Hamish Macdonell: Shouting 'Resign!' is just the same as crying wolf

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RICHARD Baker must be feeling pretty pleased with himself. After all, the youthful Labour MSP, who has made little impression in the parliamentary firmament in the six years he has spent at Holyrood, has suddenly got himself noticed.

Last Thursday, Mr Baker decided to call for the resignation of Kenny MacAskill. The justice secretary's crime was to have gone off to Canada for a series of Homecoming Scotland events, including three high-profile Burns suppers, while a knife-crime summit was taking place in Edinburgh.

"If Kenny MacAskill doesn't want to be justice secretary any more, maybe he should make way for someone who does," Mr Baker declared.

In party terms, Mr Baker's demand for a new justice secretary was an extraordinary success, carried, as it was, on the front pages of the Sun, the Daily Record and the Mail in Scotland the following morning.

Mr MacAskill was being publicly vilified and it was all Mr Baker's doing, worth a gold star and a pat on the back from Iain Gray, his party leader, at the very least.

Before he gets too carried away, though, Mr Baker should perhaps consider the bigger picture. Two weeks ago, opposition politicians called for the resignation of Richard Lochhead, the rural affairs secretary, for campaigning on a local issue that had been rejected by the Scottish Cabinet, of which he is a member. That was not a resigning issue.

Then, the next week, Mr Baker called for the resignation of Mr MacAskill for skipping a knife-crime summit to promote Scotland abroad.

Leaving aside the fact that the summit, however well-meaning and sincere it was, did not actually achieve anything of substance and that Fergus Ewing, the minister for community safety and Mr MacAskill's deputy, was at the event, this was still never going to be a resigning matter.

Ministers make diary choices all the time. Yes, Mr MacAskill could have chosen to go to the knife summit and, while that would have avoided the opprobrium that was subsequently heaped over him, and while that might have given the summit more credibility, it would not have achieved any more than it did.

There was one occasion when a minister made the wrong diary choice and it came close to being a resignation issue.

That was in 2004, when Jack McConnell, then the First Minister, decided not to attend the 60th anniversary commemorations of the D-Day landings – alongside the president of the United States, the Queen and the Prime Minister – because he had already accepted an invitation to a prestigious golf dinner in St Andrews.

Mr McConnell had to reverse his decision pretty quickly and, in doing so, he managed to head off the worst of the criticism – but only just. That incident was so serious it stained his remaining time in office, but even that was not a resigning issue.

Mr MacAskill would have been better off, in political terms, going to the knife summit at Holyrood, but Homecoming is pretty important too, and he certainly shouldn't feel the need to apologise for his decision, let alone even consider stepping down as a cabinet secretary.

Maybe Mr Baker knew that all along, which is why he was so weak and uncertain in the way he phrased his resignation call, or maybe he didn't care and all he wanted was the publicity. Either way, this affair may have damaged Mr MacAskill in the short term, but its long-term impact on Labour may be much greater.

Mr Baker should just consider the gathering storm over the so-called cash-for-amendments row at Westminster. Four members of the House of Lords have been accused of being prepared to take some form of financial inducement in return for altering legislation.

This is an astonishingly serious allegation, and yet no-one has stood out publicly and demanded the immediate resignations of the peers involved.

It may, indeed, be a resigning matter if any of the allegations are proved against the peers involved, and this latest controversy will almost certainly lead to sweeping changes in the way the House of Lords is run, but all those with a part to play in this drama are, quite rightly, watching and waiting, because demanding a resignation is the ultimate end call – it is not something to be wasted.

The problem for Labour in Scotland is that it is devaluing the call for a ministerial resignation. If the party calls for a minister to go every time there is even the slightest controversy over a diary choice or the merest hint of a conflict of interest, this most serious of demands will mean less and less every time it is used.

Labour will be left with little credibility when a minister really gets into trouble because the party will have undermined its own case by crying wolf so often in the past.

Indeed, the Scottish Labour Party is in danger of creating a situation where the amount of heat generated on any particular subject is in inverse proportion to its importance – in other words, the more Labour politicians scream and shout over a supposed outrage perpetrated by the Scottish Government, the less ministers will have to worry about it.

Opposition politicians would love to draw blood from the SNP administration by forcing a minister to quit, but they cannot achieve this simply by calling for it on a weekly basis.

Mr Baker has shown himself to be a keen, enthusiastic and hard-working opposition front-bencher in the short time he has had that role. Over the past week, however, that has been tempered by a crass lack of judgment and a frightening political myopia.

He needs to have a better grasp of what his job entails, otherwise – in words he might recognise – "maybe he should make way for someone who does".