Margaret Curran will struggle against the SNP

The new Shadow Scotland Secretary is a dogged campaigner, but better candidates have been overlooked

Margaret Curran, MP for Glasgow East, has replaced Ann McKechin as Shadow Secretary of State for Scotland following Ed Miliband's first front bench reshuffle as leader of the Labour Party.

Curran served in the Scottish Parliament for 12 years between 1999 and 2011, rising to national prominence in 2008 when she lost a crucial by-election to the SNP -- a moment which, for many, marked the beginning of the end of Gordon Brown's premiership.

Curran's record as a dogged grassroots campaigner and opponent of independence ensures her appointment will be popular with Scottish Labour's activist base, which is desperate to take on a nationalist party still riding high in the polls six months after their momentous victory in the Holyrood elections.

At the same time, however, she represents a gamble for Labour. Her history of awkward gaffes and poor debate performances could put the party at a disadvantage in the run up to the forthcoming independence referendum, as well as at the 2012 Glasgow City Council elections, which the SNP believes it can win. Further, her close association with the failures of outgoing Scottish Labour leader Iain Gray (she helped write the party's May manifesto) will leave her exposed to nationalist accusations of incompetence, tribalism and negativity.

So why Curran? The role of the Shadow Scotland Secretary is going to be hugely important over the coming months and years as the Unionist parties try to upset Alex Salmond's bid to break-up Britain, yet Labour's most talented Scots, Jim Murphy and Douglas Alexander, appear wholly reluctant to take up the challenge.

One possible explanation for their reticence is that they know the First Minster does not poll well with woman and were as such happy to see another woman promoted to the position after McKechin. Another is that they are simply more interested in furthering their Westminster ambitions than in spending the next three years engaged in a bitter, arduous debate about Scotland's constitutional future.

But even with Murphy and Alexander unavailable or unwilling, there were other, perhaps better equipped, candidates waiting in the wings. 30-year-old Gemma Doyle, MP for West Dumbartonshire, has shown promise since she entered parliament at the last General Election, as has Gregg McClymont, a 35-year-old former Oxford history don who represents Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East (read his New Statesman profile here).

In reality, though, there is probably a more prosaic reason behind Curran's promotion: the old Scottish Labour career structure ensures that loyal party servants are justly rewarded. Labour's next leader in Scotland will certainly have his or her work cut out in dragging their comrades into the 21st century.

James Maxwell is a Scottish political journalist. He is based between Scotland and London.

Getty
Show Hide image

Leader: The unresolved Eurozone crisis

The continent that once aspired to be a rival superpower to the US is now a byword for decline, and ethnic nationalism and right-wing populism are thriving.

The eurozone crisis was never resolved. It was merely conveniently forgotten. The vote for Brexit, the terrible war in Syria and Donald Trump’s election as US president all distracted from the single currency’s woes. Yet its contradictions endure, a permanent threat to continental European stability and the future cohesion of the European Union.

The resignation of the Italian prime minister Matteo Renzi, following defeat in a constitutional referendum on 4 December, was the moment at which some believed that Europe would be overwhelmed. Among the champions of the No campaign were the anti-euro Five Star Movement (which has led in some recent opinion polls) and the separatist Lega Nord. Opponents of the EU, such as Nigel Farage, hailed the result as a rejection of the single currency.

An Italian exit, if not unthinkable, is far from inevitable, however. The No campaign comprised not only Eurosceptics but pro-Europeans such as the former prime minister Mario Monti and members of Mr Renzi’s liberal-centrist Democratic Party. Few voters treated the referendum as a judgement on the monetary union.

To achieve withdrawal from the euro, the populist Five Star Movement would need first to form a government (no easy task under Italy’s complex multiparty system), then amend the constitution to allow a public vote on Italy’s membership of the currency. Opinion polls continue to show a majority opposed to the return of the lira.

But Europe faces far more immediate dangers. Italy’s fragile banking system has been imperilled by the referendum result and the accompanying fall in investor confidence. In the absence of state aid, the Banca Monte dei Paschi di Siena, the world’s oldest bank, could soon face ruin. Italy’s national debt stands at 132 per cent of GDP, severely limiting its firepower, and its financial sector has amassed $360bn of bad loans. The risk is of a new financial crisis that spreads across the eurozone.

EU leaders’ record to date does not encourage optimism. Seven years after the Greek crisis began, the German government is continuing to advocate the failed path of austerity. On 4 December, Germany’s finance minister, Wolfgang Schäuble, declared that Greece must choose between unpopular “structural reforms” (a euphemism for austerity) or withdrawal from the euro. He insisted that debt relief “would not help” the immiserated country.

Yet the argument that austerity is unsustainable is now heard far beyond the Syriza government. The International Monetary Fund is among those that have demanded “unconditional” debt relief. Under the current bailout terms, Greece’s interest payments on its debt (roughly €330bn) will continually rise, consuming 60 per cent of its budget by 2060. The IMF has rightly proposed an extended repayment period and a fixed interest rate of 1.5 per cent. Faced with German intransigence, it is refusing to provide further funding.

Ever since the European Central Bank president, Mario Draghi, declared in 2012 that he was prepared to do “whatever it takes” to preserve the single currency, EU member states have relied on monetary policy to contain the crisis. This complacent approach could unravel. From the euro’s inception, economists have warned of the dangers of a monetary union that is unmatched by fiscal and political union. The UK, partly for these reasons, wisely rejected membership, but other states have been condemned to stagnation. As Felix Martin writes on page 15, “Italy today is worse off than it was not just in 2007, but in 1997. National output per head has stagnated for 20 years – an astonishing . . . statistic.”

Germany’s refusal to support demand (having benefited from a fixed exchange rate) undermined the principles of European solidarity and shared prosperity. German unemployment has fallen to 4.1 per cent, the lowest level since 1981, but joblessness is at 23.4 per cent in Greece, 19 per cent in Spain and 11.6 per cent in Italy. The youngest have suffered most. Youth unemployment is 46.5 per cent in Greece, 42.6 per cent in Spain and 36.4 per cent in Italy. No social model should tolerate such waste.

“If the euro fails, then Europe fails,” the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, has often asserted. Yet it does not follow that Europe will succeed if the euro survives. The continent that once aspired to be a rival superpower to the US is now a byword for decline, and ethnic nationalism and right-wing populism are thriving. In these circumstances, the surprise has been not voters’ intemperance, but their patience.

This article first appeared in the 08 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brexit to Trump