Watching Scottish Labour fade away made for awkward viewing

Never speak ill of the dead, our mothers instructed us, and I suppose that taboo extends to the dying.

But those shuffling off this mortal coil are encumbered by no such niceties. Indeed, they can be vicious, lashing out frantically at everyone else, dreading the looming inevitable.

Scottish Labour is raging against the dying of the light and swinging pathetically at its tormentors.

Monday’s The Fall of Labour wasn’t a post-mortem so much as one of those unpleasant scenes that sometimes play out in hospital rooms, as the family patriarch wheezes his final breaths while the children fight over the will.

The inheritance is meagre indeed in this case. The party of Keir Hardie has been driven from its tartan redoubts and the only place in Scotland that still raises the red flag is Morningside.

To survey the dire straits the party finds itself in, BBC Scotland brought together former leaders and senior figures in an hour that will have made painful viewing for the members and supporters who remain.

Even the most unforgiving Nationalist could not have indulged in schadenfreude, for the whole thing was just so desperately sad.

Jack McConnell told everyone Better Together was a terrible idea. Johann Lamont didn’t agree but she could see where he was coming from. Iain Grey had warned what was coming in May but no one listened. Westminster was to blame, the Holyrood side of the family claimed. No, it was those bumpkins up north, Westminster wailed of its embarrassing in-laws.

David Whitton disclosed that Ian Davidson had turned up for a selection meeting in his trackies. Davidson denied this. Helen Liddell, Stalin’s Granny herself, sighed: “Scottish Labour could start a fight in an empty house”. That’s a theory they’ll be able to test now.

Susan Deacon seemed happy to be long since away from it all and Henry McLeish had that look on his face like he’s still trying to work out why he hasn’t joined the SNP.

I’ve always liked Deacon (criminally underrated health minister) and Lamont is now a bona fide social media star. To my surprise, though, I was most impressed by Davidson, who looked refreshed and relieved after his defeat in May. Who would have thought being bayonetted could do such wonders for your complexion?

The abrasive former Glasgow South West MP cut through much of the self-serving bromides and was punishingly honest about the mediocrity of the Holyrood group and the paucity of ambition for the country. Donald Dewar, he charged, was “an intellectual and social snob” who didn’t really want a parliament but a forum for the great and the good to tell Scotland what was best for it. The cult of Dewar is lamentably durable and it was refreshing to hear someone assign part of the blame for Labour’s woes to the architect of devolution.

We can see now what a failure Dewar’s project was. The parliament set up to “kill the SNP stone dead” has given the Nationalists a platform from which to win and win again, finally cleaving all but the most hidebound of voters from the I’ve-Always-Voted-Labour party. But nor does Holyrood function properly as a legislature, lacking a revising chamber and independent committee chairs to check executive power.

Labour’s time in power was spent, Susan Deacon admitted, plotting how to “get one over on the Nats”. Their red-raw hatred of the SNP has scarred Scottish politics for a generation but Labour is largely to blame for the rise of the Nationalists.

If the SNP is the parliamentary wing of a grievance, it is not the first such example in Scottish politics. Labour became adept at drawing dividing lines between Scotland and Westminster, offering itself as the protector of Scottish interests against the London-centric political establishment. It scarcely mattered that the UK Labour Party was in with the bricks of that establishment.

Scots are given to melancholy and self-pity in heavy doses and no one ever lost an election north of the border by appealing to our inner victim. (At their height even the Tories stoked these flames, promising to safeguard Scotland’s autonomy from the centralising socialists of Whitehall.)

After stirring nationalist sentiment and building it a parliament of its very own, Scottish Labour were shocked when slicker, more authentic populists came along and dislodged them. It is a lesson that parties of the centre-left often learn the hard way: You cannot out-demagogue populists and if you try you will only succeed in legitimising their slogans.

This is where The Fall of Labour was strongest. It identified that the shifting fortunes of the two parties are not governed by ideology but by competence and incompetence, direction and disarray. Scotland has changed in some regards but in others it remains largely the same. The electorate wants to vote for low taxes and toughness on crime but wants to be told that it is progressive and compassionate at the same time. Labour once squared that circle and now the SNP does.

Despite the efforts of idealists to will the Nationalists into an analogue of Europe’s radical insurgencies, the party stubbornly squats in the neoliberal centre. Scottish politics has undergone not an ideological transformation but a commercial transaction — we’ve taken our business elsewhere. Far from being Syriza to Labour’s PASOK, the SNP is Google Chrome to Labour’s Internet Explorer. Scotland hasn’t revolted; we’ve upgraded.

The Nationalists have an iron grip on the flag, the narrative, and the centre ground. Scottish Labour cannot shift right; a punchy Tory leader has staked out that territory. It cannot reclaim the left for elections are not won and lost there. It has no power base at Westminster or Holyrood. It has no money. It has no leader.

Labour are not shuffling the deckchairs on the Titanic. They are in one of the lifeboats. And it’s got a huge gaping hole in it. And people are taking turns scooping out sea water with an empty Campbell’s soup can.

There is scope to needle the SNP on its lengthening charge sheet of policy failures but that is a complaint, not a vision for the exercise of power. The SNP, for all its flaws, is the only viable party of government in Scotland. (Quite why Kezia Dugdale wants to be Labour leader escapes me. She’s bright, talented, has a law degree and experience in the education sector. Go become a lawyer. Run a trade union. Start a business. Do something worthwhile with your life.)

The Fall of Labour hit all the right notes, even if it hit all the obvious ones too. “They were there because they were there because they were there,” Davidson said of Labour functionaries in local government at one point. The principle applied to some of the talking heads too. Henry McLeish was there so viewers could argue with their spouses about which one he was again and Gerry Hassan because he’d only moan about it if he wasn’t.

Last night’s proceedings benefited from a direct and accessible presenting style. A blokey insider affair fronted by a political editor might have been more satisfying for anoraks but would have struggled to find an audience.

But even Jackie Bird’s energy could not lift the sense of doom hanging over every minute of the documentary. At times it made for awkward viewing; you felt you were intruding on private grief.

Time to back away from Scottish Labour and let them mourn in peace.

Originally published on STV NewsFeature image © Eike Sauer by Creative Commons 3.0.

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