So that’s where Johann Lamont’s been hiding all this time. Evidently she was holed up somewhere learning her speech to the Scottish Labour conference off by heart, and she demonstrated the fact by rattling the whole thing out in practically a single breath. There was barely a gap left for the party faithful to applaud in, though they dutifully roared with laughter at a succession of limp anti-SNP jibes.
In fact, most of the speech was devoted to attacking the SNP rather than putting forward any positive ideas. The word “Salmond” appeared more times in the text than “justice”, “fairness”, and “jobs” put together, and by a distance at that. (“Socialism” and “Miliband” both scored zero.) It was a safety-first, preach-to-the-choir speech from a leader making her debut in the position, and who it’s probably fair to say isn’t a natural orator. But it’s hard to see who it would appeal to outside of the Caird Hall.
It’s hard to think of much of substance to say about Lamont’s words, because there was precious little substance in them. She bizarrely asserted several times that there was “no border” between Scotland and England (how do you know which one you’re in, then?), and that she was in favour of social justice – a controversial stand, to be sure, which she illustrated with an endless list of rhetorical questions grouped around that favourite modern cynical Tory buzzword, “fairness”.
“Is it fair,” she asked the audience plaintively, “that a teacher, someone who devotes their career to bettering young people, has to delve into their own wages to provide jotters and pencils for their class?”
“Is it fair,” she continued, “that a vulnerable child in a chaotic home, is left at risk and at the mercy of unfit parents because overworked social workers don’t have time to carry out the proper checks?”
No, of course it bloody isn’t, you stupid woman. The implication, of course, was that Alex Salmond DID believe these things were fair, that he hated the very notion of social justice like some mad cartoon villain – an idiotic suggestion that would insult the intelligence of a child, but evidently considered solid polemical gold by Lamont’s speechwriter, who had another seven of these leaden inanities up his sleeve to pad out the length of the address, possibly knowing his charge was going to gabble it out so fast she’d be done in two minutes flat if he didn’t stretch things out a bit.
The day before, the BBC’s Brian Taylor had hosted a webchat with the Labour leader, in which one of the questions posed by viewers was “What would you do differently if you were First Minister right now rather than Alex Salmond?” Lamont started reeling off a list of things she wouldn’t have cut, but when Taylor – hardly the Beeb’s most intimidating interrogator – interrupted her and challenged her to say how she’d have paid for them in the face of budget cuts coming down the line from Westminster, she froze like a rabbit in headlights before mumbling something about “efficiencies” that had even the big soft Dundonian puppy spluttering in disbelief.
But the main theme of Lamont’s speech seemed to be a particularly bad, and oddly personalised, case of that age-old Scottish affliction, the Caledonian Cringe. Time and again she insisted that the Scottish Parliament shouldn’t be entrusted with the powers of government (“We cannot allow ourselves to be boxed into an Orwellian debate – more powers good, anything else bad”), and recoiled aloud from images of tartan and Saltires. It may have been the first ever recorded example of a politician saying “Please DON’T give me more power”, and it was a telling and extraordinary entreaty.
“I question, for example, whether we should devolve a power like corporation tax,” said the would-be First Minister of Scotland, “not because I don’t think we are capable of using it, but because I want to see the detailed evidence that will tell us whether it would be in our interests or not.”
Sorry, but what? You’re a politician who wants to lead their country, and you’re not sure if it would be in the country’s interests to give you control of one of its primary economic levers? Then in the name of the Wee Baby Jesus – and you’ll have to pardon our French here, readers – GET OFF THE FUCKING STAGE. I don’t want my country run by someone who doesn’t even think they’re up to the job themselves. If you don’t think Corporation Tax should be changed then by all means get into power to ensure it isn’t changed, but for God’s sake don’t ask people to vote for you only to abdicate the responsibility for the decision to someone they didn’t vote for.
That such a person should ever have come to be the leader of a halfway-serious political party is empirically staggering. Or at least, it would be if that party was anything other than Scottish Labour. It’s hardly a revelation that the cream of Labour’s talent sets its sights on Westminster, and has done for years. The result is that the Holyrood party is populated with what we’ll rather generously call the “B” team, and the problem is only going to get worse rather than better when a career in Edinburgh doesn’t even have ministerial power to commend it.
The real killer for Scottish Labour, then, is that as the need for it to reinvent itself grows more and more urgent, it becomes less and less capable of change. Anyone with a modicum of talent will head for London with even greater haste (because if you’re going to be in opposition, you might as well at least be in opposition where the real power is), and the Scottish party will be left with a collection of grizzled old dogs, bred to expect power as a birthright and trained to do nothing other than bite the SNP.
If you read the anguished blogs of Labour’s more advanced thinkers north of the border, you can feel the pain of being able to see the party’s dilemma, but unable to wake the comatose old beast to fix it. Ironically, the only thing that could refresh the party now is independence – or at least something very close to it. The full monty would see MSPs trampled by former Westminster seat-fillers scrabbling desperately for jobs, but a Scottish Parliament with full fiscal powers would give the party’s up-and-comers the prospect of something to get their teeth into, and just possibly bring it some people the electorate could bear to vote for, rather than the parade of hopeless promoted-beyond-their-competence numpties they were asked to put their faith in last May. (And to which they issued a resounding “Thanks, but no thanks.”)
But Labour have been expertly manoeuvered off the devo-max ground by Salmond, and the dearth of intellect was amply illustrated by the fact that Lamont’s triumphant solution was… yet another “commission” to look into the subject, even as the product of the last one – the unloved Scotland Bill – is still staggering its way through Parliament, not due to come into effect for another three years.
What is it that Labour can promise from their latest talking shop? “In a year or so, we’ll tell you what powers we MIGHT want to devolve, perhaps a decade or more from now, IF we can get England to vote for us, and IF we can persuade UK Labour to go along with it, and IF you vote No to independence in the meantime.”
Johann Lamont’s speech to conference today was a suicide note. It showed a party with no wit, no vision and no principles (the text was full of worn-out old lies and hypocrisy so transparent even Tom Harris would have been a bit embarrassed by it, such as the line about Alex Salmond’s comments on Margaret Thatcher which Labour are making a habit of dishonestly misquoting of late).
It urged Scotland to entrust its future to whatever government England chooses, because – by Scottish Labour’s own admission – Scottish Labour couldn’t be trusted to wield power if it ever does get elected to Holyrood again. Big brother knows best.
Lamont is, so far as we’re able to ascertain, a well-meaning person with an endearing line in self-deprecating humour who’s operating too far above her pay grade – with her focus on small-scale local issues she’d probably make a really good council chief – but the tragedy for Scottish Labour is that, going by the party’s leadership election last year, she really is the best they’ve got. And perhaps even more terrifying for Labour’s dwindling band of supporters, the best they’re likely to have for many years to come.
“But the song that you just sang/It sounds exactly like the last one
And the next one, I bet you/It will sound like this one.”