11 May 2008

That shiver is still looking for a spine to run up

Wasn't it Winnie Ewing who said that a shiver went across the Labour benches, looking for a spine to run up? Well, it's as true today as it was when she (or whoever) first uttered that line. Wendy Alexander has caved in to Gordon Brown, and gone off the boil as regards a referendum.

It turns out that they won't be supporting a referendum because the SNP want to hold one on their terms. Seeing as the SNP are the Government, this is quite natural. The fact that the SNP position is the same as it was right the way back at the start of the 2007 Election campaign - that there would be a referendum in 2010 - has not stopped Labour from accusing the SNP of breaking a manifesto promise, by planning for policies to take place in the future in accordance with, er, the SNP manifesto. Compare and contrast this with Labour, whose policy appears to have changed hourly.

This, incidentally, is why I disagree with Kez's comparison with events leading up to the SNP's support of the 1997 Devolution referendum. Was there a tactical element to the SNP's considerations? Of course! Just as there were tactics involved in Labour's decision to hold a referendum in the first place. But implicit in invoking points in history when the other side did something you're being accused of is an admission that you find the action distasteful, and that you're only doing it because the other side did it. If an action is wrong, they shouldn't do it, rather than carry it out then blame the other side for doing something similar in 1997. "Well, that lot did it!" is an argument deployed most often by seven year olds in the Primary School playground. I think it should be left to them.

Besides, tactics are always going to come into it: every announcement, every policy, is carefully weighed. How is it to be presented? When is it to be presented? How is it to be delivered? Those questions are big ones in politics, and we ignore them at our peril. Why? Because if you get the tactics wrong, you never get the chance to put a policy into practice - you don't get that support at the ballot box in the first place. So for my part, I don't have a problem with Wendy Alexander trying out new tactics - rather, I think that's her job: she's supposed to challenge the Government, she's supposed to look like a potential First Minister, and if doing one thing isn't working she absolutely has to try doing something else - but for me, the problem was that the tactics were, well, awful. And so it proved.

But in any case, the comparison with the SNP in 1997 is invalid. At the heart of the choice facing the SNP then - back or attack devolution - was a major ideological question: should the SNP accept it as some autonomy coming to Scotland, a marker of progress on a road to independence; or should it reject it as a lousy halfway house, an attempt to sate Scots and deny them full self-determination? It had to be considered, had to be discussed, had to be thought out, and it took a National Council meeting to confirm that yes, devolution is an acceptable stepping stone and the SNP would support it as welcome progress. The only tactic used was to leave the decision until there was a clear proposal from the new Government after the election, rather than annoy one wing of the Party just a couple of months before their help would be needed.

Wendy Alexander, on the other hand, had an inconclusive phone call with Gordon Brown, obviously had someone leak it to the Sunday Mail what she was thining about, and then blurted it out on BBC Scotland.

And now, after a week of discussing it, of the position shifting so rapidly, we now have the Labour position, which can be summed up as "the SNP don't want to play our way, so we're not playing at all".

But here's the thing: for all its risks, for all the chaos that surrounded it, support for the referendum was the right thing. I've been saying all this time that if Labour (and the others) really believe that Scots support the Union, then they should take the issue directly to the people and settle it for a generation. Wendy Alexander looked like she agreed with that, and I can't knock her for it now: the tactics may be poor but the principle is entirely correct. The problem is that she's met the Clunking Fist that was supposed to beat David Cameron... it's beaten her instead.

As soon as Gordon Brown made it clear that he was less than enthralled with the idea, it was never going to get off the ground. The notion that he has 'lost control' of Scottish Labour is a nonsense: what has changed is that he has other matters to distract him, so he has taken to slackening the leash. But he can still yank it back at any time and this is what happened this week. Alexander's plan was doomed from Wednesday lunchtime - that was predictable. It was also predictable that they'd try and blame the SNP, whose response has been to say nothing other than, "We're glad you want a referendum, we promised one in 2010 and we'll stick to our promise!" It's the right thing - the only thing - to say.

I'm sad - but not surprised - that Wendy Alexander has been beaten. I'll be even sadder - but still not surprised - if she ends up having to quit over this. She probably has to go, even though she doesn't desrve to: she's been slapped down in a rather humiliating fashion, she's found herself unable to hold down a specific policy for longer than an afternnon, and she's allowed what could have been the most radical plan to come out of Scottish Labour for years turn into a self-destructive squabble. But for everything that has gone wrong, the idea was entirely the right one. It's just a shame that the rest of the Labour hierarchy didn't agree with her.

1 comment:

Richard Thomson said...

Wasn't it Winnie Ewing who said that a shiver went across the Labour benches, looking for a spine to run up?

It believe it was the late, great Oliver Brown. I don't think it's here, but I'm sure you'll have fun searching :-)