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13 March 2000

The press pack waits and salivates

New Statesman Scotland

By Alistair Moffat

Labour used to love its conferences. Showdowns, denunciations from the platform, Labour chancellors being booed by the delegates, Derek Hatton and his grim henchmen, Tony Benn and his committees: it all made lively but baffling television. When the electorate saw snatches of these arcane rituals on the nightly news, they must have come to believe that Composite 242 was a galaxy far, far away.

And throughout the 1980s, they watched Labour’s annual trip to the seaside to disagree with itself, shrugged their shoulders and, when the time came, voted Tory again and again. But at least they all seemed to belong to the same party and it was possible to understand what they were saying and doing, if not exactly to warm to them while they were at their obeisances.

Nowadays, Labour would rather not have conferences at all. In Scotland, there must be a flutter of nervousness as Scottish Labour prepares for its annual bash in Edinburgh. The best that members of the Scottish Executive can hope for is that they find their way through what is bound to be highly predatory press coverage with as little damage sustained as possible. It comes at a difficult time for the Executive; the costs of the new parliament building are spiralling, the Clause 28 row rumbles on, there is an imminent by-election for Holyrood at Ayr, where Labour defends a majority of 25 and personal attacks from inside the Labour Party on Donald Dewar are intensifying. And one disaffected Labour MP even wants the Scottish Parliament moved to Glasgow. Just like old times.

But what all these issues have in common is that none is fundamental. What should be receiving constant journalistic scrutiny are the workings of the devolution settlement itself, not the details. Despite incessant criticism, the Scottish Parliament has found its legislative feet very quickly. For a new institution with no genuine precedent (the “reconvening” of the Scottish Parliament announced by Winnie Ewing on the opening day was a romantic fiction), Holyrood has begun to work relatively well – relative to the Welsh Assembly, which has had a very uncertain beginning. And in Donald Dewar, the Scottish Parliament has a First Minister who understands the broader historical picture and can see as far as the constitutional event-horizon, despite the yapping and snarling at his feet. Mind you, there must have been moments in the past eight months when the Father of the Nation wished he had remained celibate. But the fact remains that Holyrood is working reasonably well.

At the Scottish Labour conference, Donald Dewar should use the occasion to ignore local difficulties, claim a decent start and set out his vision for Scotland over the next ten years.

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However, the Scottish press will be hard to convince. Many influential journalists north of the border are old Labour, and even though they have two Labour governments – one at Westminster and another in Edinburgh – their sense of disappointment is palpable. They expected more than just the faces to change. After 18 long years of Tory Britain, they fought down their cynicism and waited for a red dawn that never came. Habits of opposition honed in those years were difficult to break and many Scottish commentators find themselves at perpetual odds with both governments. Either you write against the government or you are sucking up to it in the hope of personal advantage of some sort. Little analysis, less comparative writing, and scarcely any positing of alternatives appears in any Scottish paper – you are either agin them or for them. And most Scottish journalists are decidedly agin.

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What blurs the picture repeatedly in Scotland is the divergence of agendas. Journalists need and feed on drama, at-a-stroke government, resignations and firebrand speechmaking. Very little of this sort of thing is on offer (apart from the abrupt departure of a couple of spin-doctors) because new Labour is bedding itself in for the long haul. Thoughtful politicians like Donald Dewar understand that Scotland can only change profoundly for the better if a consensus is patiently built over perhaps as much as a generation. Also, the seismic shifts at work in Europe deserve analysis, but sadly are unlikely to rate a mention from the platform in Edinburgh this week. Power is slowly drifting away from Westminster, not only to Holyrood, Cardiff and Belfast, but also to Brussels. While it might be possible to see how small countries like Scotland and Wales could develop closer and more direct relationships with the EU, the bigger question affecting most people in Britain is what will happen to England. That may be an unlikely agenda item for a Scottish Labour conference but it is an issue deserving serious discussion somewhere.

Meanwhile, the ghosts of many a composite-mover would shake their grey locks at a fringe meeting at the Edinburgh conference. On Friday, 10 March, the health minister, Susan Deacon, will be speaking on “Tackling Health Inequality by Partnership”, but the real partnerships will be formed after she sits down. The invitation offers instruction in salsa dancing “for those who like to keep fit and enjoy themselves”.

Alistair Moffat