Tony goes to Holyrood

The Bumper Book of Scottish Political Counterfactuals: In which Tony Blair takes his rightful place as First Minister

Artillery Row

“He’s coming home! He’s coming home! Tony’s coming home!” Few of us who lined Edinburgh’s Royal Mile to welcome back the most successful politician ever to have been born in that city, will forget the return of Tony Blair. “Red lion on a shirt” we sang, “Bambi smile still gleaming, eight years a Middle East peace envoy, never stopped Scots dreaming.” He waved at us and with deep and humbling symbolism, rolled-up his sleeves. Then he found an entrance – as so many before him have struggled to do – into the jumbled architectural forms of the Scottish parliament building and that was that. A new dawn had broken, had it not?

Of course, until it happened, hardly anyone had given it a thought. After all, Blair seemed to be a man simply too big for Scotland. The House of Commons never ruffled him, perhaps because he treated it as the equivalent of a quiet season in rep. Addressing a joint session of Congress; speaking to the UN World Summit; being mic’d-up in the green room at Davos – these were the great stages made to his measure. Can you blame us that when he renounced this jet-set world in favour of the wee bit hill and glen in the land of his birth, we Scots felt honoured?

Why did he come back amongst us? It was well known that after having declared his Middle East envoy role to be mission accomplished in 2015 he was restless and ready to “give something back.” He had accumulated sufficient wealth that there was no need to seek out board directorships. Brexit ended any prospect of running Brussels for this former winner of the Charlemagne Prize (awarded to him a full six years before it was given to His Holiness the Pope!). But Matt Hancock returned his calls during the Covid crisis and his pronouncements on vaccine rollout were heard in respectful quarters. He felt that once savoured taste returning. Yet, he had done Westminster. It had moved on, as had he. So why not a parliament that owed its very existence to him?

Even still, it nearly didn’t happen. It was the resignation in January 2021 of Richard Leonard, Scottish Labour’s invisible leader, that created an unexpected vacancy. Exactly what happened next is unclear. Some have suggested that the idea was planted in an exchange between the Scottish journalist, Alex Massie and George Eaton of the New Statesman who tweeted “given how high the stakes are, there’s surely a case for Gordon Brown, becoming Scottish Labour leader.” But apparently – or so the story goes – it was a WhatsApp message popping-up on Blair’s phone from someone simply referred to by Blair as “Bobby” that did the trick. “Never” it shrieked. “Not Brown. Not that bloody man. He shall not have it!” And so the great statesman made his move.

We all remember where we were when Blair announced his candidacy for the Scottish Labour party. The previous few days, commentators had assumed Anas Sarwar would get the nod. Then Blair announced he was allowing his name to go forward. The response was so electric that even the London media decided English viewers and readers would like to hear about Scottish politics as if it was something actually going on in the same island as them.

why not a parliament that owed its very existence to him?

Naturally there was some indignation. Naysayers spluttered about it being impossible. He was not an MSP. But he could be put top of Labour’s regional candidate list, ensuring his election without having to woo any particular constituency. Some said they would make a citizen’s arrest of the “war criminal” if he dared to enter Holyrood’s chamber. They were told to not be so daft and to remember their manners.

Plenty of folk complained that he was English. So, a video clip entitled “the journey” was shot of him being driven around the Willowbrae area of Edinburgh on the lookout for the bungalow at 5 Paisley Terrace. “Is it still there? Och, it is! It is!” he exclaimed, leaning forward from the backseat of his BMW. That video of TB’s homecoming was uploaded more times than all the Scottish party election broadcasts of the previous twenty years put together. He also mentioned that he had gone to school in Edinburgh, although a decision was taken not to film him returning to the Gothic majesty of Fettes College.

Asked for her reaction to Tony Blair leading Scottish Labour, Nicola Sturgeon was seen to smirk. Well, she’s not smirking now. Not only did Blair sweep his party’s leadership contest, he set the ensuing Scottish parliamentary election alight. For the first time since Alex Salmond walked free from a high court, Nicola Sturgeon’s every pronouncement was not the lead story on Reporting Scotland. Her daily press conferences started to lose viewing figures in scenes reminiscent of the last days of Hugo Chavez’s tv show.

Instead it was Tony who was political box office. There he was visiting Ibrox in the morning and talking about his grandpa, George Corscadden, a butcher and Orangeman. Then in the afternoon there he was at Celtic Park, addressing a packed Jock Stein Stand about discovering his Catholic faith, interlaced with anecdotes involving John Hume. The media circus even followed him into a branch of Scotmid where he posed with his favourite savoury, a bridie.

It was all very presidential, of course. And there were those who scoffed at that. But it changed the way the Scottish electorate looked at their politics. Devolution had encouraged them to turn-in on their world, magnifying the wisdom of John Swinney whilst dismissing everything else as merely “down south” or “Westminster.” It was an irony that the man whose administration had created the Scottish government and re-established its parliament, setting in train a spiral that appeared to be leading inevitably to Scottish independence, was now the man who embodied a reconnection with the wider realm. As he put it repeatedly during the campaign, “the greatest, most self-evident, connection Scots make with their fellow Europeans is in seeing the people with whom they share their island as partners in the political journey ahead.”

It is said that there was no one moment when Tony “won it”, no single incident when Scotland’s drift to separation was reversed. But these were the realities that came to pass and they began, perhaps, with that open air speech he gave on Calton Hill with the backdrop of Edinburgh behind him and framed by the monuments to Scottish Enlightenment philosophers and Horatio, Lord Nelson.

“My devolution settlement has been tested by experience,” Blair admitted, “and we didn’t get everything right. We should have strengthened both the local and the national. So, while Scotland should always do what Scotland does best, the Union should do what it can best do for Scotland.” He continued:

“It has made no sense to have had a fractured response to a common problem. The institutions of the Union should have worked together, rather than apart, to fight Covid, which threatens us all equally, and to find common solutions to common problems, as we, united as one, seek at COP26 in confronting the challenge to our planet, and as we, equally united, do, day in, day out, in the councils of security and deterrence. And, if you like, the four nations are as brigades in a regiment, each with their purpose, each treasuring their tradition, yet each a part of the whole.

“A day like today is not a day for soundbites, really. But I feel the hand of history upon our shoulders. I really do. When I take my place in the Leaders’ debate tonight, standing between Nicola Sturgeon and Alex Salmond, I see myself as offering a middle way which is the only way. In my beginning is my end, and my end is Scotland, Scotland, Scotland. Tough on separatism, tough on the causes of separatism. I didn’t come into Scotland to change Holyrood. I came into Holyrood to change Scotland. This is not the SNP’s country, it’s the people’s country.”

Cyber-nats still squakwed and sneered. But even as they sent their furious online abuse, flights to Edinburgh were being booked across West London. McTernan! Campbell! The clans were rallying from their places of exile to lead their man home.  They came and he conquered. And a world anew was made. History had begun again.

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