Henry McLeish's resignation may help Scotland loosen its ties with Westminsterby Neal Ascherson / December 20, 2001 / Leave a comment
Published in December 2001 issue of Prospect Magazine
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 the people! So does Alex Salmond, so does Jim Wallace, so does Sean Connery!” I thought: this is a nice man, but he won’t go far. I was wrong, but only because Dewar’s sudden death propelled McLeish into the position of the non-controversial successor, who slides past more dangerous candidates. The Fall of Henry is taken by some people, especially in London, as more evidence that the Scottish parliament is a failure and a disappointment to the Scots. This is false. In September 2000, ICM asked a sample if the parliament had achieved a lot, a little or nothing at all. No less than 29 per cent thought “nothing at all,” and only 11 per cent ” a lot.” By February this year this had changed. The “nothings” were down to 14 per cent, while the “achieved a lot” camp had more than doubled to 25 per cent. It’s worth noting that this change happened during McLeish’s first six months as first minister. David Steel, the parliament’s presiding officer, is going around saying that “officegate” leaves no mud on devolved Scotland. In his view, it is a failure of Westminster’s expense-checking procedure on MPs, which could never happened under the Scottish parliament’s own more watchful system. True and not true. In this way, as in many others, Holyrood is a more modern and efficient apparatus than Westminster. But a look at the six tenants who paid good money for the sublet offices at Hanover Court, Glenrothes, reveals a microcosm of the intimate, sleazy nodes of public and private power which still run Scotland. First came a burglar-alarm company and then an office equipment company. Then came a “special unit” of Fife council, three people who paid a remarkably large amount of public money in rent although the council had plenty of empty office space available. They were followed by Thompsons, a law firm with personal links to McLeish; Thompsons had offices of their own, and it is not evident why they needed one in Glenrothes. Next was Digby Brown, another law firm closely connected to Scottish Labour. Journalists who wondered why Digby Brown paid ?9,000 for two and a half years’ occupation of an office with no telephone, fax or e-mail received no clear answer. Finally and fatally, Tommy Sheridan, the Scottish Socialist party’s one MSP, unearthed the sixth tenant, a charity called the Third Age Group, which was paying ?1,200 a year in rent. McLeish’s wife Julie had been a senior Fife social worker at the time, and it was the suggestion that she might have been involved in arranging the sub-let which broke his will to resist and led to his tearful resignation. This is how Labour Scotland is run. It is not the fault of devolution. Quite the contrary: it was the absence of an elected Scottish government for three centuries which allowed local affairs to be run by cosy small-town juntas of politicians, businessmen and lawyers, lubricated by jobbery and nepotism. It is the revival of the parliament which threatens to end this system. The Scotsman commented recently: “devolution has thrust a democratic dagger into the old corruption and complacency that is Scotland.” This was surprising, from a paper which has spent the last few years sneering at the whole process of Scottish self-government. But it may be true. It is not just that scrutiny by bloodthirsty opposition parties is throwing light into dark corners (it was the politicians as much as the journalists who brought down McLeish). It is also that the governing coalition, under Liberal Democrat pressure, may decide to extend proportional representation to local government elections, bringing to an end the eternal Labour power monopoly in many of Scotland’s cities. It may sound strange, but McLeish’s successor will have much to live up to. This is because his sublime lack of prudence allowed him to behave with an independence which Dewar had carefully avoided. On free home care for the old, on increased teachers’ pay, even on his suggestion that the executive be called the “Scottish Government,” McLeish set courses which diverged from government and party policy at Westminster. Dewar had concentrated on “bedding down” the parliament. McLeish assumed that it was time for the parliament to wake up and start exercising its wide powers. This has alarmed Westminster. But the leading contestant to succeed McLeish, the suave machine politician Jack McConnell, may be no easier to control. Over the whole process broods the huge figure of Gordon Brown, the unofficial “manager of Scotland,” whose influence over Scottish Labour is supposed to overshadow the power of Helen Liddell, the secretary of state. Sometimes it does, but not in this case. Brown does not care for McConnell, whom he considers too smart for his own good. With both Wendy Alexander and Malcolm Chisholm out of the race, McConnell seems sure to win. This is a man who has never held office at Westminster, an entirely Scottish politician. A skilled party manipulator, he is none the less something of an unknown quantity from London’s point of view. Gordon Brown cannot be sure that he will not court popularity by steering Scotland further away from policies made in Downing Street and Millbank. If Jack McConnell turns out to be a more formidable and agile version of Henry McLeish, there are interesting times ahead.