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26 November 2001

Fit to rule the land of Braveheart?

As Edinburgh is hit by constant scandal, Allan Massie blames endemic cronyism, Italian-style, for th

By Allan Massie

The call came from a national – that is, London-based – newspaper. Would I care to write an article saying “why I’m ashamed to be a Scot today”? Well, it was easy to understand why the suggestion was made. Scotland, or at least the Scottish political class, has had a bad month. The First Minister, Henry McLeish, fumbled towards resignation after failing to clear up, in a satisfactory way, allegations concerning his constituency office expenses. Then it became clear that there was going to be no contest for the leadership of the Scottish Labour Party, and so for the post of First Minister.

And on the day before I was asked to write that piece, Jack McConnell, then Labour’s sole candidate, had held a press conference (with his wife, Bridget, in chilly attendance a yard or so away) to announce that he had had an affair seven years ago, and had “betrayed” his wife’s trust. The next day came stories that he had organised a whip-round at Westminster among Labour MPs to help pay his then lover’s salary at the party headquarters in Glasgow; it was also rumoured that newspapers were hot on the trail of other extramarital adventures. No wonder many were quick to assume that it proved that the devolution experiment was a ghastly mistake, and that an editor should think I might feel ashamed to be Scottish.

Nevertheless, I declined the offer. It is certainly the case that, in the past few weeks, Scotland has been shown in a poor light, and some may consider this proof that devolution was a mistake, but the transgressions reported here seem minor compared to much that goes on at Westminster. Indeed, McLeish’s mis-demeanours relate to his time as a Westminster MP, and had he remained just that, he would have received only a rap over the knuckles from the Commons Committee on Standards and Privileges.

Actually, what has happened says more about pre-devolution Scotland than about devolution itself. For years, the reality of Scottish politics was obscured by the Tory domination of England, which ensured that there were Tory governments from 1979-97. This allowed a party with diminishing, and eventually very little, support in Scotland to control the Scottish Office and maintain a secretary of state. As a result, the Tories appeared to be the government of Scotland. But much of the time, they did not set the agenda, and when they tried to do so, as with the poll tax, they failed miserably. Tory power was more apparent than real.

The reason was simple. Over much of Scotland, real power was in the hands not of the government, but of the sottogoverno, the network operating below the level of the government of the day, and doing so by means of cronyism, patronage, backhanders, exchanging favours, and sometimes by making threats. In Scotland, the sottogoverno was Labour.

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Much of this went unnoticed while Labour was in opposition. Fierce infighting at Glasgow City Council and allegations of corruption at Monklands District Council did attract the attention of the press, but most of the time Labour was given an easy ride. The Scottish media were mainly anti-Tory and pro-devolution. And the figureheads of Scottish Labour – John Smith, Donald Dewar and Gordon Brown – were intelligent, respected, well liked, and all men of unimpeachable rectitude.

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Devolution has changed this; Smith and Dewar are dead; Brown is in London, as are most of the more able Labour politicians – Robin Cook, Alistair Darling and John Reid, for example, all of whom preferred Westminster careers to Holyrood. This did not matter so much while Dewar was First Minister. But when he died, Labour in Scotland became exposed to unaccustomed scrutiny. Some of the fiercest critics in recent months have been journalists who were committed to devolution and are disappointed that it has not suddenly led us to the promised land.

So we have been encouraged to take a closer look at the Scottish Labour Party and the way it operates, and many Scots are dismayed by what this has revealed. The McLeish affair, which some newspapers and BBC Scotland continued to insist was “relatively trivial” for some while after it seemed that the public thought otherwise, did not provide evidence of corruption. Many accepted McLeish’s defence that it was “a muddle, not a fiddle”. What it did show, however, was that Labour operates with local authorities, certain law firms and public relations companies on a “scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours” basis.

There was another glaring example of this sort of thing in the week after McLeish resigned. The board of Scottish Enterprise Glasgow, which comes under the aegis of the Department of Enterprise and its minister, Wendy Alexander, has invited tenders for handling its PR. And to whom was the contract awarded? Why, a PR company set up by one David Whitton, formerly press secretary to the late Donald Dewar. (The under-bidder, incidentally, was Beattie Media, which used to employ the incoming First Minister, Jack McConnell.) It was purely coincidental that the award of the contract to the company was announced a couple of days after Whitton had been making telephone calls in an attempt to drum up support for the same Wendy Alexander as a rival to McConnell in the Labour leadership election that never was. Whitton said he was acting merely as an old friend of Alexander, and that his action was quite unconnected with the contract for which his PR company had bid. There is no doubt he was telling the truth. Equally, there is no doubt that Alexander had nothing to do with awarding the contract.

And yet, it might have occurred to Whitton that it would have been wiser to put some distance between himself (or his PR company) and the minister. That it does not appear to have done tells us quite a lot about Scottish Labour.

Two things should be said in mitigation. First, the way our state is organised today – with so many arm’s-length agencies, task forces, and so on, and with so much money to be made from government contracts, or from contracts with quasi-governmental bodies – is a recipe for cronyism.

This is true of United Kingdom politics. It is even more true of Scottish politics, because – and this is the second thing to be said in mitigation of the way Labour operates – Scotland is a small country with a very small political class. Moreover, it is a country where most of the elites – business, legal, academic – play no part in political life.

This has long been the case where local government is concerned. Devolution has shown just how complete is the divorce of these elites, and in particular the private sector, from the political class. An examination of the previous occupations or careers of the 129 MSPs shows that a very high proportion have been local councillors, or have worked for councils or for quasi-governmental agencies, or been trade union officials. So, while devolution has given us representative government in Edinburgh, it has not given us a parliament that is representative of anything but this political or sub-political class.

Hopes that the new Scottish Parliament would attract men and women from a wider spectrum have not been fulfilled.

The question now is whether the Scottish Labour Party can reform itself in such a way as to connect with that wider spectrum. If it fails to do so, it is not inconceivable that it may go the way of the Italian Christian Democrats who, after dominating that country’s politics for half a century, disintegrated when their governance – so like Labour’s system in Scotland in its reliance on patronage, jobbery and its indifference to public opinion – was exposed to scrutiny.

Undoubtedly, Labour’s reputation is now low. Yet its network of patronage and reciprocal obligation may be sufficiently well-knit that it will be able to survive, and survive in power. That is to say, the condition and fortunes of Scottish Labour may have less in common with the Italian DC than with Fianna Fail in the Republic of Ireland. Here is a party that has surmounted scandals far more serious and evidence of corruption far more pervasive than have damaged Scottish Labour. It has been able to do this because so many are attached to it by interest rather than opinion, as indeed is the case with Labour in Scotland.

Nevertheless, if Labour is not to disappoint the high hopes invested in the Scottish Parliament, it will surely have to give at least the appearance of being ready to reform itself. One step that would indicate a willingness to do this would be a decision to act on the recommendations of the Kerley committee on local government, and introduce some measure of proportional representation for local authority elections. That reform will be resisted by Labour diehards, understandably so, as the party benefits so much from the present system. Jack McConnell’s reputation as a moderniser will be put to the test in this matter.

McConnell is a dyed-in-the-wool Labour man, but he is intelligent enough to see that things must change for Labour if the party is to remain the same. Can Labour adapt? That is the first question. Can it survive if it fails to adapt? That is another. One thing is certain: McConnell’s term of office will be more interesting than McLeish’s.