Monday, 10 November 2008

Full-time Scottish Secretary

I mentioned in the Glenrothes liveblog that I'd say something more about Jim Murphy as Secretary of State for Scotland. So here it is.

In my view, Murphy has done a decent job so far. He's been less conflictual than some of his predecessors in the role - as well as the majority of Labour MSPs who cannot resist any opportunity to have a kick at the SNP Government. He also has 2 blogs - which you can access here (as Sec State) and here (as MP - note "Jims blog" should be "Jim's Blog - but education education education was never Labour's strong point...).

Anyway, this post is not so much about Jim Murphy as it is about Gordon Brown's decision to restore the position of Secretary of State for Scotland to a full-time role. Under its previous guise it was a part-time role and the position was occupied by Des Browne MP, also the Secretary of State for Defence.

So what is my point? Well, two things.

1) Gordon Brown clearly felt that he needed someone full-time in the Scotland Office to keep an eye on things in Scotland for him. Clearly Des Browne either wasn't doing a good enough job of it or didn't have enough time to do that and fight two wars.

2) Does this make Iain Gray look weak? If Iain Gray is, as he was made out, Gordon Brown's "man at Holyrood", why isn't he playing this role for the PM? He is the leader of the Labour group at the Scottish Parliament - surely he'd be best placed to report to the PM on what is going on in Scotland.

Analysing that, there's perhaps two points that come out of it. First, perhaps, as I pointed out, the PM wanted a more conciliatory tone when dealing with the First Minister - while still being able to kick him at Holyrood. This could be why he's appointed Jim Murphy - someone from outside Holyrood and not under Iain Gray's stewardship - full-time.

Second, maybe this is also a smart move from Iain Gray. He's an inexperienced leader up against the uber-confident First Minister. Maybe he recognised his own weakness, that both he and the party up here were overly negative and needed another, more experienced(!) hand to help.

Either way, I think it is a good move from the PM. It helps him to keep an eye on the SNP Government from outside and makes it look like he's taking Scotland seriously enough that he's willing to make their Cabinet Secretary full-time again (though someone should point out that if Labour were still in power at Holyrood, the Scottish Secretary would probably still be part time!).

However, what message does this send to Iain Gray? I'd suggest it is not the biggest boost to his confidence...


Sam 10 November 2008 at 13:36  

Your observation that if Labour were in power in Holyrood the Scottish Secretary of State would be part-time seems to me a good one, because it highlights the contradictions in the role.

First, what exactly is his remit? Shouldn't "keeping an eye on" the SNP Government be covered by the Labour Party in the devolved Parliament? As you say, this suggests they aren't doing the job of political job of opposition very well, or indeed communicating with Labour at Westminster very well.

It makes sense to have a Westminster Government position (of whatever party) to liase with the Scottish Exec (of whatever party), as there are obviously issues of constitutional overlap inherent in devolution. But your analysis of this appointment smacks of party politics, of Brown maneuvering in Whitehall to gain an advantage in Scotland, basically putting Westminster first.

It might be a good move politically, but its probably not the best way to regain the trust which, excepting the probably one-off events-driven Glenrothes byelection, Labour has so damagingly lost in Scotland.

Anonymous,  10 November 2008 at 21:14  

Sorry Malc but I totally disagree with your opening gambit about Murphy's early performance.
He has done nothing but attack the SNP since he started and attempt in a partly egotistical partly political way to undermine the attempts to oppose Lloyds TSB takeover of HBoS.
It seems Murphy has been given a free range from Brown to fire at will straight from the hip and is doing it from a position of questionable 'constitutional' standing. He is not acting as a liason between the two Governments, rather the vehicle of proxy attack from south to north.

BSH 10 November 2008 at 21:31  

I don't like Murphy myself, I find him a bit cringeworthy and Skeletor-esque.

However, one cannot disagree that he has been a highly effective Scottish Secretary for Labour.

He has realised that his position allows almost free attacks on the SNP, ultimately, he is not accountable to the Scottish Parliament and the media scrutiny that would result from Iain Gray making the same statements.

He has also been very wise by avoiding making storms about decisions already voted through the Holyrood that may not be to his taste.

An efficient opponent and a canny operator.

Malc 12 November 2008 at 16:21  

I mostly agree. I think the message is that it is Brown and not Gray who is the leader of Labour in Scotland (which is true, given Labour’s lack of devolution in their party structure) and his appointment of Murphy as a full-time Scottish Secretary is to do two things – keep an eye on the SNP in the Scottish Government AND keep an eye on Labour in the Scottish Parliament. But yes, party politics at its worst.

Malc 12 November 2008 at 16:29  

I’m sure you will have evidence to prove your point about Murphy as an attack-dog so I won’t dispute that. I also will argue with your point that the position is “questionable” constitutionally. What I will point is this: On Glenrothes election night, he wasn’t as unbearable as some Labour MPs have been on election shows in the past (Brian Wilson and David Cairns have been particular highlights).

Equally, you are presumably talking of more recent HBos/ Lloyds TSB discussions. At the start of the process he was in a position to liaise with both governments and did so from much more of a neutral standpoint that he currently does – from that point of view, I think it was a good start. However, my point – and yours – holds in that he has become more of an attacking force. And that is good for Iain Gray and Labour in the SP in that they do not have to be quite so negative – they can leave it to the new Secretary of State.

Malc 12 November 2008 at 16:33  


Skeletor is a great analogy – separated at birth!

You make the point more eloquently than I did. It is a shrewd move from Brown. Takes the heat off Iain Gray and allows him to gently make his way into the leadership without having to worry about attacking too much. And sensible from Gray to recognise that it is to his benefit in the long run.

Saying that – what does it actually say about the way that Labour is run in Scotland – the SNP’s “London Labour” attacks have never been truer.

BSH 12 November 2008 at 17:36  

Indeed Malc, it not only helps the 'London Labour' attacks ring more true but his early Loudspeaker Diplomacy success has made London Labour appear to be competent.

Hopefully the SNP will take the initiative by creating a temporary post of a Scottish MSP who acts as a 'UK Secretary' to counter this shrewd operator.

But take heart, as much as he may grate on Nationalists now I forsee the body public tiring of him soon; expect a bit of too and fro of press releases between Iain Gray and Jim Murphy as they pass the SNP beating baton between each other to maximum effect.

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