On a resignation by Wendy and critics of Holyrood

The Observer, Sunday 12 May 2002

    I once asked a leading herbalist if he had a cure for a hangover. His reply was brief and crushing: 'Don't get one.' We have to fall back, therefore, on some foul Italian concoction or Jeeves's recipe for Bertie Wooster - two raw eggs and a dash of Tabasco. In politics, the equivalent is a spell in the wilderness. It has been the fate of many, some of whom, like Churchill and de Gaulle, have gone on to greatness.

    In Scotland, Wendy Alexander has exchanged a portfolio in the Scottish Executive for a seat on the backbenches while Alex Salmond, conclusively confounding my suspicion that he has become addicted to Westminster, has announced his intention of returning to Holyrood in 2007. By then, he appears to acknowledge, he will have been on the fringes of the main action for too long, and the expectation is that he will attempt to resume the SNP leadership.

    All these developments are perfectly natural consequences of politics, where personalities rise and fall, where factions wax and wane and where good luck plays its part. Wendy Alexander has seen her political prospects, once so glowing, dissolve in the two years that have followed the death of Donald Dewar. Not even the patronage of Gordon Brown has been able to stem the ebbing tide. The First Minister, Jack McConnell, loaded on to her an exceptionally heavy portfolio but the real reason for her decision to quit his Cabinet was undoubtedly her political isolation. But we have not heard the last of her, and she is said to be considering a return to Westminster, where her brother, Douglas, is making his mark and where Brown’s benevolent influence would be less trammelled. She is young and talented, though perhaps politically immature, and her best years may well be ahead of her.

    Salmond’s strategy is more clearly worked out. He believes that by 2007, the tercentenary of the Treaty of Union, Scotland will have come closer to independence. He will seek election as a list member for the north-east. But if his duties at Westminster, where he has led a band of inexperienced MPs, mean that he has been in the wilderness, he has given every appearance of thoroughly enjoying himself, still a ‘dab hand’ (as my mother would have said) at the black arts of the media to the point, according to some reports, where he aroused frissons of jealousy in the breast of party leader John Swinney. The old Salmond was a swot from an economics library who talked of little but North Sea oil. Now he cracks jokes, gives betting tips and is a most agreeable dinner companion.

    The gloss put on all these developments by many commentators remains depressingly immature. They are often seen as reflecting an inadequacy in the Scottish Parliament itself. Sometimes the cudgels its enemies use to beat it are absurdly confected: yesterday, we were told that widespread social security fraud among workers on the Holyrood site was an ’embarrassment’ for the Parliament. In truth, they were an embarrassment for the men interviewed by police. Sections of the press are laying siege to Holyrood with the fury of a Henry III investing Kenilworth Castle.

    But here’s a curious thing. The more these implacable critics attack the Scottish Parliament and the more they attempt to discredit it upon whatever pretext comes to hand, the more they seem to feed the case for independence. If they calculate that Scotland will be persuaded to renounce what devolution it has and return to the full embrace of the Union Parliament, they are surely misguided. The result might be just the opposite.

    As Europe agonises after the French presidential elections and the assassination of Pim Fortuyn, one of the explanations emerging for the electorates’ drift to the Right and for a growing alienation from the political process, is the gap between the élites and the people. The European decision-making process is too remote, too technocratic, said the German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder in an interview with the Guardian yesterday.

    If that analysis is correct, then we need more, rather than less, devolution. The presiding officer of the Parliament, Sir David Steel, has already said he thinks it should have more tax-raising powers and has made no secret of his view that he should be called Speaker and the executive the government.

    It has been suggested that one of the reasons that Wendy Alexander quit was a sense of impotence brought on by the Parliament’s limited powers. McConnell, by contrast, is concentrating on using what powers the Executive has to improve public services. This is the politics both of aspiration and realism, and its usefulness should not be underrated, nor the increased scrutiny that the Parliament is bringing to bear on areas which have been in the shadows for too long.

    But Swinney and Salmond clearly intend to use the discontent fomented by the anti-Holyrood press to agitate for independence sooner rather than later. I think their impatience is premature. Rome was not built in a day. But it would be no more than the Holyrood cavillers deserve if their sour labours produced a result precisely opposite to that which they intended.