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Lost Leaders – Scottish Review of Books
by Paul Hutcheon

Lost Leaders

October 28, 2009 | by Paul Hutcheon

IN A TAXI EARLIER this year in Edinburgh, the driver quizzed me on what my big story was for the following day. After explaining that I was not on duty, I said that the Sunday papers would be focussed on the untimely death of Robin Cook and the space left by the former MP. Turning round, and with a puzzled look on his face, the driver said: “Cook? Where have I heard that name before?”

I remembered this incident as I waded through the inelegantly titled Donald Dewar: Scotland’s first First Minister, a collection of essays edited by former Labour Minister Wendy Alexander. The driver’s depressing comment showed that most of Scotland’s politicians, devolved and reserved, do not register with voters. Even Dewar, who did more than most to change Scotland by pushing through devolution, is hardly a revered figure outside his former constituency. His vandalised statue is perhaps the best symbol of a man even most Glaswegians can’t be bothered remembering.

In this regard, Alexander’s work should have been called Operation Rescue Donald’s Reputation. The Labour MSP has assembled an impressive cast of friends, colleagues and political foes to mount a robust defence against charges that the Father of the Nation was a political failure who profited from privatisations he opposed.

Such a rebuttal is not difficult to make. In ‘Donald, the Man’, contributors from the former First Minister’s adolescent years tell lovely anecdotes about Scotland’s most miserable politician. Charlie Allan, a childhood friend, says Dewar was “curiously embarrassed” by his “affection for Glasgow Rangers”. John Kerr, a former classmate, remembers his friend proposing motions such as ‘Life is Dull’, while a university contemporary recalls Dewar spelling Garibaldi four different ways in one essay, all of them wrong.

But the real purpose of Alexander’s book is to create a print version of the Dewar statue in Glasgow, by perpetuating the idea that he was a statesman who made Scotland a better place. According to this argument, the former MSP and MP for Anniesland was a radical Scottish Secretary and a civilizing First Minister. The book’s thirty chapters, written mostly by hand-picked cheerleaders and Donald worshippers, fire the opening shots in the battle to secure Dewar’s legacy.

Part of Alexander’s argument is accurate, as Dewar was arguably Scotland’s most influential long-term advocate of home rule. From accepting Scottish Labour’s participation in the Constitutional Convention, to backing a two-question referendum, Dewar was not only on the right side on the big devolution rows but he was instrumental in refining his party’s policy.

He was also, as the contributors in ‘Donald and Devolution’ argue, a first class Scottish Secretary. Apart from writing the White Paper on home rule, running a successful referendum campaign and piloting the Scotland Bill through the Commons, he managed to head off Whitehall’s complaints and produce a set of proposals that were remarkably radical.

But Alexander’s revisionism goes too far in the essays on his time as First Minister. Far from being, in the words of Peter Jones, a “modernising radical”, Dewar was a poor leader who never once handled the many crises that marked his eighteen dreadful months at Bute House. Anyone miss the good old days of John Rafferty, Philip Chalmers, SQA, Ian Welsh, Noel Ruddle and Lobbygate? How about the laugh-a-minute that was the Holyrood project, feuding Ministers and the repeal of Section 2a? Carol Craig is the only contributor who questions Dewar’s record. “I think it is…true to say that once the Parliament was firmly underway Donald did not make a great First Minister,” she writes.

Dewar’s handling of the Holyrood project, perhaps the single biggest issue that has turned Scots against devolution, also reflects badly on the former leader. Alexander leaves it to Bernard Ponsonby, a journalist with STV, to mount a defence of Dewar that is nearly persuasive enough to absolve him. The former First Minister, he says, was deceived by civil servants who downplayed the costs, botched the contracts and chose the wrong method of financing construction. Thus Dewar is the victim, not the perpetrator.

This is a plausible interpretation, yet it jars. It was Dewar, not the civil servants, who demanded a new building on an unsuitable site. It was Dewar who, in his capacity as chair of the panel to select the appointment of an architect, ensured that Enric Miralles won the contest. It was Dewar who, in his haste to get the building completed quickly, put his officials in the position where construction management became a viable option. The idiotic choices made by civil servants cannot be divorced from the context in which they were made. Holyrood was a Dewar production, from beginning to end.

Not that this is recognised in Alexander’s book, where discussion of the Holyrood project is minimal compared to the streams of analysis on Dewar’s commitment to “social justice”, as if this sets him aside from other Labour politicians. But even this claim is unpersuasive. Dewar, from the 1960s through to 1997, was primarily a single-issue politician: devolution. After this radical measure was achieved, he had no idea of the challenges facing his country, far less how to meet them. That was a baton to be handed onto others in his Cabinet.

JACK MCCONNELL, Scotland’s third First Minister, possesses many of the skills Dewar lacked. Like all New Labourites, the Mother-well and Wishaw MSP appreciates that a good idea is worthless unless it is presented as such; he also realises that Scotland isn’t the great socialist nation many in his party seem to believe. To his credit, McConnell managed to clean up much of the mess left by his predecessor, Henry McLeish, and of course by Dewar, who famously never trusted his Finance Minister.

Even so, there remains a feeling that the reign of Jack, who has been First Minister for four years, has never got out of the blocks. Looking at McConnell, it’s as if he wakes up every morning and can’t quite believe that he has survived the many crises in his short career. In this sense, both Dewar and McConnell are similar. After becoming First Minister, what next?

Lucky Jack, written by the Daily Mirror journalist Lorraine Davidson, fails to offer any answers and instead runs through a version of McConnell’s life that has already been charted in newspapers, an annoying fact that is made clear in the third paragraph: “I know there are several people who have clashed with him over the years and, regrettably, they have declined to tell their story…..However, I was able to gain unprecedented access to his closest allies and for that I am most grateful.”

This, then, is an ‘official’ biography: no one of note interviewed; no hard questions asked; few, if any revelations uncovered; and redundant details aplenty. Davidson’s main sources seem to have been Lexus Nexus and Google. No wonder Jack’s smiling on the cover.

The Oxford Dictionary of Clichés was clearly another invaluable resource. Phrases such as “meteoric rise”, “fallen by the wayside”, “frosty relations”, “climbing the greasy pole”, “roaring success” and “shoulder to cry on” give Lucky Jack an amateurish feel, as do “stuck to his guns”, “blazing row”, “dead cert” and “skin of his teeth”. It is a book that could have been, in Davidson’s own words, “thrown on the scrap heap”.

Inexplicably, Davidson starts with a cuts job on ‘Villagate’, the bizarre “scandal” that focussed on Jack McConnell’s holiday arrangements with BBC broadcaster Kirsty Wark and her husband Alan Clements. This ‘controversy’, concerned the potential conflicts of interest thrown up by the families of Jack and Kirsty sharing a villa during Hogmanay.

Davidson, through painstaking research and an exclusive interview with Clements, manages to uncover a number of gems that had previously been out of reach for other journalists. Firstly, Jack has had a close personal friendship with Clements for a number of years. Secondly, Jack and Kirsty sometimes talk about politics. Finally, Jack and Alan are, wait for it, sporting buddies: “As avid football fans, they would often arrange to get together to watch a game on TV and their shared interest in golf is another thing that brings them together.”

The section on Arran, where McConnell grew up, is even worse. I hereby nominate the following as the worst intro of the year: “Jack McConnell pushed his plate away, satisfied his appetite had been met [sic]. Neatly stacked at one side lay a small pile of carrots that hadn’t taken his fancy.”

Davidson also makes mundane details sound overblown, such as when she turns young Jack’s exchange trip to France into a Kerouac-style rite of passage: “Would he like the family? Would he enjoy France? Would he enjoy the journey?” This prompts another question: Who the hell cares? Readers deserve more from a biography than to learn that McConnell’s middle name is Wallace. ‘Arran’ could have been condensed into one line: “I have nothing interesting to report.” Except that Jack used to live on a farm called Biglies.

Her account of McConnell’s years in Stir-ling – as a student and as council leader – are no less ridiculous. Davidson’s version of events paints the future First Minister as a future world beater, a conscientious student who valued education and who went on to modernise the local authority. There was “certainly no suggestion”, she insists, of drug use as an undergraduate. Even back then, she says without blushing, McConnell was scrupulous about his conduct: “Even from his university days, Jack was always conscious of how he behaved and he went out of his way to ensure there were no embarrassing escapades that could be cast up later.” Two words spring to mind: Maureen Smith.

Other controversial episodes are similarly ducked. His time as Scottish Labour’s general secretary in the 1990s – where he presided over the Govan reselection battle, the drive to expel Tommy Graham and Pat Lally and the SNP “bomb hoax” – are dealt with in the same ‘I can’t land a punch on Jack’ style that makes the book more frustrating than embarrassing. McConnell is absolved from every contentious issue Davidson skims through purely because she hasn’t done the research to prove otherwise.

‘Surviving Scandal’, Davidson’s chapter on Lobbygate, is equally unsatisfactory. The bizarre episode, in which lobbyists from Beattie Media were caught on camera in 1999 boasting about access to McConnell (then the Finance Minister) has never been resolved. Contradictory evidence taken from Christina Marshall, Jack’s personal assistant, and lobbyist Alex Barr proved that one of the pair was being less than truthful, while claims that a notebook containing diary dates was “destroyed” has always seemed a little convenient. For the author, however, Marshall’s evidence to the Standards Committee was beyond reproach.

His scrapes as First Minister are glossed over in the same slavish way. Wishawgate? Move on. “One affair” press conference? The boil was lanced. Missing the D-Day anniversary for a golf dinner? “In fairness, all the evidence is that Jack McConnell attaches a high level of importance to ensuring Scotland is seen as a powerful devolved nation and he tends to take any opportunities that arise to promote the country.”

Lucky Jack should be filed under ‘missed opportunity’. Why didn’t Davidson talk to the many enemies McConnell has accumulated since birth? Why is there no evidence of her having spoken to Pat Lally, Maureen Smith, Henry McLeish and the many Labour Ministers McConnell has sacked? Why no interview with Christina Marshall?

While Lucky Jack is infinitely worse than Alexander’s dignified collection of essays, both works suffer from the same problem. Put simply, it is unwise of publishers to expect Labour loyalists – to portray their colleagues in anything less than a flattering light. Far better to get a Michael Crick to poke around the darkness than a Lorraine David-son to pretend everything is sweetness and light. Devolution may not have boosted the economy, but it has given rise to a cottage industry of medals, statues and mediocre books.

by Lorraine Davidson
B & W, £14.99,
272pp ISBN: 1845020502

Edited by Wendy Alexander MSP Mainstream, £9.99,
256pp ISBN: 1845960386

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