On a TV screen in the bar is one of the rituals of Scotland’s rebirth: Jim Wallace spluttering. It is a winning, Liberal sort of splutter, part injured feelings, part righteous indignation – a sort of aggrieved yelp. Mr Wallace is explaining how appearances may deceive. As it turns out, we are all mistaken: the deal to allow the payment of university tuition after graduation, rather than before, is in fact, and contrary to any other appearance, a full and fair settlement of the Liberal Democrat election pledge to abolish fees entirely.
Constructive opposition, they call it. Or perhaps, in the case of Mr Wallace, constructive compromise, of a sort designed to spare the coalition administration which he shares with Donald Dewar. A few more anomalies have insinuated themselves into Edinburgh’s relationship with Westminster, a few more questions have been raised about asymmetrical constitutional arrangements, but the government, be assured, is rocked on its heels. Some students will still pay some money at some time but the payments will not be called fees: the Lib Dems have delivered.
Spin back to 12 May 1999. The Scottish Parliament is being reconvened. Its newly elected members have been given fair warning that, constitutional revolution or not, the oath to the Queen is non-negotiable. The Scottish National Party crosses its collective fingers behind its collective back, says the people are sovereign, as it happens, and gets on with the job. One by one, MSPs make their way forward to greet a raised, open palm and offer their allegiance to HM Queen, heirs, successors, and so on. Then it’s Tommy’s turn.
Dapper as ever and impossibly tanned, the Scottish Socialist Party’s sole list MSP has a few words to say, as usual. Oaths or not, Tommy Sheridan is also making an affirmation on behalf of a Scottish socialist republic. When the official hand is raised towards him, Tommy puts up a clenched fist. Up in the press coop, even wizened old Tory hacks are tickled: this is the stuff.
It is the stuff, too, for Robin Harper, Britain’s first Green parliamentarian, who also reserves his position on the oath. It is the stuff for Dennis Canavan, the veteran Falkirk West MP denied selection for Edinburgh by the Labour machine, who has fixed the fixers by winning as an independent socialist.
Labour in Wales in 1999, meanwhile, has turned itself into a minority. There have been disturbing portents. Strangely, deciding the result of a leadership election before it has actually been run can have the unforeseen effect of outraging party members and voters alike. In the devolution elections, Plaid Cymru has defied all the laws of the new Labour universe and begun to look credible. By the year’s end, a confidence vote is on the cards.
Spin back to the new century. London is to have a mayor. Clearly, a discredited, publicity-seeking, old left-winger – who exists only to undermine his own party – can play no serious part in anyone’s calculations. Clearly, with a selection race looming, with a hugely popular Prime Minister having made his preferences crystal clear, with London’s loyal MPs arrayed rank upon rank, and with Millbank straining at the software, there is no point, just this once, in thinking the unthinkable. But look out, the children cry: he’s behind you.
It is all a bad dream, of course. In the Palace of Westminster, peace reigns. Tory backbenchers are gnawing off their legs to escape any association with their own leader. William Hague assaults the government amid another midwinter crisis in the NHS and finds on the breakfast table a MORI poll showing that his leadership rating has slipped from minus 30 to minus 37 points in under a month. Even among Conservatives, his score has fallen from minus 14 to minus 21. Hague is floating face down on the new Labour tide. Her Majesty’s Opposition has no means with which to oppose, no ability with which to oppose, and no audience of any size around even to observe its transcendent failure to oppose. Parliamentary Conservatism is an embittered clique.
The Palace of Westminster, in short, is dead air. The cabinet does not regard it as essential to its function and spends only as much time in the chamber as decency demands. Debate – like votes, ersatz rebellions, the scrutiny of legislation or coherent speech – is not a pressing issue. Ministers turn up to announce things already dealt with in press releases. Adversarial politics is impossible, logically enough, without at least a pair of adversaries.
The Liberal Democrats, still doing the hokey cokey, have one foot inside the Blair project and one hesitant foot out. They are none too sure of Charles Kennedy, their latest leader, and he seems none too sure of himself. With remarkable speed and no little skill, for all that, he has dropped off the radar entirely.
With the Nationalists having better things to do and the Ulster Unionists consumed, naturally enough, with a single issue, only a few things ripple the smooth surface of new Labour in Westminster at 1000 days and counting. One is the routine (for government) self-inflicted wound: Pinochet, Tyson, the Dome, beef to France or arms to Zimbabwe. Another is located in the news media, which have given the Blair administration a remarkably easy ride, yet which cannot, to Downing Street’s disgust, quite lose the old habits. Concussed though they may be, newspapers on the right can still growl over Europe or Section 28. Grateful though they may be, the centre-leftish press can still muster the odd harsh word over asylum seekers or public spending (before loyally flagellating themselves for fashionable cynicism). But opposition?
The most useful cliche attached to the Blair project is that new Labour’s appeal is wide but not deep. This is generally taken to be bad news for the government, though it is hard to see why. Most of the tastes of the modern mass audience run no deeper, after all, than the average ethical foreign policy. Broad but shallow is infinitely preferable, electorally speaking, to committed but narrow. It is the central meaning of new Labour.
It allows the maximum degree of – what shall we call it? – intellectual flexibility. If Britain is a single canvas, seen through the prism of the Commons, shallow is good.
What can the Tories oppose? The handling of the economy? Hardly. Social policy? Not when the duet is being sung by Jack Straw and Ann Widdecombe. The running of the NHS, education, foreign policy? All the hot buttons have been disconnected. The Tories are not only enfeebled but essentially in agreement.
But then, all this is monoglot politics in the Westminster dialect. The map of Britain is not, in fact, undifferentiated and in this context the significance of Labour’s constitutional reforms is twofold. First, it has achieved the remarkable feat of shaping its own opposition by dispersing power beyond the Commons. Second, by making reform piecemeal and essentially incoherent, it has undermined fatally the monolithic, two-party alternative on which its own success depends. All in all, excellent work.
Without home rule, lone idealists such as Tommy Sheridan would have been confined to the bearpit of Glasgow City Council. Without the additional member voting system extracted from Dewar as the price of Lib Dem co-operation, no Green would have found a seat in any parliament in Britain. Without devolution, Plaid Cymru would have remained locked in the twilight of cultural nationalism. Without even a token attempt to address the democratic deficit in London, dissenting voices would have had no real means of expression within London Labour. Even in Belfast, with every outcome yet uncertain, there remains the possibility of republican nationalists, with no shred of sympathy for British rule, participating in the British government of Northern Ireland.
Less than a year after a parliament returned to Edinburgh, Donald Dewar’s Scottish executive is embattled, propped up by the Lib Dems and facing an official SNP opposition that, for the first time, has a real political platform. In Wales, the situation for Labour is, if anything, worse. In London, the discredited old left-winger looks increasingly like a very credible candidate, and one whom it will be hard, come the day, to muzzle if a single microphone yet remains switched on. The only bright spot for the government is that no one has so far made the mistake of granting assemblies to the English regions.
None of this amounts to opposition in the conventional sense, of course. It is by definition diffuse, incoherent, and essentially – in London not least – parochial. The various parliaments, assemblies and parties are as likely to compete among themselves, particularly over central funds, as they are to unite. The contrasts remain compelling, nevertheless. In Westminster, there is the entropy that comes with complete control; in any other part of Britain that has seized the chance, there is ferment. In the Commons, Labour is unchallenged; elsewhere, challenges spring up on all sides.
None of this will cost Blair re-election. Westminster grinds on and the chances of another experiment with PR some time soon are remote. But the ironies of new Labour’s stumble through the thickets of constitutional reform accumulate. In Scotland, Sheridan’s SSP exhibits excellent potential for growth. In London, the project’s managers are being given the fright of their lives. In Wales, even the Rhondda has proved rebellious. The unintended consequences of reform are everywhere. Allow devolution for England and the book on parliamentary democracy will have to be rewritten.
Those who mourn the passing of Britain will smell tragedy in all this, as though the pathetic spectacle of Hague tossing pebbles at the Blair juggernaut were somehow preferable, somehow a better way of expressing the diversity of thought and belief in a patchwork state. Those who define government and opposition as a dispute between one variety of left and one species of right will also be disappointed.
I look at Robin Harper in the Scottish Parliament and give thanks for a bit of green conscience. I look at Tommy Sheridan and see the disenfranchised given a voice. I look, now and then, at Labour in its Westminster pomp and remind myself that nature abhors a vacuum.
Ian Bell is a columnist at the “Scotsman”