A vacancy for vacant

This being a political appointment the normal rules probably don’t apply to the task of selecting someone to fill the role of Secretary of State for Scotland. Or, at least, not to the same extent. Usually, one would first define the role in order that a set of criteria could be established. This must still happen. But the established criteria may well be set aside in favour of considerations which have more to do with relationships of power within the ruling party than finding the best person for the job. And we have only the Westminster rumour-mill as our guide to who is in line to benefit from the Prime Minister’s patronage and who is looking like a loser.

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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Talking to the clenched fist

A response to Ewan Gurr of The Trussell Trust writing in The Herald on Sunday 26 July 2015.

I will not call Ewan Gurr stupid. And if he is an idealist then I will not criticise him for that. It is a sad reflection on the politics of the British state that calling someone an idealist might be considered an insult.

I will, however, call Ewan Gurr naive. He is naive to imagine David Mundell might listen to him or be influenced by his accounts of the impact of austerity fetishism on real people. He is naive to imagine that there can be meaningful dialogue with the administration Mundell represents.
Ewan Gurr is naive to suppose that the ruling elites can be made to care by any appeal to normal human empathy. The story of Suzanne will not touch these people as it evidently does Mr Gurr. Such tales leave them cold. Even if they actually heard what was being said, they are incapable of relating to hardship and distress. And even if some vestige of humanity remained which allowed the faintest glimmer of fellow feeling to glow in the foetid murk where once resided a human soul, the ember would be instantly doused as a sign of deplorable weakness and betrayal of the cause.
The cult of austerity is a rigid, heartless ideology. To the limited extent that they might see it at all, the adherents of this cult see the suffering of others as, alternatively, a misfortune entirely of their own making, or a “price worth paying” for what they absolutely believe to be a “greater good”. Their programme involves nothing less than a forced reordering of society such that the fate of Suzanne will not be exceptional as economic and political power increasingly accrues to the elites who are the true and sole clients of the likes of Mundell.
What we are witnessing is the unabashed use of imposed poverty as an instrument of policy. People are being made poor in order that they will be neutralised as a possible threat to the power of those who are, in the eyes of Mundell and his ilk, the only ones deserving of power or capable of exercising it responsibly. With the responsible exercise of power being defined as that which serves those who exercise power.
Ewan Gurr needs to realise that the likes of Mundell cannot be talked out of the circularity of their own self-justification. Like a religious creed, the cult of austerity is entirely self-rationalising and impervious to reasoning which references anything that is external to its own reality.
I don’t doubt that, in inviting David Mundell to open a foodbank, Mr Gurr’s intentions were entirely honourable. They were also completely and utterly futile. The conditions which necessitate foodbanks will not be addressed by talking, however earnestly and passionately, to those who regard those conditions as inevitable, necessary and desirable. Those conditions will only be addressed by removing the likes of Mundell from power – while we still can.

A smear backfires

English: Alistair Carmichael MP addressing a L...
Alistair Carmichael MP (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Having listened to Alistair Carmichael’s defence in the matter of what I suppose we must grit our teeth and call #MemoGate, I am even more convinced than ever that he should resign immediately. Unbelievably, Carmichael is now insisting that we should simply ignore his despicable behaviour and focus instead on some unspecified things he may have done for his constituents in the past.
Even more incredibly, he is trying to portray the SNP as the villain of the piece!
Carmichael’s conduct has been, and continues to be, appalling. But the fact that his party refuses to take any action against him is totally inexplicable. They have voluntarily chosen that the whole party should be tainted by Carmichael’s offences. We have to assume that this was Willie Rennie’s decision, not least because it is backed up by his personal plea that Carmichael be given a “second chance”. Such poor judgement must call into question Rennie’s fitness as leader.
Rennie has foolishly put himself in the firing line of a scandal which is already threatening to embroil Carmichael’s successor as Scottish Secretary, David Mundell as more and more people ask how he could possibly have been unaware of what his then boss was up to. After all, it’s not as if Carmichael was acting in a particularly clandestine manner. One of the more shocking aspects of this whole affair has been the casual attitude to deliberate smears and brazen lies displayed by the main players, and the fact that Carmichael believed he could act as he did with impunity, doubtless believing that he would be protected by the British establishment.
Carmichael’s apologists will, of course, bleat about a “witch-hunt”. I would remind them that their man is being condemned for cause. And very good cause, at that. This is in no way similar to, for example, the way Stewart Stevenson MSP was hounded from office as Transport Minister when he was absolutely blameless just so the British parties at Holyrood and their friends in the British media could claim a scalp.
Carmichael has to go because he did something – in fact, several things – which even he has admitted would require his resignation. Which almost certainly means that the LibDems will be wiped out in Scotland.
Mundell may well have to step down as Scottish Secretary if he cannot offer a satisfactory account of his own part in the affair, thereby creating another constitutional crisis as the Tory UK Government is forced to try and find someone else for the position. Or abolish the office of Scottish Secretary altogether.
And Willie Rennie is, at the very least, weakened as leader by his craven defence of the indefensible.
I wonder if Carmichael still thinks his attempt to smear Nicola Sturgeon was such a wizard wheeze.
But there is more. Recall that the memo at the centre of this affair was actually fourth-hand as it derived from a telephone conversation about a telephone conversation about an account of a conversation given by someone who was not actually a party to the conversation at the heart of the matter, but merely a witness to it.
It is perfectly legitimate to ask why the second of these telephone calls was made. And who gave the instruction for the call to be made. And for what purpose.
Given the events currently under discussion, and the general behaviour of the British parties, it is only natural to be suspicious of everything they do. It does not seem beyond the bounds of credibility that the telephone call to the person who had made the telephone call to the French Consul General was a fishing expedition looking for something which could be spun into a bit of anti-SNP propaganda. Indeed, I suggested as much when the smear attempt against Nicola Sturgeon first surfaced.
There may be a great deal more to this than has hitherto come to light. One person who may know more is Simon Johnson, the Telegraph journalist who was complicit in the original smear attempt. So far, he has escaped the kind of scrutiny that he deserves.
We know for a fact that Johnson simply didn’t bother to seek a response from any of the principals in the story. That he has kept his job after such a grievous dereliction of professional standards is a telling comment on how low the British media has sunk. But little or nothing has been said about what questions he asked of his source at the Scotland Office.
Scurrilous journalists also tend also to be cowardly. Johnson would have sought assurances that his arse was covered. It is difficult to believe he wouldn’t question the provenance of the story? What questions did he ask? What was he told that convinced him he would not put himself at risk by running the story? Did an experienced political journalist fail to even suspect a smear attempt? Did he just not care?
One way or another, we have not heard the last of this.