Labour had won a landslide election, yet instead of dismantling the legacy of Thatcher, the new labour government chose to attempt the impossible: creating a more progressive society whilst maintaining the very worst aspects of Tory rule. The Scottish parliament would not be allowed to continue to pass legislation that could embarrass or undermine the New Thatcherism of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown.
Already riven by personal, regional and sectarian divisions Scottish Labour was now divided between those elected to the Scottish parliament and those elected to the UK Parliament. The result was that Scottish Labour was convulsed by infighting and power struggles and allegations of scandal and corruption as the Labour government in the UK sought to gut Scottish Labour of any lingering commitment to progressive politics. With social justice on the retreat, the divisions in Scottish labour came to the fore, to the humiliation of all Scots.
In 2001 the premier of Ireland and Taoiseach Bertie Ahern visited Scotland. This was a golden opportunity for the new Scottish parliament to show itself on the international stage. Bertie Ahern’s itinerary included unveiling a famine memorial at Carfin in Lanarkshire, where so many 19th century Irish migrants settled. What should have been a quiet and reflective ceremony however became an ugly display of Labour Party sectarianism and divisions.
Frank Roy the Labour MP for Motherwell had not been invited to the ceremony, whilst local Members of the Scottish Parliament had. Frank wrote to the Irish Consul in Scotland declaring that as the ceremony was occurring during the same weekend as a Celtic and Rangers match it could became a focus for sectarian violence. What role other Labour MPs and MSPs played is still to be fully worked out but it would appear that some members of the Labour executive who controlled the Scottish Assembly threatened to boycott the ceremony should it go ahead.
Implicated in the boycott was Jack McConnell, former general secretary of Scottish Labour and a rapidly rising member of the Scottish executive. Two Scottish members of the British cabinet were also implicated, Secretary of State John Reid and Scottish Secretary Helen Liddle. With threats of violence and boycott the ceremony was cancelled. It was a shameful day for Scotland. The SNP demanded an apology from Tony Blair but this was refused.
In the same year Scottish First Minister Henry McLeish resigned after an expense scandal. The new First Minister of Scotland was Jack McConnell. Jack’s tenure was marked by his attacks on Quebec, continued infighting in Labour, and Scottish Labour’s defence of the Iraq War.
In the heated 2003 debates about Iraq, Labour and Tory MSPs united to defeat a motion calling for further weapons inspections and a proper UN mandate. In the aftermath left-wing Labour MSP John McAllion resigned from his party and became a member of the Scottish Socialist Party. In the following years, infighting and factionalism in Scottish Labour continued to be played out before a local and international audience, further reducing respect for the Scotland’s assembly. At the same time Scots in the UK cabinet came to be seen as the bully boys and enforcers of the Blair Brown project: the preatorian guards of New Thatcherism. (Though there were honourable exceptions, notably Robin Cook resigned from cabinet in protest at the Iraq war.)
While Labour carries the overwhelming responsibility for the reduced state of Scotland’s parliament, the SNP is not without criticism. As the official opposition in the parliament it remained harnessed to a fundamentalist independence or nothing ideology. Rather than providing a responsible critique of the Labour / Lib Dem executive, it seemed at times to revel in the disarray that Labour had inflicted on Scotland’s parliament and reputation. The SNP was torn between acting like a government in waiting and playing the role of the joker in the pack.
To many Scots the Scottish parliament came to be seen as nothing more than a gilded box that was utterly empty of content. In the elections of 2003, voter turnout collapsed.
Now read. 'Part Thirteen: Reasons to be cheerful'
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