Tall Poppy – or Magnifying Glass Malaise?

Tall Poppy – or Magnifying Glass Malaise?

by Bill Jamieson
article from Wednesday 14, August, 2013

IN READING the fulsome tributes paid to David McLetchie, I was reminded of those most essential tools necessary for any understanding of Scottish politics in the modern era: a triple strength magnifying glass, an unsparing obsession with minutiae and an almighty memory for the smallest grudge.

McLetchie was one of the most effective and respected members of the Scottish Parliament. We know this from the handsome testimonials that have poured in following news of his death this week. Leaders of all the main parties came forward to testify to his political acumen, his debating skills, his paucky wit and mischievous humour.

But in this avalanche of multi-party praise and glowing tributes in newspaper columns, I began to detect a twinge of collective guilt over his treatment at the time of his resignation in October 2005.

What was it, exactly, that caused the leader of the Scottish Conservatives in the Holyrood parliament to be toppled from office? Our memory fumbles. It was a huge scandal of some sort, was it not? Had he bought a second home on parliamentary expenses? Taken on a string of conflicting company directorships? Handed out dollops of public money to his business pals? Or had he been caught in some lurid imbroglio with a Miss Whiplash in a sado-masochistic New Club ring?

What brought Mr McLetchie down was an affair over taxi expenses. Among his £11,500 claim for taxi fares were claims submitted for taxi use when on Conservative Party as opposed to constituency business. Such a transgression, while meriting exposure and censure, would have hardly registered when compared with subsequent scandals that were to engulf Westminster MPs. These ranged from expense fiddling on a truly heroic scale to selling influence to lobby interests. You would truly need a magnifying glass to appreciate the magnitude of Mr McLetchie’s misdemeanour.

Yet in Holyrood it excited opposition bloodlust for his scalp, and the broadly Left-leaning Scottish Press joined the attack unsparingly. Any sense of proportion and scale went out of the window. No note or irony was allowed to intrude on the sanctimonious outrage of a profession widely regarded as no stranger to the odd opportunistic expense claim. “Taxi for McLetchie!” became the jocular jibe every time his name was mentioned.

It looked for a time as if his political career was finished. But Mr McLetchie made a remarkable come-back. He again came to prominence, with major campaigns on issues including free personal care and road pricing. In May 2007 he was returned as MSP for his Edinburgh Pentlands constituency with an increased share of the vote and his majority doubled. He was became Conservative Chief Whip and business manager.

Mr McLetchie, of course, was not the first senior Scottish politician to be ousted from a leading position as the Magnifying Glass Jacobins proved their strength. Indeed, his downfall could be seen as political revenge for the earlier dramatic downfall of the Labour First Minister Henry McLeish who succeeded Donald Dewar in 2000. He was forced out a year later amid a scandal involving allegations that he sub-let part of his tax-subsidised Westminster constituency office without it having been registered in the parliamentary register of interests. The affair was nicknamed “Officegate”, Mr. McLeish in no way personally benefited from the oversight, and he undertook to repay the £36,000 rental income. But he resigned to give Labour a clean break to prepare for the 2003 Parliamentary elections and did not seek re-election.

Like Mr McLetchie, Henry McLeish went on to render widely acknowledged public service. In addition to being a Privy Counsellor, he holds numerous academic positions in the US and UK, in 2007 he was appointed to the Scottish Broadcasting Commission and he has also chaired the Scottish Prisons Commission, which produced a report into sentencing and the criminal justice system in 2008. He also contributed to a report on the state of football in Scotland (2010) and arguably came to command more respect than his successor.

The attrition of senior Scottish politicians does not stop here. Arguably most bizarre of all were the circumstances that forced the resignation of one of Scottish Labour’s brightest and most talented personalities, Wendy Alexander. After Labour’s Holyrood election defeat in 2007 she was elected unopposed as the party’s new Scottish leader.

It all unravelled quickly and descended into a scandal that became known as “Giftgate”. Bring on the magnifying glass - and a Hubble telescope. It emerged that her campaign team for the internal party election had accepted a £950 donation from Paul Green, a property magnate.

As he was a Jersey resident and not a UK elector he was barred from donating to a UK-based party and the money was forfeited. The Electoral Commission, in an ambiguous submission, concluded that Ms Alexander had taken “significant steps” to comply with funding regulations and decided there was no basis for further action – a conclusion likened by Alex Salmond to a ‘not proven’ verdict.

The SNP-led Scottish parliament’s Standards Committee voted narrowly for a one day ban from the parliament, while Ms Alexander protested that she had followed the advice of parliamentary authorities which stated that there was no need to declare the donations as gifts. The proposed ban was overwhelmingly rejected by the Parliament in a subsequent vote in September 2008. But rather than having the issue hanging over her - and her party - Ms Alexander announced her resignation as leader.

During her brief period as Scottish Labour leader she set in motion the Calman Commission. Three years later the UK government introduced a new Scotland Bill which closely followed the Commission's recommendations and proposed major new financial powers worth £12 billion, giving Holyrood control of raising a third of its budget.

Three senior Scottish figures, brought down by what in any comparison to what happened at Westminster were trifling sums. Censure was merited – but their termination of office? I have no doubt tributes will flow just as gushingly when Henry McLeish and Wendy Alexander depart this earth. And much of it, I suspect, will be a similar sorrowful mixture of guilt and regret over the Magnifying Glass Malaise that keeps Scotland’s politics small.



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