Michael Kelly: McLeish outburst lacks impact

THE former first minister lacks the political clout for his attack on the Better Together campaign to carry much weight, writes Michael Kelly

Henry McLeish, Scotland's former First Minister. Picture: Getty

Let’s get one thing clear at the start: Henry McLeish was a rotten politician. He became first minister in the wake of Donald Dewar’s sudden death on the basis that he had been in government with Donald at Westminster. He was a poor debater and his timorous approach meant that he was never able to dominate the Holyrood chamber.

This weakness at rebuffing the barbed and insulting remarks that are part of daily life in politics forced his resignation over a trivial expenses scandal in which he did not benefit financially. A more robust defence would have routed his critics, but he simply did not have the strength of personality required. He is the worst first minister we have had.

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Since his unnecessary departure from Holyrood, McLeish has tried to keep himself in public life and in the public eye. His latest attempt in The Scotsman this week emerged as a turgid, repetitive criticism of the Better Together campaign, trying unsubtly to engender a fear that the vote against independence could be lost. He poses the ludicrous proposition that “conservatism in London could be a bigger threat to the Union than nationalism in Edinburgh”.

To support this bizarre hypothesis, he advances the most extreme party political interpretation of the coalition government’s policies. It is not, as he claims now merely “coalition in name only”. Weak and on the way out, the Lib Dems may be, but Vince Cable’s presence alone ensures that there is still some brake on the Tories.

Distasteful as their aim to weaken the welfare state is to many, McLeish’s whole case is exaggerated. If he thinks the Tory policies are toxic, then he should have been around during Thatcher’s years of destruction. She was scary. Cameron is centre ground by comparison – one reason Labour find it so difficult to attack. At the other extreme, McLeish classes Ukip as “allies” of the Tories. But the Tories have been bleeding votes to Nigel Farage.

The Tories have one aim, as always, and that is to win the next general election. To do that, they need to turn the economy round. Recent good news suggests they might be beginning to convince the electorate that their harsh policies may produce results by 2015. Because informed opinion now is that Cameron, not Ed Miliband, is more likely to win the next election, there is little chance of McLeish’s fantasy of a “perfect storm of issues, events and toxic policies” engulfing the referendum campaign. We are heading for calmer waters as the decks are cleared for two years of electioneering, with the inducements and bribes from government that is involved.

Voters, McLeish claims, want to know what will happen on the day after the referendum. I’m not sure that they do. But if the question is there, it is one solely for the SNP to answer. The No side is in favour of the status quo. So, if you want to know how things will be when independence is rejected, just look around. This is it, the status quo. What Yes has to show is who will be running monetary and fiscal policy, what the currency will be, whether Scotland will be in or out of the European Union and Nato, who’s going to pay for our pensions and hundreds of other details. There are no answers and there will not be any because the SNP does not have them. It has to provide the vision and the inspiration, not those of us who want things constitutionally to remain as they are.

And where does this “a Tory party revealing its real disinterest in Scotland” come from? The Union is fundamental to the Tory view of Great Britain. As for demanding that the role of Scots be enhanced in a modern union, we already punch above our weight. And where is this great “difference and diversity” (so important that McLeish mentions it three times) that creates a gulf between Scotland and England? And what is wrong with negative campaigning? There is a lot in independence to be negative about.

McLeish does not have the intellectual equipment to sustain a coherent thesis. He gets so many things wrong. He urges the No campaign to make a fundamental tactical mistake – that of spelling out the various enhanced devolved powers that would delivered when No wins. He deplores the rejection of a third choice on the ballot paper, instead of recognising it as the most important defeat that Alex Salmond suffered in his negotiations with the UK government over the terms under which the referendum would be conducted. Being forced to offer voters a clear Yes/No choice in the referendum deprives the SNP of a win/win result. Without ambiguity, we will have a decision on Scotland’s constitutional future.

Trying to turn the clock back to confuse the issue with other options merely confirms that McLeish rejects the status quo, refusing to accept it as “an acceptable alternative to independence”. The logic of this argument is that McLeish should vote Yes. However, in his mud pool of words that add up to very little, there is one significant one he used. A reader highlighted it in his letter yesterday. It is “federated”. McLeish is not looking for independence, or the status quo or even devo-max. He wants a federation, a very different solution and one which is not on the table. He’s a bit late hinting at it.

I’m not sure if McLeish realises that his stance pushes him into the Lib Dem camp. Not that I would urge him to leave the Labour Party. Lord Foulkes’s mischievous suggestion that McLeish is acting under orders from Salmond must be taken as a joke. The argument that his views might lead him to be more comfortable in the SNP is also misplaced. The Labour Party supports freedom of speech and should tolerate a wide range of views. In addition, McLeish served the party well, being an excellent leader of Fife Regional Council.

His problem is similar to the one he encountered in his football career when he began by signing for Leeds United and ended up turning out for East Fife. In attempting to contribute to the complex debate on Scotland’s constitutional future, he has tried to move up to a league for which he lacks the talent to compete.