We were talking in work last week about the current Rangers crisis, and the phrase “to catch a fish, you must stir the waters” popped into my head. It is one of the rule’s of power as set down by Machaveili. Another rule came to mind with Better Nation’s post which argued that perhaps the change from Salmond to Sturgeon should take place sooner rather than later. While it was presumptuous of Jeff to see Sturgeon win any future leadership election within the SNP, she does appear to be the clear favourite at this point in time. Judging from history, winning any leadership election will be the easy part. To quote from another of Machaveilli’s rules “Never step into the shoes of a big man”.
|Churchill and his anointed sucessor Anthony Eden|
British political history has lots of examples to show that being the anointed successor of a successful leader is not a recipe for success. Arguably the biggest warning from history comes in the shape of Anthony Eden. Eden had long been Winston Churchill’s anointed successor, but had to put up with waiting until Churchill retired before taking over the top job. When Churchill retired he immediately looked to establish his own mandate by calling an election. The election was won with a majority of 60. Yet everything achieved by Eden has been seen since through the prism of the disasterous Suez Crisis.
Twenty years on, we have another case of the successor taking over from the successful leader. When Harold Wilson retired in the spring of 1976, his preferred successor was James Callaghan, though this was not universally known at the time. Wilson, tipped off Callaghan before informing the cabinet of his intentions to resign. Rather like another Labour politician, Callaghan was undone by the act of chickens coming home to roost (in this case, his torpedoing of Barbara Castle’s proposals to regulate the unions in her paper “In Place of Strife”). Unlike Eden, Calaghan never won an election as he became the first Prime Minister forced to go to the country afer badly handling the aftermath of the failed devolution referendum in 1979.
Whether John Major was Thatcher’s own preferred successor longer than the penny dropping that he might be the best bet to beat Hestletine is open to debate, after all it took him 8 years to get into the cabinet and then he occupied the posts of Chief Secretary to the Treasury, Chancellor and Foreign Secretary in a very short space of time before succeeding Thatcher. Rather like Eden, he won an election, the victory from the jaws of defeat win twenty years ago, and like Eden things went sour shortly afterwards. While Gordon Brown, like Callaghan before him, saw his time in Downing Street hamstrung by decisions he had made in the Treasury.
Probably the most interesting parallel to what may happen with the SNP does not involve a long term popular leader, rather a leader who was in post for under two years. Popularly dubbed “The Father Of the Nation” by Labour supporting tabloids, Donald Dewar’s untimely death 18 months after the inaugural Hollyrood Elections opened the door to what was assumed to be one of his deputies from his time at the Scotland Office, Henry McLeish. Yet McLeish found himself up against the (at the time) Finance Secretary (anf the Blairite former General secretary of "Scottish" Labour) Jack McConnell. McLeish won, but only by 8 votes. The small margin of victory never really helped McLeish to establish himself in the post. When it was alleged (during Holyrood’s puritanical phase) that McLeish may have sub-let his constituency office and not registered this income in the register of interests, McLeish resigned paving the way for McConnell to take over.
Of course, it could be that Sturgeon take’s over and becomes as successful as Salmond. After all, we’ve never really had an exception that proves the rule. It’s just that if the past is anything to go by, the easy part for Sturgeon could well be the winning of any proposed leadership election. And that doesn’t look like happening soon.