28 March 2010

Review: ♫ Wee three kings of Caledon-ia ♫

Wee three kings of Caledon-ia;
Speeches make as gloopy as tar:
Drab and dreary, dour and weary
Pretending that we’re par.

~ Quest of the Magi, adjusted for Scottish Labour Conference

Iain Gray didn’t strike me as terrifically Zoroastrian when I first saw him on the telly. Certainly, he dresses less well, less colourfully. It is hard to imagine him mounting a camel.

I count it one of life’s satisfactions that I’ll never (except prompted by some mischievous Satanic intervention) have to hear him mutilate the word ‘myrrh’, which I’ve no doubt he would exhale through clenched teeth, in his typical Tetanus jaw-tight phrasing. Few would mistake him for one of life’s Wise Men. Yet taking in yesterday’s Scottish Labour Conference in
Glasgow’s Science Centre, the comparison seemed to me striking. Gordon Brown, Jim Murphy and Gray himself toddled in succession onto the stage, the three wee kings of Caledonia. I imagine Gray must hate these Conference moments. Even if we credit him with an admirable modesty and the want of vanity, strategically, he must sense that his mere membership of the Scottish Labour high heid yin delegation makes him appear like a second or third fiddle. Or to put it most crispy, it doesn’t style him as first violinist, all be upstanding, whoop, whee, huzzah! This, in clear contrast to Alex Salmond, who plays his King Herod in glorious isolation, with all the puff and flummery of lonely leadership and First Ministerial airs. There is no doubt about whose gurning phizog is lashed to the party’s prow. In Scottish Labour, by contrast, both Gray and Murphy are like breasts hanging from Gordon Brown’s mermaid figurehead. They dangle pendulously in front.

Some of our Labour colleagues might well suggest that this difference of tone is all to the good – the people’s party is no personality cult, they might argue. Although I’m no fan of misplaced yearnings for authoritarian leadership, I don’t think the objection can be disposed of so easily. It seems to me simply the case that Gray is diminished by not being exalted at these party gatherings, and that this magnifies his smallness in the public consciousness. Which on any reading, can’t be much of a support come 2011 and the fresh round of elections to Holyrood. Although the BBC cut away from Gray’s speech before he had rounded it off, I’m disposed to be far more generous than our public broadcaster. His whole address can be read here. I just wanted to pluck out an issue or two for special comment, ridicule or emphasis. Firstly, Gray reiterated a now familiar Labour narrative, post 2007. Lingering on political recovery, on rehabilitation, of admitting past hammerings. In particular, however, I wanted to stress the Gray twist of self admiration with which he seasoned this homely dish.

“Eighteen months ago when you elected me leader, times were certainly difficult and perplexing …We were in opposition in Holyrood, on the back foot, without a leader, trailing in every Scottish poll. We had just lost Glasgow East to the SNP. It was hard to see what the opportunity was.”

He goes on to traipse through Glenrothes and Glasgow North East by-elections, arguing that Labour had to “find and hold our nerve”, to “rededicate ourselves anew to our core purpose” – but crucially, that they’ve now “walked that long road back together”. The emphasis in his first section is I’d suggest, significant. In the media, Scottish Labour’s “resuscitation” – or its veering away from the brink of total oblivion – has been regularly imputed to certain strategic decisions made by a long and lean Secretary of State for Scotland – crucially not Gray. By connecting the two themes, his election and Labour successes – the party’s Holyrood leader seems to be making a pitch about his own role and importance, at the expense of Mr Murphy. Squabbling over who gets to hand over the gold, perhaps. “I don’t want the frankincense, it smells funny!” It strikes me as highly improbable that he mentioned his own investiture simply to provide a bit of background and fill an extra 30 seconds of time. This looks like internal elbowing for position.

The main thrust of the next section seemed to be that Alex Salmond is the Tory Word Made Flesh amongst us. According the Gray, there are any number of things “we don’t have to imagine” about the Conservative Party and David Cameron. Despite all evidence to the contrary, Gray theorises that the SNP secretly wear blue knickers – and that if the Maximum Eck peeled off his paunchy curry suit, a resplendent and coiffured Cameron would emerge. His sickly, sticky fantasies include the suggestion that:

“We don’t have to imagine what happens when you have someone in charge who doesn’t care about Scotland’s defence contracts. Alex Salmond wants Scotland out of Britain and doesn’t care if that means thousands of jobs come out of Rosyth, Faslane, Kinloss, Lossiemouth, Leuchars and the shipyards of the Clyde.”

There is at least something rather inconsistent here. How can it be the Salmond Slump, if this is a global recession? How can Gray contest the idea of a London Recession by deploying worldwide economic arguments, only to get a thrill of enthusiasm for local politics and pile the blame on Salmond’s shoulders? What is more, I think we can all agree that nice school buildings, with good facilities are a good thing, something we can support. All of the usual objects and platitudes of shapeless Labour speeches – fairness, social justice, producing kids who can read and write their names, better hospitals, that folk should be able to work and achieve the means to secure paid employment – everyone will likely be able to pledge him or herself to some conception of the importance of these features of our public life and the provisions of our politics. Certainly, people will disagree about what is just and fair, and why. However, we should also bear in mind that the questions of how to bring about these policies and how best to pay for them are also substantial questions of fairness and justice. The two are not distinct. I can understand the thrill of irresponsible politics, the promise of bottomless jails, of endless indulgence in PPP cost-deferring and cost-mounting, peddling false pictures of the powers of Scottish ministers – but we should resist the temptation. That said, lets end on a gentle, mirthful note. Said Gray, no doubt all a’sparkle:

“On Thursday Alex Salmond called me Jim Murphy’s placeman. He was probably up all night crafting that brilliant rapier like riposte. But it is a bit rich coming from the man who would be David Cameron’s doorman.”

One of the features of a guilty mind is that it sees everywhere and in everyone the expression of its own sins. This from Gray, a man whose every attempt at gay wit and repartee – including the present jibe – bears the unmistakeable whiff of the lamp, even without the enhancements of his gluey, spiritless delivery. To whit, see Gray’s suggestion above that we should Forget the Celtic Lion, now Alex Salmond is the Celtic Kiwi. Frankly, I’ve no idea quite what this metaphor denotes. He is flightless? Cowrin’ and timorous with nocturnal habits? Surely not fluffy and cute? Or is Gray alleging that the Māori believe the Maximum Eck to be under the protection of Tāne, God of Birds and Forests?


  1. "...both Gray and Murphy are like breasts hanging from Gordon Brown’s mermaid figurehead. They dangle pendulously in front."

    What a freakish vision! Almost lost my lunch.

  2. Oh, dear. The vision of Gray and Murphy as pendulous breasts is... One that is now stuck in my mind forever!

    Very bad of you.

  3. Jeanne, Anonymous,

    What can I say? I merely describe the good ship Scottish Labour as I find it. Gorgonesque frontpieces and all!

  4. Bang on the money Lallands. Your finger is on a pulse here, though, in the case of ‘Scottish’ Labour, one that’s been increasingly hard to detect of late. But that’s the point.

    Even before Gray became leader the question, ‘What is the purpose of Scottish Labour?’ or ‘Why don’t they just get it over with and call themselves the ABI (Anything But Independence) Party?’, or should that be ABIGAIL’S Party (Anything But Independence Goes As long As it Isn’t Led by Salmond)?, was entering the collective conscience in Scotland.

    Now, shameless opportunists that they are, they’ve got a light southerly in their sails emanating from the posterior regions of middle England – Tories ‘only’ six per cent ahead, that’ll be a hung parliament then.

    Tthose of us who wish to wave the saltire rather than the white flag should take heart from all of this. I can remember the dark days before the felicitous creation of ‘Scottish’ Labour when the SNP barely merited passing reference at Labour Party conferences, nowadays their Scottish contingent seems to speak of little else. But this has to be put in context.

    As is well-known, Scottish Labour MPs and MSPs don’t do ‘dissent’ but even they need to stretch their political legs at regular intervals. It is a measure of Scottish Labour’s decline that ‘anti-SNP’ is all they’ve got. They don’t do dissent because they don’t have any principles other than anti-SNP, unprincipled opportunism is all that’s left.

    The feeling abroad (i.e. middle England) is that, in Maggie Broon, never has a prime minister been in Number 10 for such a short period of time yet seemed to have been in Number 10 for such a long period of time. Time seems to have stood still since Brown became prime minister and when Sarah and Gordon (Frumpy and Grumpy) hit the campaign trail in the next few weeks, it will, fortuitously coincide with the new series of Doctor Who.

    Curiously, as the Scotsman informs us this morning, the Tories’ new smiling Maggie election campaign posters will be rolled out across “England and Wales” but not (or not yet?), it seems, in Scotland. Is this a portent or just another confirmation that, in England, the Tories are less good than Labour at unlearning their instincts that Scotland is the land that time forgot? As I say to my English buddies, with just a hint of post-modernist irony, “But what the hell, we’re all British eh”.

    What you say about Ian Gray here reminds me of the beautiful lines of Mark Alexander Boyd:

    “Unhappy is the man fer evermair
    That tillis the sand and sawis in the air
    But twice unhappier is he I lairn
    That feedis in his hert a mad desire
    And followis on a wumman thro’ the fire
    Led by the blin’ and teachit by a bairn”.

    The “wumman” here, being “blin” Maggie Broon of course.

  5. Anonymous,

    That was very, err, impressive. Please tell us who you are!

  6. Douglas. Yes, it was a lengthy post. My apologies. My only defence is that I think that Lallands has captured something very important here. It has been apparent for some time now that Scottish Labour has lost its moorings. A more pressing issue, as Lallands implies, is that Gray et al need new speech writers. The present ones just aren’t cutting it.

    Remember too, Scottish Labour’s winter conference in 2007 when Master Douglas Alexander puffed up his chest and announced that “Alex Salmond [then 51] is an old man in a hurry”. Apparently, he was later taken aside and quietly informed that Salmond was three years younger than Maggie Broon. Oops!

    Let’s not forget that Maggie celebrated his 59th birthday last month, as far as I know, no-one has asked Master Douglas whether he has revised his ageist opinions – and who would accuse Maggie of being an old man “in a hurry”?

    But such sentiments betray an underlying contempt for Scottish voters. At that same 2007 conference, John Reid’s anti-nat rant centred on his assertion that the SNP couldn’t be trusted on salient issues like immigration because those issues couldn’t be solved by “border guards at Gretna Green”. I think even Mad Mel of the Daily Mail would have disowned that one, had she been foolish enough to utter it in the first place.

    There I go again! I’ve said more than enough already. As for anonymity, what’s in a name?

  7. In a curious coincidence, only yesterday I was reading an old copy of the Oxford Book of English Verse and encountered precisely the poem by Mark Boyd which you aptly quote, Mr/s Anonymous. For the poetry and the rest, thanks for your contribution.