Why Swinney and Leonard risk destroying great Scots institutions – Susan Dalgety

Take two middle-aged men. Both regarded as honourable, compassionate even, by their friends and colleagues. Dedicated to public service. But each, by dint of their own stubborn mediocrity, in danger of destroying two of Scotland’s greatest institutions.

Scottish Labour leader Richard Leonard. Picture: Fraser Bremner/Daily Mail/PA Wire

The dead hand of John Swinney has trashed Scottish education. Even before the Covid exams scandal, schools were systematically failing our country’s most vulnerable children. But Swinney did not blink, even as MSPs lined up to call for his resignation. As the First Minister’s right-hand man, he is as secure in his position as Dominic Cummings, the Prime Minister’s pet adviser.

Then there is Richard Leonard, leader of Scottish Labour, the party that gave the country political giants such as John Smith, Robin Cook and Donald Dewar.

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Like Swinney, former trade union organiser Leonard is not a bad man. All who know him speak warmly of his personal qualities. He is a talented amateur historian, steeped in the mythology of the Labour movement. He believes, profoundly, in the redistribution of wealth, in social justice, in a United Kingdom. He is a kind man, an attribute not particularly common among politicians, many of whom regard every human encounter as a cynical transaction.

Scottish education secretary John Swinney. Picture: Fraser Bremner - Pool/Getty Images

Sadly, Leonard just can’t lead a modern political party. Under his stewardship, Scottish Labour – which only 13 years ago dominated Scottish politics, its influence flowing through civil society like red hot lava – is on the verge of collapse.

His personal ratings are dismal, with barely anyone outside a constituency Labour Party meeting able to recognise him.

A recent opinion poll predicted that in next year’s Holyrood elections, Labour’s share of the vote will slump to 14 per cent, or 18 MSPs. In the first Scottish Parliament elections only two decades ago, Labour came top of the poll with 56 seats.

And a report leaked to the Daily Record earlier this week warned that the party which established the Scottish Parliament is in “peril”.

This was no ordinary review. The paper was written by a think-tank associated with Gordon Brown, a colossus in the Scottish Labour movement. Even those who do not like him, and there are many, respect Brown’s opinion on all things Labour.

Other senior figures are also privately voicing their fears that Scottish Labour is in its death throes, urging Leonard to stand aside now, before the expected rout next May, in favour of a more charismatic, energetic leader.

Labour online forums buzz with the chatter of supporters of young(ish) Labour MSPs such as Anas Sarwar and Jenny Marra, as well as the sole Scottish Laboor MP, Ian Murray. And Labour’s health spokesperson, Monica Lennon, never misses a photo opportunity.

But like Swinney, Leonard grimly hangs on to his position, seemingly oblivious to the fear and loathing that pervades the corridors outside his private office, and the party at large.

It would be unfair, and wrong, to lay the blame for Scottish Labour’s slump in popularity and relevance at the door of Richard Leonard. It is not his fault. The rot had set in even as Tony Blair was being cheered through the streets of Edinburgh during the 1997 referendum on the Scottish parliament.

Scotland’s small, but busy, cadre of political commentators and scientists have various theories on why the party that once ran every corner of Scotland has all but collapsed, each of them plausible.

As a long-time member of the Labour Party, with only a short break while Jeremy Corbyn was in charge, I too have often pondered why the party is no longer relevant in Scotland.

There are many factors at play, from the rise of nationalism to the dearth of talent in the party, but perhaps the most significant reason is that politics itself has changed.

Personal identity trumps community politics. The national solidarity that underpinned Labour’s most successful policies, such as the formation of the NHS and Sure Start centres, has all but collapsed. Flags and Instagram accounts are what matter now.

Social policy, industrial strategy and economic competence no longer hold sway with voters. Nationalist politicians, such as Nicola Sturgeon and Boris Johnston, understand that waving the Saltire or Union Jack is enough to make people feel good about themselves, even as unemployment soars, the education system collapses and a global pandemic rages.

“We may be out of work, our kid has just left school unable to read or write and granny died of Covid in a care home, but hey, we’ve taken back control from England (or Europe),” cheer the electorate on Facebook, while dour Labour politicians like Richard Leonard look on aghast.

“But what about regional manufacturing,” they wail, unable or unwilling to understand the zeitgeist.

We live in a world where facts no longer matter. People have given up counting Donald Trump’s lies. Johnson’s CV is littered with untruths, and even the saintly Nicola Sturgeon is economical with the truth when she sees an opportunity to score a nationalist point.

Even after she was censured by the UK’s independent statistics body for falsely claiming that the coronavirus infection rate in England was five times higher than Scotland’s, she simply shrugged and moved on to the next, carefully crafted, message.

And ten days ago, the First Minister insisted that changing the results of this year’s school exams would damage the credibility of the system.

But as the protests of young people threatened to drown out her key message of “Freedom!”, she instructed John Swinney to do the biggest U-turn since Nick Clegg reversed his position on tuition fees in exchange for the empty title of Deputy Prime Minister.

Even ten years ago, such a scandal would have led to the resignation of the education minister, and a precipitous drop in the First Minister’s poll ratings. Today people swipe right on their phone, eager to move on.

The rise in support for Joe Biden in America suggests that there may still be support for a progressive economic and social policy platform, rather than the populist identity politics pedalled by Trump and others.

Labour’s UK leader, the low-key Keir Starmer, has proved that you don’t need to wave a flag to be popular. He has just overtaken Boris Johnson as the people’s choice for Prime Minister in recent YouGov poll. I hold out no hope that John Swinney will do the right thing and resign. The SNP government does not do accountability. But there is still time for Richard Leonard to make the ultimate sacrifice and retire gracefully to spend more time with his books on Keir Hardie.

It may be too late to save Scottish Labour, but a new generation leader, who understands the contemporary political landscape, should be given the chance to try.