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Alistair Carmichael revealed as the leaker of the SNP memo

The former Scottish secretary admits to being behind the leaked memorandum that had the SNP furiously denying said conversation ever took place and got Scottish Labour elated.

Update 16:00, 04/04/15: It's been suggested to me from several quarters that the leaker may be Alistair Carmichael or someone in his office. As Secretary of State for Scotland the memorandum would definitely have crossed his desk, and it might help the 10 other Liberal Democrats trying to retain their seats in mainland Scotland.

Update, 15:24, 22/05/2015: It was Alistair Carmichael. He authorised his special advisor to leak the memo. Crucially, the Cabinet Secretary's investigation suggests that there is no evidence that the memo's contents were incorrect. However, in a letter from Carmichael apologising to Sturgeon, he writes that "the details of that account are not correct".

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Vote SNP, get Tory. It’s not the campaign that Jim Murphy wanted to run when he became leader of Scottish Labour, but it’s what the party now thinks is its last, best hope of blunting the SNP surge.

So the Telegraph’s frontpage this morning will be a shot in the arm for both Murphy and Ed Miliband – “Sturgeon’s secret backing for Cameron” is their splash.  They’ve got hold of a memorandum written by a senior British civil servant in which Nicola Sturgeon appears to tell the French Ambassador she’d prefer that David Cameron remain as Prime Minister and that she doesn’t see Ed Miliband as a potential Prime Minister.  

It’s all been hotly denied by both the SNP and the French Embassy. The Telegraph has published the memorandum in full, but the key section is below:

The Ambassador also had a truncated meeting with the FM (FM running late after a busy Thursday…). Discussion appears to have focused mainly on the political situation, with the FM stating that she wouldn’t want a formal coalition with Labour; that the SNP would almost certainly have a large number of seats; that she had no idea ‘what kind of mischief’ Alex Salmond would get up to; and confessed that she’d rather see David Cameron remain as PM (and didn’t see Ed Miliband as PM material). I have to admit that I’m not sure that the FM’s tongue would be quite so loose on that kind of thing in a meeting like that, so it might well be a case of something being lost in translation.”

The civil servant’s scepticism isn’t quite justified – as the French officials in question were all fluent English speakers the conversation took place without translators. So what’s going on? Yes, the story's been furiously denied by Sturgeon and the French Ambassador in the strongest terms. Readers with long memories will remember Tony Blair denying he wanted rid of his Chancellor, Gordon Brown, or Gordon Brown denying he wanted rid of his Chancellor, Alistair Darling.  We now know that these denials were false.  

In this instance, almost every think-tanker, lobbyist, member of parliament or party staffer I've spoken to has, at some point over the last five years said they can't see Ed Miliband as Prime Minister. ("I look at the numbers and think we're fine. I look at him and think we're fucked," was the colourful reaction of one Labour staffer. A Conservative MP told me recently that "At the crunch, this country will never make Miliband Prime Minister.") During the referendum, one of the repeated refrains from activists within the Yes movement was that Miliband was heading to defeat. The mood music of the independence campaign was that the social democratic government promised by Miliband cannot be delivered within the United Kingdom. So all that Sturgeon needs to have said is: 'I can't see Miliband as Prime Minister - but at least it's easier to argue for independence with a Tory government" which is neither implausible or revelatory.

But what those in Labour who are hoping to gain any traction on this seem to have forgotten, is that for all the repeated Blair-Brown eruptions were seized on by the Tories, they were mostly disbelieved by the party faithful and didn't stop New Labour winning three elections in a row, two in landslides. It seems likely that this leak will have just as small an effect on the SNP.

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. He usually writes about politics. 

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In the 1980s, I went to a rally where Labour Party speakers shared the stage with men in balaclavas

The links between the Labour left and Irish republicanism are worth investigating.

A spat between Jeremy Corbyn’s henchfolk and Conor McGinn, the MP for St Helens North, caught my ear the other evening. McGinn was a guest on BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour, and he obligingly revisited the brouhaha for the listeners at home. Apparently, following an interview in May, in which McGinn called for Corbyn to “reach out beyond his comfort zone”, he was first threatened obliquely with the sack, then asked for a retraction (which he refused to give) and finally learned – from someone in the whips’ office – that his party leader was considering phoning up McGinn’s father to whip the errant whipper-in into line. On the programme, McGinn said: “The modus operandi that he [Corbyn] and the people around him were trying to do [sic], involving my family, was to isolate and ostracise me from them and from the community I am very proud to come from – which is an Irish nationalist community in south Armagh.”

Needless to say, the Labour leader’s office has continued to deny any such thing, but while we may nurture some suspicions about his behaviour, McGinn was also indulging in a little airbrushing when he described south Armagh as an “Irish ­nationalist community”. In the most recent elections, Newry and Armagh returned three Sinn Fein members to the Northern Ireland Assembly (as against one Social Democratic and Labour Party member) and one Sinn Fein MP to Westminster. When I last looked, Sinn Fein was still a republican, rather than a nationalist, party – something that McGinn should only be too well aware of, as the paternal hand that was putatively to have been lain on him belongs to Pat McGinn, the former Sinn Fein mayor of Newry and Armagh.

According to the Irish News, a “close friend” of the McGinns poured this cold water on the mini-conflagration: “Anybody who knows the McGinn family knows that Pat is very proud of Conor and that they remain very close.” The friend went on to opine: “He [Pat McGinn] found the whole notion of Corbyn phoning him totally ridiculous – as if Pat is going to criticise his son to save Jeremy Corbyn’s face. They would laugh about it were it not so sinister.”

“Sinister” does seem the mot juste. McGinn, Jr grew up in Bessbrook during the Troubles. I visited the village in the early 1990s on assignment. The skies were full of the chattering of British army Chinooks, and there were fake road signs in the hedgerows bearing pictograms of rifles and captioned: “Sniper at work”. South Armagh had been known for years as “bandit country”. There were army watchtowers standing sentinel in the dinky, green fields and checkpoints everywhere, manned by some of the thousands of the troops who had been deployed to fight what was, in effect, a low-level counter-insurgency war. Nationalist community, my foot.

What lies beneath the Corbyn-McGinn spat is the queered problematics of the ­relationship between the far left wing of the Labour Party and physical-force Irish republicanism. I also recall, during the hunger strikes of the early 1980s, going to a “Smash the H-Blocks” rally in Kilburn, north London, at which Labour Party speakers shared the stage with representatives from Sinn Fein, some of whom wore balaclavas and dark glasses to evade the telephoto lenses of the Met’s anti-terrorist squad.

The shape-shifting relationship between the “political wing” of the IRA and the men with sniper rifles in the south Armagh bocage was always of the essence of the conflict, allowing both sides a convenient fiction around which to posture publicly and privately negotiate. In choosing to appear on platforms with people who might or might not be terrorists, Labour leftists also sprinkled a little of their stardust on themselves: the “stardust” being the implication that they, too, under the right circumstances, might be capable of violence in pursuit of their political ends.

On the far right of British politics, Her Majesty’s Government and its apparatus are referred to derisively as “state”. There were various attempts in the 1970s and 1980s by far-right groupuscules to link up with the Ulster Freedom Fighters and other loyalist paramilitary organisations in their battle against “state”. All foundered on the obvious incompetence of the fascists. The situation on the far left was different. The socialist credentials of Sinn Fein/IRA were too threadbare for genuine expressions of solidarity, but there was a sort of tacit confidence-and-supply arrangement between these factions. The Labour far left provided the republicans with the confidence that, should an appropriately radical government be elected to Westminster, “state” would withdraw from Northern Ireland. What the republicans did for the mainland militants was to cloak them in their penumbra of darkness: without needing to call down on themselves the armed might of “state”, they could imply that they were willing to take it on, should the opportunity arise.

I don’t for a second believe that Corbyn was summoning up these ghosts of the insurrectionary dead when he either did or did not threaten to phone McGinn, Sr. But his supporters need to ask themselves what they’re getting into. Their leader, if he was to have remained true to the positions that he has espoused over many years, should have refused to sit as privy counsellor upon assuming his party office, and refused all the other mummery associated with the monarchical “state”. That he didn’t do so was surely a strategic decision. Such a position would make him utterly unelectable.

The snipers may not be at work in south Armagh just now – but there are rifles out there that could yet be dug up. I wouldn’t be surprised if some in Sinn Fein knew where they are, but one thing’s for certain: Corbyn hasn’t got a clue, bloody or otherwise. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser