21 December 2011

Johann's shadow "ministry of all the talents"?

Just a short thought for today.  A "ministry of all the talents".  Historically, the phrase is owed to William Greville's abortive 1806-1807 Napoleonic wartime ministry, installed after the death of Pitt the Younger.  In recent times, a version of the idea what revived by Gordon Brown, whose vision incorporated like likes of Paul Myners and Digby Jones, rather than Charles James Fox, into his government.  The impression intended was presumably one of non-partisan catholicity, confected to imply that Labour would not be bounded by the bubble Politics, with its snarling and often pointless caballing, porous to external influences and wisdom.

Generally, the stratagem is shamelessly manipulative.  Beneath the uncontroversial vocabulary of goodness and good sense, such invocations of "talent" often as not appeal to delusions of apolitical excellence, implying that ideology there is none, as if a plutocrat's opinions become simple common sense when they are solicited by a government with increasingly vague social democratic credentials.  It is to feign transcending the grub of politics, primarily to secure political advantage. And let's be blunt. Scottish Labour requires all of the advantages they can get their numbed political hands on. Gordon Brown's example does not appear to have dissuaded Johann Lamont, who has appointed her shadow ministerial team this week, with a promise that...

"Over the coming weeks, additional appointments from outside the world of politics will be made to bring specialist advice in their areas of expertise to shadow cabinet discussions."

On a more mordant reading, this is a cabinet of all the talents, notable in its dearth of the latter, with Labour's livelier new folk in Holyrood having too much green sap at this stage to spice up their party's fortunes alone. The party's thoroughly-rusted machine politics having been exposed, where crashing mediocrity is no barrier to gaining and retaining political positions, Lamont's references to the addition of external souls is a clear attempt to foster an air of novelty, revision, and renewal. As an aside, I see that Lewis Macdonald, third-placed in the party's recent deputy leadership election, has been appointed the party's justice spokesman.  Happily, he's no Richard Baker, but I was a little surprised by the appointment, since in recent times, I can't recall hearing a peep out of Macdonald on any of the bigger justice debates in Scottish politics. Let's see how he does.

To use a familiar press cliché, one account of the business of a shadow cabinet is to persuade the electorate that the opposition are a plausible government in waiting.  And here's why I wonder if an all-the-talents tack really assists Labour towards this goal. Johann, we have a legal problem.  In Westminster, you can always invest unelected folk with the ermine zoot-suit of a member of the House of Lords, co-opting them into your cabinet, counsels and even ministerial office. Not so in Holyrood. Being a creature of statute, Scottish Ministers are all appointed under the Scotland Act 1998, which is extremely specific about who can and cannot be a Scottish minister...

s47(1) The First Minister may, with the approval of Her Majesty, appoint Ministers from among the members of the Parliament.

The only exceptions to this are the Scottish law officers - the Lord Advocate and the Solicitor General for Scotland - neither of whom need be MSPs, but who nevertheless may participate but not vote in Holyrood's proceedings, answering parliamentary questions, making statements and the like.  Until devolution, Lords Advocate tended to be either MPs or hastily appointed members of the House of Lords, to get around this problem. What's the point in having a shadow ministry of all the talents, when the talents in it can't be ministers?

Certainly, you might think that taking good advice, and identifying individuals able to identify and articulate your aims compellingly and lucidly is a good idea. I'd agree. You might even determine to ensure that your choice souls find themselves nominated to stand for winnable seats come the 2016 Holyrood election. If, however, these talents aren't willing to campaign for political office, under our constitution, there is no possibility they can serve as ministers and cabinet secretaries. Isn't there a risk, if your most persuasive advocates and talented characters aren't standing but are standing around in television studios and the like, that all one achieves is putting your own shadow cabinet in the shade? The point becomes less problematic, by contrast, if Labour's realistic goal is not to win back office in 2016, but merely to stave off Scottish independence and strive to refit the political outfit for a successful 2021 run.  Don't expect anyone to own up to that, of course. Nobody won an election on the slogan, however sincere, of "we're shit and we know we are..."


  1. I don't think there is anything in the Scotland Act about Shadow Cabinets is there? They could appoint the Krankies if they wanted to. But only elected members of the Scottish Parliament will ever get to be members of the Scottish Government. And quite right too.

  2. Not a sausage, Indy. Given recent headlines, the Krankies could make excellent Labour spokespersons for sexual health and experimentation...

  3. Anyone who punched Paul Daniels is alright with me.

  4. The first person to say Holyrood should get Tough on sexual morals can...oh bugger.

    Merry Xmas to LPW and all (well most) of those who populate his threads - the most entertaining (and most useful) oasis in the Debatable Land of Scottish cyberspace