Commentary by Derek Bateman
What is a Secretary of State for? Scotland’s was abolished in 1746 when naughty highlanders attempted some pre-emptive devolution but was reinstated towards the end of the 19th century when a visible presence was required – the Duke of Richmond duly came north to shoot grouse.
Then, since the Scottish Parliament, the duties have dwindled almost to nothing, the role being merely to act as cypher between London and Edinburgh. Oddly, you may think, the budget has nevertheless spiralled upwards. Or not oddly at all, as the job has increasingly been to counter politically the SNP.
The hangover from the days of real as opposed to posturing Scottish Secretaries in the modern era, say from the 1960s onwards, has been to represent Scottish interests in Cabinet. Phrase it how you like – a Scottish voice, a Caledonian hand on the tiller, an occasional storm warning and, now and again, No Entry barrier when a decision presages another War of Independence.
Throughout this era men such as Michael Noble, Willie Ross and Gordon Campbell followed by Bruce Millan, George Younger and Malcolm Rifkind had a firm grasp of the requirement to stand four square in the way of Whitehall decisions that they knew would look bad and, fancy, sometimes actually were bad. I draw a distinction because this is politics in which appearances matter and often are little more than mirage. In the same way that justice must be seen to be done, so the exercise of responsibility for Scotland must appear to be performed earnestly and staunchly.
Such men boasted about standing up for the nation and fighting their corner. In their company, a word was dropped in your ear and, if you didn’t get it over the clink of the teacups, an aide would intone the dire news: ‘He told her to her face. There was blood on the wall…’
Today one fears the only blood spilt is likely to be David Mundell’s as he is swatted aside by colleagues. He may of course be adept at behind-the-scenes knife fights in which he secures devastating concessions, only to walk away brushing the dust off his suit shoulders to the sound of Search for the Hero Inside Yourself. What do you think?
Today’s news that what will prove to be an initial down payment of £1bn of new money for Northern Ireland should have rattled the teacups in Dover House. Journalists should have been summoned from the brave Scottish Press and told: ‘You can’t print this yet but…’ There should have followed a story of how Our Man was incandescent with (weakened) Theresa May who had surrendered to the DUP and not honoured a promise she made that Scotland would also benefit. Hadn’t David himself said as much on telly? He made clear it would all be above board and transparent and Barnett rules must be applied. Cue headlines about furious Mundell fighting for Scotland. He’d never been so mad. Either May gave him what he wanted or he’d resign…
Sound corny? Well, it would work. The papers would lap it up and it would be on the front of every one except the Express who have a court case involving the cousin of the former nanny to the Princess of Wales.
Of course, the government had already quietly agreed there would be a quid pro quo for Scots but the story would be allowed to take hold until redemption day when Mundell’s triumph of extra funding was announced. Scotland’s champion, David Mundell.
You could even go further and actually imagine if there was no set up and Mundell did actually have the balls to make a demand. Has Theresa May ever been weaker and more likely to cave?
But this is all fantasy for a pipsqueak politician whose sole strength is holding on to office against all odds. As you may know from observing promotion climbers at work, it is often the most obsequious, untrustworthy and incompetent who succeed because they lack the gene of resistance. Such is Mundell.
Now as far as I know Barnett applies only to English spending and how geographic budgets should be compensated as a result.
As far as I know Barnett has no statutory basis. It is advisory. In other words, the government can do with it as it sees fit. Pay it or not. That is what we voted for in September 2014, to allow the British government to run our affairs for us and that’s what they’re doing.
But there’s a world of difference between the rules and the politics. That’s the space where a talented and committed Scottish Secretary would emerge to say: to Hell with the guidelines, I have a battle to fight in Scotland. You are arming my opponents just when I’m on the charge. This cannot stand. I need something to offer Scotland and all those people who voted for us this month.
Instead the proud Tories step back and lash out at the SNP, the clearest sign they recognise their own weakness. What an inglorious start to the careers of the new intake, learning first hand from Mundell the toe-curling lessons of the game – if you want to survive the fight, turn your back and run. And remember, Scotland is never worth it.