In a Land of Political Pygmies

By Brown, Tom | New Statesman (1996), November 12, 2001 | Go to article overview

In a Land of Political Pygmies


Brown, Tom, New Statesman (1996)


Scotland's First Minister has the police on his tail. But he's still in charge. Why?

Scotland's First Minister, Henry McLeish, has a new nickname: Henry Houdini, political escapologist. He was not free with one bound -- more of a slither and squirm. Over the past week, lip-licking headlines predicted his downfall: "McLeish damned", "Frantic McLeish rocked by crisis", "100 hours to save his career".

McLeish and his spin-quacks so crudely mishandled a comparatively trifling irregularity over office expenses -- with no personal profit for himself -- that it threatened to cost the First Minister his career, just as he was set to celebrate the first anniversary of his succession to the late Donald Dewar.

He has emerged with his credibility damaged, his competence in serious doubt, his stature diminished, the matter of [pound]36,122 in wrongly claimed public money as yet unresolved, and the Inland Revenue and police on his tail.

Yet he is still in charge of Scotland's government.

Why? Because in the Scottish Parliament of 129 MSPs, there is no other serious contender for the position of First Minister.

"Officegate", as it inevitably became known, not only exposed McLeish' s frailties; it demonstrated, to a depressing degree, the paucity of talent and the poverty of potential among politicians in the parliament. If there had been a single Scottish cabinet minister or backbencher worthy of consideration, McLeish would not have survived.

The new politics of devolution was supposed to attract a new breed of parliamentarian -- people of ability and achievement in non-political spheres, with a breadth of experience of Scottish life. There was even a hope that Westminster figures of real clout (Robin cook's name was most often mentioned) would move back north.

These hopes were dashed even before the first election. The large majority of MSPs are former party hacks, upstart apparatchiks, researchers, MPs' gofers and bag-carriers, trade unionists, lecturers and former local councillors.

The standard of debate is abysmal and the slavishness to party line is worse. McLeish, who played an important part in delivering devolution and has years of front-bench experience at Westminster, stands not quite head and shoulders above such company. His only possible challenger is his Education Minister, Jack McConnell, who came within five votes of beating him in the leadership election after Donald Dewar's death a year ago. McConnell has proved the outstanding success of the Scottish administration, but he still needs time to overcome a racy "Jack the lad" reputation. …

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