Michael Moore’s time to shine

The Scottish Secretary has been quietly effective until now. But how will Michael Moore cope with Al

"You! You should know better!" is how Michael Moore, the Secretary of State for Scotland, recalls me greeting him when he first arrived in parliament, newly elected, and several years after we had first worked together as researchers.

And it's true. I can't bear it when friends of mine stand for parliament. I go out of my way to dissuade them. I hate watching them being torn apart in the media or in that vile snakepit, the Commons chamber. I would like all my friends to live cocooned in safe, secure obscurity. But with Mike, as with some others, I have been proved wrong.

He is the least-known Lib Dem in the cabinet, elevated to it after the David Laws fallout last year. Of all the politicians I know, he remains the person whose feet are most firmly on the ground. Just as well, considering his height.

He has been criticised for being too cautious. Some Scottish Liberal Democrats would like him to go on the attack more often, but that is simply not his style. Mike is not from the Flashman school of politics and to criticise him for that is unfair. He is not in this game for the thrill – he is there to get results and make a difference.

Value judgement

In this, he reminds me of Alistair Darling, whom most people can barely remember from the early years of his career, but who by the end of 13 years in cabinet had widespread respect. Like Darling, Mike is bright, pays attention to detail, and has grown into the job.

His tireless campaigning in the recent Scottish Parliament election campaign has won him a lot of respect in the Scottish party. He will need to rely on that as Alex Salmond attempts to drive a wedge between Moore in Westminster and the new Scottish Liberal Democrat Leader, Willie Rennie. But Mike and Willie know each other well, get on, and understand the way this will work.

I loved a recent story about some hoo-ha on a political scandal-mongering website. Michael's name was in the frame. He walked into the Scotland Office unable to find any of his key staff. Eventually he found them in a meeting room worrying about how to rebut the story. "We know it isn't true, so can we just on with the real job at hand," he said. Typical Michael.

When he was stung like Vince Cable by the Telegraph's honeytrap, not only were his answers great, but he didn't hide away. Instead, he went on air and justified standing up for Liberal Democrat values.

But Moore now faces a critical test. With a single party in power, since the SNP's unexpected outright election victory, the Scotland Office is in a pivotal position between the UK government and the Scottish Executive.

He has been thrust further into the limelight, as the Scotland Bill must now go through Holyrood for a second time. Its first passage was supported by the SNP, but the second passage is an obvious opportunity for First Minister Salmond to start flexing his muscles.

Hot potato

The potential for meltdown between Westminster and Holyrood is significant, but Moore has taken this in his stride, turning the tables on the Scottish government and rightly asking it for a detailed case for the changes they want. After all, he delivered a Scotland Bill where Labour produced only a white paper and the Tory manifesto promised not much more.

But what looked like a substantial package of new powers, likely to get though without controversy, has become a hot potato with the spectre of an eventual independence referendum looming.

Labour and the Tories won't want much in the way of further devolution in the House of Commons, making Michael's strategic role all the more significant. His accountant's mind has the forensic abilities to navigate this difficult bill. And he has a calm and reassuring Commons style that is a tribute to his Presbyterian minister father.

During the final years of Labour's rule in Westminster, Alistair Darling faced up to Gordon Brown, in the interests not of his party, but his country. Michael Moore has the ability and the character to do the same . . . whether facing Westminster or Holyrood.

The fifth man is stepping into the light.

Photo: Getty
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Leader: History is not written in stone

Statues have not been politicised by protest; they were always political.

When a mishmash of neo-Nazis, white supremacists, Trump supporters and private militias gathered in Charlottesville, Virginia on 12 August – a rally that ended in the death of a counter-protester – the ostensible reason was the city’s proposal to remove a statue of a man named Robert E Lee.

Lee was a Confederate general who surrendered to Ulysses S Grant at the Appomattox Court House in 1865, in one of the last battles of the American Civil War – a war fought to ensure that Southern whites could continue to benefit from the forced, unpaid labour of black bodies. He died five years later. It might therefore seem surprising that the contested statue of him in Virginia was not commissioned until 1917.

That knowledge, however, is vital to understanding the current debate over such statues. When the “alt-right” – many of whom have been revealed as merely old-fashioned white supremacists – talk about rewriting history, they speak as if history were an objective record arising from an organic process. However, as the American journalist Vann R Newkirk II wrote on 22 August, “obelisks don’t grow from the soil, and stone men and iron horses are never built without purpose”. The Southern Poverty Law Center found that few Confederate statues were commissioned immediately after the end of the war; instead, they arose in reaction to advances such as the foundation of the NAACP in 1909 and the desegregation of schools in the 1950s and 1960s. These monuments represent not history but backlash.

That means these statues have not been politicised by protest; they were always political. They were designed to promote the “Lost Cause” version of the Civil War, in which the conflict was driven by states’ rights rather than slavery. A similar rhetorical sleight of hand can be seen in the modern desire to keep them in place. The alt-right is unwilling to say that it wishes to retain monuments to white supremacy; instead, it claims to object to “history being rewritten”.

It seems trite to say: that is inevitable. Our understanding of the past is perpetually evolving and the hero of one era becomes a pariah in the next. Feminism, anti-colonialism, “people’s history” – all of these movements have questioned who we celebrate and whose stories we tell.

Across the world, statues have become the focus for this debate because they are visible, accessible and shape our experience of public space. There are currently 11 statues in Parliament Square – all of them male. (The suffragist Millicent Fawcett will join them soon, after a campaign led by Caroline Criado-Perez.) When a carving of a disabled artist, Alison Lapper, appeared on the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square, its sculptor, Marc Quinn, acknowledged its significance. “This square celebrates the courage of men in battle,” he said. “Alison’s life is a struggle to overcome much greater difficulties than many of the men we celebrate and commemorate here.”

There are valid reasons to keep statues to figures we would now rather forget. But we should acknowledge this is not a neutral choice. Tearing down our history, looking it in the face, trying to ignore it or render it unexceptional – all of these are political acts. 

The Brexit delusion

After the UK triggered Article 50 in March, the Brexiteers liked to boast that leaving the European Union would prove a simple task. The International Trade Secretary, Liam Fox, claimed that a new trade deal with the EU would be “one of the easiest in human history” to negotiate and could be agreed before the UK’s scheduled departure on 29 March 2019.

However, after the opening of the negotiations, and the loss of the Conservatives’ parliamentary majority, reality has reasserted itself. All cabinet ministers, including Mr Fox, now acknowledge that it will be impossible to achieve a new trade deal before Brexit. As such, we are told that a “transitional period” is essential.

Yet the government has merely replaced one delusion with another. As its recent position papers show, it hopes to leave institutions such as the customs union in 2019 but to preserve their benefits. An increasingly exasperated EU, unsurprisingly, retorts that is not an option. For Britain, “taking back control” will come at a cost. Only when the Brexiteers acknowledge this truth will the UK have the debate it so desperately needs. 

This article first appeared in the 24 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Sunni vs Shia