Political leadership matters; who holds leadership positions and the values, ideas, qualities and character they represent is important. The context of how people become leaders; the state of their party or platform; whether they emerge via a popular or party mandate; and the external environment in which they get to the top – whether of economic prosperity or difficult times, international stability or wartime – vitally influences this.
The Scottish Parliament, established in 1999, will be 25 years old next year. This will be a time for reflection and perspective, some congratulatory and some critical, but much within the official story of Scottish devolution as the political class and institutional opinion would like it to be told.
This is therefore an appropriate time to assess the effectiveness of the various aspects of devolution, including the post of the First Minister (the role and responsibilities of which are laid down in the Scotland Act 1998). This intermediate assessment is offered in the aftermath of the resignation of Nicola Sturgeon in February and election of Humza Yousaf the following month. This first part offers a general overview and picture of the Labour years; with the SNP era following next week.
Modern political leadership faces competing pressures and expectations. Leaders are meant to have an ongoing understanding of public opinion; to sometimes lead and sometimes follow; to sometimes stick to their principles and at other times to compromise and dilute key policies.
They are expected to competently chart a direction and to convey it using polished communicative skills to myriad audiences in different ways often at the same time – including parliamentary colleagues, party members, supporters and the wider electorate. They need to show authority, demonstrate a grasp of policy and political issues, and also project charisma and the aura of dynamic power and competence.
In an age of pervasive media, and an absence of old-fashioned deference to traditional authority, political leadership is increasingly seen as interactive and not just about individual leaders, but about the wider context and expectations of followers. In this two-way relationship, each shapes the other.
Hence Tony Blair's New Labour leadership was made possible, not just because of his gifts of persuasion, but by the desperation of large sections of the party to win after four consecutive election defeats. This gave Blair huge room for manoeuvre to do what he wished. In the US, Donald Trump's capture of the Republican Party has been aided by a right-wing disinformation and conspiracy theory worldview, to which he has given demagogic, anti-democratic voice.
The role of Scotland's First Minister has nearly always avoided such dramatic highs and lows. The establishment of the Scottish Parliament saw little substantive thought put into the nature of the post or the relationship between executive and legislature. Rather, there was a widespread belief that the Scottish Parliament could and should be different from Westminster, less shaped by adversarial politics and more by consensus and co-operation.
Scotland has had six First Ministers – three Labour, three SNP. Three became FMs while MPs as well as MSPs – Donald Dewar. Henry McLeish, Alex Salmond – while three became FMs as MSPs who had never been MPs – Jack McConnell, Nicola Sturgeon, Humza Yousaf.
Dewar became FM after first being elected to Westminster 33 years before in 1966; McLeish 13 years after his first Westminster election (1987) and McConnell after two years as an MSP (1999). Then came Salmond, first elected as an MP 20 years before becoming FM (1987); Sturgeon 15 years after becoming an MSP (1999); and Yousaf seven years after his election as an MSP (2016).
The recent, and frequent, changes of UK Tory Prime Minister has attracted much comment concerning the nature of mandates, and the numerous post-war changes between elections as opposed to popular mandates. A similar pattern can be found in the post of First Minister, with only two of the six emerging through popular election and wider mandate – Donald Dewar in 1999 and Alex Salmond in 2007. The remaining four – Henry McLeish (2000); Jack McConnell (2001); Nicola Sturgeon (2014); Humza Yousaf (2003) – all came through between elections, gaining their mandates from the internal processes of Labour and SNP respectively.
A related dimension is how First Ministers leave office. Dewar died while First Minister; McLeish was forced to resign; Sturgeon suddenly resigned in circumstances that are now at least questionable; McConnell lost the 2007 election (the only FM to lose office this way) and Salmond resigned after losing the 2014 indyref.
Internal party mandates in how each candidate emerged as leader saw two elected through balloting party members – both SNP (Salmond, 2004; Yousaf, 2023). One became party leader via an electoral college of constituency parties (Dewar, 1998); one via a vote of the party selectorate (McLeish, 2000); and two were anointed by their party with no opponents or vote (McConnell, 2001; Sturgeon, 2014).
There were 10 Scottish Parliament contests to elect a First Minister. All involved a contest with rival candidates, bar one – Salmond in 2011. In all but three contests, the winning candidate won a majority of all 129 MPs, not just those who voted – the exceptions being Salmond in 2007 and Sturgeon in 2016 and 2021. Salmond's win in 2007 was by a slender margin of 49 over Jack McConnell's 46, the narrowest mandate for a First Minister. This reflected the wafer-thin one-seat lead the SNP had over Labour (plus the votes of the two Greens). This was arguably the most consequential vote for First Minister in the history of the Scottish Parliament so far.
The people who stood most for the office of First Minister include none of the above. Standing four times for the post – all unsuccessful – was David McLetchie, leader of the Scottish Conservatives, who stood in 1999, 2000, 2001 and 2003; and Dennis Canavan, independent MSP and former Labour MP, who stood in the same four contests.
The Labour First Ministers
Exploring the variety of styles, political priorities and leaderships of the six First Ministers underlines that context matters. Donald Dewar was the first First Minister, a transitional leader in the just established Scottish Parliament. He was a Westminster-imbued politician, first elected in 1966 and a leading member of the Shadow Cabinet in the 1980s and 1990s, who became Secretary of State for Scotland in Blair's first Cabinet, piloting the Scotland Act 1998 onto the statute book.
The story of the first Scottish Executive led by Dewar is not a happy one and tragically shaped by Dewar's sudden death in October 2000 at the age of 63 while still in post. He was more suited to the collegiate political styles of being a Cabinet or Shadow Cabinet minister, ill-suited to the world of modern political communications and media, and disadvantaged by young, inexperienced ministers who jockeyed for position and what they saw as the inevitable succession (which they thought years down the line).
Henry McLeish's elevation to First Minister happened in unexpected and unplanned circumstances. Leader of Fife Regional Council in the 1980s, he became an MP in 1987, serving as a junior minister in the Blair Government under Dewar, before becoming a minister in the first Scottish Executive.
McLeish quickly embarked on trying to differentiate between the Scottish Parliament and Westminster, Scottish and UK Labour; advancing free care for the elderly as the signature policy on which he broke ranks with Westminster. This built-up resentment with Labour MPs and when McLeish indicated in 2001 that he wanted to rename the Executive 'the Scottish Government', UK Labour minister Brian Wilson indicated his disdain by saying they could call it 'the White Heather Club'. McLeish was forced to resign in November 2001 after a controversy over subletting his constituency office and not declaring all the expenses. At the time, he called this 'a muddle not a fiddle' but underneath it all were divisions and resentments brought forth during his brief tenure as First Minister.
Jack McConnell became the third Labour First Minister and quickly sought to bring calm after what he saw as instability and infighting (some caused by McConnell). His early mantra – 'do less better' – reflected this aim to bring focus and priorities. McConnell had a background in local government, having been leader of Stirling Council from 1990-92, and at the same time was associated with the soft left and home rule wing of the party. This made his adoption and incorporation into the party machine when he became Scottish Labour General Secretary in 1992 surprising for some.
McConnell held the finance and then education posts in the first two executives. On becoming First Minister in November 2001, he purged the Cabinet of people he thought insufficiently loyal and brought in people who owed their positions to him. This still did not embolden McConnell who felt he was constrained not just by Scottish Labour MPs and Westminster, but by the political oversight and interference of Gordon Brown, who took a proprietary view of and over Scotland.
McConnell's political style embraced a self-denying ordinance to try and diminish the scope for conflict with Westminster and Brown. Numerous potential conflicts included the Iraq war, McConnell's 'fresh talent' initiative, and public service reform. One enduring policy shift was the agreement (with Lib Dem pressure) to introduce proportional representation in local government. The first elections in May 2007 saw a significant tranche of Labour representatives removed who had been an important pillar in the party's Scottish dominance. This move would have lasting impact to the detriment of Labour and the advantage of the SNP. McConnell's tenure as First Minister ended in May 2007 when Labour lost the Scottish Parliament elections to the SNP and Salmond became First Minister.
What can we make of the era of Labour First Ministers? All three had significant political experience in leadership roles in Labour prior to becoming FM – Dewar at Westminster, and McLeish and McConnell as local government leaders (the latter also being Labour General Secretary). Yet all three struggled to adapt to the pressures and expectations of devolution and to develop an appropriate style of leadership. None made the role of First Minister into the central, pivotal political leadership role in the country – and instead inhabited it with a degree of caution, wariness and defensiveness, which ultimately contributed to Scottish Labour's downfall.
A major facet affecting all were the internal, constraining fissures within Labour. There were internal divisions in Scottish Labour about the agenda and politics in the parliament, and alongside this there were the antagonistic views of many Westminster Scottish Labour MPs who viewed the Scottish Parliament and their Labour colleagues there with envy and suspicion.
Connected to this from the early days of the parliament was a Labour policy vacuum about devolution. This could be seen in the amount of leverage that their Lib Dem coalition partners had. It also had deeper roots in the surprising absence of a positive Labour vision about devolution and the parliament after all those years of campaigning. This political void haunts Labour to this day.
The end of the Labour era of devolution, and of providing First Ministers, in May 2007, closed one significant chapter of Scottish politics. A new chapter was about to begin which would change Scotland, Scottish politics and the role of First Minister, which will be the subject of Part 2 next week.