Having had a fairly stiff diet of politics this week, I had hoped to give readers a break and inject something lighter by way of a blog. (For those in desperate need of that, may I recommend Tom Harris’ dicing with the boundaries of taste in his Downfall rip-off on YouTube as an alternative?).
But along comes Johann Lamont sounding off in Hootsmon on Holyday and I just have to deconstruct what she is trying to do. I confess I was disappointed, if unsurprised, when Johann won the leadership and, despite being resolutely non-Labour myself, felt that the outcome of their leadership election was important to Scotland.
Being a parishoner of the former leader since 2007 and done my best to put him out of a job last May, my take on Iain Gray was that he was a decent guy out of his depth and whose coaching to take on Eck in the chamber had taken him far from where his soul was comfortable. Johann is much more from the doughty, salt-of-the-earth West-Central school of Labour politics and, as such, is as qualified as any other leader has been for the post. If this were 2002, she might well have done as well as Jack managed.
Johann’s approach in the article is to accuse the SNP of defining devolution as a waypoint on the road to independence, whereas she argues that it constitutes a valid end-point in itself. as she puts it: “It is wrong to conflate devolution with independence, and the kind of debate that would result would not be worthy of Scotland.” In the first part, I am in the unusual position of agreeing with her, but part company in the second.
These are, as the Chinese curse would have it, interesting times. It appears Johann (and most of her unionist allies, if not her own party) have decided this is not time for complex of interesting situations and jointly defined any choice to be laid before the people of Scotland as, of necessity, a simple “yes/no” and that to be done immediately.
A Torygraph poll from ICM, also out today has the Scots running 40% to 43% in such a yes/no tussle and, almost more interestingly, the English running 43% to 32% on the same question. When posed the three-alternative question, 37% of Scots go for the status quo, while 26% each go for ‘devo-max’ or independence. I may not be happy with those last stats but the circle I cannot square with Johann’s position is that, with such an even 3-way split, why she believes a yes/no can be the proper solution.
That is, unless I start thinking the way that Labour seems to have narrowed its thought over the last decade when the SNP has been growing in strength. That is: “How do I scupper the Nats?” Having suffered eight years at the hands of an arrogant Labour administration in my council, followed by five years with them in opposition where the rump has behaved in a surly and resentful manner that would put a grounded 14-year-old to shame, I have seen all manifestations of this tough process. Pretty, it ain’t.
Perhaps someone can enlighten me on this but all I see in Johann’s position is a tactical position that she believes is best placed to derail the Nats’ ambition. What the people might want appears to concern her rather less. Now, nationalist though I am, it is perfectly understandable to me that someone who sincerely believes in the union (as I accept Johann and many others do) would fight tooth and nail against our best effort. Once, as she believes, that the independence fox has been shot with a “no”:
“Then we can have a clear and calm debate on which powers work more effectively for the people of Scotland when they are shared with our neighbours and what new powers we need to exercise at Holyrood and in our communities to make Scotland all it can be.”
It is hard for me to think that Johann does not understand the principles of debate—nor the role into which she has been thrust. Based on Labour’s track record to date, a yes/no referendum held within the year would be dominated by the SNP and countered by a rather fragmented union argument that would be suicidally negative—all about “tearing out” and “severing ties” and “job losses at Rosyth” and “border posts at Berwick” because there would be nothing positive on the table for her, her party or any other unionists to argue for.
So, after a year of dreary barrages that resulted in a thoroughly turned-off electorate saying “no”, those same parties are then to switch into sweetness and light mode to outline the joys and/or extra powers under devolution so that “the current devolved settlement to be renewed, refreshed and deepened”, as she wants? This seems flawed thinking, for three major reasons.
- Someone must lead the unionist side. For my money, someone of the stature (on both sides of the border) of Alastair Darling is necessary. If such a person were not found then the mantle clearly falls to Johann, who has the thick edge of experience over the other new unionist party leaders. But with that, comes the need to make the real case for the union (the ‘positive vision’ she has talked about but I’ve yet to see evidence of).
- She will need to deploy the union cavalry. Apart from reigning in the worst of the nat-bashers (which includes Sarwar because he relishes it too much), she’ll need to wipe that sour look off Margaret Curran’s face that appears every time ‘co-operation’ gets mentioned, agree a joint position with Davidson/Rennie that their troops will thole, get serious contributors like Murphy, Harris or Alexander in harness and, mobilise civic spokespeople with no perceptible party baggage.
- Most of all, she needs to greatly expand and consistently articulate her ‘story’. That means getting positively messianic religion about what devo-now/Calman/max can do for us all. And if she doesn’t out-Eck Eck (no simple task) with this, her career as leader may not outlast the short referendum campaign she’s so desperate to have.
Perhaps, most importantly, she needs to review her own biases in order to best reach the goals she seeks. When she says “The SNP does not want to talk about the principles and practicalities of separation in this debate”, it is demonstrably untrue. Worse, it exhibits the kind of tribal pre-judgement that has cost Labour so dear. Members may be forgiven for nursing such a grudge but a leader cannot afford to let any such subjective bias cloud understanding their opponent.
Not if they want to win.