Photo by Ken Jack – Corbis/Corbis via Getty Images
So farewell then, Kezia Dugdale. Your departure as Scottish Labour leader was a surprise; but so was your arrival and not many people noticed the bits in between. You claimed your resignation resulted from a recognition that life is fleeting; it certainly is, in the Scottish Labour Party.
The departure of La Dugdale, who was Scottish Labour’s third leader since the independence referendum in 2014, means that the Labour Party in Scotland has had five leaders in the past 10 years, which makes her two-year tenure of the post absolutely average, as was her performance. In her valedictory remarks she described the Labour Party as “this precious, precious thing that has done so much good in our country”, which demonstrates how desperately in need of a rest she was.
Scottish conspiracy theorists are searching for Corbynistas with bloodstained daggers. During last year’s national Labour leadership contest Kezia Dugdale claimed Jeremy Corbyn was “not competent to do his job” and had “lost the faith of 80 per cent of his colleagues”. She backed his opponent Owen Smith and Scotland was the only part of the United Kingdom where Smith beat Corbyn. Clearly, in the long term, Dugdale was booked for a one-way trip to the Gulag.
In the short term, however, there was little evidence of immediate Corbynista pressure on Dugdale to resign, though one can never be certain what malign algae are swarming beneath the slime-green surface of the Scottish Labour swamp. It seems a reasonable conclusion that she knew the Militant Tendency Mark II would be coming for her, so she walked away rather than endure the death of a thousand cuts.
Kezia Dugdale’s legacy was, at best, mixed. At her first electoral outing, the Scottish parliament elections in 2016, Labour’s seats at Holyrood fell from 37 to 24, in a parliament of 129. During Theresa May’s exercise in self-harm earlier this year, Labour’s Scottish seats at Westminster increased from one to seven. While this was technically a success, critics pointed out that it still left Labour in third place, behind the Tories, and claimed her exclusion of Jeremy Corbyn from the Scottish campaign had prevented the resurgence in Labour’s fortunes experienced south of the Border.
It seems Dugdale had not caught up with the revolutionary developments in the course of the Long March that Theresa May had made of the election campaign, a period so extended as to see Corbyn transformed from toxic loser into celebrity near-winner. The Scottish Labour leader also had personal preoccupations: last month it was revealed she was “in a relationship” with a female MSP from the SNP benches, a potential conflict of interest in the perception of Labour supporters.
Who will succeed her? Possible contenders, including the most prominent Corbynista MSP Neil Findlay, are ruling themselves out so fast it is difficult to predict. If they are still standing by the time you read this, Anas Sarwar is a possible centre-left candidate, with Richard Leonard, shadow economy minister, a much-canvassed standard bearer for Corbyn. The one concrete result of the Dugdale resignation could be to tip the balance of power on Labour’s NEC at a critical moment, facilitating the passing of new rules to tighten the Corbynista grip on Labour.
All of this pygmypolitik is a far cry from the not so distant days when Labour bestrode Scotland like a colossus. Conservatives like to harp back nostalgically to the general election of 1955, when the Tories won not only a majority of Scottish seats but also a majority (50.1 per cent) of the popular vote. In reality, that was unrepresentative of the historical political culture of Scotland which had been Whig, Liberal and Radical in the 18th and 19th centuries before succumbing to socialism in the 20th century.
The post-War zenith of the Labour ascendancy was personified by the reign (any other term is inadequate) of Willie Ross, longest-serving Secretary of State for Scotland. Willie Ross’s presence at a Cabinet meeting could best be compared with that of Andrei Gromyko (a man with whom he had much in common) at a gathering of the Politburo. Ross had not come to make requests on Scotland’s behalf, but to inform his Cabinet colleagues of his requirements, as the regional satrap who delivered Labour majorities, even when England manifested reactionary tendencies, from lunar-landscaped rust-belt Scottish constituencies where the Labour vote was weighed rather than counted.
Below the leadership, down through every level of Soviet Scotland, there extended a hierarchy of political patronage via local government, trades unions, etc forming a massive nomenklatura of public-sector pond life. Labour hegemony was an acknowledged cultural phenomenon, celebrated in gallows humour by a subject population in maxims such as “We in Scotland have the best councillors money can buy.”
For the commissars of this Soviet system were the notorious Labour councillors, who provoked wonderment that what was then still the best state education system in the world, though already under leftist demolition, could produce so many illiterate morons. Margaret Thatcher’s “right to buy” scheme struck a mortal blow at Labour control over council tenants who, until then, were not even allowed to decide what colour their front door should be painted.
The briefest recollection of that Berlin Wall era serves to remind us how massive was the achievement of the SNP in overthrowing Labour hegemony. It is often claimed the Scottish electorate is behind the political curve and there is plenty of evidence to point in that direction. On the other hand, it could be argued that the SNP’s supplanting of Labour at the 2011 Scottish election, to form a majority government under an electoral system designed to prevent any party ever gaining a majority, was as astonishing and revolutionary as Brexit or Trump.
Now SNP hegemony is slipping away. The so-called Scottish Tory and Labour revivals at this year’s general election were no such thing: they simply reflected the Scottish electorate’s inchoate disenchantment with an SNP rule characterized by neglect of key public services. A proper Tory revival is unlikely: it is too counterintuitive for the Scottish electorate. Could Labour come back? All that can be said is it would be unwise to underestimate the roots and myth that so massive a power structure embeds in a society; you might compare it to the cult of Stalin in Russia.
Since devolution, Scottish public life has diminished and so have its participants: it is like life viewed through the wrong end of a telescope. Of current Labour MSPs, 13 per cent have already been leader of their party – which is about as democratic as it gets. If Lemuel Gulliver woke up today in the Scottish parliament he would know instantly he was not in Brobdingnag . Filling the shoes of Kezia Dugdale, or any of her colleagues, will not require a giant.