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.

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27 thoughts on “The thin line between confidence and arrogance

  1. Scotland isn’t part of a country. It is a country in its own right, just like England or Wales (or even Cornwall). The ‘United’ Kingdom is not a country, but an unfair ‘union’ of countries. Note the plural.

    There’s no such word as ‘alright’. It should be spelt as two words. All right. All right?

    1. I’ve read Tom’s post twice now, and I cant seem to see the bits you are referring to.

      This is a quite personal question, but are you on drugs?

      1. Let me help you:

        “their overwhelming victory in last year’s Holyrood elections changed the political landscape in this part of the country”

        1. Since Tom is a Glasgow MP, and all we have heard about is the overwhelming victory of the SNP in Scottish Labour’s heartlands of Glasgow and the West of Scotland, I presumed he was talking about THAT part of the country. Especially as he talks about Glasgow City Council.

          But then I am not surprised. Twisting someones words to mean the exact opposite of what they said is an art perfected by the nationalist.

          1. I’m a pro-independence person. I try my best to see things from both sides. It’s no use trying to understand the already converted.

            Just because someone supports independence doesn’t mean they are trying to twist people’s words. That is a silly generalisation. There is no distinct DNA construct called a “nationalist”!

            I must admit that when I first read the piece it feels more like he means Scotland than Glasgow but who knows? Does it matter? Not a jot. No reasonable suggestions on these pages seem to transcend into the Labour heirachy anyway.

          2. You’re right, John. I’ve read it again and he was indeed speaking in the context of control of Glasgow City Council.

            I will have to be more careful when I read articles written by Unionists as the do not always seek to talk Scotland down (as I wrongly suspected in this case.)

  2. The multi-national state in the globalized world is a much studied and rather well understood phenomenon. Putting aside party politics, it is worth noting in general terms, I venture to suggest, that, as the revenues and the spending power of the the unsustainably over-indebted UK state decline, it may be expected to spend less on the Welfare State, especially when the Tories are at the helm. If it does, the volume of resources which the state can allocate to maintain its internal cohesion declines. The autonomy of the Scottish Government consequently can be expected to increase ineluctably over time because of the increasing financial problems of the UK state, which reduce its capacity to control its minority national territories by means of tranfer payments. As these payments diminish, the central government becomes less able to attach conditions to them.

    An important consequence of central public investment used to be the solidification of UK links thanks to the development of the concept of a shared citizenship with the same rights and responsibilities throughout the territory of the state. That era having come to an end, and the state having neo-liberally embarked upon a process of increasingly defining its citizens as individuals who must fend for themselves rather than depend on UK social solidarity, the citizens of the peripheral territories of the national mionorities find that as time goes by there is less and less advantage in belonging to a central multi-national state.

    Globalization and the global systemic financial and economic crises are thus pushing the governing neo-liberal ruling parties of the UK state into feats of austerity and assaults on the public sector which can only serve the interests of the Scottish National Party, or so it would appear, as these phenomena form a catalyst for disintegration of the multi-national state.

    That being so, it is difficult not to be confident that the central objective of the Scottish National Party will be achieved. This does not mean, of course, that one necessarily considers oneself to have reason to be confident about the rate of progress in that direction. Indeed, it is even arguable that unremittingly rapid progress towards independence would not be ideal, and I believe that it is understood that this is a feeling shared by a substantial proportion of the electorate, whose commonsense and caution have always seemed to me to be rather well respected by the SNP.

    One should, however, also respect the capacity of the electorate to be persuaded by the impeccable reasonableness of one’s case. Oops, lack of humility! Not really. It is only faith in a cause and in a country which Mr Harris refers to as “a part of this country”. It is also faith in and respect for the people, a faith which the Labour Party in this country, Scotland, not only appears to have lost but seems to be incapable of regaining.

  3. I think the article has merit. Arrogance is never popular in a politician, but even worse when it comes to Twitter and Blogland.

    The worst thing to happen to the SNP was last May’s result. Arrogance has dominated ever since. Let’s be fair, not every nationalist supporter behaves as such, and many question the polices of independence. But on certain sites, you could believe Scotland’s independence is a done deal. Sod the polls, whatever Big Eck says is gospel.

    Labour has already suffered the consequences of arrogance, and will probably suffer a little more come May’s elections.

    But we are still two years from the Referendum. Non stop campaigning may simply what upsets the applecart as people get fed up.

  4. With the redrawn boundaries and campaign spending difference:

    The Tories will most likely crush Ed Miliband’s Labour in 2015.

    The Tories may lose their only seat and the Libdems will suffer heavily in Scotland.

  5. Tom, Its not Salmonds party any more that its you’re party: if you are persuaded.

  6. Tom,
    I admire you. As a nationalist I can recognise you’re open approach (you seem to be the only Labour politician left in Scotland prepared to keep up the fight). But, please ask yourself why you are despondent. May I suggest you read Jim Silllars book. There will always be a place for honest men in a new Scotland.

    1. Interesting that you think so highly of Jim Sillars. Although I dont share his politics, he often has insightful things to say, and is always worth listening to. Which is why I am often puzzled by the amount of vitriol he seems to attract from the SNP?

      1. There’s only one party the People’s Front of Judea hates more than the Romans. And that’s the Republican People’s Front of Judea.

  7. There is a thin line between love and hate as well, or so Chrissie Hynd would have us believe.

    Something tells me what side of that line Tom is on when it comes to the Maximum Eck!

  8. not being a politician i may be wrong. but i think to get to the top in politics of what ever party you need a degree of scotland do we just like to see arrogance in our footballers?

  9. I think this may be my first venture onto Labour turf. I am an avowed Nationalist- not SNP member; a Nationalist. I used to be a Labour voter, from a family of Labour voters in Glasgow. I feel that I did not leave the Labour Party; it left me.

    With respect to Tom’s admonition on over confidence and practiced confidence being interpreted as arrogance by the voter, it is a lesson all parties would do well to learn.

    With respect to Scottish Labour, I think there remains not arrogance, but a deeply ingrained sense of entitlement. My feeling is that over the near half century since I first became politically aware, that they have been distilled into . . . a party of apparatchiks. That’s just the way it comes across.

    The SNP have completely occupied Labour’s traditional policy territory. Indeed, the SNP manifesto, excluding independence, has more in common with that of the Labour Party I once knew.

    As a boy in the Fifties, and early Sixties I would deliver flyers for the Party at election time – mostly for individual council candidates and for parliamentary candidates at the General. I’d do the same for Tory council candidates (or as they called themselves then, the “Progressives”) but charge them.

    The thing I keep asking myself about Scottish Labour is why on earth they are clinging to the concept of Union? I cannot seem to get an answer from any Labour politician of their and their party’s rationale for Scotland remaining part of the UK. What you get is:”Oh yes, that is a question that MUST be addressed!”, then they don’t address it.

    So let me try Tom, and you guys, and I’ll leave it at that:

    What is the positive case for a prosperous Scotland in the Union in the 21st Century?

  10. Yes, all very interesting. You say labour came across as arrogant because they assumed victory and then didn’t achieve it after 13 years in the Wilderness, but Salmond hasn’t just walked out of the wilderness. He’s in charge. In fact, he’s in charge of the Scottish Government with a massive majority in a parliament that was specifically designed by your party to prevent just that. He already has reason to believe he has massive amounts of support from the Scottish Electorate. Because they gave it to him in the last election. Nothing you or the Tories have done since will have changed that level of support significantly.

    Labour are in danger of being wiped out in a manner similar to how Scotland treated the Tories in 1997.

    Stop Labelling Slamond a bad man, or a fool, or any other negative label you can come up with for him.

    Start telling us how Labour will make Scotland a better place.

    And please note – Telling us you will keep Alex Salmond out is not good enough.

    Honestly, a post about arrogance from Tom Harris!

  11. Whether or not Salmonds demeanor is of arrogance or confidence appears to depend upon one’s political leanings. It is certainly true that he gets up the noses of most opposition politicians in his apparent attitude towards concentrating on carrying out his duties as First Minister FOR Scotland.

    But then perhaps thats the problem Mr Harris, Labour have always seen the purlieu of Scotland being theirs to do with as they want. There has never been a concerted defence of Scotlands interests until 2007 in either parliament and whilst the outcome of the Referendum is by no means decided, at least the present Scottish Government has a ‘Scotland First’ agenda.

    And the least said about your own Twitter contributions the better. They’re neither clever or witty.

  12. Tom Harris-I think I can see a slight weakness in your argument, namely Kinnock was no Alex Salmond.

  13. Bit of a cheek by John Ruddy asking Mr Walker if he was on drugs after the post complained about cyberNats. Pot,kettle and black comes to mind.

    1. I thought I would ask, as there often seems to be posts which castigate the original poster for something they havnt said. Also twisting very innocuous comments into something completely different.

      If someone was on very strong medication, it would explain why it happens. If he is not, then I’m sorry for him. He seems to have a very twisted view of the world.

  14. Everything that Labour does now is reactionary.

    This is reactionary to the SNP conference.
    There was reaction to the GERS figures.
    There is reaction to the specifics of the referendum.
    Reactionary comments about McAlpine’s article.

    Of course, I think that it is entirely RIGHT that all of these things are discussed and reacted to by the Labour party. I’m not suggesting otherwise.

    But the problem is that every part of the Scottish Labour party seems to be of this vein. The party seems unable to set its own trend on things. It never leads; it’s always sniping about what others do. Can we get a party now that is going to do something?

    For instance, I can see some holes in the GERS figures. We clearly do not, in cash terms, contribute more than we receive back. There is a deficit. We just receive less back than other parts of the UK.

    It is also clear from these figures that if Scotland had borrowed at the same level as the UK then we would have had more spending in Scotland. Our net debt is slightly less. I think from these figures it is clear that Scotland can afford independence. The Labour party have reacted to these figures by pointing out some quite accurate areas of concern. But none of them are large enough to derail the viability of independence. They have reacted to the figures on offer.

    How about the Labour party produces their own figures? We’re often told we couldn’t afford to be independent. If the Labour party is simply content to pick holes in the most recent figures it tacitly agrees they are viable but can merely offer marginally different and immaterially ranging conclusions.

    I genuinely don’t know what the Labour party’s idea is of how economically sound Scotland would be independent. What are it’s own ideas on it? Rather than simply reacting to SNP information; what’s the Labour view?

    1. I merely point out the economic gap of ideas in terms of the Labour party as a mirror to what is happening in Catalunya.

      In Catalunya, the governing party has brought out figures suggesting x. However, the opposing parties bring out their own analysis. Therefore, the electorate can judge which is more credible.

      I want to know why the GERS figures are totally inaccurate. Because if they are not; Scotland is quite certainly viable independent. If the Labour party cannot produce something to rubbish the data then it should cease to pretend Scotland could not survive financially.

  15. John Ruddy, I didnt say I thought highly of Jim Sillars, I said I admired Tom Harris and that Tom should read Sillars book (I think its called A Case for Optimism).
    Sillars in the book tells a tale of campaigning in Ayrshire prior to a general election in the 70’s. At the time he was a high flying Labour MP ( big beast as they say today) Jim Sillars said at a question and answer session at a Labour meeting that afterwards he felt dishonest with some basic answers he was using in reply to an old woman putting a simple question to him about ‘running our own affairs’. Sillars only told the story years after the event and so it was of consequence at the time.
    Politicians all have to tow the party line whether they agree with the policy or not. I understand that. But the issue of Scotland’s constitution is bigger than party politics. I think Labour politicians and members have in the past and to their credit put allegiance to party before everything else. This time I think, because of the magnitude of the issue Labour supporters will have to reappraise their loyalty to party. It will take a strong Scottish Labour politician to say to his/her colleagues ‘look, this is Scotland’s future were talking about here and I know the Scottish people want it so lets get it on the ballot paper and deliver it.’
    Whats the saying about fortune and bravery?

  16. That last post of mine should have read “and so it was of no consequence at the time”.

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