it stands for that he swings and misses more often than he connects; this would be funny, were the matter not so serious.
The fact that he lives in a glass house himself has not prevented him from throwing stones at the SNP Government and the Head of the British Army on the topic of expenses claimed. (In 2008, Foulkes was criticised for his expenses claims, which included around £45,000 over a period of two years for overnight subsistence to stay in a flat he had inherited. Between April 2007 and March 2008, Foulkes claimed £54,527 in expenses from the House of Lords). It is likely his difficulties have been caused more by arrogance than dishonesty but public perception conflates the two.
His latest apoplexy is that a senior mandarin was supposedly caught promoting the SNP policy, viz “advising the SNP government on the tactics and policy in relation to the break-up of the United Kingdom. Surely it is the responsibility of Sir Gus O’Donnell (UK’s most senior civil servant) to say to Sir Peter Housden that he should be advising the SNP only on devolved areas and not on matters that are reserved to this parliament, particularly those that are politically sensitive.” In this, he received much supportive harrumphing from Lord Forsyth of Drumlean and his ilk.
That’s the same Forsyth who, as Major’s Secretary of State for Scotland did everything in his power to scupper the Convention for a Scottish Assembly and any semblance of the Scottish Parliament. And it was Foulkes’ party (although he was not himself elected an MP until 1979) under Wilson and Callaghan that instructed mandarins to repress the importance of North Sea oil and subvert all income to the UK so that any “It’s Our Oil” campaign would get short shrift. There is no doubt that George saw all those actions as legitimate.
So why should he be so distressed at Scottish mandarins going about our government’s business? All that the Scottish Government has done is ask its civil servants to implement their manifesto. There is nothing else—other than in George’s mind—that limits what they may or may not do. Nonetheless, he nagged all three oppositon leaders to write to complain. In fact, The head of the UK’s civil service, Sir Gus O’Donnell, wrote back to Scottish opposition party leaders saying “recent comments made by the Permanent Secretary, Sir Peter Housden, did not break the Civil Service code.” In a joint letter to the three MSPs, O’Donnell dismissed the accusation, saying that “the job of civil servants is to support the elected government of the day.”
Like his pedestrian Scottish colleagues, Lord Foulkes exhibits stress reactions when faced with new political initiatives, whether here in or furth of Scotland. The result is Foulkes’ attacks are barely distinguishable from local ill-conceived, amateurishly inept efforts. His compulsion to rubbish anything the SNP does comes across as a kind of political Tourette Syndrome, especially to the great uncommitted majority. It is ironic that he thereby does far more damage to Westminster than his phonetic namesake could ever have managed with all the gunpowder in the world.