The thin line between confidence and arrogance
Alex Salmond’s lack of humility may yet prove his party’s undoing, writes TOM HARRIS
I worked as a press officer for the Labour Party in the run-up to the 1992 general election, based at Keir Hardie House in Glasgow. During the long run-up to the launch of the campaign, we were under strict instructions to be unswervingly triumphant.
So at the end of Labour’s 1991 annual conference in Brighton, the platform party, including Neil Kinnock, our future Prime Minister (it said on our media briefs), led delegates in a rousing/embarrassing (take your pick) rendition of Queen’s “We Are The Champions”. An entirely appropriate song, given the inevitability of our impending return to government after 13 long years in the wilderness (cough!).
And during the election campaign itself, we dropped the word “Shadow” from our spokespersons’ titles; now Donald Dewar was “Labour’s Secretary of State for Scotland” and John Smith was “Labour’s Chancellor of the Exchequer”. And that’s how they were introduced when they marched onto the stage at Sheffield just before they sat to listen to the opening speech from Kinnock, “Labour’s Prime Minister” (okay, we didn’t go that far. Neither did the electorate, come to think of it…).
On polling day itself, I was sent a briefing pack by London HQ, which gave me the lines to give our MPs who would be taking part in the TV studio discussions as the results came in later that night. “This is what to say if we have an overall majority, and this is what to say if there’s a hung parliament. Good luck!” Well, that was useful right up until the Basildon result.
The hope was that if we were unrelentingly positive about winning the election, then the electorate were more likely to take us seriously as a potential government. In media interviews, our Shadow – … sorry, “Labour’s Ministers” – constantly referred to “when” we won the election, never “if”.
Of course, it all ended very badly indeed. And part of the problem was that instead of sounding confident, we sounded arrogant. What’s worse, we didn’t have much to be arrogant about.
Tony Blair understood. In the three years he led the Opposition, he never once assumed victory and told his people always to express caution, to caveat every media assumption about the outcome of the next election. Nothing could be taken for granted.
Even when we had every reason to expect to win re-election, Tony would never fail to caution against complacency; at private meetings of the PLP he would warn us time and again not to assume the next victory was in the bag. We would be facing a different political reality today if we had actually listened.
The electorate dislike politicians to start with, and they actively hate politicians and political parties who take their approval for granted. So try this experiment: sign on to Twitter and express the hope that Labour will hold onto control of Glasgow City Council at May’s elections. You will be inundated with responses that will have been written breathlessly and angrily by SNP supporters informing you of your stupidity and your immorality. You will also be told, not of their hopes of winning control of Scotland’s largest city, but of the absolute fact of their inevitable victory.
Of course, Salmond’s party has more cause for optimism than Labour these days; their overwhelming victory in last year’s Holyrood elections changed the political landscape in this part of the country and made life extremely uncomfortable for my party.
Still, such arrogance smacks of hubris. And it starts at the top. Salmond has never been more convinced of his invincibility, of his divine right to rule, his smug assumption that he will always come out on top. And his disciples echo that conceit.
The same is true of that bigger electoral contest: the independence referendum. It’s actually very difficult to find an SNP activist on Twitter who might concede that defeat for the nationalist cause in autumn 2014 is even a remote possibility. This is despite the fact that all the polling evidence shows that, one or two recent polls aside, pro-unionist sympathy still dominates in Scotland.
The fact is the nationalists might win. I hope they don’t, but they might. We might win. We might not, but we might.
Such doubt is strangely absent from the nationalist camp. And I don’t think it’s all show or propaganda. They seem to need to believe in the inevitability of their victory; they need to believe that the odds against them are simply the context of the Hollywood drama that will one day be made about their historic struggle and victory.
But the public, whose support in both the local elections and the separation referendum is taken entirely for granted, still have the final say. And they may not take kindly to the First Minister’s homage to Kinnock’s Sheffield battle cry.
Let me hear ya say “Alright…!”
Tom Harris is the MP for Glasgow South. Follow him on Twitter at @TomHarrisMP.