JOYCE MCMILLAN for The Scotsman 28.8.10
ON THURSDAY EVENING, AT AROUND seven o’clock, the former First Minister of Scotland, Jack McConnell, announced his decision to retire from electoral politics at the end of the current Scottish Parliament, and to concentrate on his activities as a working peer in the House of Lords, with a special interest in international development. Within minutes, of course, the internet was loud with the noise of the comment-strand pundits having their say; and a rude and strident sound it was.
“Good riddance”, they roared, and “Thank god for that – useless man”. Many accused McConnell of treachery and cowardice simply for belonging to the Labour Party, rather than the SNP. And many made bitter and jeering references to his various pensions, and the £300 a day stipend for which he will be eligible when he attends the House of Lords. At around £60,000 a year in pensions, plus another £30,000 if he spends 100 days a year in the Lords, McConnell’s likely earnings are in fact modest by boss-class standards.
Yet still, in a climate where any money paid to a politician is routinely seen as too much, that seems to most people like a lavish income for a man like McConnell, an ordinary boy from a sheep-farm in Arran who decided to go into politics, and who became, from 2002 to 2007, the leading politician in Scotland’s first elected parliament for 300 years. There’s snobbery in some of what is written about McConnell, in other words. But there’s also a bitter and enduring conviction that most politicians are up to no good; and that the more they need to be paid a professional salary and expenses for their work, the less trustworthy and disinterested they are likely to be.
And in that sense, it seems to me that there is something archetypal about Jack McConnell’s career, and the way in which it sums up some of the weaknesses and disconnections in our present political culture. In the first place, he came to power as an ordinary kind of guy at a time when, for leading politicians, ordinary was no longer good enough. If he had remained a schoolteacher, he would probably have become the headmaster of a large comprehensive. He might have earned very little less than he does now, and he would have retired in a warm glow of congratulations and good wishes; his private life, unless it involved extremely abusive behaviour, would have remained his own. Because McConnell went into politics, though, he was compelled to make a full and humiliating public confession of a minor extramarital affair; and then, like all politicians, to endure, year in and year out, the casual personal abuse of people who have never met him, and have no idea of his real moral character.
Then secondly, Jack McConnell was a Labour politician at a time when his party was running out of intellectual steam, trapped between a New Labour leadership locked in an absurd sweetheart relationship with runaway capitalism, and an Old Labour tradition that no longer resonated with voters. Like all Labour leaders of his generation, McConnell bears some responsibility for the party’s failure to get to grips with the ideological argument, and to start reinventing new forms of social democracy for the 21st century. But from his first election to Stirling Council, back in 1982, McConnell always presented himself as a practical politician, rather than a party intellectual; and always asked to be judged on policies delivered and changes made, rather than on ideas floated and speeches delivered.
And the third and final irony of his career lies in the fact that he was that kind of practical politician, in an age when most voters – guided by spin and image-building – have all but lost the art of making any realistic assessment of actual political achievement. In truth, Jack McConell’s political record, particularly as First Minister, is a finely balanced one. On the debit side, he failed to energise and expand Scotland’s private sector during the years of plenty, wore a pin-striped kilt in New York with a lamentable lack of style, and – perhaps most unforgivably – sacked some of the most taleted politicians in Scotland from his cabinet, in order to reduce the chances of internal disagreement and dissent.
On the credit side, he presided over five years of well-negotiated coalition government, worked tirelessly to represent Scotland on the international stage, and – outstandingly – faced down some of the darkest forces in his own party to honour a coalition commitment to introduce proportional representation in Scottish local government. This last measure, at a stroke, destroyed the old Labour fiefdoms in council chambers across Scotland; and after just one election held under the new system, we are still only beginning to glimpse the extent of the revolution it entails.
Yet somehow, our public culture does not allow for the recognition of such a complicated real-life career. Instead, we are supposed to takes sides: to lionise McConnell as a heroic and brilliant champion of humanity if we are among his friends, and to dismiss him as a corrupt buffoon if we are not, when in fact we all know that the truth lies somewhere between those extremes.
Even in these sceptical times, in other words – when the relationship between people, parties and politicians is all but broken – we often seem to find it possible, at the funerals of dead politicians, to imagine that they at least intended to do some good. Yet we seem increasingly unable to believe anything so positive of those politicians who are still alive, and drawing their salaries. At just 50 , the new Lord McConnell is likely to be around for many decades to come. And that means that many of us may not live to read the obituaries that will one day tell us what we should have thought of him; if we had judged the living man with all the wisdom, generosity, and balance we typically bring to our assessments of those who are gone, and who can no longer even try to change the world we live in, for better or worse.