Ed’s Govan moment

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Kenneth Roy

At 4.50 last Saturday afternoon, as final whistles blew at football grounds all over Britain and the final whistle blew on New Labour, I thought of a smaller Ed Miliband moment, five weeks before, when I began to take him seriously as a contender for the Labour leadership.

Kenneth Roy

At 4.50 last Saturday afternoon, as final whistles blew at football grounds all over Britain and the final whistle blew on New Labour, I thought of a smaller Ed Miliband moment, five weeks before, when I began to take him seriously as a contender for the Labour leadership.
     It was the day of Jimmy Reid’s funeral and there were many politicians around. To explain the significance of the Ed Miliband moment, it might be helpful to say something about a few of them.
     There was a former MP who is facing trial for an alleged expenses fiddle; he brought a cigar, not quite grand enough to be the sort favoured by Jimmy Reid, yet the thought was there – he donated it to the noble chairman of the day, David Scott. Another man on bail, Tommy Sheridan, who was sitting in the back row of Govan Old Parish Church, came to the assistance of a lady – notwithstanding Rose Galt’s objections to the word there are circumstances in which women are ladies and this was one of them – who was struggling to find a seat in a church already packed with 900 souls. He made sure she got one.
     Ed Balls, the one contender whose stature grew during the interminable leadership contest, was somewhere in there.
     In the tearoom where family and friends gathered, Gordon Brown arrived with his brother John. Mr Brown put himself about, offering his condolences, and then settled himself unobtrusively in the third row. So little attention was paid to him that it was difficult to believe that the same man had been running Britain so recently. It was often said in the days after his death that Jimmy Reid was the best MP Scotland never had, but I disagree – he was not natural lobby fodder but nor was he someone who would have been interested in the disfiguring pursuit of power. I wonder how damaged Gordon Brown, an essentially decent man, has become by years of that game and its sad ending in his case, as in almost all cases.
     There were such endearing figures from the past as the national treasure beside me, Winnie Ewing, just turned 80 (‘Don’t remind me’).
     And, of course, there was the first minister. It occurred to me as I listened to him speak – last of the five speakers – that this was the first time I had heard Alex Salmond live. Because the earlier speeches had over-run, the public celebration of Jimmy Reid’s life was in danger of delaying the private service of committal elsewhere. Alex Salmond was not long into his oration when David Scott handed him a note with the words ‘The crematorium beckons’ scribbled on them. Lesser impresarios might have found this chilling admonition a tad offputting, but Mr Salmond continued without pause, skilfully editing his material into a tighter timeframe, and concluding with an effective punchline.
     His party may be far behind in the opinion polls, but we should not under-estimate the Salmond effect when the Holyrood campaign gets going early next year. He is a supreme operator.


Why, then, was I so surprised that Ed Miliband was there at all and, more remarkably, the sole political presence on the streets?


     There was another operator who turned up for the service a bit later than the others. It would not have been surprising if any, or indeed all, of the politicians I’ve mentioned had decided to show solidarity with the hundreds of workers who lined the streets outside the Govan yard and applauded as the cortege passed. Only Ed Miliband did. He explained to the press: ‘I thought it was right to come out and pay my respects with all the men who work here. It’s part of the legacy of these yards.’
     Of course. Why, then, was I so surprised that Ed Miliband was there at all and, more remarkably, the sole political presence on the streets? His motives were transparently sincere, but it also seemed a piece of acute political intelligence by someone running for the leadership of the party, someone pretty unfancied. What was Ed Miliband telling the workers, and the media bystanders, about himself? Perhaps that he was a man of the genuine left or, if not quite that, of the traditional, long-ignored working-class heart of the party.      After this curious self-revelation, I began to think and write of him as the likely winner. His unexpected appearance in Govan on the day of Jimmy Reid’s funeral had been a defining moment in his break with New Labour, a break given explicit expression at the weekend’s coronation in Manchester.
     Some years ago, I asked the political documentary-maker Michael Cockerell if there was anyone he admired in modern British politics. This knowledgeable, widely connected broadcaster looked at me as if I had just asked the most difficult question in the world. Offhand, he could think of no one.
     But the following morning Cockerell sought me out.
     ‘I’ve thought of someone I admire in modern British politics,’ he began.
     ‘Oh, who?’
     ‘David Miliband,’ he said.
     I was not able to observe the admirable David Miliband at Jimmy Reid’s funeral. So far as I know, he was not there. I have little doubt that Michael Cockerell, like so many others, will feel this week that, with only two Milibands from which to choose, the People’s Party has somehow landed itself with the wrong one. But the signs were there on that beautiful August day in Glasgow. It was young Ed who seized the moment in Govan – and went on to seize the prize.

This article was reproduced with the kind permission of Kenneth Roy.

Read Kenneth Roy in the Scottish Review.