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Jack McConnell the unlikely hero of democracy

The story so far: The former Liberal Democrat leader, Sir Ming Campbell, last week spilled the beans on his and Gordon Brown’s attempts to prevent the SNP taking office after the May election. Secret talks were held – over the heads of their own Scottish parties – about how to keep Alex Salmond’s paws off the £30bn Scottish Executive budget. Brown wanted a new Liberal -Labour coalition to seize power even if the SNP won, on the grounds that it would have a majority of seats in parliament.

It may have come as no surprise to learn that Gordon Brown tried to fix the result of the Holyrood election, Do bears defecate in afforested areas? Nevertheless, it’s rare in political history to have conspiracy theories confirmed so soon after the event. It will now go down in nationalist mythology that Gordon Brown launched a plot to overturn the democratic will of the Scottish people, like some unionist Robert Mugabe.

Meanwhile, Jack McConnell, the former First Minister, has emerged as an unlikely home rule hero for having had the bottle to stand up to Brown. For we also learned last week that Brown wanted Labour MSPs to vote for “anyone but Salmond” for First Minister, even if that meant voting a Tory or Liberal Democrat into Bute House. Jack McConnell refused and told Brown bluntly to get his tanks off his lawn.

I have been told independently that Jack McConnell was indeed expected to step aside after the election to make way for Wendy Alexander, who would have been installed as leader without a contest on the Monday after the election. McConnell’s refusal to stand down is regarded by influential figures in the Westminster government as the proximate cause of Labour’s downfall. Jack still isn’t on the prime minister’s christmas card list even now.

Incredible stuff. Explains a great deal, and suggests that Brown was Labour’s own worst enemy in Scotland. Not only had he set his face against any review of tax powers – the very review which he has now,belatedly, agreed to set up – he had also failed to understand the dynamics of a proportional parliament. In Holyrood, where all parties are minorities, governments cannot simply be fixed by executive fiat in the way they can be in a winner-takes-all system like Westminster. Here, things work by consensus, or not at all, and attempts to rig the consensus are invariably counterproductive.

Everyone in Scottish politics knew or guessed what was going on over that manic May weekend, including the Scottish Tories. They were under pressure to join in the “pan-unionist anti-SNP coalition” to save the Union from the Salmond menace. However, they wisely realised that this could be fatal to their future electoral credibility. If the Scottish Conservatives had appeared to salvage a lacklustre Labour administration, which had been rejected by the voters, not just in Holyrood but in council chambers across Scotland, they would be tainted by association. They kept their own counsel, and allowed Salmond to be installed as a minority leader dependent on their votes.

The Liberal Democrats had a kind of nervous breakdown. Aware that their UK leader was in cahoots with Brown, and unable to seize the political advantage, they lost the plot. They didn’t want to prop up Labour any more than the Tories did, and nor did they want to be seen as Brown’s little helpers. But nor were they free to do any deals with the SNP,

The logical thing would of course have been to enter coalition talks, as the Liberal Democrats did in Wales. Most of the Scottish Liberal Democrats policies were a direct match with the SNP manifesto, on nuclear power, local income tax, student fees etc.. The Libdems had a very strong hand to play, and could almost certainly have won a constitutional convention and blocked any referendum on independence within the lifetime of the parliament, since Alex Salmond didn’t have the numbers to deliver a referendum bill. The Libdems could have presented themselves as saviours of the union, and kept their ministerial motors too.

If they hadn’t won an assurance from Alex Salmond on the constitution, they could have walked out of the talks, declaring that the SNP were sectarians only interested in separatism. It certainly looked like a no brainer, but grey matter was in short supply. The Liberal Democrats, knowing Sir Ming Campbell’s antipathy to any nationalist deal, refused even to discuss a coalition with the SNP. Sir Ming Campbell hosted a ‘pizza summit’ at his Edinburgh home with his Scottish leaders, on the night following the election after which they: “packed away our pizza boxes and any possibility of a coalition deal with the SNP”.

Why was Sir Ming so opposed even to talking with the Nats? Presumably because Brown would have gone nuclear and told him to forget any possibility of Liberal Democrats being part of a UK coalition after the next general election. The machinations over the Scottish government were clearly part of a bigger game in which the Liberal Democrats were hoping for a role in the UK government under future- prime minister Brown if Labour lost its Westminster majority. Sir Ming could reasonably have become foreign secretary, or possibly even deputy PM.

Anyway, having failed to get the Scottish Liberal Democrats to revive the Holyrood coalition under Labour leadership, Brown ordered his troops to seek out and back anyone who could win a majority in the Scottish parliament, even if that meant supporting Nicol Stephen. Jack McConnell balked at the prospect of becoming deputy to his former deputy and dismissed the idea in what is reported as a “blazing row” with the future Prime Minister.

Looking back, it was senseless for Brown and Ming Campbell to behave like imperial governors of an Indian province under the Raj. Their meddling has damaged the credibility of their own Scottish parties who now look like unionist stooges. Historians will argue for decades about exactly what happened during those fateful forty eight hours in May, but the are likely to judge that Jack McConnell was the only person in the Labour leadership who really understood the political significance of the result. That Labour’s hegemony was over, at least for the moment, and that trying to hold back history would only damage the party even further.

It speaks volumes that the First Minister was kept in the dark over the backstage dealings over the future governance of Scotland. But perhaps it was as well for Jack that he wasn’t informed because at least he can say his hands are clean. For his stand against Brown’s ‘unionist fix’ McConnell may even in time become something of a national hero – the man who stood up for Scottish democracy, even though it meant defying his party leader. Now there’s a turn-up for the books!

About @iainmacwhirter

I'm a columnist for the Herald. Author of "Road to Referendum" and "Disunited Kingdom". Was a BBC TV and radio presenter for 25 years - "Westminster Live" and "Holyrood Live" mainly. Spent time as columnist for The Observer, Guardian, New Statesman. Former Rector of Edinburgh University. Live in Edinburgh and spend a lot of time in the French Pyrenees. Will that do?


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