Whatever his other qualities, Iain Macwhirter is a journalist in the British tradition. Hence his tendency to echo the cosy consensus of the London-based media. And his dutiful adherence to another facet of the British journalistic tradition, the prompt rehabilitation of failed politicians.
Unless their demise has been occasioned by a sin unconscionable even in the context of British politics – spit-roasting of minors for culinary or sexual purposes, perhaps – then the ending of a political career is the cue for hacks to say all the nice things about the individual in question that tradition dictates could not be said whilst said individual was in office.
Everybody’s a saint when they’re dead.
So it is that, before the ink was even dry on Kezia Dugdale’s resignation, work began on redefining her as the greatest leader British Labour in Scotland ever had. Not all in one go, of course. Journalistic professionalism these days mostly involves knowing how much you can get away with, legally and in terms of whatever reputation is felt worth preserving. So it starts with Dugdale being declared a “relatively successful leader”.
As well as avoiding an excessively precipitous change of heart, the qualified praise is felt to betoken a dispassionate assessment. It’s a nice flourish.
In order to accept this assessment, however, we are asked to discount or disregard several failings. The political naivety. The unfortunate media ‘presence’. The dire parliamentary performance. Some might opine that these are rather important accomplishments for somebody in a party political leadership role. But, apparently, they cease to be of any significance once the individual has stepped down.
I said, it’s a journalistic tradition. I didn’t say it made sense.
Having set aside the defects and deficiencies which might disqualify the subject from elevation to even the modest rank of relatively successful leader, it is necessary to find something to put in the pro column. In Dugdale’s case, that presents something of a challenge.
With what cannot help looking like desperation, the more determined turd-polishers turn to the British Labour gains in the the 2017 Westminster election. Crediting Dugdale with this ‘triumph’ does the trick for those intent on reinterpreting her incumbency, in keeping with the demands of the British journalistic tradition. But it’s a tad problematic for those of a more realistic bent.
In order to ascribe this ‘achievement’ to Dugdale, we have to do a bit more of that discounting and disregarding. We have to discount the possibility that more harm than good was done by spending the whole campaign looking like the dummy to Ruth Davidson’s ventriloquist. Woodenly repeating the line, ‘No gemogracy here! We’re Gritish!’ didn’t exactly convey the impression of bold, exciting leadership.
And we have to disregard the other factors which might rationally be assumed to have played a significant part in British Labour’s slightly improved performance. Things like the inevitable readjustment following the extraordinary SNP landslide in 2015. The SNP was going to lose some of those seats pretty much no matter what anybody did. The electoral arithmetic meant that British Labour was bound to benefit from this readjustment. It was going to happen anyway.
Then there was the tactical voting by Tory British nationalists determined to get a British party candidate elected regardless of what colour rosette they wore. It’s not possible to accurately gauge the impact of this tactical voting. But it was surely a factor. Does Dugdale really want credit for attracting hard-line British nationalists?
Finally, there’s the much vaunted ‘Corbyn effect’. Basically, former British Labour voters ‘coming home’ because they were convinced by the hype surrounding the real leader of the British Labour Party. Many have argued that this was the most significant factor in the BLiS recovery. Certainly nothing to do with the Scottish branch manager. Indeed, speculation is rife that it was Corbyn’s supporters within BLiS who, emboldened by waht they regarded as their ow triumph, stabbed Dugdale in the back.
But none of this matters. Custom and practice dictates that British journalists come to praise Dugdale, not to bury her.
Why does this matter? Surely it can do no harm to eschew speaking ill of the politically dead. Well… yes and no.
I have no reason to wish to see Kezia Dugdale denigrated. As far as I am concerned, she is just another British nationalist politician. She has made it clear that, in terms of the constitutional issue which lies at the centre of Scottish politics, she is absolutely no different from any other British nationalist politician. If people want to give her the benefit of whatever doubt they may be able to contrive, it really doesn’t matter much to me.
But I can’t help feeling that there is a problem here for British politics in general and, perhaps, British Labour in particular. It occurs to me that the serial leadership crises which beset British Labour can be explained, at least to some extent, by reluctance to properly assess the reasons for successive failures.
That British journalistic tradition of revisionism reflects a more general aversion to thoughtful assessment of failed politicians that pervades the British establishment. British Labour in Scotland presents as the worst case. Over the last decade, BLiS has changed its leader on average once a year. It really looks like nobody in the pretendy wee party has any interest in trying to analyse why they have just lost their umpteenth leader. And if they can’t explain why they are changing leaders more often than most of us change phones, how can they ever hope to find better leaders?
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