Let us suppose, for the sake of something to write about if nothing else, that patronage was not a factor and that the choice of Secretary of State for Scotland was being made in an entirely pragmatic manner. In such imaginary circumstances, a detailed job description would be essential. Only then would it be possible to figure out what it takes to be an effective Secretary of State for Scotland.
What constitutes effective is, of course, a function of the job description – which will include one or more aims. We are asking what an effective Secretary of State for Scotland must achieve as well as what is involved in doing the job. The incumbent will be expected to deliver on some policy objective.
The post of Secretary of State for Scotland was originally created when the Union was imposed on Scotland. It was abolished in the wake of the 1745 ‘rebellion’ when the military occupation and brutal repression made explicit the fact that the Union was in, in reality, annexation of Scotland by England. The post was revived in 1885 and upgraded to full Secretary of State status in 1926.
Originally, the Secretary of State for Scotland was supposed to be Scotland’s man in the British cabinet. (Only one woman, Helen Liddell (Lab) has ever held the post.) It was almost entirely a sop to public opinion in Scotland – an attempt to make the Union seem less unpalatable. Notwithstanding the token nature of the job, a few individuals did good work on Scotland’s behalf. Tom Johnson springs to mind. And, perhaps, Willie Ross. But these successes tended to be more than offset by the likes of notorious liar Alistair Carmichael and just plain notorious Jim Murphy.
Overall, it has never been entirely clear whether the Secretary of State was Scotland’s man (or Helen Liddell) in London or London’s man in Scotland. Any doubt on this count has now been dispelled. He (or theoretically ‘she’) is now definitely and unabashedly the British government’s representative in Scotland. He represents the interests of that government and of the Union. In no sense does he (Sorry Helen, but I have to stop this.) represent Scotland’s interests. Quite the contrary. According to the British government’s website,
The main role of the Scottish Secretary is to promote and protect the devolution settlement.
Other responsibilities include promoting partnership between the UK government and the Scottish government, and relations between the 2 Parliaments.Secretary of State for Scotland
The language disguises a far harsher reality. While it is certainly the job of the Secretary of State for Scotland to “promote and protect the devolution settlement” this aspect of the role must be understood in the light of what devolution means. First regarded as a way of killing Scotland’s burgeoning independence movement ‘stone dead’, devolution was always more about formalising the withholding of powers than devolving them. It would never have been permitted had it been thought that it might actually empower Scotland. It was only allowed because the British establishment was persuaded that it would not jeopardise the Union. In fact, it was maintained that it would strengthen England-as-Britain’s grip on Scotland.
Best laid schemes etc. Suffice it to say that it didn’t quite work out as anticipated. After the No vote in 2014, many commentators – myself included – considered it likely that the British political elite would use the power handed to them by No voters to abandon or at least roll back the devolution ‘experiment’. This would have been very controversial, of course. In fact, the Brits did a rather clever thing instead. Taking advantage of the Smith Commission and subsequent ‘reform’ of the Scotland Act, they sought to weaponise devolution against the SNP administration in Edinburgh. That didn’t go so well either. The Scottish Government deftly avoided all of the fiscal and political traps that had been laid for them. Or, at least, mitigated or deferred the impact of measures intended to undermine the Scottish Government and make the SNP unelectable. Then it would have been back to British business as usual. Scotland’s voters had other ideas.
This brief history was necessary in order to better understand what the role of Secretary of State for Scotland now entails. The incumbent no longer has to pretend to be representing Scotland’s interests – although the media may still portray him in this light. Today, the Secretary of State for Scotland is first and foremost the defender of the Union. His task is to ensure that the Union is preserved – at whatever cost to Scotland. Post-Brexit, his task is to implement a British Nationalist ‘One Nation’ solution to the problem of Scotland.
As soon as the first SNP administration was formed in 2007, the fate of the Scottish Parliament was sealed. If devolution was not to become the threat to the Union that the British establishment fears, Holyrood had to be reined-in. The Secretary of State for Scotland has a crucial role to play in this. He is to head a shadow administration which will take on powers stripped from the Scottish Parliament under the guise of managing the Brexit aftermath. What qualities and abilities would a person require in order to do this job?
Obviously, they would have to be ruthless and thick-skinned – uncaring of how they are perceived by the people of Scotland who have realised the true nature of the Union. The individual concerned will be actively betraying Scotland every moment that they are in office. They will necessarily and inevitably come to be despised by all but the most fervent British Nationalists. Although the ‘Jock-bashing’ may make them popular in England-as-Britain, their name will be cursed in Scotland.
This suggests that it should be somebody with a pathologically diminished self-awareness. Somebody who will do what is required of them in return for personal advancement. Somebody with a craving for the prestige of high office but lacking the talent to make it on merit. Somebody who can be bought.
The candidate needs no particular skills. The infrastructure of the shadow government is pretty much complete. What is needed is a ‘face’ to front the project. Someone with a bit of charisma. Someone with a measure of superficial charm. Importantly, someone who is media-savvy. Someone who can ‘sell’ what is being done to Scotland’s democracy. All of which rules out the present incumbent. Alister Jack was chosen because of his business experience. He was considered ideal as the person to manage the seizing of the Scottish Parliament’s ‘assets’- its powers – and managing their adoption and operation by the ‘UK Government in Scotland’. A functionary.
It is likely that the rumours of his removal have been prompted by the realisation that the machinery of the shadow government is better left in the hands of technocrats and civil servants. The project doesn’t need a manager. It needs a figurehead. Alister Jack is certainly not the kind of person who is likely to impress Dominic Cummings. And he has a great deal of influence with Boris Johnson.
We now have a job description and an idea of the kind of person who would be ideal for the role. The Secretary of State for Scotland needs to be venal, mercenary, ambitious, shallow and heartless with good media skills, fluency in the language of politics, a winning personality and a photogenic face. Someone who has mastered the art of the photo-op. Someone who can trivialise the most serious of issues and treat trivialities with undue solemnity and melodramatic indignation.
Someone who has not the slightest compunction about lying brazenly and who has a natural talent for hypocrisy. Someone who can flip from one position to another with consummate ease and hold to both effortlessly. Someone neither fazed nor embarrassed by inconsistency and contradiction. At the same time, they must not pose any threat to Boris Johnson. It must be someone who is liked within the party but who has no large following. It must be someone who can easily be sidelined should the occasion arise. If they are Scottish or can carry off the pretence of speaking for Scotland, this would be a bonus.
Dear readers! I give you the next Secretary of State for Scotland – RUTH DAVIDSON!
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