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Labour pains: an interview with Jack McConnell

© Anna Moffat

Labour pains: an interview with Jack McConnell

Jack McConnell was president of the students’ union at Stirling University when I began my degree there in 1980. Richard Leonard was also there – same halls of residence, and same economics course as me. 

And undoubtedly, while Scotland can feel like a very small place sometimes, forty-plus years on, I am the only one of the three of us never to have been elected leader of the Scottish Labour Party. 

Walking onto campus and into the Pathfoot Building, where I also met my husband at the freshers’ disco in 1983 – although neither of us qualified as a fresher at the time [a story for another day], I recognise the now much more mature receptionist as the one-time gatekeeper to the principal’s office, back in the day. 

She reminds me that the university’s now chancellor, one Jack McConnell, was also the firebrand student leader who got past her to occupy the principal’s office in the late 70s in protest at student homelessness. 

In fact, McConnell took the traditional student sit-in to a whole other level by being part of a siege occupying the administration offices for a number of nights, and bedding down in the university’s court room in his sleeping bag. Heady days. And nights. 

So, how does Baron McConnell, former Scottish Labour leader, first minister of Scotland from 2001 to 2007, and now with a seat in the House of Lords, the very epitome of the establishment, reconcile his more radical political past with how he presents today? 

“I don’t know if I’ve ever actually stopped being that radical person,” he laughs. “I’ve always been angry. But I’ve also always been very good at containing the anger and using it for a purpose. So yeah, I’m still angry. I’m angry about lots of stuff around the world. Right now, I’m very angry about what’s just happened in Afghanistan, for example. And I spent most of August being very angry, so angry, that I went over my time in the Lords and got cut off when I was speaking about Afghanistan. I lost control of time but not my anger. 

“Look, I didn’t plan this all out. I came from a very non-political background, you know, growing up on the sheep farm on the Isle of Arran and that background, it’s very real. And growing up having no connection with politics at all is very real. 

“I didn’t know any politicians. I was basically politicised, domestically politicised, by the TV and the broadcast of The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black, Black Oil and other cultural experiences of the 70s. 

“I was politicised internationally by the Soweto children’s massacre, also on the TV. I also read a lot. So, by the time I got to university, I was very political but that wasn’t a career choice, I wanted to be a maths teacher, that was what I always wanted to be. 

“Sure, I had met MPs who were on holiday on Arran, but I would never have seen myself being in that position, it just wasn’t even in my thinking, not in my grasp. 

“And in fact, while I was obviously involved in student politics, it wasn’t until I met Margo MacDonald at the university in 1981, and she said to me, ‘So, when are you going to be an MP?’ that I even thought about it. 

“I would never have visualised myself as having that kind of status in society. I just wouldn’t have considered it for the likes of me and I guess that question from Margo did ignite something.” 

McConnell reveals to me that he actually did have more in common with MacDonald than she realised. He had in fact been a card-carrying member of the SNP from the age of 16, having joined his local branch on Arran when he was still at school. 

However, he says increasingly, he found it too difficult to reconcile his international interests with nationalism. And by about the end of his first year as an undergraduate at Stirling, and certainly by the time he was about 19 years old, the SNP membership had been dumped in favour of joining the Labour Party. 

And while today the similarities between the social democratic politics of the SNP and Scottish Labour may have got lost in the toxicity of the constitutional question, he believes that he and the current first minister likely shared a common political rooting on the left which could have seen either of them share a party affiliation. 

“I think in different circumstances, you know, with different influences overall as a young person, I think Nicola may have been a Labour activist in her youth rather than an SNP activist, but I think she was influenced by where she was living, her family, and you know, at that time, in the late 1980s, which is when she was doing what I was doing in the late 1970s, the Labour Party was struggling to be a radical alternative on issues like the poll tax, and I understood at that time why a few people like her would have joined the SNP rather than Labour.” 

But it is the rise in the SNP’s support to ultimately replace Labour’s hegemony over Scotland that is the key story of the last twenty years, and I wonder why his party failed to see that coming. 

He sighs: “Identity politics and an understanding of nationalism is something Labour in Scotland has struggled with and interestingly, if you look across Europe and even further afield, what used to be essentially class-based politics, in terms of a sense of oneness and of values, parties have completely struggled to deal with identity politics in a sort of 21st century world, and not just identity politics, but other political issues, like the environment. 

“In some countries, that has been reflected in the rise of the Green Party of Ireland, for instance. In other countries, there’s been nationalist parties of the left, right and centre and, you know, in many parts of Europe, the old social democratic parties are in an even worse position than the Scottish Labour Party. 

“The Greeks, for instance, and until very recently, the Germans have really struggled. And so, it’s not just the challenge for the Scottish Labour Party, it’s a challenge for social democracy everywhere, to find a way of being relevant and radical in the 21st century. 
“I think the SNP identified in the 90s that the only way that they were going to put themselves in a majority position would be to replace the Labour Party in Scotland and not to coexist with them. And I think that was a very clear strategy for them. 

“I think on the Labour side, particularly in older generations, there was an absolute commitment to the redistributive nature of the UK that meant that they saw nationalism as being directly opposed to the social democratic objectives. They would find different ways of expressing that, not everyone would have articulated it in that way, but essentially, that was the core problem. 

“So, on one side, the SNP replaced Labour to become dominant. On the other side, traditional Labour people were instinctively pro-Union because British institutions had largely been at the centre of redistribution for 40 years in the periods of Labour governments and what you’ve now got, in the 21st century, is the question of has that now been a thing of the past and so, therefore, how does Scottish Labour respond to that? 

“I think the problem, one of the many problems, for us, was that that argument was never articulated in those terms and so Labour became, not at every level, but certainly in terms of Scottish Labour representatives in the UK Parliament, they became de facto defenders of the Union, and they would describe being pro-Union as a value. Which it isn’t. It’s a constitutional construct. That was just ridiculous. 

“So being pro-Union became a value at certain levels, for some people in the Labour Party, rather than being pro-redistribution through the Union, which would have been a much more politically logical and interesting argument. And because of this pro-Unionism, as opposed to pro-redistribution being seen as a Labour value, then anybody like me, who was more Scottish than British, was perceived by some people as being a little bit off.” 

“I think, amongst too many senior people in the Labour Party, that principled argument for devolution within the UK wasn’t articulated enough and we allowed that debate, over a decade after the parliament was created, to become between Scotland being in the Union or not in the Union’’ 

The demise of Labour’s political hold on Scotland is the story of devolution and I wonder for McConnell, as one of the key proponents of devolution, where he believes his party got it wrong. 

“There were things at almost every stage,” he says. “But that’s probably true for any political party. I mean, there are those things that the SNP must look back on and think what they could have done that may have won them the 2014 referendum. Every political party makes mistakes. 

“But I think the thing that went wrong, at its core, in the post-devolution Labour Party, is that there was a real split between the majority of members of the Scottish Parliament, who, whatever they might have thought in 1999, came to believe in the Scottish Parliament as an instrument of progress and a good thing in itself, and that contrasted with the majority, probably the majority, of MPs who found it difficult to come to terms with that new framework where they had less responsibility at Westminster than they’d had before and they felt a bit threatened, seeing that [the Scottish Parliament] as a positive development. 

“There were no doubts in my mind about the positives of devolution between the 1970s and my period as first minister. Absolutely none. I wanted devolution. I became, at the age of about 18 or 19, absolutely convinced that the right way to govern the United Kingdom was, one, to be in the European Union, which was ahead of my time given the people on the left of the Labour Party I was working with at that time and there weren’t many of us saying that at the time, but secondly, also inside the UK. 

“I was mixing with young people and older people on the left of the Labour Party, not the traditional kind of pro-European centre of the Labour Party types, but I was very strongly of the view that the argument against the European Union was a silly kind of nationalist argument. 

“But I also became absolutely convinced that the way to govern the UK internally was to have some responsibilities that were UK-wide, and some that were devolved to Scotland, and that that democratic deficit in Scotland – when we passed laws in certain areas that were exclusively Scottish but then those laws were not controlled by an elected Scottish Parliament – was a fundamentally undemocratic situation that had to be rectified. I never wavered from that principle. 

The detail along the way in terms of what I debated in my own head of how to construct the parliament, what sort of powers it should have, how far we should go in terms of economic and tax powers and so on, may have moved, but the actual constitutional construct was always really clear in my head. 

“I think, amongst too many senior people in the Labour Party, that principled argument for devolution within the UK wasn’t articulated enough and we allowed that debate, over a decade after the parliament was created, to become between Scotland being in the Union or not in the Union, rather than what was essentially the argument for having some power at the UK level, because that’s the best way to govern the nations of the United Kingdom, and some power which is then exercised autonomously in Scotland via an elected Scottish Parliament. 

“I also think the language around that is really important, so I have always talked about the four nations, I always talked about the United Kingdom, rather than Britain. I strongly objected when different Labour leaders in the post-Blair era talked about one nation and not four nations. 

“I’ve always thought that was a big mistake. Ed Miliband, in particular, embraced the one-nation position at a time when that was catastrophic for the Scottish Labour Party; his timing could not have been worse. I’ve always been really clear in my own head about the right of the Welsh to identify their own constitutional position, the right of the Scots, the right of the Northern Irish, the rights of the English, to ultimately all make their own decisions. 

“The UK is not one nation, it’s a multinational construct. It’s the most successful one in the world. But until Labour, not just Scottish Labour but Labour as a whole is comfortable describing it in that way, then we’re always going to look a bit out of sorts because that’s how the people personally feel. Not just in Scotland any more, but in every part of the UK, that’s how people feel.

“But I just find the polarisation of politics, and of debate since the referendum in 2014, has now got us essentially stuck. We’re really no further forward than we were in the autumn of 2014. 

“The years before that were understandably dominated by the fact that there was going to be a referendum. And in that, I think that the Scottish Government, tactically, played a blinder and almost won, and the forces in favour of Scotland staying in the UK played an opposite of whatever playing a blinder is, but basically, they kept shooting themselves in the foot and almost lost. 

“Basically because they didn’t know how to argue for devolution. 

“But put that to one side, since the aftermath of the vote, basically, we are where we were back then and putting the pandemic to one side, almost nothing has changed in Scotland since the referendum. 

“Not just in terms of public opinion, but in terms of everything else as well, education, employment and so on. Some things are slightly worse and at its heart is the polarisation around the constitutional issue. Public discourse in Scotland has got us to a stage where there is no potential in the immediate future, I don’t think, to change any of the policies or the delivery in areas where things could be improved, because all we are doing is waiting for the next referendum. 

“There’s a lack of accountability. There’s a lack of, let’s be honest, real discussion. If somebody makes a comment, positive or negative, about either the Scottish Government or the UK Government or about any public service or legislation or issue, then what they say is immediately categorised by where they are perceived to stand on the constitutional issue. 

“And nobody engages with the actual issue itself. So, we have basically no public debate and no public accountability. 

“And this is the exact opposite of what I believed and hoped for from the age of 18 about devolution… [McConnell’s voice starts to break and his eyes well up] …sorry, I’m feeling quite emotional about it right now. I mean, I spent my whole adult life, from the age of 18 to the age of 38, trying to get that Scotland Act passed because I believed that if you had a devolved parliament in Scotland, you could create a new quality of public debate in Scotland, that we would see us making, mostly, the right choices and vitally, improving life across every part of Scotland. 

“I absolutely believed that’s what it would mean, and I think we tried to do that. But I think we’re in a situation now where probably Scotland is worse than it has ever been. And I find that just incredibly sad. I’m really, really, sad. Really, I mean, really. I’ve just found this year sad, everything about the Scottish Parliament election this year, before, during and after it. We just seem stuck. 

“The drugs issue, for example, yes, it is complicated, but we’ll be no further forward on it, I guarantee you, by this time next year. There are real serious issues in the Scottish education system, for instance, and I am less bothered about whose fault it is, the fact that we’re not seriously talking about it is what concerns me. I worry about the Scottish economy and have been since the banking crash. 

“Where’s the progress, the big ideas? I despair about the delivery of transport. I cannot believe that we’ve had rail strikes every Sunday in Scotland since January or February and there hasn’t been even a public argument about it until the last couple of weeks when it may have affected COP. 

“I mean, the idea of devolution was to create better public debate in Scotland and more accountability. And it seems to me that we’ve ended up in a place where we have the opposite. And I don’t know how to change that. All my life, I’ve had strong views on what needed to be done and how you can change it. And yes, I stepped back after I’d left the leadership to let other people have their own space, but I’ve always had opinions on what needs to be done to improve the country. But right now, I genuinely feel like we are stuck in treacle and I don’t know how we get out of it. 

“The best example of devolution you could pose is of ministers doing their jobs well. And I mean, you look at the situation in transport, in education, in care-experienced kids, and you wonder whether we even have ministers. And so, whether that’s the first minister’s fault or their fault, I’m not too bothered, but you’ve got a real problem. 

“And it’s the lack of accountability for poor performance. People just don’t get kicked out of the cabinet. And that’s been a problem for the last 14 years, not just a problem in the last seven years. 

“And then I think the other thing is that if you’re not working across divides, then it is harder to deliver on the hardest subjects. And I don’t sense, today, that kind of engagement, that collaboration, is happening. In fact, I know it’s not there. 

“Last year on education, for example, there was no engagement with people, regardless of political party, regardless of what they said about something else last week, or what they might say about you today or in the future. 

“There’s just a lack of engagement. I don’t want to get too personal but if I had been the first minister last year as we were coming out of that situation with the schools, and there was all this row about whether there was enough support and so on, I would have called the 32 directors of education onto a tough call and just listened to them for a couple of hours. 

“And I would have worked out by the end of that what needed to be done. I may have spoken to one or two of them privately, before or after the call as well, but that level of engagement just doesn’t exist right now. 

“I was really so angry about the education thing because it was so unnecessary. It’s not impossible to bring people in and talk but it was also the denial of there even being an issue. 
“You know, admitting it is hard, I mean, everybody knew it was hard, dealing with schools in the pandemic, but engage with the fact that it’s hard to talk about, find solutions, get people on board to help. I’ve gone from that kind of raw anger to just kind of... I don’t know, [sighs], exasperation, which I’ve never felt about Scotland before.” 

I’m struck by how emotional McConnell is by the Scotland he describes. As an enthusiastic advocate of devolution, I ask him whether he actually believes we are a better country in 2021 than we were pre-99? 

The minutes tick by before a clearly moved McConnell says: “I think the fact that I’m hesitating to answer that is probably partly why I’m so sad. I mean I genuinely never had a doubt that this was the right thing to do. 

“That creating democratic accountability inside Scotland, for most domestic legislation, with a voice for Scotland on other things as well, was going to be a good thing for the country. 

“But right now it just feels that we are stuck in a situation where we’re not sure how we improve things anymore. And then you bring that into individual issues. 

“And I look at this around something which you’re heavily involved in Mandy, around the self-identification of trans men and women, and the way that most people are not engaged in it, but those that are engaged in it are so polarised. It’s almost worse than the constitutional debate in terms of the level of polarisation. And is there one politician today trying to bring those two sides together to have a conversation? No, there is not. 

“This is delicate, personal... it’s a fundamental argument about who we are that’s going on here, among people who feel very, very strongly about their own position. But we’re in a situation where our politics is so detached from genuine conversations that nobody’s getting involved from the political side to see how to find a way to discuss this and then see if there’s a way through to the other end. I think it’s a microcosm of the wider kind of malaise, a lack of confidence in being able to have an open debate that crosses political divides, crosses constitutional debates. 

“The Section 2A argument is an interesting comparison in some ways. The policy to abolish Section 2A which banned so-called promotion of homosexuality in schools was announced without enough preparation. And there was this hostile reaction to it and people became very polarised very quickly. 

“And interestingly Nicola was in a different place back then, calling for guarantees and safeguards for parents and children. So there was a real polarisation for about a year. And there were people in the cabinet who were basically saying those people who are arguing against this abolition are complete nutcases and we should refuse to engage with them at all, we should charge on with this, and all will be okay in a few years time. 

“And there were others inside the cabinet, some more publicly than others, saying something different. 

“I was arguing behind the scenes that what we needed to do was have a discussion because if you have the discussion starting from first principles, human rights and respecting each other, the right outcomes become more obvious. 

“So, what’s my argument? Well, somebody needs to start finding a way of bringing the sides together on the GRA reform. But then I think about the anger driving this polarisation in the Scottish context, and I do think that this is a microcosm of the wider issue that you no longer engage with those with whom you disagree. And that disagreement trumps everything. And then I sort of come back to my sadness again. And, I think... oh, God, how have we got here?” 

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