Browned off

Observations - Scotland

On the day that Barbara Castle died, Wendy Alexander, almost unnoticed south of the border, resigned from the Scottish Executive. She was a victim of the misogynist political culture that Castle fought all her life and which many thought dead. But from its roots in local government and the unions, it still dominates the Scottish Labour Party.

Alexander, Minister for Enterprise, Transport and Lifelong Learning, was no ordinary minister. As Donald Dewar's special adviser and protegee, she worked assiduously to create devolved government in Scotland. Just six months ago, and with the emphatic support of Gordon Brown, she came within 24 hours of challenging for the leadership of Scottish Labour. Her MBA from the French business school Insead and her years as a management consultant in Europe, North America and Australasia made her unique in Scottish politics. (Her replacement, Iain Gray, a politician whose character closely approximates his surname, lacks a microsecond's experience in business or enterprise.) Renowned as the progressive who insisted on repeal of Section 28, she was also the only genuinely new Labour figure in Scottish politics, and by general consent, the brightest minister. Do not be surprised if she moves to Westminster to become a significant force and perhaps even a member of the UK cabinet; although her resignation letter said that her "enthusiasm for the [Scottish] parliament remains as strong as it was over 20 years ago", she tells a select few that her commitment is only medium term.

The First Minister, Jack McConnell, a fiercely factional product of Scottish machine politics, is relieved. He had Alexander in his team only because he knew Downing Street would be incensed if he refused. Now he has the talentless cabinet of loyal dullards his critics say he always craved. A new Labour insider puts it bluntly: "Wendy's resignation is the final nail in the coffin of the Scottish Executive. . . . There is something truly cancerous in the Scottish Labour Party when anyone of any talent is singled out for destruction."

But Alexander's departure also reveals the diminished influence of the Chancellor of the Exchequer in the fiefdom he calls his own. Alexander is his closest ally in Scottish politics. She is the sister of Douglas Alexander, his former PPS, and was his clear choice to replace Henry McLeish (Dewar's successor) when McLeish was forced from office over allegations of misuse of funds for his constituency office.

McLeish was Brown's candidate and, just a few years ago, the Chancellor could propel his man into Bute House (the official residence of the First Minister) despite widespread qualms about his suitability. But after the McLeish fiasco, even the ability of an Alexander stood no chance against McConnell - a politician whom the Chancellor despises.

Devolution enthusiasts should pay attention. The Chancellor's writ no longer runs here. His heartland has rejected his most talented supporter, and thus also rejected the only minister to give Scotland's Lanarkshire-mafia government a hint of gravitas.

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