It was a fluke that two party conferences took place this weekend. But it was also enlightening to compare and contrast what was being said in Dundee and Inverness. What was particularly amusing was the sheer interchangeability among the speeches. There was no major speech that did not touch on the independence debate and some of them, especially in Dundee, tried to take on the SNP head-on.
Whereas Vince Cable’s speech only hinted, Nick Clegg’s dodged around it and Danny Alexander managed to avoid mentioning the SNP or independence at all, Jim Murphy made his stay-with-big-brother pitch, lifted straight from his Grauniad article (and addressed in detail in the blog prior to this one), Jackie Baillie flailed about and charged the NHS (wrongly, it turned out) with sharing blankets between patients and the other Alexander brother (Douglas) made a fair fist of admitting Labour had been trounced in May for reasons that stretched back years and should spread its appeal wider than it had.
Neither conference was spoiled by a bad speech and, to be fair, they were both lively in a way that such gatherings of the faithful normally don’t manage. Perhaps the sheer political rollercoaster ride of the last year, together with scary media over-coverage of the independence debate had the adrenalin flowing. Certainly those who spoke did so with a passion and conviction that did credit to their speechwriters. Had any of them been gifted orators, the footage might have been historic—the weekend when Scottish politicians came of age.
Unfortunately, gifted orators were scarce at either conference and, sadly for both parties, that also applied to their leaders’ speeches. Willie Rennie has a certain cheeky humanity about him—you can imagine him as deputy balancing the earnest gravitas of someone like Ming Campbell. But his presentation remains too lightweight to carry the serious tones of his Damascene conversion to Liberalism through Thatcher any more than his abrasive invective when he tries to disparage Salmond: he just comes over as petty.
Johann Lamont is in a different class. Her speech was one of the best-written I have heard at a Labout conference in some time—brave enough to include mea culpas for what the party had suffered, clever enough for some of the jibes at Salmond to prick because they were barbed with some humour and larded with the obligatory Labour homage to their equivalent of the American huddled masses yearning to be free.
If there was one thing they all had in common, it was a palpable flailing around to address what is becoming very much the question of the moment: what is the union for? Now, it’s early days for three very different parties to bury their differences and realise how best to hang together before all three are hung separately. Nobody made much of a fist of this. Murphy’s speech presupposed that we are all hungry to sustain the illusion of empire and mimic the US’s self-appointed role as the world’s policeman. But even Jeremy Paxman’s Britain’s Empire episode this very weekend ended by saying “Empire may be over but the habit lingers on”. Someone needs to tell Jim.
At least Jim tried to make a case. The rest seemed convinced that the union was good ipse facto because it had lasted 300 years. “The most successful union that the world has ever seen” echoed repeatedly from the podium in both Inverness and Dundee, as if the SNP ever denied that fact. Vince Cable banged on about RBS’s balance sheet being 15 times bigger than the Scottish economy, as if that were argument enough and there were equivalently pious “stronger together” statements from just about everyone. But examples of where we go post-empire were absent. If application of the Dunkirk spirit were required because another Napoleon or Hitler was glaring across the Channel with evil intent, perhaps there’d be sense in their dire warnings. But it’s the English who glare across the Channel to the detriment of us outward-looking Scots. Why we should want to be led further into purdah by our more paranoid southern cousins is still unclear.
But the weakest element of both leaders’ speeches—especially Johann’s—was the way they spoke to the faithful, the way it was pitched to those in the hall and not to the disengaged and/or undecideds watching and whose vote they need. It’s a major mistake that that has been keeping Scottish Tories in the wilderness for years. When you are on the stump to become leader, such playing to the gallery is not just forgiveable but probably necessary. But when you have the team jacket already made and are wearing it should surely be the time to kick ass and take names—the time for leadership.
Johann did show some leadership in calling for an (early?) end to soul-searching anguish over electoral defeat and for a commission on devolution to sort out where Labour should stand on the matter. But, seen outside the warm glow of the Caird Hall where she was amang freends, there was little to distinguish all this from Iain Gray’s (remember him?) decent speech in Oban the previous year. There was Salmond-bashing; there was a call for Labour values; there was a claim for Scottishness. This year’s punt, though better, shows no signs of being a game-changer.
Because of a vision for Scotland—let alone a joint unionist one with other parties—one that might inspire the young and revitalise the old with purpose, there was none. This was another Labour leader getting into buggins turn. Expecting more of the ‘decry-all-infidels-and-we’ll-come-back-into-our-own’ to be good enough seems all Johann’s plodding sincerity, despite her years of experience and proximity as deputy, is capable of.
Unionist or independent, Scotland will, sadly, not be much the richer for it.