Allan Massie: Labour must be bold and give Iain Gray a second chance

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THERE is a clamour for the party to be 'more Scottish', to cut its links with London. It is a seductive argument.

Nothing indicated the nervous state of the Scottish Labour Party more clearly than its fear that it might lose the Inverclyde by-election. On the face of it, the fear was ridiculous. The late David Cairns had a majority of more than 14,000 in last year's general election. Unpopular governing parties have sometimes seen comparable majorities melt away at a by-election; opposition ones should have no fear of that. Labour's anxiety was the result of the SNP's Holyrood victory in May. As things turned out, it was baseless. The seat was retained comfortably.

Admittedly, the Labour majority fell sharply. Admittedly, there was a 15 per cent swing to the SNP. So, while Labour feels relief, the SNP can also be happy. Yet any conclusion drawn from the figures should be qualified. The turnout was lower than in the general election. I would guess that many Labour supporters stayed at home, not sharing their leaders' anxiety. Since the SNP was challenging for the seat, its supporters were more motivated. Then Labour's percentage share of the vote was much the same as last year. It was the minor parties - the Tories and the Liberal Democrats - who suffered a fall, their supporters either defecting to the SNP or, understandably, deciding there was no point in voting in a hopeless cause.

The by-election has given Labour breathing space and the opportunity to collect its scattered wits. There may be other by-elections, but there is no British or Scottish general election to fight for several years. So panic is unnecessary. Quite the reverse. Being in opposition at both Westminster and Holyrood may be frustrating for individual politicians, but is not a bad place for the party to find itself - especially at a time of economic difficulty. The coalition in London and the SNP in Edinburgh will be taking unpopular decisions and administering unpopular policies. The opposition can enjoy the luxury of watching the drama from a good seat in the stalls.

When Napoleon invaded Russia in 1812, the Russian general, Kutuzov, resisted all attempts to get him to engage the French in battle. "Patience and time", he said, would save Russia; events proved his judgment right. Patience and time should be Labour's watchwords now. All governments become unpopular. This rule of politics will not be suspended for the SNP. Prime Ministers who dominate their own party and the opposition eventually see their authority crumble. In my lifetime this has happened to Harold Macmillan, Harold Wilson, Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair.What Cassius said of Julius Caesar was once applied to them: "He doth bestride the narrow world/ Like a Colossus; and we petty men/ Walk under his huge legs…" Yet in each case the magic faded; the same will some day be Alex Salmond's fate. People will get tired of him. General de Gaulle, arguably, saved France from disaster twice, but the cry of the Paris students in May '68 was "de Gaulle to the museum". A year later he was gone.

So Labour should remember that the wheel turns, the pendulum swings, and that one of the most common of political errors is to suppose that what is happening now will continue to happen and that tomorrow will be just like today. Consequently for Labour the first requirement is to hold its nerve.

The party may need to change, but it should think carefully before deciding what changes are needed and not rush to judgment. Iain Gray, savaged by the media, had a poor election, and immediately announced that he would resign the leadership. This was in keeping with what is becoming a convention: that a party leader is allowed only one go. It is a foolish convention. If the SNP had adhered to it, Alex Salmond would have been replaced as leader years ago, perhaps as far back as 1992 when the party's slogan "Scotland free by '93" proved so ludicrously wrong. Gray is an able and intelligent man. He should be persuaded to stand in the party's leadership election. Leaders need time to grow into the job. Labour could do much worse than giving him a second chance.

There is a clamour for the party to be "more Scottish", to cut its links with London. It is a seductive argument. The same advice has been given often to the Tories, since their decline began; indeed, I have offered it myself. It made more sense in their case, if only because of the grouse-moor image the party once had. But I am not sure now it was good advice even for the Tories. The rise of Michael Forsyth - Arbroath High School and St Andrews University, rather than Eton and Oxford - did nothing to restore Tory fortunes. In Labour's case the advice seems pointless. Nobody can sensibly claim that Labour at Westminster and Holyrood is not representative of Scottish society. Moreover, if Labour engages in a Scottishness competition, it is being lured into a trap. The SNP will always win. The only way you can beat the SNP in a Scottishness competition is by becoming more narrowly nationalist, anti-English and anti-European, even racist., denouncing the "social union" that Salmond tells us will survive the end of political union. It would be ridiculous for Labour to take this course..

Instead Labour has to be true to itself, to assert that independence is unnecessary as well as undesirable, to say that Scottishness is compatible with Britishness, to insist that its values are shared by millions of people in the other constituent parts of the United Kingdom.It should be unashamedly and, indeed, proudly Unionist, arguing that the continuation of the Union is in the best interests of the Scottish people, and defending the devolution arrangements as a settlement, not a process of gradual disengagement.

Whether it has the courage to do this may be open to doubt. What is as certain is that any attempt to engage Alex Salmond and the SNP on the ground of their choosing will end in defeat. It is impossible for Labour to be more narrowly and vociferously Scottish than the SNP; so it shouldn't make the attempt. Instead it should recognise that the majority of Scots are Unionist, and speak up boldly for them and in their name.