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22 March 2024

Scotland is missing elder statesmen

Holyrood lacks an equivalent to the cadre of former UK leaders who offer the wisdom of experience.

By Chris Deerin

The 25th anniversary celebrations – if that’s the right word – of the Scottish Parliament’s opening are under way. 

Thursday saw three of the four living former first ministers appear at Edinburgh’s Assembly Rooms to talk about that quarter century and the events that led up to devolution. 

Jack McConnell, Henry McLeish and Alex Salmond have perhaps little in common beyond the high office they held with varying degrees of success – they are certainly not friends. Nicola Sturgeon, the most recent ex-occupant of the post, was not in attendance.

It struck me, as I considered the line-up, how Holyrood has failed to produce a cadre of wise old birds who have climbed to the top of the political ladder, either stepped or fallen off it, and then developed into the kind of statesmen and women that can provide our still nascent democracy with a stabilising mix of experience, long-toothed wisdom and country-before-party judgement. The kind of big figures who are able to be honest about their mistakes, and perhaps help those who follow to avoid making similar ones.

I look to Westminster – not always a comfort these days, or indeed a guaranteed source of wisdom – and see a fascinating array of greybeards. There are the ex-PMs who make useful and influential interventions and who are sometimes willing to offer important public criticisms of their own party – Tony Blair, John Major, Gordon Brown and even Theresa May are all worth listening to. William Hague is a sane and sagacious contributor who works with Blair on important policy issues. In their podcast, George Osborne and Ed Balls provide a fascinating and at times spicy view of economics and election strategy.

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The reputation of each has of course benefited from the passage of time, and perhaps from the relative lack of quality that followed them. And being freed from the daily calculations of party politics allows – or should allow – for a more measured and self-aware take on the problems that ail us. You’ve had your shot, for better or worse, and now you can leave the tribalism behind – in other words, be truer to yourself, grow up a bit.

The only one of Scotland’s former FMs who fits this bill is Labour’s McConnell. Register of interest – he chairs Reform Scotland, the think tank of which I’m director. But he does so in a way that challenges not just the policy approach of the SNP government, but also of his own and other parties, and is focused on what’s best for Scotland’s future. He also acts as a sounding board to MSPs across the spectrum. His emotional critique of devolution from 2021 remains fresh in the memory: “I think we’re in a situation now where probably Scotland is worse than it has ever been. And I find that just incredibly sad. We just seem stuck.”

Through our think tank and his other activities, McConnell has rolled up his sleeves and got stuck in. It’s hard to say the same for the rest. McLeish was an inconsequential first minister and is an inconsequential ex-first minister. Salmond’s narcissism means he has been unable to rise above his lust for self-promotion and regular attacks on his former party and successors as SNP leader. The man who almost took Scotland to independence is a diminished presence, a chat-show host on dubious foreign TV stations, and anything but a national father figure, even to the independence movement.

Sturgeon, who held the top job for longer than any of them, had the potential to grow beyond party and cause. She is, for the most part, (set aside your prejudices) thoughtful, decent and committed, and for a long time had a deep personal connection with large parts of the electorate. But she is today hamstrung by a catastrophic final few years as first minister – at times, it feels as if every policy she launched, from gender reform to a national care service to a new independent strategy, has frayed and collapsed immediately upon her departure. In addition to this, there remains the significant matter of Operation Branchform, the ongoing police investigation into SNP funds which has seen Sturgeon and her husband, the former party chief executive Peter Murrell, arrested and questioned before being released without charge pending further inquiries. Branchform could shred what remains of her reputation. So far, only the late Donald Dewar has merited a statue, and this seems unlikely to change in the near future.

When Humza Yousaf looks around for advice worth taking, he must find it thin on the ground. When I interviewed him for the New Statesman before Christmas, he surprised me by citing Gordon Brown as someone he wished he could consult. “We’ll disagree on things, but I suspect we agree on more things, and I’ve always thought that we should use the collective wisdom that we have to inform what I do,” the First Minister told me. I don’t know whether Yousaf thought he was playing to a New Statesman audience when he said this, but given the derision with which Brown is treated by many in the nationalist movement, I imagine his words were met by howls of rage in his own party.

The binary division that has dominated Scottish politics for so long is a block on collective wisdom. Such is the enmity between both sides that reasonable and intelligent unionists such as Brown, Alistair Darling and Ruth Davidson are given no quarter by nationalists. Unionists seem delighted to do down John Swinney, a similarly authentic and considered figure on the SNP side.

Holyrood has no second chamber, and so its retired or rejected politicians tend to spin off into the ether. Power is wholly located in Bute House, in the hands of the first minister of the day, who will always be in thrall to their own ego, the electoral cycle and the tribal demands of their party. Decisions are unmediated by the soft power of those who have gone before.

This is surely a significant cause of the poor, half-considered legislation that has too often emerged from Scotland’s governments. The Hate Crime Act, which comes into effect on 1 April, is only the latest example of this, decried by lawyers, police and civil liberties campaigners, but pushed through by a First Minister who gives little impression he properly grasps its potential consequences. It all feels highly familiar, as will what is likely to follow. 

We fail to learn from the mistakes of history, and from those who made them, and therefore continue to be stuck.

[See also: Can Scottish Labour heal a fractured nation?]

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