Cronyism and Jack McConnell

  • The Observer, Sunday 18 November 2001
  • The word crony has become the standard terms of abuse for the Scottish Labour Party, but it acquired its pejorative overtones only relatively recently. Souter Johnie was Tam O'Shanter's 'ancient, trusty, drouthy crony': they had been 'fou for weeks thegither'. In his diary Samuel Pepys spoke warmly of a 'chrony' and some think the word sprang from seventeenth-century student slang at Cambridge University.

    In the political sense it now means something just short of corruption. Cronyism is to friendship as cunning is to wisdom - 'Nothing doth more hurt in a state than that cunning men pass for wise', wrote Francis Bacon. Cronyism in the political meaning appears to have been used for the first time by a journalist on the New York Times in 1952. He was describing the Truman administration's practice of appointing friends to government posts irrespective of their fitness for them.

    In Scotland last week cronyism was the insult of choice. David Whitton, Donald Dewar’s old spin doctor, denounced suggestions that his PR company had won a public-sector contract because of party connections rather than merit. Then the Scotsman disclosed that millionaire businessman John Milligan, who was appointed chairman of the Scottish New Deal Advisory Task Force in June, was the director of a company which had made donations to Labour.

    Since the chairmanship is an unpaid post, this affair poses no urgent challenge to public probity but Tory leader David McLetchie was among the shrillest voices raised in protest. Yet in Scotland’s long Tory years, which crystallised the consensus in favour of devolution, quangos and health boards were stuffed with Tory nominees.

    To be fair, the Tories were trying to balance up a local government machine dominated by Labour. In particular cases real abuses occurred, for example in Coatbridge. And in Glasgow it was common knowledge, until a new spirit began to be abroad in the Eighties, that the council, dominated by Catholics, loaded the dice of appointments. But they too were responding to many decades of systematic economic discrimination by the Protestant élite. A culture of secrecy grew up in councils with unhealthily large Labour majorities. Decision were made within the party group, behind closed doors, and rubber-stamped by the council. By comparison the Henry McLeish affair seems minor stuff Рbut it exposed the way in which a nexus of Labour interests still fed off chunks of private and public funds.

    Systems of patronage are at the very heart of democratic politics, which explains why New Labour finds it so hard to give up its addiction to peerages and why it has has produced a wimp of a reform package for the Lords. And it is hardly novel for the business sector to make donations to the party which it believes will best advance its interests. The Tories’ chagrin may flow from the fact that, once again, New Labour has stolen their clothes. By contrast they and the SNP are heavily dependent on the public funds flowing to their MSPs.

    These are serious enough issues. We must use our new Parliament to sweep clean those musty corridors of council and constituency power, to make patronage, decision-making and funding transparent. By comparison, the private life of Jack McConnell, who was endorsed yesterday by the party executive as the new First Minister, is irrelevant. As a journalist I felt a twinge of collective shame that he had been forced to set his wife before the media pack because of threats that the tabloids would expose a past marital infidelity. This by no means ended his troubles. Not only were the details of the affair rehearsed in the press but it was then disclosed that he had solicited MPs for cash to finance the salary of the woman in question, who worked with him in the party’s office in Glasgow.

    On Question Time last week, the editor of the Daily Mirror , Piers Morgan, was clearly uncomfortable with the conduct of his sister paper, the Daily Record, and distanced himself from it. In recent months the Record , indeed, has been behaving with all the finesse of a playground bully. Its pursuit of McConnell was preceded by its tendentious treatment of the Sighthill asylum-seekers’ crisis, where it seemed to side with the most lumpen members of the mob.

    Morgan himself is a reconstructed journalist. The war has made a man of him. His paper has outshone its rival, the Sun , with some superb reporting and analysis. By contrast the Sun gave the impression that its jingoism had won the war, branding all those who questioned the campaign as ‘traitors’, thus inviting comparisons with the old Skibbereen Eagle , which solemnly warned Lord Palmerston, it had ‘got its eye upon him and on the Emperor of Russia’.

    McConnell has many serious tasks ahead but his marriage should remain his own business. More light needs to be shed, however, into those corners of the world where Labour cronies hang out – known, in the Tory lexicon of abuse, as fiefdoms. But let us remember: these enclaves grew up under Westminster and our new Parliament gives reform a chance. But the most necessary reform of all – proportional representation in local government – will demand iron determination from McConnell, and a degree of political self-sacrifice. Otherwise, if public cynicism persists, the change will be have to be forced through in coalition.