‘NEVER ever underestimate our opponents, son. They are serious people, they have very substantial resources at their disposal and they have run the country for decades. Don’t ever underestimate them”.
I was 25 and Alex Salmond was gently chiding me over a parliamentary question exchange I had engineered as the SNP’s economist of that moment. I am relieved to say I got the better of it by chance more than design. As I sprang through the office clutching a proof as it arrived by fax, he read it, looked up and said: “Lucky.” He was right.
His words were wise and stuck with me. In politics, if you believe your opponents are what you want them to be rather than what they are, you lose. You underestimate them, you lose. You fail to recognise their strengths and talents, you lose.
Shortly after the referendum, Nicola Sturgeon picked up this theme when she said to me: “We have to assume that Labour will get their act together at some point soon.” She is a wise, wise woman.
In Scottish Labour leader Jim Murphy and John McTernan, his new chief of staff, Labour just got their act together. These are very capable, talented, experienced and committed people.
Ironically this is good for Nicola and the SNP, because every government needs strong opposition or it can ossify. Good opposition raises the game.
I have known both men a long time. Jim I don’t know well now, but we were opponents in student politics a lifetime ago. His ability and drive were crystal-clear to me then. I liked that and I like him. My overwhelming memory is that the issue that drove him most was opposing racism and the extreme right. I worked with him on that.
Our lives took very different paths but I watched him grow and achieve many things in public service. Only the most churlish would fail to recognise what an achievement flipping a safe Tory seat to Labour is. That it was doable tells you a touch about what happened to Labour, but I shan’t go there for now. That he has chosen to return home to compete for Holyrood is a credit to him and also clear evidence that the ambitious are looking more to Scotland than Westminster, which I think is progress.
McTernan is less well known to the public but extremely well known to the political and media bubble. His reputation as an attack dog is accurately formed but it belies a sophisticated and likeable mind.
He is someone I never tire of talking to. He challenges you and stretches your thinking. Clever, passionate and wily. Very wily. He is someone I would much rather was on my team, as is Jim.
So the SNP should take them seriously, as they are serious and will make an excellent opposition.
But will they get Labour elected? Of this I am much less sure. Modern politics and life requires people and institutions to be clear about their purpose and what they are for.
As Polonius put it to Laertes in Hamlet:
“This above all: to thine own self be true,
“And it must follow, as the night the day,
“Thou canst not then be false to any man”.
When I watched the Labour hustings and Jim Murphy came out in favour of both free higher education and a council tax freeze despite opposing both for ever, I thought: “Hmm.” As I watch him create symbolic japes in an attempt to look patriotic I think “trying too hard”. When I hear him claim he is all for multilateral nuclear disarmament I wonder, “OK, when are you going to do something about it”?
I get that politicians need to tack and position. I get that Murphy and McTernan need to try all they can to create news and noise and chip away at the SNP. I get that they need to do something to kickstart a stalled party with plummeting membership and support. At that I think they will be world-class. But as the SNP learned over long hard years, opposing well is different from forming a coherent alternative government of substance.
Murphy’s Labour will be very good at the first and we would do well to assume they will get their act together on the latter at some point.
Meantime, I have to say that I am genuinely glad they are in post. Not because I underestimate them, because I respect them. Nicola Sturgeon will flourish in the face of capable and professional opposition.
And if the next Holyrood election is a true test of two capable alternatives then the choice will come down to the character and purpose of the parties and their record.
The SNP has been true to itself through decades when that lost it votes. Labour has yet to discover what it will be for in the years ahead. Until it does its new-found professionalism will strengthen its main opponent rather than weaken them.