AS I SEE IT: TERRY MURDEN
Richard Leonard’s resignation as leader of Scottish Labour will have come as no surprise to his party, particularly those who have waged a public campaign against him. More importantly, it should be a wake up call for all the opposition parties in Scotland.
The SNP is on a long march towards independence and, in the process, is turning the country into a one-party state that may cheer its supporters but is unhealthy for democracy.
Richard Leonard said he had been considering his future over the festive period, but it is surely no coincidence that he resigned on the day that the 18th opinion poll in a row showed a majority of people in Scotland would back independence.
More humiliating for Mr Leonard was evidence that a third of those who backed Labour less than two years ago would now vote for the SNP. His traditional support has long since abandoned Labour for the SNP, and internal schisms have shown it to be divided and directionless. Mr Leonard may be a man of honour who would never betray the Labour cause, but he clearly did not want to lead a party into virtual oblivion in the May elections.
The SNP is swotting aside all challenges to its authority and is doing so in spite of a record that should have left it severely weakened. The party has been scandalised by the resignations of former Finance Secretary Derek Mackay and the chief medical officer Catherine Calderwood, its reputation dragged through the courts and public hearings by the Alex Salmond affair. Even the First Minister has been caught out breaching her own daily Covid guidelines. None of it has stuck. Nor has the party’s wretched performances on education which almost brought down Cabinet Minister John Swinney, or on drugs, which did bring an end to Joe Fitzpatrick’s career.
The Teflon party will triumph in May because there is only one issue that concerns its supporters. Independence is a prize that will not be forfeited at any price and no matter what misdemeanours or failures are pinned on the party of the great leader.
It means those in opposition calling out ministers for missing targets in our schools, in the police, the health service or in growing the economy are not being heard. Opponents will inject boundless energy into an election campaign drawing heavily on all these issues in an attempt to land blows on the SNP. They will not only fail, they will be wasting their time.
Mr Leonard’s resignation is a result of this stagnation of debate over the issues that matter to him and, in a variety of ways, to others who wish to challenge the one-eyed view of the world as seen by the SNP’s supporters. That is not a judgement on their – generally – reasonable desire to seek independence. But it is a criticism of those who will stop at nothing to achieve it, even to the point of ignoring the country’s obvious problems.
The only answer is to rethink Scottish politics for the sake of creating a workable opposition. In 2015, in this column, I called for the moderates in what are now minority parties to regroup around a new Centre Party, to break links with the London establishment, even as supporters of the union, and create a workable opposition that can properly challenge the SNP. After all, the Scottish parliament was created to the tune of those claiming it would do things differently, cast aside the adversarial politics of Westminster and create a new type of politics. None thought it would lead to a form of uncontested authoritarianism.
Five years on there has been discussion, encouraged by the Tories, around the prospect of a new middle-ground party. Like Labour, they waste too much energy opposing their own colleagues in Westminster – on Brexit and the constitution – they are two-headed monsters arguing among themselves rather than being focused on the job that needs to be done in Scotland. They should bring their heads together around common territory, principally to press the case for the union which is currently weakened because it is represented by parties which are divided on other issues.
Of course, some have chosen to ridicule the idea of a merger of moderates Mr Leonard, a left winger still prioritising old class battles, was among those who gave an “over my dead body” response. Well, his political career is dead and his party is heading the same way unless something changes.