Long spoons…

long spoon verticalOne of my favourite sayings is  ‘who sups with the devil needs a long spoon.’ I love the imagery – and the meaning too. It seems as though we often need to sup with one devil or another – and we need to be constantly on our guard, and to make sure our spoons are long enough or we’ll find ourselves sucked into the devil’s grasp.

The times when the saying is relevant to politics seem almost endless – the poor old Lib Dems didn’t have nearly a long enough spoon when they went into coalition with the Tories, and they’ve been sucked almost dry. It’s not likely there will be much of them left after the 2015 election – and even what is left will be horribly damaged. They’re probably the best example of all – and show all the different stages of the ‘long spoon question’.

There are three parts to it. Firstly you need to recognise the devil when you see him. Secondly, once you’ve recognised him, you have to decide whether you really need to sup with him. Thirdly, if you do need to sup with him, you need to equip yourself with a long enough spoon. With the Lib Dems, I think they failed on all three, at least to a degree. David Cameron’s smarmy smile seemed to convince the Lib Dems – well, at least to convince Nick Clegg – that he wasn’t the devil. At any rate, he wasn’t that bad a devil. Secondly, even if they had some doubts about the Tories’ devilish nature, they decided that they’d better sup with them anyway, ‘for the good of the country’ – or perhaps for the attraction of the ministerial cars and the seats around the cabinet table. The idea of not supping with them didn’t seem to really occur to them. Thirdly, they didn’t equip themselves with nearly long enough spoons – indeed, their spoons were very short indeed, and they found themselves sucked into the Tory plans in pretty much every way. Breaking their pledge on tuition fees was just the tip of the iceberg – from secret courts and surveillance to the bedroom tax and the most illiberal justice and immigration policies in a generation, this is, in terms of liberalism, an almost definitively devilish government.

Labour has been watching the Lib Dems over the last four years – or at least should have been – but over the Scottish Independence Referendum they seem to have found themselves falling into exactly the same trap. Not on such a big scale, but ever bit as much of a trap… and with even less of an excuse.

There’s nothing like a ‘vow’ that should ring alarm bells for politicians. Nick Clegg’s experience with the Tuition Fees pledge should have been etched into the brains of every politician in the country – and yet they fell for it again, in a moment of desperation as the ‘yes’ campaign had their fleeting moment of leading in the opinion polls. And yet Cameron, Clegg and Miliband’s ‘vow’ to Scotland was worse than that: it was a trap, a devilish trap, into which Miliband fell face first. It’s another classical ‘sup with the devil’ situation – and again, Labour failed on all three levels.

First of all, they should have recognised the devil. If anyone in the Labour Party doesn’t see the devil in the Tories, they should be ashamed of themselves – and yet I suspect that some of them don’t. The way that the Independence Referendum campaign went, it seemed at times that Labour felt more affinity to the Tories than to the SNP – or indeed to the people of Scotland. They seemed to assume that Salmond was the devil – and hence that Cameron, as the enemy of their enemy, was their friend, and hence not in the slightest devilish.

Secondly, they decided that they should sup with Cameron – that Miliband should join Cameron (and the almost invisible and irrelevant Clegg) in the campaign to save the union. Supping with the devil indeed, but seemingly for a good cause. But did they need to? Could they not have campaigned to save the union without working with Cameron? Without a joint ‘vow’? Without agreeing in some collective way to cancel Prime Minister’s Questions at the last moment? It looked, from the outside, like not just supping with the devil but spooning with him.

Thirdly, their spoon wasn’t nearly long enough – they didn’t see the trap that the devil had laid. The way that Cameron joined the ‘vow’ to the Scots to the ‘English Votes for English Laws’ suggestion less than a day after the referendum result should have been predictable. Perhaps not in detail – but that the cooperation was a trap, and that the Tories would find a way to use Labour’s cooperation against them should have been entirely predictable. The devil will be the devil. And even if Cameron now doesn’t ‘officially’ join the two questions together, they’re connected in people’s minds, and Labour looks weak, looks as though it’s ‘anti-English’, as though it’s ‘unfair’ – and that it has betrayed the Scots.

This, though the devolution and localisations issues for the English and the Scots are very, very different – and sorting out a solution for England, even if there is a problem to ‘solve’ is far more complex than granting powers to the Scottish parliament. English nationalism has become part of the story, and it is a part that the press will love, the Sainted Nigel Farage will play for all it’s worth. It’s a trap, and one that Labour should have avoided.

They didn’t recognise it. They didn’t know the devil even as he invited them to sup. And their spoon wasn’t nearly long enough. It rarely is.

6 thoughts on “Long spoons…

  1. I think it was an entirely irresponsible and undemocratic thing to change the goal posts on the referendum at the last minute. Firstly, many people would already have cast postal votes on a different set of options. Secondly, people who voted No were not necessarily voting for more devolution. It should have been status quo v independence. If some other option was going to be made available then that should have been on the ballot paper. I think people could have been asked to vote yes or no on the status quo, with those who voted for change being offered a choice between independence or devo – max. I think that strategy should only have been used if there had been enough time to explain what the devo-max would actually consist of. In the situation as it stood they should have kept devo-max in the closet and brought it out as an option if the vote was very close and only marginally a no vote.
    What they have done – the three stooges and Gordon Brown who is an all time patsy, is confuse everyone and end up in a situation which cant be resolved without making changes to the UK constitution which nobody has voted on. It is all time mother of all messes.
    I think Alex Salmond has got the right idea. He gave the Scottish people a chance to be free of these idiots and a significant proportion of them let themselves be conned. I think Labour is well and truly finished in Scotland now and they are not going to offer any real alternatives in England for people to vote for.
    It really isn’t up to Westminster to keep a union together. Cameron’s original stance of keeping out of it was the right one and Milliband and Clegg should have kept out of it too.

  2. I would echo much of what the commenter above has had to say. However, the difficulty for the pro-union parties was that they couldn’t win on the status quo, something that perhaps didn’t occur to them as quickly as it should. As for “devo-max”, there was plenty of time for Better Together to introduce the concept properly, discuss the detail and put together a(n) (in)decent proposal on the subject. As it is, people believe that they voted for something with content when really they have simply placed the ball back in Westminster’s court.

    The reality is though, that neither devo-max nor any other constitutional arrangement was on the ballot paper; if it had been, I suspect the ‘No’ campaign would have romped home 80-20 or better. So why wasn’t it there? Could it be because the parties concerned didn’t want to be held to any sort of ‘vow’? Remember that to begin with, they believed they would win by a far greater margin than they did – that is why the referendum was allowed. Could it be that the reason for a lack of a third option was simply that constitutional form that’s considered to benefit Scotland really is at the bottom of the Westminster agenda? (Answer: yes. They don’t need our votes to win elections.)

    As for Labour in Scotland, I suspect that they’re counting on the same blind faith at Westminster elections as they’ve enjoyed here for decades. I also suspect they’ll get it.

    • I agree with pretty much everything you both say – except, possibly, Elaine’s last suspicion. Labour might well have completely blown this in Scotland – but who knows? Time will tell.

  3. Labour’s membership rocketed up after 1992 General Election defeat and 2010 General Election defeat. Defeats rally people to the colours.

    The acid test is will they stay and, given the behaviour of a tiny minority of the No Campaign will the SNP want them to do so, if they are the ones who have joined? By and large, negative campaigning loses the perpetrator votes and did that cause some of the swing back to the Yes Campaign? The Yes Campaign went negative at times too, but was that less noticeable and/or physical?

    A final point, it is not members who count so much as active supporters who do more than many members, except they do not have party cards. Labour has now recognised the great contribution of that group, who vastly outnumber its card carrying membership, with its rule changes earlier this year.

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