Identity crisis

Written by on 19 January 2015 in Editor's note

To paraphrase Eminem, would the real Jim Murphy please stand up, please stand up…

I chaired a referendum debate in London’s King’s College last March, ostensibly between the SNP’s Stewart Hosie and Labour’s Jim Murphy. There were others on the panel but they became increasingly peripheral [apologies to Ipsos Mori’s Mark Diffley who was very good] as the fight boiled down to being between the two main men.

Two Scottish MPs, one claiming not to be a Unionist while undeniably there to defend the Union, the other proud to be a Nationalist and aware that those definitions wound his opponent up no end.

“I’m not an effing Unionist,” Murphy continually whispered in my ear, getting more and more irate as Hosie laboured [pardon the pun] the point that if you walk with the Unionists, talk like a Unionist, and are there to fight for the Union then, effectively, you are a Unionist. I said much the same to Murphy myself. He scowled.

I presume he did the same thing last week when he read the none-too-flattering headlines following his cosy tête à tête with the Scottish Parliament’s political journalists in which he proclaimed that he had never been a Unionist. 

But when not even the Telegraph’s arch Unionist, Alan Cochrane is willing to take that assertion seriously then you know you’ve thrown a curve ball badly. In fact, all at lunch apparently failed to see the serious side of Murphy’s claim, rooted as it was in a complex, archaic, and frankly bizarre argument based on the origins and differences between a unionism born of religious divides and one emanating from trade unionism. 

The problem for Murphy was that during the referendum he was more rabid about the Union than the most rabid of ultra Unionists. And now when he conveniently wants to distance himself from them – as he reinvents himself as more Scottish than the next Scottish Nationalist – our memories are just too long and the distance travelled just too short to forget.

It’s not the first time that I’ve sat in front of a politician when they’ve said one thing about their long-held views when all the evidence suggests another. But then Jim Murphy is making a bit of a habit of redefining all that he is and all that he stands for. Universalism, devolution, tuition fees, being on the right of the party, not standing for the Scottish Labour leadership, being a Blairite, Yes voters being nationalists – these are all things that he appears to have done something of a U-turn on. This time, however, it depends on his audience suspending belief and resorting to amnesia. Oh, look, there’s a squirrel.

There’s no doubt that over time all our politics can and do change. That’s healthy. Just look at Scotland. But with just three short months to go before we go to the polls, I’m not sure anyone is buying the new, highly flexible, be anything you want me to be, Mr Murphy. 

"To paraphrase Eminem, would the real Jim Murphy please stand up, please stand up…"

And I’m not at all surprised that amid all this, Ruth Davidson, leader of the Scottish Conservatives, and a proud Unionist, who had, by all accounts, a good referendum and embraced with great gusto her political opponents to stand side-by-side with Jim Murphy and his ilk for the greater good, should now feel betrayed. This is a man that says they only came together for just one day when, in fact, the commitment was for so much more. Two years and three months more. Ruth must feel quite used. 

In response to Murphy’s most recent claims, she tweeted: ‘So, Jim Murphy chases yes voters claiming he’s no Unionist. Well, I am. I’m Scottish and British & proud to be both.’ Prompting others to reply that Murphy was shedding his old clothes so fast that he would soon claim to be the Naked Rambler.

To paraphrase Eminem, would the real Jim Murphy please stand up, please stand up…

Murphy claims his Scottish Damascene moment came as he toured the country stood on an Irn-Bru crate, mixing with the masses, peddling an argument for a Union that he now says he’s not really a card-carrying supporter of. Well, not in the strictest sense of what a Unionist should be. And that’s a distinctly Labour problem of falling into political definitions to justify an argument when the world has simply moved on. A modern-day interpretation of what a Unionist means in the context of the referendum puts Murphy firmly in that camp.

Murphy’s challenge is not to show his Scottish credentials by rewriting his referendum journey or putting a kilt on his party; it is to recognise that the Scottish electorate has changed and so has the SNP. He’s been a Scottish MP for 17 years and it’s as if he hasn’t lifted his eyes above Westminster to witness that change.

Glasgow man, as he has defined it, or woman or child for that matter, is a more informed, more engaged and more inquisitive being than the one that used to put a cross in the box for the apocryphal monkey wearing a red rosette – if in fact they voted at all. The Scottish electorate will not now be so easily fooled.

Jim Murphy is determined to prove that his party is the only truly progressive party in Scotland. A party of the left that can encompass the views of those that voted ‘yes’ but who may feel more at home in a truly independent and socialist Scottish Labour Party. His time is short and his arguments woolly. Pretending not to be something that he clearly is could leave him with more than just egg on his face.

The battle for Westminster now lies in whether the electorate buys into an argument that if they vote Labour, they get Labour, or whether they believe reality that if they vote Labour, they could still get the Tories. They also are now fully cognisant of the fact that they have another choice, which is if they vote SNP, there’s the chance they get a coalition that requires the support of a party that has already evolved into the party that Jim Murphy seems to be desperately trying to replicate under a Scottish Labour banner.

Instead of outbidding the SNP on nurses, universalism and on Scottishness, he needs to have Scottish Labour defined not by what the SNP are but what they are not. 

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