Lesley Riddoch: Thatcher comment wasn’t so clever

Margaret Thatcher delivers her so-called Sermon on the Mound at the General Assembly in Edinburgh in 1988. Picture: contributed
Margaret Thatcher delivers her so-called Sermon on the Mound at the General Assembly in Edinburgh in 1988. Picture: contributed
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THE shadow chancellor is on the rampage again and comparing the First Minister to the Iron Lady certainly isn’t his best idea, writes Lesley Riddoch

So John McDonnell has erupted again, accusing Nicola Sturgeon of taking Scotland “back to the 1980s”, with cuts to public services like those made by Margaret Thatcher.

The shadow chancellor also told Scotland on Sunday the SNP leader was “bullying” and “threatening” local councils with funding cuts unless they signed up to flagship Scottish government policies like the council tax freeze. As another man said in a different time and place, you have to admire his indefatigability.

John McDonnell may be saying what 32 Scots council bosses and some voters privately think. He is certainly right that local power here is very weak compared to democracies like Germany, where even the all-powerful Angela Merkel can’t impose a council tax freeze on legislatively separate tiers of local government.

It’s also true that John Swinney (not Nicola Sturgeon) insists that councils agree to maintain teacher/pupil ratios, integrate health and social care and freeze the council tax by Tuesday or forego their share of a £408 million pot.

But if Mr McDonnell doesn’t realise his intervention will go down like a lead balloon in Scotland and prove unhelpful for Kezia Dugdale, his political antennae should be retracted – fast. Better still, he should recruit an advisor currently resident in Scotland or “Scot-proof” future statements first with the Scottish Labour leader.

Of course the Maggie comparison is tempting because the former Prime Minister and Nicola Sturgeon are both female. Beyond that though it’s an empty, lazy, counter-productive faux pas.

Firstly, Mr McDonnell has equated the Scots’ most disliked prime minister of all time with their most liked First Minister – whose bullet-proof popularity has filled rock stadiums and propelled her to the top of the British political firmament. Labour must start chipping away at that edifice, but is an MP from distant English constituency really the man to do it?

Secondly, Mrs Thatcher’s cuts to public spending reflected her own ideological perspective. Thanks to the winner-takes-all nature of first-past-the-post Westminster elections, Mrs T could decide why, when and how profoundly she would dismantle the fabric of society with a monetarist, pro-privatisation agenda consistently rejected by Scottish voters. Nicola Sturgeon, au contraire, is dealing with cuts handed down by Westminster, facing a “devil and the deep, blue sea” spending choice that is not of her own creation. One might speculate about how much redistribution an SNP-led independent Scotland would actually achieve and how fast, but with the election less than 90 days away – that’s hypothetical. One thing’s certain. The goal of social equality is at the top of Nicola Sturgeon’s agenda, as surely as the goal of creating a market economy and society was at the top of Mrs T’s. Go compare.

Thirdly, Labour’s track record on resisting cuts has not been impressive. John McDonnell admitted an “embarrassing” dither when he first supported then opposed George Osborne’s austerity charter and Labour hasn’t had the courage to openly oppose the council tax freeze in Scotland. Nor did the party argue for more flexible tax-raising powers when the compromise Calman proposals were being cooked up in 2007 (or during the more recent Smith Commission process).

The new powers which have finally reached Holyrood let John Swinney vary income tax – but only by the same rate for everyone. So a rise will clobber low earners. But of course the alternative – £350 million pounds worth of council cuts – will clobber them too. Kezia Dugdale wants a 1p tax rise and plans to reimburse the lowest earners. But it’s not clear how that might be done. If it’s via the benefits system there is the snag that a third of those eligible don’t claim benefits. And in any case, many former-Labour, recent-Yes voters will regard this difficult choice as the direct consequence of Labour’s preferred option of remaining within the UK and leaving decisions on welfare and economic policy to an increasingly callous and doctrinaire Conservative government.

There is no under-estimating this all but unbridgeable chasm that now lies between Yes voters and the Labour Party. Pre-indyref, progressive Scots often swithered between supporting Labour and the SNP – torn between wanting to see the whole UK transformed and wanting change in our lifetimes here. So the decision to opt for independence wasn’t a small, reversible decision – not a wee misunderstanding amongst friends. It was a point of departure. Getting to Yes was a difficult journey for many former Labour voters, but it also created new bonds of friendship, freed up ideas of politics, encouraged levels of activism (that even the SNP is struggling to meet) and let many Labour members vent years of frustration at the rigid bureaucracy and machine-like manoeuvring of their one-time political home.

The notion that Nicola Sturgeon’s integrity can now be called into question by a member of that old guard, who has rarely ventured north of the Border is just laughable.

So what was John McDonnell’s motive? The outspoken Liverpudlian is, of course, no stranger to controversy. During his campaign to be Labour leader in 2010, he said he wanted to “go back to the 1980s and assassinate Thatcher”. Last July he said he would “swim through vomit” to oppose the Conservatives’ welfare bill and in November jokingly brandished a copy of the little red book written by Chinese Communist leader Mao Zedong who was also responsible for a famine costing 45 million lives in China. Yet somehow, like a left-wing Duke of Edinburgh, trouble doesn’t seem to stick for long.

McDonnell’s attack on the UK government’s £130 million tax settlement with Google has been tenacious and the decision to publish his own tax return whilst challenging George Osborne to do the same, was a bold and cunning move.

Indeed, the MP for Hayes and Harlington has emerged as a frontrunner should another Labour leadership election take place before 2020. Ken Livingstone said last week that if Jeremy Corbyn was “pushed under a bus,” the shadow chancellor would be the preferred candidate to replace him.

Meanwhile McDonnell’s relentless touring around England suggests the shadow chancellor is gearing up for a run, should the need arise. Which is all fine and dandy.

But McDonnell’s “Maggie” clanger gives the strong impression that UK Labour still spends no time getting Scotland right and regards politics here as a side-show. An unfortunate impression with just 88 days till the Holyrood elections.