David Mundell is such a mainstay of Scottish politics, it will be odd not to see him at the despatch box batting away SNP grievances or plodding welly-deep through sodden fields extolling the wonders of Scottish produce at agricultural fairs. (He might say the two experiences have much in common.)
His sacking as Secretary of State for Scotland was not terribly surprising but will be seen by many as an ill omen. Mundell is a One Nation Tory — he was once, for his sins, a member of the SDP — and appears to be out-of-step with the Brexitocracy under which we are now to be ruled with zeal. What he lacks in ideological fervour, however, he more than made up for in staying power.
He was the longest-serving Scottish Secretary since Lord Lang and, 13-and-a-half years since David Cameron appointed him to his Shadow Cabinet, the longest-serving Scotland spokesman of either party since Willie Ross, who served under Harold Wilson.
Mundell grew personally and politically over those years. The nickname ‘Fluffy’ outlasted the character type it lampooned. Before long, he had become a leaner, cannier political beast, sometimes to his own cost and that of his colleagues.
A scathing memo he penned about Scottish Tory MSPs, of which he had been one of the original elected in 1999, was leaked ahead of the 2007 Holyrood election. It caused a minor scandal and required egos to be ironed out but proved a helpful lesson in the cut-throat nature of politics.
In his personal life, he finally felt able to come out in 2016, making him the first openly gay Tory Cabinet minister and sending an important message about how much his party and society had changed. The same year, he saw his son Oliver win a seat in the Scottish Parliament.
His tenure was dominated by the independence referendum. In 2013, he told Commons colleagues the choice was between ‘whether we will be a Scotland that affirms its commitment to this, our United Kingdom, or whether we will be a Scotland that chooses to leave the greatest political, economic and social union that has ever existed. I make no apology for putting my point of view strongly and passionately… Separation will not be for Christmas 2014, but forever.’
He brought this certainty of purpose to bear on his efforts against independence, refusing to retreat to mere economic arguments for the Union and championing its historical and cultural virtues too. In doing so, he reflected the earthy, unaffected Unionism of his constituents in Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale, a red white and blue redoubt that held out against the Nationalist tsunami of 2015.
Whatever he goes on to do in his career, Mundell will be remembered as a key figure in that campaign to save the Union and as the Secretary of State who finally took the fight to the Nationalists. He is not a shouter or a brawler — a swaggering political hardman would not go down well in the pastoral shires of Dumfries — but he grasped as too few of his predecessors did the necessity of politely but firmly reminding the SNP that Scotland had two governments, and they only mismanaged one of them. His clubbable, wit-laced approach to the vicissitudes of political life made him a favourite amongst opponents and journalists.
Given all this, questions are already being asked about the wisdom of dispensing with his services. True, he and the new Prime Minister do not see eye-to-eye on many matters but that is nothing new. Margaret Thatcher rarely found herself in comity with her second Scottish Secretary, the wet and waspish Malcolm Rifkind, but she kept him around for four years because she understood the value of his experience and familiarity with Scottish affairs, matters she had neither the time nor the inclination to master.
Like Sir Malcolm, Mundell amassed a great deal of institutional knowledge and his strategic thinking was buttressed by many years of learning on the job. These are assets that cannot be picked up overnight and while their worth might not be immediately obvious to the outsider’s eye, their absence will be felt soon enough.
Like Mrs Thatcher, Johnson does not have a firm grip on the intricacies of Scottish politics but unlike her, he faces an SNP at the peak of its power and armed with the many munitions devolution puts at their disposal. The Brexit deadline and Holyrood elections in 2021 augur fresh hostilities over the future of the Union. It is a confident field marshal indeed who sacks his best general on the eve of battle.
Originally published in the Scottish Daily Mail. Letters: email@example.com. Contact Stephen at firstname.lastname@example.org. Feature image © UK Government by Creative Commons 2.0.