In the Coen brothers’ movie The Man Who Wasn’t There, Billy Bob Thornton’s blackmailing barber recalls how his girlfriend suggested getting married after just a few weeks.
“Don’t you want to get to know me more?” he asks her. “Why? Does it get better?” she replies.
Richard Leonard, the latest leader of Scottish Labour, left on Thursday. For most Scots, he was also a man who was never there and it didn’t get better for him either. The debilitating fear for Labour in Scotland is that it never will and even worse must be the gnawing suspicion that no one cares.
That is bad news for this once all-conquering party of vision and reform but it’s worse news for those voters still hoping for an effective, leftish party with enough grit and calibre to capably oppose the SNP while shaping a new and alternative vision of tomorrow’s Scotland.
On Thursday evening, an hour or so after the news of his resignation emerged, the BBC ran a piece headlined “Who is Richard Leonard?” It was the kind of profile commonly written when someone is appointed to a big job, not so much when they are leaving one after three years. It seemed to fit the mood.
It is now obligatory to start any discussion of Leonard by noting he is a principled, decent and thoughtful man but, that done, things routinely hurtle on to his shortcomings as a leader and, in fairness, these were several and serious.
But Leonard is a principled, decent and thoughtful man and it’s worth repeating. He didn’t make much of an impression, or any impression, on voters. But it can be difficult for principled, decent and thoughtful men and women to make an impression in these times, in this country, when people are so energised by simpler things, black and white issues, Yes and No questions.
That is not to say Leonard should have stayed, hoping for the wind to change. You don’t, as Bob Dylan had it, need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows and, right now, it is blowing into the sails of the SNP and might even blow Scotland all the way to independence.
But nothing lasts forever, history repeats and SNP supporters and strategists would be foolish to think only happy thoughts as they dance on the dust of Scottish Labour. Once upon a time and not so long ago, Labour was all-conquering in Scotland, weighing not counting their votes. They could stick a rosette on a balloon, went the joke, and get it elected. However, too many of those balloons were elected and the hubris of all those years unchallenged encouraged Scottish Labour to think they would always be unchallenged and always in charge.
The SNP are not there yet but have started, on occasion, to exhibit a similar air of arrogance and entitlement. It suits the party to style itself the voice of Scotland but it isn’t. There are many voices in Scotland.
For the good of our politics, and of our country, the next leader of Scottish Labour must be capable of making some of those voices heard.
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