Towards the end of the film Conspiracy (2001), Kenneth Branagh's character - Reinhard Heydrich - relates the following story. Sceptical Doctor Kritzinger had been strong-armed into backing the Obergruppenführer's "final solution" at the Wannsee Conference, but he leaves the SS officer with this cautionary tale.
"He told me a story about a man he had known all his life, a boyhood friend. This man hated his father. Loved his mother fiercely. His mother was devoted to him, but his father used to beat him, demeaned him, disinherited him. Anyway, this friend grew to manhood and was still in his thirties when the mother died. The mother, who had nurtured and protected him, died. The man stood at her grave as they lowered the coffin and tried to cry, but no tears came. The man’s father lived to a very extended old age and withered away and died when the son was in his fifties. At the father’s funeral, much to the son’s surprise, he could not control his tears. Wailing, sobbing… he was apparently inconsolable. Utterly lost. That was the story Kritzinger told me."
The scene came back to me this morning, as I reflected on this remarkable half decade in Scottish politics. Devolution has, somehow, killed Scottish Labour stone dead. The autopsies of the last two weeks have seen innumerable diagnoses of the party's predicaments exchanged by friends and foes of the People's Party. Amputation, anaesthetic stupefaction, and other kill-or-cure remedies are all being offered.
The five stages of grief have all been in evidence, from outright denial and anger, to bargaining, depression and some signs of acceptance. In the immediate aftermath of the result, even the much diminished John Reid had a catch in the voice, and a wetness in the eye. Ian Davidson took immediately to the warpath. The affable Tom Harris was a picture of sod-it resignation. Margaret Curran and Jim Murphy shook with hysterical bonhomie. Ann McKechin slumped forlornly against the drapes. Ashen faced or bilious, despair was general, devastation and bewilderment. The old gods are finally dead -- and they have been a long time in the dying.
To the unsympathetic observer, this looks like nemesis finally catching up with unpardonable hubris, But the stunned aftermath spoke of more than just sorrow for the collapse of a party, of grief for lost jobs, foiled ambitions, fallen comrades, and wasted hours of activism ending in disappointment -- May the 7th represented the final collapse of a long-eroded world-view. Of an identity, and a sure sense of political touch, lost.
The Better Together campaign ran on the basis that Labour "understood" Scotland. That confidence has proven remarkably misplaced. It is no accident that many Labour sorts now seem thunderstruck, seeking easy explanations which insulate their party and movement and leadership from serious introspection or self-analysis. It is only human, after all. Not admirable, perhaps, but understandable.
"Scotland has gone mad." "The electorate has become irrational." "The rise of nationalism." "It's just a battle of the flags with you lot." "People just wouldn't listen" -- all of these now familiar diagnoses mask a more basic cri de coeur. "I haven't the foggiest clue what is going on. The immortal magic has faded. How the hell could this happen? How could the Scotland of Daisley's grandfather desert us?"
So much, so familiar. But what folk perhaps haven't fully reckoned with is that the post-election dawn brought with it a second bereavement. It represented not only the death of Scottish Labour's conceit of itself -- of Labour Scotland -- but an end to the political world and assumptions which SNP activists have operated within and against for decades.
My father was active in the SNP in Stirling during the doldrum days of the early 1980s, when the city was a carve up between Darth Michael Forsyth, his apprentices and Jack McConnell and the recently defenestrated Labour MP for Linlithgow and Falkirk East, Michael Connarty. They were unhappy, hopeless times to be a Nat. The disaster of 1979 was still in the air. The local campaigns were generally unpleasant -- and above all unsuccessful.
The idea that the party would or could go on to take the town in Holyrood and now Westminster would have seemed beyond fanciful. Thatcher sat in Downing Street. Scottish Labour were planted firmly in opposition. We were nowhere. No devolved parliament. No hope of devolution. No hope of casting off Tory rule. Nowt. It was pretty gruesome. It is all too easy to support the SNP these days. Back then, it meant lost jobs, seemingly rewardless struggle, looks askance, grief and failure.
It is no accident that even very senior Nationalists with access to good data couldn't bring themselves to believe that a 56 of 59 wipe out was possible. If Labour parliamentarians drank down this stuff, deluding themselves, Nationalist activists have long imbibed many of the same assumptions. The post-indyref newbies bring a different set of experiences with them, but the old hands will know what I mean.
The heavy certainties and the anticipated disappointments: Nothing changes. Dyed in the wool. The siege wall around Fortress Glasgow and Lanarkshire is unbreachable. And now the old laws are dust. For Scottish Labour supporters and activists, the election result must have been devastating. But for the SNP too, it is also a bringer of change, of opportunities, but also a death of generational certainties and assumptions about how Scottish politics operates. It made John Reid croak. In me, it generates a sense both of opportunity and trepidation.
When the Tories finally ditched Ted Heath in 1975, Harold Wilson's first reaction was glee at having finally seen off his old opponent. But his sense of triumph was blunted almost instantly by a rising sense of apprehension, as he confided in advisor Bernard Donoughue. I know this man. I've spent a decade watching him, opposing him, debating with him. I know his mind, how he thinks. I think I can anticipate how he will react. But what's coming next? What now? The defensive impulse is to cling on to the flotsam and jetsam -- to continue to read the riot act to the stricken Labour Party about its failures, its mediocrity and arrogance, and neglect.
But eventually, even these old maps give out. The familiar boundaries and landmarks recede. And the canvas is blank. Strange times.