In political terms, being an MP is a bit of a poisoned chalice of a job. You ostensibly get elected to represent your constituents, but in reality to represent your party leader. Unless you manage to land yourself a ministerial job you’re basically nothing but a vote on legs, told what to say and ordered through the division lobby by party whips like a ewe in a sheepdog trial, under the constant threat of being overlooked for plum spots on committees or even deselected.
Now don’t worry, readers. Wings Over Scotland isn’t going soft. We have precious little sympathy to spare for career politicians troughing for all they’re worth on a £65,000 salary typically inflated to somewhere comfortably over £100,000 by perks and allowances, and accompanied by incredibly generous redundancy payments and pensions the likes of which us poor saps can only dream of.
But still, it’s no job for anyone with any dignity or self-respect. MPs are loathed by the public more than almost any other profession (other than bankers, with whom most people think they rhyme), very often justifiably so, and most will achieve nothing in their lives other than self-enrichment. It’s a soul-destroying way to get yourself a couple of nice houses at the taxpayer’s expense.
There’s a much less corrosive way to be an MP, though.
Because being an opposition MP is the top prize in the game of politics. You get the same salary, all the same perks, even (almost) the same opportunity to be on committees, but you’re not responsible for anything.
Sure, your constituents will still moan that you haven’t fixed the potholes in their road (though you can fob that one off on the council), but they won’t blame you for losing their job or their mother having to wait six years for her hip operation, because you’re not in government and there’s not much that even the most demanding voter could legitimately expect you to do about it.
In short, you get the easiest gig in the world – loudly criticising other people for making an appalling mess of what’s actually at least quite a difficult job (running a country), but without the awkward bit of having to come up with any better ideas yourself. The worst possible thing that can happen to many MPs is their party winning an election, because they not only have to start delivering results – or at least trying to – but also have a lot less free time to make money elsewhere.
If you think that’s a cynical view, you need only look at the actions of Labour in 2010. Faced with a hung parliament in which there was a possibility of a difficult but workable centre-left alliance, set against the certainty of a Conservative-dominated coalition, you’d think a party which depicts itself as the deadly sworn enemy of Tory values would have bent over backwards to at least give it a shot.
(If it collapsed in acrimony six months later, they could claim to have tried their best in very challenging circumstances and pointed the finger at others, calling another election and imploring the public to give them a stronger mandate this time.)
Instead, a succession of mainly-Scottish Labour MPs including Douglas Alexander, Margaret Curran, John Reid and Brian Donohoe, alongside many more, raced each other onto the nation’s TV screens to rage that there was no way on Earth they’d work with the nationalist and other small parties (vowing, indeed, to actively sabotage any possible pact involving the Lib Dems by voting against an agreement on electoral reform), condemning Britain to a sociopathic Conservative administration.
Not enough evidence? Try this: the only purpose of a career in politics is – or certainly ought to be – the acquisition and wielding of power. However noble your goals, you can’t achieve them without it. No politician, under any circumstances, should ever reject their office having more power, because if they can’t be trusted with that power they shouldn’t be in office, pretty much by definition.
Yet last year Scottish Labour “leader” Johann Lamont did precisely that, in a speech that led to what we think is the only above-the-line expletive in this site’s 16-month history when she said “We cannot allow ourselves to be boxed into an Orwellian debate – more powers good, anything else bad”.
(She went on to add that she wasn’t sure whether it was in Scotland’s interests for the Scottish Parliament to control something like Corporation Tax. Not, you’ll note, that it wasn’t in Scotland’s interests to raise or cut Corporation Tax, but that it wasn’t in Scotland’s interests to have the power to make those decisions in the first place.)
Lamont’s admirably candid (albeit unintentionally) assertion that she couldn’t handle a leader in government’s job, though, was simply a hapless public admission of a view already shared by the majority of her party’s politicians.
Labour’s three successive election victories in 1997, 2001 and 2005 represented the longest (13 years) period of continuous government in its history, and by 2010 a wide range of commentators across the political spectrum all opined that the party had been left “exhausted” by the extended responsibility of office.
Labour expected to be trounced that May under a blundering Gordon Brown as the nation still reeled in shock from the economic crash Tony Blair had bequeathed the former Chancellor. The comprehensively indecisive outcome the electorate eventually delivered instead surprised many, particularly with a weak showing for the Liberal Democrats that defied some spectacular opinion polls.
In the event, the Lib Dems actually LOST seats, securing just 57 rather than the 99 suggested the month before the election, but for Labour the weakness of the Lib Dem result was a straw to clutch at – not because it made Labour more likely to form the government, but because it made a simple Lab-Lib majority impossible.
A coalition with Nick Clegg’s party alone would have been a hideous living nightmare for Labour – forced to endure the torment of responsibility for another half-decade but forced into major concessions by a strong junior partner (which would have been) occupying much of Labour’s traditional ground. Having to placate a bunch of other parties as well, including the hated SNP, would have been intolerable.
The otherwise-inexplicable savagery with which the party rejected the notion of a “progressive alliance” – its only chance of retaining power and saving the country from the Tories, its supposed reason for existence – was simply an expression of its relief at having an excuse to get out of it, knowing that its own people would eagerly accept the “impossibility” of having to work with the hated SNP (and others) as well.
(On the 8th of May 2010 the BBC reported on a liveblog that “Labour dismisses Alex Salmond’s suggestion of a ‘progressive alliance’, saying the possibility of the nationalists and Labour working together was ‘a desperate attempt by Alex Salmond to make himself look relevant after a terrible general election result’”.)
It’s remarkable that Labour’s stated reasoning – a bitter, poisonous tribal loathing of the SNP – actually portrays the party in a slightly more favourable light than the reality, namely that Labour was simply terrified of having to stay in power. However, the party probably WAS looking forward to what at the time was a widely-anticipated victory in the following year’s Holyrood elections after the SNP’s poor Westminster showing.
Holyrood would have provided Labour with the best of both worlds – some of the trappings of power and an opportunity to “train up” a new generation for possible promotion to the big-boy Parliament, but also the opportunity to create an impression of standing up for Scotland against an unpopular Tory administration in London, who could be conveniently blamed for any difficult decisions on account of holding both the purse strings and most of the economic levers.
(That advantage being one the SNP also enjoy, of course, but with the very significant difference that unlike Johann Lamont the Nats do want to assume all the powers and responsibilities of a sovereign government.)
But we suppose we should come to the point.
It must be beyond much rational doubt among even the most diehard Labour activists in Scotland that their party has little chance of winning Holyrood in 2016, or ever again, so long as Scotland remains in the UK. Scottish Labour already represents the party’s C-team (at a generous assessment), and its talent pool has the plug missing and the water draining out fast.
(If you think that’s overly partisan and/or harsh, imagine that Westminster decided tomorrow to abandon the devolution experiment and close the Scottish Parliament down, as it could do if it wished. Which of Scottish Labour’s MSPs can you imagine taking up roles on the London party’s front benches? Which of them could you even see being trusted to fetch the front bench’s sandwiches?)
Every successive Scottish Parliament sees Labour present a grimmer collection of over-promoted councillors and time-servers than the last, and there’s no rational reason for the situation ever to improve – the less successful Scottish Labour gets the less attractive it’ll be to new recruits, and it’s condemned to forever put forward third-division candidates from whoever it DOES get its hands on (because anyone any good will be needed at Westminster) while the SNP can always field the cream of its crop.
There’s only one solution to the problem – independence.
Independence would rejuvenate Labour in Scotland. While a few of its Scottish MPs might be able to find safe rUK seats, most would have a tough sell as “foreigners” and have to come home looking for a job. While this site is no fan of Jim Murphy, Tom Harris, Ian Davidson and pals, they’d certainly provide the SNP with a stiffer challenge than the likes of Ken Macintosh, Richard Baker and Elaine Murray, and revive a party that by even friendly analyses is in terminal decline.
(Who knows, perhaps Gordon Brown himself might fancy trying to see the twilight of his career out as the first Prime Minister of an independent Scotland, rather than in the ignominious role of an absentee backbencher.)
There are only a few plausible reasons for Labour to fear this scenario. One is that it thinks it can’t win Westminster without Scottish seats, except that we already know this to be false. Another might be that it doesn’t have the talent in England to replace the people it would lose. But very few English (or Welsh) Labour seats are currently occupied by Scots – offhand we can’t think of any.
Labour, then, would be better off at Holyrood and no worse off at Westminster. It could plausibly win both Parliaments – indeed, its chances of doing so would be significantly increased. There are only two possible explanations left.
One is that the party’s Scottish representatives, having tasted London’s ancient and hallowed corridors of power, really do see Scotland as a second-rate wee pretendy country not worthy of their interest, due to its lack of ability to “punch above its weight” on the world stage. The other, though, is far worse even than that. It’s that they simply like being in opposition far too much. Because life’s just a lot easier that way.