Twenty-five years in politics is a silver anniversary worth celebrating
In 1978 in the Stirling University student magazine, ‘Brig’, a young Jack McConnell wrote of his passions; education, international development and the need to attack discrimination and inequality.
Back then these were issues fuelled by the evils of apartheid, the lack of opportunities for young people and the obvious gulf in celebrating diversity.
Back then the 18-year-old’s emerging politics were rooted in a Scotland facing many difficulties. In 1978 the Labour Government, headed by Jim Callaghan, was in its death throes, struggling for survival in an undignified battle not unlike the one faced by our current PM. Battling to get to grips with inflation and the power of the trade unions, there was little time for questions of party reform or for exploring the benefits of far-reaching policies that could meet the ideals of the teenage student fired up by an unjust world.
As a proud Scot, McConnell had briefly flirted as a 16-year-old with the SNP and the romantic idea of being a nationalist but just a year after his ‘Brig’ article was published and following the ‘Winter of Discontent’ and a vote of no confidence in Callaghan, Thatcher swept to power and McConnell’s political fate was sealed as he saw a reformed Labour being the only vehicle to help fulfill the change he wanted to see. In the same year he was the student convener of the Yes for Scotland campaign at Stirling University.
The “yes” campaign secured a majority of 52 per cent to 48 per cent in favour but it wasn’t enough to secure devolution. McConnell, however, was now a committed Labour man, a reformer and a definite supporter of constitutional change.
Today, a middle-aged McConnell may be a little greyer around the temples but his enthusiasm for devolution, for ironing out social inequities and for making a difference is in no way diminished.
“We were politicised by what was happening at the time and very few people of my age were not affected by the disappointment of what appeared to be a failure of an old-fashioned Labour style in the 1970s. It made us all modernisers in every sense of the need to change the way politics was done, both in the Labour Party and elsewhere. I joined the Labour Party in 1980, a year after Thatcher came to power and a year after the devolution referendum had failed, and when social and economic strife was starting to grow in a devastating way. Some of the things we held most precious in the education system, for instance, were being threatened so that was a time when if you had any concern by what was happening around you, you did become politicised. You might not have got directly involved in politics but partly because of the referendum in 1979 and partly because of the style Thatcher represented, I wanted to be part of a changing Scotland and it was a conscious decision that has affected my whole adult life.” McConnell was born in Irvine, Ayrshire, in 1960 and raised on a sheep farm on the Isle of Arran. After attending the local high school in Lamlash, he left island life to go to the University of Stirling, during which time he became heavily involved in student politics and rose to become President of the NUS. He joined the Labour Party a year after Thatcher became Prime Minister and in 1984, at the age of 24, he was elected to Stirling District Council, winning what had been a Conservative-held ward that included part of affluent Bridge of Allan.
In the 25 years since that first political appointment, he has been leader of Stirling District Council where he froze council tax, decentralised services and gave decisionmaking powers to local communities; he has been the General Secretary of the Labour Party, where he helped guide the party to the victory of 1997 in which the Tories were completely wiped out; in 1997 he co-ordinated Labour’s ‘Yes, Yes’ devolution referendum campaign and helped shape how the Scottish Parliament would be; he became an MSP in the first Scottish Parliament and was the longest-serving minister including being finance minister and education minister; he was First Minister of Scotland for five years – half of the Parliament’s life – and generated headline-making decisions about anti-social behaviour, introduced innovative education programmes, instigated an inquiry into the costs of the Scottish Parliament, initiated an international development project with Malawi and presided over the historic introduction of the public smoking ban. On a more negative note, he also presided over Labour’s defeat in the Scottish parliamentary elections in 2007 and ultimately stepped down as leader. However, he remains an MSP for Motherwell and Wishaw and is now also Gordon Brown’s special envoy to Africa.
So after a quarter of a century at the political sharp end, does he think he has made a difference?
“I do think I have made a difference and I have reflected a lot about that in the last two years since the defeat in 2007. I do look back and look at sacrifices made in terms of time with family and other things as a person that friends have done and I have not because of the time I have spent as a minister or when I was both a councillor, a council leader and a teacher at the same time. But I made a difference in Stirling which, even all these years on, is tangible and Stirling is still a great place to live and work and I and others made that happen in the late 80s and 90s. I made a difference to the Labour Party and helped drive it towards its biggest election victory in Scotland. I certainly helped bring about devolution and helped knock into shape the scheme that the Constitutional Convention was talking about and I have no doubt that in the last ten years the things I wanted to see done, I helped achieve.
“If I have regrets and I do have a regret that comes from hindsight [it] is that I didn’t put more of the things that I really cared about as First Minister into legislation. In education, for example, Determined to Succeed which has been a fantastic, innovative programme which has changed the culture of schools across Scotland and given children opportunities they wouldn’t have had and the Schools of Ambition programme, which has brought innovative methods into schools which have transformed the schools that are involved in it; I wish we had legislated to make them permanent features of the Scottish education system and not be subject to the whims of politicians of any party in the years to come.” What stopped him?
“At the time, I suppose, I thought that they were such an obviously good innovation that they would be kept going and maybe that was a judgement that I made on the goodwill of other politicians but of course, every politician wants to make their own mark.
I wish I had passed a Bill on government action on sectarianism – we passed individual pieces of legislation to tackle sectarianism but we did not pull it all together and put duties on ministers to keep that work going, at least in the short to medium term, until we had eradicated it. I really wish we had put forward a Bill on Project Scotland and again, a duty on ministers and local government to turn what had been a very successful programme into a permanent feature for the lives of Scottish youngsters. So there are areas where I think there was real progress but I do regret not putting some of those important pieces of work into legislation and making them permanent.” A more unkind interpretation would be that there was an arrogance on the part of Labour that it would always be in power so there was no need to legislate against political change and it is also that arrogance that helped the party lose the 2007 election.
He denies any complacency on his part and says that “anyone who thought we were definitely going to win that election was kidding themselves on [that]. It was a shock to a lot of other people. It was a devastating disappointment to me but not a shock”.
Meanwhile his party colleagues walked around the Parliament building looking shell-shocked. He, uncharacteristically for the leader of a party which had just lost power, stayed on in the role albeit briefly, saying he was proud to lead Holyrood’s largest-ever opposition group.
But McConnell returned to Holyrood a shadow of his former self. Privately, he admitted feeling lost and can remember having to steal himself to walk through the Garden Lobby past other MSPs as the now defeated leader. It was not an easy time for him or his party and he eventually announced his decision to step down, several months later. He says, simply, “I lost the election so I accepted the consequences on that.” The blow was softened somewhat with an announcement that he would be taking up the post of the High Commissioner to Malawi – which some saw as a gift given by Gordon Brown as a sop to prevent McConnell resigning his seat and forcing a by-election, which could have been devastating for an already devastated Labour Party. McConnell denies any deal was done.
“There was no deal,” he says emphatically.
“Look, it is also true to say that it might have been great to have a by-election at the time of the Glenrothes win when things were looking better for Scottish Labour, so why didn’t I go then? The Malawi post was not a factor in my decision to stay in 2007.
“I knew that the SNP would be given almost the permission by some sections of the media and others to make decisions that would have been very controversial if we had still been in government and made them; to go back on manifesto commitments and to remove funding from popular programmes.
That has been a part of the last two years that has surprised some people but has not surprised me and I saw it coming and believed immediately after the election result that there would be a willingness to give them that chance, so even if they were doing the wrong thing and making mistakes, they would get permission to do it for a certain amount of time and that has happened. I thought that the only way for Scottish Labour to respond would be to shake things up, bring new people in and start to rebuild rather than have the person that was perceived to be on the way out, and responsible for the defeat, clinging on. I would have had the confidence in my own personal abilities to shake things up and continue but I thought publicly, it would be more acceptable coming from someone new.” And does he feel Labour has become an effective opposition?
“Obviously they had a very difficult 12 months and that doesn’t need to be said, really, but I actually think that in the last 12 months Iain Gray has brought stability and a bit of focus to the work that they are doing and that is a good first step and he is stepping up the way he attacks from a place of opposition and that is part of what he has to do and his big challenge is to set out the manifesto for the future. The party machinery is modernising behind the scenes and there is an understanding that they have to make changes. The challenge is to make those changes work.” Didn’t he consider returning when people within the party were calling for his come back during Wendy Alexander’s unfortunate tenure?
“Loads of people say loads of things to me all the time…lots of people are very kind and very nice and very complimentary but I do not let that go to my head or excite me. I have a clear path of what I am going to do and there is a time to move on. I am not in this to manage the Labour Party; it is not what I came into politics for – there are times I have done that locally and nationally in the past and I had the absolute privilege of leading the Labour Party in Scotland but I don’t want to spend my time and my life managing a political party. I want to change things that need to be changed and I still have bags of energy and enthusiasm for my work and I have found new routes for that and there are things I have changed my mind about over the last few years, for instance, resigning my seat; there were times during those first six months when I wasn’t sure if it was the right thing for me to stay in the Parliament but by this time last year, I realised that that was something I did want and to see it to the end of the term at least and I am not making any quick decisions about whether to stand again either.” But wait a minute, how can he stand in 2011 when he will be in Malawi being the new High Commissioner?
“The position of High Commissioner in Malawi will be filled this spring by someone appointed by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and they could serve, I suppose, for anything approximately around three years so while there is still a desire for me to take up that position, there is no pressing need for me to do so in the next few years and there is also no pressing need for me to be the next High Commissioner. I am only 48 and that is a position I could take at some other time.” So is this a position that he could take whenever he wishes?
“We will all discuss that nearer the time.” Is there no time limit on it?
“There is an offer…” It sounds vague?
“That’s because it is vague. The PM has made me an offer of that position and there seems to be general view around that I would be good at that job but there are other jobs around and I am doing one now that is very fulfilling and achieving much more than I expected and I don’t have any regrets about that so, yes, it is vague but that’s because the situation has to be adaptable to different circumstances, including whether or not I am an MSP.” So, just to be clear, with Malawi there is an offer which he could take up?
“At some point we will have a discussion and the particular moment for that discussion will be when I am finished the piece of work that I am currently doing, which is expected to take over two years.” What if Brown is no longer PM? Is the offer still on the table?
“That would depend on the new PM.” It might not happen, then?
“I have tried not to speculate on that and I have had nothing but support from different parties for my work in Malawi but I have not asked anybody and I don’t have any guarantees. I have been asked to do a very important piece of work which I am doing and I will look at what happens next when that job comes to an end.” That job is his unpaid role as the Prime Minister’s Special Representative for Conflict Resolution Mechanisms, a role that has taken him to the UN, Europe and Africa.
“I am not in countries working to resolve conflicts but I am working on the international mechanisms that are there to resolve conflicts and the reason for this is because 30 per cent of the world’s conflicts that end in a peace agreement start again within five years because the local population, in many instances, perceives the police and justice system to be biased and sees a lack of development to get them out of poverty and into jobs, to give them education and clean water and better health, and the international community needs to deliver those things much more quickly and more effectively and the UN needs to take a lead on that.” What qualified him for that role?
“A commitment to the issue but also the experience of being FM on two counts because it is a decision-making position that gives you an understanding of authority and clarity about what you can do to push forward an issue like that and secondly, a lot of experience in building a devolved parliament, very peacefully and with consensus…” McConnell is undeniably an operator. The last two years have been a painful learning curve. Defeat was a hard lesson for a man that admits he likes to be on the winning side but he has come out at the end of it looking relaxed, comfortable and energised. He has displayed humility and a level of dignity that has impressed former colleagues and has resisted the persistent temptation to say, ‘I told you so’ or to return to the fray when the shouts of ‘Jack come Back’ were heard over the Wendy Alexander expenses din. He has, it would appear, settled into the role of wise backbencher.
“I made a conscious decision to act in a certain way since resigning from being FM.
There are a number of things that have happened in the last two years that have made me very, very angry but I am not going to be the former First Minister rent-a-quote, which lots of people would enjoy and would secure me front-page headlines every other day but that is not the way I wish to act.
“Scottish politics is constantly maturing and learning from its mistakes and one of the things I think I have done over the years is set standards that others can learn from, I tried to do it as a minister, as First Minister, tried to do it in standing down and treating the election defeat with a degree of respect and I am now saying that there is a role for former senior figures in this Parliament, there is a role for them in public life and politics, which is not just sniping away at your successors and I think I have proven that it is possible to find that role and get enjoyment and success in it, and I hope that is something others will learn from and we will find some of that immaturity that is still there dissipates.”