Commissioned by Prospect magazine, 15 Dec 2014 (published version)
By Pat Kane
It’s the visual meme that keeps on giving for Jim Murphy MP, the newly elected leader of the Scottish Labour Party: his smiling embrace of one end of a black model submarine (the other end gamely held up by its manufacturer).
To be scrupulously fair, it’s a less lethal version of the replacement for Trident that Murphy has (until now) so enthusiastically endorsed. But visually, it can stand for an element of this ex-Defence Minister’s policy record - supporting interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan, doctrinally Blairite on private involvement in public services - which would usually leave him an easy target for the SNP, the Greens and the wider left Yes movement in Scotland.
But the other defining Jim Murphy image - shrugging off an egg thrown at him during a street hustings the Independence referendum campaign, temporarily toppling him from his Irn-Bru crate - shows just how tough an opponent he will be for the post-Yes tribes, perpetually seeking “more powers”.
If Gordon Brown resonated with wavering No voters as a “son of the Manse”, echoing with the certitude (and rectitude) of the Presbytery, Jim Murphy is evidently from the other politico-religious tradition in Scottish Labour - the Irish-Catholic working-class lad made good, who knows exactly how deep the loyalties to a party of working people thrum in Scottish life.
Of course, this prole awareness didn’t stop Murphy’s reasonably glittering career arc through Westminster, Whitehall and other enclaves of Londonopolis (as it has barely hindered many before him). He has landed in odd places, though - for example, as board member of the hawkish and Atlanticist Henry Jackson Society, whose associate director Douglas Murray writes at length this week about slapping & sleep deprivation as permissable interrogations.
But a political Scotsman on the make is as much about self-making as money-making (though Murphy also has his expenses claims burdens to bear). And thus it’s no surprise to see his first major speech as leader is full of bold moves and reframings.
A new “Clause Four” will define Scottish Labour as a “democratic socialist and patriotic party” (no, that word-order doesn’t bear too much rearranging), putting “Scotland first” in all matters. Murphy’s commitment to a 50% top tax rate, to be applied when (or if) the Smith Commission’s income tax powers come to Scotland, has hardened up SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon’s commitment to match the same rate.
Murphy’s “I’m in charge” rhetoric on the political media is bullish vis-a-vis London, even specifically against Miliband. This is an attempt to neutralise the explosion detonated by his predecessor, Johann Lamont, and her public complaint of the Scottish party being regarded as a “branch office” run by “dinosaurs” in London.
With a dutifully Unionist mainstream media in Scotland polishing up his every nugget of his anti-Blairite rebranding, it would be hard to say that Jim has not had a good start.
He probably needs it. Few expect the SNP to maintain their current 20-30 point lead over Labour all the way to the General Election finish line in May. But there is reason to believe that the legendary pragmatism of the Scottish electorate, post the establishment of the Scottish Parliament - choosing SNP to develop Holyrood, and Labour to defend interests at Westminster - has undergone a profound mutation, post the referendum campaign.
As a consequence of the intense, passionate and networked movement which comprised the Yes vote, even in spite of the UK media-establishment blitzkreig of fear messages, they have developed a strong collective memory - reinforced by a continuing culture of meetings, blogs, podcasts, social media meme wars.
And one of their irreducible memories is that of a Labour Party standing shoulder to shoulder with Tories (and their poodling Coalition partners). In distinct contrast to Murphy’s current boosterism, the “Labour and Conservative Party” (as some wagsters phrase it) sang the same song-book of poverty, doom and disaster about Scotland’s prospects post a Yes vote.
Murphy is betting that the friable thread of trust between the Scottish people and Scottish Labour can be rewoven. He could be too little, too late. It is entirely possible that the fabled intelligence of the “Scottish Electorate” makes this precise calculation - that a straight substitution of SNP MPs for Labour ones is in their best interests in May.
And this not just from fervent Yessers - which is fervent enough - but even including devo-max Unionists, who voted No for “more powers” at least, and who are underwhelmed by the offerings of the Smith Commission. A recent ICM poll showed that 63% of Scots want full devolution of taxes and welfare, compared to the partial offer of the Commission - and 58% want full control of pensions, where there is none under the new proposals.
The new SNP leadership is making it easy for all of them. Nicola Sturgeon that has utterly ruled out any compact with a Tory party at Westminster, and has set out some attractive conditions for any deal, whether coalition or confidence-and-supply, with Labour - including the cancellation of Trident in concert with Plaid Cymru and the Greens; and a demand for "more powers" for Scotland, likely based on the SNP’s Smith Commission contribution which reserves all powers to Scotland barring currency, defence and diplomatic powers.
And even though Salmond is Marmite to many in Scotland, I suspect that even some of his detractors would quietly enjoy the Great Beast stomping around Westminster, contesting the agon with lesser talents in the Hogwarts Palace.
So Mr Murphy has his work cut out. However, I can confidently predict than press-calls where he manhandles weapons of mass (or even targeted) destruction will not be on his busy agenda.