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Farewell to another member of the Old Guard

20/02/2011

It looked like it couldn’t get worse for Labour at Holyrood: having the rug pulled out from under Iain Gray’s over Lockerbie; the Budget passing comfortably leaving Labour looking isolated; the opinion poll suggesting that a ten-point Labour lead had been wiped out in just three months. Then, on Thursday evening, with just eleven weeks to go before polling day, and less than six weeks before the deadline for candidates to be nominated, Wendy Alexander announced her decision to stand down.

Her line is that it’s to spend more time with her family, but the rumour mill is in overdrive that in fact she’d lost some sort of power struggle with Andy Kerr (but that both of them were in agreement that the Labour response to the Budget was flawed) and the opinion poll had been the final straw. Either way, Wendy has previous for this: backing out of the Leadership contest with Jack McConnell in 2001 when sufficient momentum had gathered behind her that she was the only credible challenger left; accepting a less favourable Cabinet position when McConnell assumed the Leadership, only to resign six months later; lobbing a hand grenade into the constitutional debate with her infamous “Bring it on” moment, only for the whole thing to quietly disappear within a week. This decision is, frankly, part of her modus operandi.

Of course, it’s annoyed her Constituency neighbours: Hugh Henry (Paisley South) and Ken McIntosh (Eastwood) had to slug it out for selection in a tight contest in the new Renfewshire South seat with Wendy comfortably ensconced (or so we thought) in the re-drawn Paisley constituency. Henry won that contest, leaving McIntosh with his re-drawn Eastwood constituency, which is now a notionally Tory seat. Had Wendy stood down a year earlier, Hugh Henry could have walked right into Paisley, giving McIntosh a free run at Renfrewshire South. Moreover, both the victorious Henry and Stuart Clark, Labour’s intnded successor to Trish Godman in Renfrewshire North & West, had materials printed with Wendy Alexander featuring. These now have to get pulped. Once again, an abrupt decision to walk away, whatever the reason, has left a lot of people very annoyed with Wendy Alexander.

Nevertheless, it’s symbolic of something else: how far removed Scottish politics is from the 1999 Cabinet, and what you might call the “founding fathers” (and mothers) of devolution.

Let’s look at the late Donald Dewar’s first Cabinet:

Sam Galbraith, Dewar’s Education Minister, was the first to go. He endured a torrid time, presiding over the SQA debacle. After Henry McLeish succeeded Dewar, he was moved to Environment, only to retire on health grounds and quit the Parliament in 2001. As it happens, his successor as MSP for Strathkelvin & Bearsden, Brian FitzPatrick, lost the seat to Independent health campaigner Dr Jean Turner in 2003 (though David Whitton won it back for Labour in 2007), and his successor as MP, John Lyons, lost the re-drawn East Dunbartonshire constituency to LibDem Jo Swinson in 2005.

The next to go was Henry McLeish, the Enterprise Minister and closest thing to a Deputy Leader, who followed in Dewar’s footsteps as First Minister. What we didn’t know then was that McLeish’s office expenses regime was less than watertight, and that as a Westminster MP, he’d been subletting part of his office without declaring this to Parliamentary authorities. He was forced to resign in disgrace, and stood down as an MSP in 2003 (again, his successor as MSP for Central Fife, Christine May, lost the seat to the SNP’s Tricia Marwick in 2007). He has, however, undergone something of a rehabilitation of late, and is now musing on the future of Scottish football for the SFA.

Susan Deacon was Dewar’s Health Minister, and remained in situ under McLeish. On his downfall, however, Jack McConnell offered her a different (lesser) position, and Deacon instead opted to return to the back benches. She gained a reputation for independent thought and stood down in 2007, when the SNP’s Kenny MacAskill won her Edinburgh East & Musselburgh constituency.

Deputy First Minister Jim Wallace, Dewar’s Justice Minister and then LibDem Leader, also stood down in 2007, having stood down as LibDem Leader in 2005. He was almost immediately ennobled, as Lord Wallace of Tankerness, and having led his Party into a coalition with Labour at Holyrood, now takes part in the coalition with the Tories at Westminster as Advocate General, and the Scotland Office’s man in the Lords.

This time, Dewar’s Finance Minister, Jack McConnell is heading for the exit. McConnell, as we know, succeeded McLeish as First Minister (having challenged him in the initial contest to succeed Dewar) and was re-elected as First Minister in 2003. However, he lost the 2007 Election and resigned as Labour Group Leader not long after. He was given a seat in the Lords last year, and after a great deal of political pressure, has opted to quit Holyrood to spend more time with his peerage.

So with Wendy Alexander, Dewar’s Communities Minister, now standing down, only three members of the first Cabinet will be on a ballot paper in May: then Rural Affairs Minister Ross Finnie was the only member of the Cabinet to remain broadly in post for the duration of the 1999-2007 Executive and is now the LibDems’ Health Spokesman; Transport Minister Sarah Boyack was cast aside on Jack McConnell’s entry into Bute House (albeit making a return as a Deputy Minister in the last few months before the 2007 Election) and is now Shadow Rural Affairs Secretary; Tom McCabe was ditched as Business Manager by McConnell, but came back as Deputy Health Minister in 2003, then was promoted to Finance Minister in 2004, returning to the back benches after 2007 and now sitting as Labour’s man on the Corporate Body.

Even the Deputy Ministers have, largely, evaporated: six out of the ten of them have either gone already or will be gone by May. Deputy Justice Minister Angus MacKay was promoted to Finance Minister by McLeish, but was sacked by McConnell and lost his Edinburgh South seat to the LibDems in 2003. Deputy Fisheries Minister John Home Robertson was sacked by McConnell and drummed out of Holyrood in 2007 after it emerged he’d been working the expenses rule on mortgage claims to his advantage (Iain Gray was his successor as MSP for East Lothian). Deputy Minister for the Highlands & Islands was also a casualty of Jack McConnell’s first reshuffle, and the voters of the Western Isles ejected him from Parliament in 2007. Rhona Brankin, Peter Peacock and Nicol Stephen are all standing down in 2011.

Of the remaining four, Iain Gray survived McConnell’s purge and ended up benefiting from Wendy Alexander’s resignation a first time – as Enterprise, Lifelong Learning and Transport Minister in 2002, only to be voted out of Parliament by the electorate of Edinburgh Pentlands in 2003. He returned to Holyrood as MSP for East Lothian in 2007 and, of course, ended up following on from Wendy Alexander for a second time as Labour Leader at Holyrood. Jackie Baillie was purged but returned to the front bench in Opposition and is now Gray’s Shadow Health Secretary. Frank McAveety sits on the backbenches, while Iain Smith is on the LibDem front bench.

So of the nineteen surviving members of Dewar’s administration, only seven are even seeking to remain at Holyrood after May. Of course, there’s an inevitability to that – the Brown’s Cabinet going into the 2010 Election bore little relation to Blair’s 1997 Cabinet and the Major Government of 1992 was a long way from the make-up of Thatcher’s 1979 Cabinet.

Still, it’s a mark of how a Parliament that still seems new to some has changed in twelve years, and how the people who became – well, not household names, but movers and shakers nevertheless – are, one by one, falling away.

I guess that whatever the reasons behind Wendy Alexander’s departure, and whatever the consequences, the lesson we can all draw is that the passage of time really is a bastard.

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