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.

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Leader: Trump and an age of disorder

Mr Trump’s disregard for domestic and international norms represents an unprecedented challenge to established institutions.

The US presidency has not always been held by men of distinction and honour, but Donald Trump is by some distance its least qualified occupant. The leader of the world’s sole superpower has no record of political or military service and is ignorant of foreign affairs. Throughout his campaign, he repeatedly showed himself to be a racist, a misogynist, a braggart and a narcissist.

The naive hope that Mr Trump’s victory would herald a great moderation was dispelled by his conduct during the transition. He compared his country’s intelligence services to those of Nazi Germany and repeatedly denied Russian interference in the election. He derided Nato as “obsolete” and predicted the demise of the European Union. He reaffirmed his commitment to dismantling Obamacare and to overturning Roe v Wade. He doled out jobs to white nationalists, protectionists and family members. He denounced US citizens for demonstrating against him. Asked whether he regretted any part of his vulgar campaign, he replied: “No, I won.”

Of all his predilections, Mr Trump’s affection for Vladimir Putin is perhaps the most troubling. When the 2012 Republican presidential nominee, Mitt Romney, warned that Russia was the “number one geopolitical foe” of the US, he was mocked by Barack Obama. Yet his remark proved prescient. Rather than regarding Mr Putin as a foe, however, Mr Trump fetes him as a friend. The Russian president aims to use the US president’s goodwill to secure the removal of American sanctions, recognition of Russia’s annexation of Crimea and respect for the murderous reign of the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad. He has a worryingly high chance of success.

Whether or not Mr Trump has personal motives for his fealty (as a lurid security dossier alleges), he and Mr Putin share a political outlook. Both men desire a world in which “strongmen” are free to abuse their citizens’ human rights without fear of external rebuke. Mr Trump’s refusal to commit to Nato’s principle of collective defence provides Mr Putin with every incentive to pursue his expansionist desires. The historic achievement of peace and stability in eastern Europe is in danger.

As he seeks reconciliation with Russia, Mr Trump is simultaneously pursuing conflict with China. He broke with precedent by speaking on the telephone with the Taiwanese president, Tsai Ing-wen, and used Twitter to berate the Chinese government. Rex Tillerson, Mr Trump’s secretary of state nominee, has threatened an American blockade of the South China Sea islands.

Mr Trump’s disregard for domestic and international norms represents an unprecedented challenge to established institutions. The US constitution, with its separation of powers, was designed to restrain autocrats such as the new president. Yet, in addition to the White House, the Republicans also control Congress and two-thirds of governorships and state houses. Mr Trump’s first Supreme Court appointment will ensure a conservative judicial majority. The decline of established print titles and the growth of “fake news” weaken another source of accountability.

In these circumstances, there is a heightened responsibility on the US’s allies to challenge, rather than to indulge, Mr Trump. Angela Merkel’s warning that co-operation was conditional on his respect for liberal and democratic values was a model of the former. Michael Gove’s obsequious interview with Mr Trump was a dismal example of the latter.

Theresa May has rightly rebuked the president for his treatment of women and has toughened Britain’s stance against Russian revanchism. Yet, although the UK must maintain working relations with the US, she should not allow the prospect of a future trade deal to skew her attitude towards Mr Trump. Any agreement is years away and the president’s protectionist proclivities could yet thwart British hopes of a beneficial outcome.

The diplomatic and political conventions embodied by the “special relationship” have endured for more than seven decades. However, Mr Trump’s election may necessitate their demise. It was the belief that the UK must stand “shoulder to shoulder” with the US that led Tony Blair into the ruinous Iraq War. In this new age of disorder, Western leaders must avoid being willing accomplices to Mr Trump’s agenda. Intense scepticism, rather than sycophancy, should define their response.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era