Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

The Curbing of Caledonia: Mohammed Sarwar Has Given New Labour the Perfect Excuse to Consolidate Its Control over the Scottish Party, but Is the Grip Now Unacceptably Tight?

Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

The Curbing of Caledonia: Mohammed Sarwar Has Given New Labour the Perfect Excuse to Consolidate Its Control over the Scottish Party, but Is the Grip Now Unacceptably Tight?

Article excerpt

If Tony Blair has captivated London, Brussels and Washington with the frenzied pace of his reform programme, he is also finding time to attend to another niggling irritation before breakfast: his own party in Scotland.

Not that this is much in evidence. In fact, the Scots political scene, devolution notwithstanding, looks soporific compared to its dynamism under the last government. Michael Forsyth's tartan tax campaign, the return of the Stone of Destiny, and moves to empower the Scottish Grand Committee of MPs enraptured Edinburgh's blethering classes and won the energetic former Scottish Secretary plaudits south of the border.

These days St Andrew's House is becalmed. Scottish Office ministers have failed to act on the Pennington food safety report; the scrapping of nursery vouchers has been postponed; and the "bonfire of the quangos", which George Robertson promised would be lit within weeks, is not even smouldering. The best Labour has offered is a pledge to safeguard school playing fields.

But the public inertia is deceptive. Behind the scenes, ministers and party officials are completing one of new Labour's toughest challenges: to drive home the Blair project north of Hadrian's Wall.

Scotland, with its old communal-democratic political culture, has always been a problem for the Labour leader. It started the moment he was elected, when Jim Mearns, the owlish delegate from Glasgow Maryhill, galvanised opposition to the abolition of Clause Four, winning backing from Scotland's still-powerful trade unions.

Since John Smith's death a stream of allegations of cronyism and petty corruption, from Monklands to Glasgow, has threatened to undermine new Labour's attack on Tory sleaze. And for most of last year the party leadership fought a guerrilla war against rebellious MPs and executive members in the wake of its decision to impose a devolution referendum. Few were surprised that Blair's only wobble of the election campaign came in Glasgow, when he likened a Scottish parliament to an English parish council.

New Labour strategists have long fretted about the Scottish party and have been awaiting the right moment to impose their will on Caledonia. They think this is it.

Blair's unwitting accomplice is Mohammed Sarwar. When the Govan MP admitted, less than three weeks after the election, handing [pounds]5,000 to a defeated political rival it looked as if the Scots had blown it again. With an official party inquiry already investigating votes-for-junkets allegations that surfaced at Glasgow City council shortly before the election, here was a Labour MP implicated in as big a scandal as any Tory.

But in a neat piece of opportunism the party has turned the situation to its advantage. Instead of trying to play down the Sarwar affair, officials have actively talked it up. An ideal early opportunity to ram home Blair's anti-sleaze message, they say. Neater still, they have used the Govan scandal to extend the inquiry into Glasgow Labour politics and to restructure key elements of the party machine.

Within the past month the internal inquiry into Glasgow City has doubled the number of councillors under investigation, and added new offences, including assault, to the charge sheet. To ensure a similar scandal cannot arise again, the Scottish executive is taking from the city party the power to select council candidates. In future, modernisers only need apply.

These powers of appointment will soon be extended to include candidates for election to a Scottish parliament, to ensure Calton Hill does not become an alternative power-base for clapped-out councillors or leftists determined to pursue tax-and-spend socialism in one country.

The measures are part of an operation to reform the Scottish party which has been evolving, with patchy success, since last summer's damaging devolution revolt. Its aim is to tackle the central problem bedevilling relations between Keir Hardie House, Labour's Scottish headquarters, and Millbank Tower in London: the lack of resonance between Scottish expectations and political culture and new Labour ideals. …

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