Commentary by Derek Bateman
I caught part of the STV programme Scotland Tonight, celebrating its fifth year on the air, as it assessed the success of the SNP and the two years since the referendum. It had relaxed and self-effacing contributions from Alex Salmond – who seemed to be seated in front of his rooftop pool in Aberdeen – Elaine C Smith and Tom Harris. On a box on the wall looking like a demented owl, was David Mundell in Westminster.
The others gave perspective to recent history and analysed more or less fairly. Most of Mundell’s effort was straight from media training – forget the question and keep giving out the message in each answer. With growing low-level hysteria he ranted about the dangers of a second referendum – ‘divisive and dangerous’ etc. Watching him it set my gas at a peep to think this one man embodies the British state in our country. Westminster still retains all of the power encompassed by Crown in Parliament. He outranks everybody else except the Queen (no, I don’t mean Elaine C).
He is a man whom nobody would promote in a normal legislature except as a bag carrier. His sole status guarantees him a job. That job always required balance, integrity and a measure of genuine statecraft to do properly – one reason George Younger and Malcom Rifkind did it so well while Helen Liddell and John Reid didn’t. Balancing the interests of London and Scotland requires clout in Cabinet. That means ministers listen and never automatically discount what is said. It means they recognise that real concessions, not just gestures, are required. It also means that, out of respect for the incumbent, ministers will do their best to accommodate his demands.
It doesn’t mean you always win, far from it. Younger fought against the closure of Ravenscraig, made sure the Press knew about it, and threatened to resign. It was reported that he had a secret deal with Thatcher to contest industrial closures. Now I know this looks devious – and he did misjudge the poll tax – but it shows he had clout with Thatcher, was trusted and went on to stay in Cabinet as Defence Secretary. Gentleman George gave the impression of fighting Scotland’s corner which is at least one of the tools of politics.
What of Mundell? What corner does he contest? Who gives the merest hint of respect for him? He is told he will only attend Cabinet Brexit meetings when required. (Thank you, Dave. Tea and two sugars.) That alone should be the cause of a resignation threat appearing in the media. Isn’t that what even Tories would want?
He is a token presence speaking to the desperate lack of talent in parties in decline. Twenty years ago the SNP was blessed with an upper layer of good performers and a base element of street-pounders. But a middle management echelon of busy creatives with ambition was absent – they were all joining Labour. Now, when you look at who is standing against the SNP, you can see why they do so poorly. It isn’t just the party brands that are in retreat. A shrinking party gets smaller talent.
So here we have a man scraping through on an 800 majority, bought by diverting party funds away from other seats. He spent three times his SNP rival and more than all the other candidates put together. He spent 90 per cent of the legal maximum and was bankrolled by party HQ in their desperation to keep a single seat in Scotland.
Since 1997 the Tories have had either no MP at all or a solitary representative in Scotland and yet the democratic deficit delivers them all the control over the Scots that the British state bestows.
That the government’s man cuts such an unimpressive figure is a constant reminder of how slender the British mandate is. Asked by Smith if the Tories hadn’t fought against a parliament in the first place, he replied that it was a sign of their willingness to accept the election result that they played their part now. But that hides the central point – that the Tories made a monumental mistake in opposing devolution, a mistake endorsed by history. If they can misread the country so badly once, what stops them doing so again? The reality is that if the Tories had their way, there would be no Holyrood at all. In fact, there would be no Tory Party as such either since the PR system gave them oxygen and resources to save their skin.
And so we were treated to another mealy-mouthed performance insisting there should be no referendum. What I wanted to ask was: If we forget about that option and if Scotland as whole really doesn’t fancy the May Brexit deal, what does he propose we do? It is entirely possible that business, public sector, third sector, civil and collective Scotland combine with four out of five political parties in opposing the British Brexit deal. What does the man with all the power in Scotland suggest we do?
The Scottish input is clearly going to be marginal and the acceptance of our ideas limited. Brexit will not reflect our views – does not reflect our views. It is already a measure the nation has decisively voted against.
I repeat. How does the British government’s man advise us to proceed?
The answer is as it has always been. We must do as we are told. There is no escape route for, of course the Scots voted to stay in the UK and that must be respected (even if the Remain in the EU vote isn’t). The limit of Mundell’s vision is a suicide pact with England. At any cost, we remain united – until death us do part. That’s his recommendation. Take what you’re given and shut up. That’s what he’s here for – to convey the Brit message. The bag carrier delivers.
Remember David will be fine. There’s always a gilded life for retired politicians via the burgeoning Lords, directorships and grace-and-favour. No income cuts for him. No job loss. No problems with higher interest rates. That’ll be for the rest of us to bear.
How this represents protecting Scotland’s interest, I’m at a loss to say. In truth, no sane Scot claims it is in our national interest. Mundell is doing as he’s told. He has no separate vision for Scotland, no sense of responsibility beyond saving his job. This is not a good look for British interests in Scotland which doesn’t even have a normal shadow secretary of state either. It’s as if reality was mimicking the satire we have made of our UK government. Where once we had comparative giants in the shape of Younger and Dewar speaking for Scotland as leadership figures, now we have a makeweight jobsworth and a Northern MP nobody’s heard of. This is all heading in one direction…