Henry McLeish's resignation may help Scotland loosen its ties with Westminsterby Neal Ascherson / December 20, 2001 / Leave a comment
Henry McLeish was no giant. But it is not a small thing to be the premier of a European nation of 5m people, even within the confines of devolution.
McLeish’s failure to declare the income from sub-letting his Westminster constituency office in Glenrothes was hardly full-strength, export-quality sleaze. But it was wrong, and the journalists were right to go digging. It became a much bigger deal because of his incredible bungling and his fumbling evasions as one office tenant after another was exposed, and the total sum of rent grew larger with each delivery of the morning papers. Nobody imagines that he pocketed the cash. The Labour party benefited. Few imagine that he deliberately lied. He had simply lost sight of the whole arrangement, and his advisers let him down with a crash. His enemies had no difficulty in manoeuvring him into the classic politician’s checkmate: he had to be either a fool or a knave. And Henry McLeish was never a knave.
He grew up in the retinue of Donald Dewar, as a minister in the Scottish Office when Dewar was secretary of state, and then as a senior figure in the first minister’s team after the parliament was elected in 1999. Dewar was astute about most things (although not always about character, as his choice of personal advisers was to show); he sensed where the real, buried control cables run between Edinburgh and London, and between Scottish Labour and Millbank. McLeish lacked this instinct, which was also the instinct of self-preservation. He was loyal and on-message, or so he thought. But he missed subtexts. He took things too literally-an attractive fault.
I remember him in September 1997, at the rally which launched the Yes campaign in the devolution referendum. The SNP and Lib Dem leaders, Alex Salmond and Jim Wallace, were both there but Dewar, perhaps craftily, did not attend and left McLeish to represent Scottish Labour. All three Yes parties had agreed to mask their differences for a week; Sean Connery was allowed to speak, and Winnie Ewing-draped in her “Madame Ecosse” tartan scarf-took the chair for the SNP. Fine words about common interests were uttered through tight lips. But McLeish went over the top. Obviously moved and excited, he invited the Nationalists to join Labour in drafting a reform for Scottish schools (I saw slitty Labour eyes narrow at this), and then said: “I trust…