He’s not the Messiah

Sunday National, April 25th 2021.

Like the messiah: always promised and never appearing. A section of the Scottish media is always waiting to be wooed by the pro-union political centrist they can believe in again. Jim Murphy briefly wore the mantle – receiving a remarkably good press as the coming man and saviour of Scottish Labour – before being crucified by the electorate in the 2015 general election.

Kezia Dugdale never attracted the same veneration. It never occurred to anyone to put Willie Rennie on the same pedestal either. But after 2015, Ruth Davidson was quickly positioned as the next white hope receiving an almost universally friendly write-up – before Boris, and Brexit, and her own limitations as a political leader extinguished the dream. That all of these politicians failed to achieve their goals never seems to dampen the enthusiasm.

And now? Now these expectations seem to have settled on Anas Sarwar. Sarwar has the misfortune to occupy one of the worst jobs in Scottish politics, but just a few weeks into his leadership of Scottish Labour, he is receiving generally positive notices in the press. There are some encouraging signs in the polls too, with recent boosts for Sarwar’s personal popularity, even as his party continues to languish in third place, around 5% behind the Tories, with the real prospect of slipping back on the 24 seats they won in 2016.

That these hopes have fallen on Sarwar’s shoulders is an indirect criticism of Douglas Ross – whose “darker edge” – makes him a much more uncongenial character for centrist dads to rally round than his predecessor. But as far as I can see, the objections on that score are almost entirely presentational.

The Scottish Tory message has barely evolved since 2016. All that’s changed is the messenger. Take one example. Douglas Ross is being pilloried this weekend for Scottish Tory tax policy. Under their manifesto, income tax bands in Scotland would be realigned with the rest of the UK, lowering the upper rate of tax, and lifting the threshold at which it is charged. The net effect of these changes would be to hand a tax rebate to high earners, while ordinary people on ordinary incomes wouldn’t see a bean. Low-earners are out of the Tory policy picture entirely.

Readers with longer memories might remember this is long-standing Scottish Tory tax policy, pushed throughout Ruth Davidson’s leadership of the party, when much of the media was trying to convince us she was “a different kind of Tory.” Davidson was consistently allowed to position herself entirely synthetically as a “blue collar” Tory – but because he lacks the common touch, Ross is forced to wear the brutal economic logic of longstanding Scottish Conservative policy around his neck.

Davidson, by contrast, was largely given a free pass on his uncongenial fact because she could crack a joke, give a speech and ride a buffalo – and he can’t. And people wonder why so many of our leading politicians are empty suits with no real notion what they want to do with political power.

The attempts to embiggen Sarwar as “the new kid on the block” are unconvincing. Despite his relative youth – Sarwar always struck me as a bit of a Robinson Crusoe, a man marooned out of his political time by unpredicted changes in the political weather. When I was an undergraduate in Edinburgh in the mid-2000s, the Labour Students were full of Anas Sarwars.

Tony Blair was in power in London, and Labour continued to dominate the still fairly novel Scottish Parliament. The bumpy days of the succession to Gordon Brown and his defeat by the coalition in 2010 seemed far off. The decision to invade Iraq in 2003 had tainted political enterprise, but undiscouraged, these ambitious young things had reasonable hopes of smoothly transitioning from their studies into the offices of one of the Labour politicians you’d often see around campus, and from there, into their own House of Commons seat in some distant corner of England they had no personal connection to.

In the event, few of these ambitions were realised. But Anas Sarwar? He got lucky – in a sense – inheriting his dad’s Glasgow Central constituency in 2010, just as Gordon Brown was leading the wider party down the political plughole. With all the “new kid on the block” takes, you might also be forgiven for forgetting Sarwar was actually Scottish Labour’s deputy leader during the pivotal years of 2011 and 2014. Having lost Glasgow Central in the 2015 Labour wipe out, he secured a regional list seat in Glasgow in the 2016 Holyrood election.
Responding to internal critics who characterised him as a “right wing neoliberal Blairite” Sarwar points out that he didn’t “serve a single day in the New Labour years in frontline politics.” And that’s true enough, as far as it goes. But just because you missed the train doesn’t mean you didn’t hope to board it.

The slogan Sarwar has devised to nimbly escape from his ties to the ancien regime is to identify himself as a “Brownite” – as if that somehow insulates him from the commitment to the triangulating, third way, enterprise-in-government hokum which brought us public-private partnerships, private finance initiatives, and means testing which was intrinsic to the New Labour project whose corpse Sarwar’s political career floated in on. He may not have had the umbilical tie his predecessor Jim Murphy had to the Labour right – but there was a reason party members decided in 2017 that Richard Leonard was a more congenial fit with the Corbyn project than Sarwar.

After Corbyn’s election in 2015, Sarwar – predictably – aligned himself with Corbyn’s many critics in the parliamentary Labour Party, signing a 2016 letter of no confidence calling on him to resign less than a year into his leadership “for the good of the party and, more importantly, the country”. Just one year later, Sarwar went on to gush about how “Jeremy Corbyn’s radical manifesto capturing the imagination of millions of people across the UK” expressing his passionate desire “to work together to elect Jeremy as Prime Minister, putting Labour’s vision for a fairer society into action across the UK.” When Corbyn’s prospect sank in the general election of December 2020, Sarwar was promptly demanding his resignation again.

Labour strategist John McTernan has a statutory duty of handing the black spot to each new Scottish Labour leader by making outsize and ultimately inaccurate predictions about how they will sweep the party back to triumph. He did his duty in the Spectator this week, depicting the new leader as an uncommonly graceful dancer around Labour’s awkward position of truly satisfying neither people who support independence, or those who want to see self-government crushed like a toad beneath the harrow. Labour has been looking for a “third way” out of its constitutional predicament for almost a decade without success.

Sarwar’s increasingly laboured “adult in the room” shtick might make more sense if he was dealing with party leaders who strike the electorate as upstarts and tenderfoots. Ross, I grant you, can be effectively dismissed in this way. But if you seriously believe the average Scottish voter will look at the leadership contenders and pick out Sarwar as the designated grown-up? You’re getting high on your own supply.

A little policy flexibility – that every politician requires. When times change, a sensible politician changes with the time. But the supposedly “Brownite” Sarwar has demonstrated the political flexibility of a well-lubricated octopus during his – now actually quite long – political career. The fact he decided to educate his own children privately is only some of the political baggage Sarwar carries with him – despite recent attempts to present him as emerging pristine from his political chrysalis to lead Scottish Labour back to relevance, then opposition, then power.

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