The new leader of Scottish Labour will be announced today. My money is on Anas Sarwar, the young Glasgow MSP whose campaign has been a masterclass in leadership. He has focused on the issues that matter to people – jobs, the state of our National Health Service and the inequality that still scars Scottish society, despite the best flag-waving efforts of the SNP government.
And he has been honest about the state of the Labour party which, not that long ago, dominated Scotland in the same way the Nationalists do today.
“We’d walked off the pitch,” Sarwar admits on his campaign website, employing an unusually understated football metaphor to describe Scottish Labour’s fall from popularity.
In 1999, when the Scottish Parliament was established, Labour’s leader Donald Dewar was described by everyone as the Father of the Nation. By 2020, the party’s last leader, Richard Leonard, was barely recognised by anyone outside Labour’s HQ and the people’s party languished third behind the Tories.
Will Sarwar be able to drag Scottish Labour back into second place, then into power? Who knows? But with him in charge and a new generation of MSPs in place after May, the party has a fighting chance.
Scottish Labour’s electoral prospects have received a boost from a most unlikely source – the very heart of the SNP. Even those of us who have given up watching the news in favour of re-runs of Frasier have been unable to avoid the unholy row that has broken out between Alex Salmond, former First Minister, and Nicola Sturgeon, the self-styled Mother of the Nation.
In a very public display of disaffection, the two former friends have set about destroying each other with the same grim determination they once brought to winning elections. As in most acrimonious splits, the original reasons for the break-up are forgotten as white-hot hatred and an unquenchable thirst for revenge take hold.
His ego will destroy the country, shouted Sturgeon in parliament on Thursday. Sturgeon’s husband (the SNP’s chief executive) plotted to put me in prison, thundered Salmond earlier in the week.
And his appearance yesterday at the Holyrood committee set up to investigate the government’s handling of the original allegations against him (sexual assault in case you had forgotten) suggests that this row will run and run. There can only be one winner, and it may well turn out to be Anas Sarwar.
The Salmond-Sturgeon feud has exposed not just the monstrous ego of both protagonists, but the fragile state of Scotland’s governance. We are now effectively a one-party state, where a husband-and-wife team control the ruling party and the government from an executive home in Uddingston.
The affair has also revealed that two other arms of Scotland’s governance system – the Crown Office and our parliament – are in thrall to government ministers, so hampering effective scrutiny.
This sorry state of affairs has allowed leading commentators, such as The Scotsman’s former political editor, Fraser Nelson, to argue that devolution has failed Scotland and for former Scottish Labour MP Tom Harris to suggest that Holyrood should be put under “special measures” by Westminster.
As someone who had the privilege of working for the Scottish government in its early years, I know first-hand the progress that a well-run administration can achieve. Under successive Labour First Ministers, Scotland enjoyed the benefits of fundamental land reform, the biggest-ever investment in college education, free personal care for our frail elders, a ban on smoking in public places and many more improvements to the common weal.
There were scandals, of course. The urbane, universally liked Tory leader David McLetchie was forced to resign because he wrongly claimed a few taxi fares on expenses. First Minister Henry McLeish left office because of a “muddle, not a fiddle”. And a former Labour minister, Mike Watson, set fire to hotel curtains after a few too many bottles of wine.
But these were personal lapses, and they did not undermine our new parliament’s democracy. Until recent events, devolution has been good for Scotland – it is the SNP that is proving to be bad for devolution.
That is not to say there should not be improvements to how Holyrood works. A report on the future of devolution, published yesterday by the Scottish Fabians, argues, rightly in my view, that the Scottish Parliament’s committees should be strengthened. Their role, as it is in Westminster, should be to scrutinise the work of government, not to be the First Minister’s cheerleaders.
It suggests that councils – once the powerful engine of Scotland’s local democracy – need to be given more powers to shape and deliver services that meet the needs of their communities without first seeking permission from Bute House.
And it proposes a new role – or perhaps a return to its original purpose – for the Scottish Parliament. “Poverty and inequality are the persistent and deep-rooted ‘wicked problems’ in Scotland that the Parliament must tackle,” writes Professor James Mitchell of Edinburgh University.
“If we are serious about dealing with persistent inequalities, then we will need more than the symbolic gestures and very modest initiatives that we have seen emerge from Holyrood in the past.”
And we need to see far less of the amateur dramatics that have dominated our public discourse in the last few months. Nicola Sturgeon is a servant of the people, not the Mother of the Nation. Her focus should be on rebuilding Scotland after the pandemic, not feuding with her former mentor or appeasing her party members with loose talk about leaving the UK.
Perhaps it is also time she started planning her life after government. Every politician, every government, has a shelf life. Only dictators dream of lifetime rule. And despite recent events, Nicola Sturgeon is no Vladimir Putin… is she?