It's time to move on, declares Jack McConnell as he 'retires'

THE former First Minister Lord McConnell of Glenscorrodale last night announced he is to quit frontline politics and will not stand for Holyrood at next year's Scottish Parliamentary elections.

• Lord McConnell with local party member Anna Chisholm in Motherwell last night, where he told of his decision to quit frontline politics for "new challenges" at home and abroad. Picture: Robert Perry

Lord McConnell, Scotland's longest-serving First Minister, called time on a colourful Holyrood career when he informed Labour activists at a meeting of his Motherwell and Wishaw constituency party of his decision.

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The man who was the driving force behind Scotland's smoking ban, but who suffered the ignominy of leading his party to defeat against the SNP, said it was time for him to take on "new challenges".

After the May 2011 election, Lord McConnell hopes to branch out into playing a role in building peace in conflict zones - an interest that he developed during his appointment as Gordon Brown's special representative on conflict resolution mechanisms, a position he ceased to hold following the 2010 UK general election.

He also intends to launch a charitable foundation helping young people in Scotland and in developing countries.

Another project is the development of an archive library for political institutions.

Addressing local members of his party at a meeting in the Daziel High School, Motherwell, the recently ennobled politician said his decision marked the beginning of "part two" of his career, saying that he looked forward to "new challenges".

He said: "I will be forever grateful to the many people locally and nationally who have helped me in the causes I have promoted and the decisions I have made.

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"Together we have made Scotland, and the constituency, better than they were on my election in 1999.

"I have been an elected representative for most of the last 30 years and it is time to move on.

"I have been involved in national Scottish politics, including the creation of the Scottish Parliament and serving in government, for most of those 30 years, and it is time for others to take Scotland forward now."Labour will hold a selection hustings to choose Lord McConnell's successor.

Given that it is a safe Labour seat, the party is confident that many would-be politicians will be interested in contesting it.

At the moment, the front-runner is believed to be John Pentland, a local Labour councillor and chairman of North Lanarkshire's finance committee.

Lord McConnell's announcement led to reflection on a political career that was not without its share of controversy from the outset.

Just before he took over from Henry McLeish following the row over his predecessor's expenses, Lord McConnell hosted an excruciating press conference with his wife Bridget that saw him admit to an extramartial affair with Maureen Smith, a Labour Party worker.

By making a very public confession, Lord McConnell managed to pre-empt revelations about his private life that might have damaged his career.

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After that explosive start to his tenure, Lord McConnell managed to steady Labour's ship following the turbulence of the McLeish years.

A Machiavellian streak was in evidence when he axed several McLeish loyalists such as Angus Mackay, Tom McCabe, Sarah Boyack and Jackie Baillie, in his first Cabinet reshuffle, and replaced them with his supporters.

Although known for his astute political mind, his tenure was far from gaffe-free.His fashion faux-pas that saw him attend a Tartan Day event in New Year wearing a pinstriped kilt plus Braveheart blouse will live long in the memory.

A high-profile about-turn came when he had to reverse his decision to go to a dinner celebrating 250 years of the Royal and Ancient Golf Club instead of attending events commemorating 60 years since D-Day.

Although he received much credit for introducing the smoking ban, tackling sectarianism and his Fresh Talent initiative, designed to arrest Scotland's population decline, his critics were dismayed by what they perceived as a lack of vision.

"Part of the problem with Jack McConnell was that we never knew who he was as a politician," said James Mitchell, Professor of Politics at Strathclyde University.

"He was a radical councillor in Stirling, but as a Scottish Labour official he became a New Labour conformist. As First Minister he failed to cut out a political vision. So we were always asking, 'Who is he?'. And we still don't know.

"He did provide stability for the Labour Party when he became leader, but his career effectively came to an abrupt end at the 2007 Scottish elections."

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Professor Mitchell added: "Now he is unlikely to play a major part in either Scottish or British politics, which is a great pity because he has a great deal of talent."

Last night his political opponents and partners paid tribute to his contribution.

The Scottish Liberal Democrat leader Tavish Scott, who worked with Lord McConnell in the Lib Dem coalition, said: "I enjoyed working with Jack McConnell in a government that delivered so many manifesto promises for Scotland.

"He deserves credit for leading a government that introduced proportional representation for local elections and I wish Bridget and Jack well for their future endeavours both here in Scotland and further afield."

Alex Neil, the SNP housing minister, said Lord McConnell had made the correct decision, adding: "I wish Jack McConnell well in his new career path. I trust he will use his position in the House of Lords to promote the best interests of Scotland as well as his avid commitment to developing countries.

"His experience as Scotland's First Minister should help him persuade the powers that be in the House of Lords of the need to stop the savage cuts being imposed on Scotland and for the Scottish Parliament to be given complete control over our own resources."

Annabel Goldie, the Scottish Conservative leader, also wished Lord McConnell the best for the future.

Arran farm boy who grew up to take reins of Scotland

1960: Jack Wilson McConnell is born in Irvine.

1977: After growing up on a sheep farm on Arran and attending Arran High School, he leaves the island to go to Stirling University, becoming involved in left-wing politics and joining the Labour Party.

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1983: He becomes a mathematics teacher, spending most of his school career at Lornshill Academy in Alloa, Clackmannanshire.

1984: He is elected to Stirling District Council, becoming leader in 1990.

1992: He quits teaching and local government to become general-secretary of the Scottish Labour Party.

1999: Enters Holyrood as Motherwell and Wishaw MSP and is then appointed finance minister.

2001: Shortly before he becomes First Minister, he hosts a press conference and admits that he cheated on his wife Bridget by conducting an extramarital affair with Maureen Smith, a Labour Party worker, seven years before.

2003: Returned as First Minister, as Labour maintains its position as the largest party in the Scottish elections.

April 2004: The First Minister is ridiculed for wearing a pinstriped kilt and Braveheart blouse during the high-profile Tartan Day celebrations in New York.

June 2004: He is forced into a U-turn after incurring the wrath of war veterans over his decision to turn down a D-Day 60th anniversary commemoration invitation, in favour of a dinner celebrating the 250th anniversary of the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St Andrews.

2007: Loses Scottish election to a resurgent SNP under Alex Salmond.

2010: Elevated to the House of Lords as Lord McConnell of Glenscorrodale.