Malcolm Chisholm, the communities minister, is a very decent man, perhaps too decent for the often poisonous world of Scottish Labour Politics.
He is one of those rare politicians these day who is burdened by a conscience. Chisholm was the first Labour minister to resign from Tony Blair’s government. That was over lone parent benefit, and Gordon Brown’s decision to axe it in 1997. Having to resign from the first Labour government in 18 years was a personal tragedy for him. But hypocrisy doesn’t come easy for Malcolm Chisholm.
He has now spoken out against Trident missiles and left people in no doubt about his opposition to nuclear power stations. In doing this he is only expressing the views of many of his colleagues and constituents. But on the eve of an election it could be political suicide. The SNP claim his apostasy shows Labour is split “from top to bottom”.
Chisholm is increasingly isolated in the Scottish Executive as an East of Scotland minister in a government which hails from the Peoples’ Republic of Lanarkshire. Friends say that he is sometimes treated as if he comes from another planet - and coming from Edinburgh that may not be far off.
In the West of Scotland, Labour politicians don’t feel under any real pressure over the kind of issues that move Malcolm Chisholm. Their constituents don’t lobby them on the environment or on the nuclear issue, but on drugs, youth crime and hospital closures. They certainly don’t go on demonstrations against Trident.
Chisholm isn’t an unreconstructed unilateralist, but he believes in getting rid of nuclear weapons as soon as possible. “I just think in the new world we don’t actually need this weapon.” he told BBC Scotland’s “Politics Scotland. “We ought to try and get rid of the weapons through multilateral disarmament”.
Now this must be the first time a politician has been accused of rebellion for quoting his own leader. For, in September, the First Minister, Jack McConnell said he too thought that nuclear weapons should be used in multilateral disarmament negotiations with countries like Iran.
But this was not the argument used by the Prime Minister on Monday when he launched the government's white paper on renewing Trident. Tony Blair never mentioned multilateral disarmament or getting rid of nuclear weapons in his Commons statement. Quite the reverse. He said it would be “unwise and dangerous” for Britain to give up the “independent nuclear deterrent”.
But who would it be used on? Alarmingly, the PM suggested that, far from opening talks with the Iranians, Trident might be targeted against them. “It is true that our deterrent would not deter or prevent terrorists”, Mr Blair told MPs, “But it is bound to have an impact on governments that might sponsor them.” What impact, one wonders?
The SNP were quick to attack McConnell for abandoning his principled multilateralism and endorsing the Blair doctrine. McConnell justified his conversion by suggesting that the proposed reduction in the number of Trident boats and warheads in the proposed new system was itself a kind of disarmament. But since we are devising a wholly new system of delivery, and preparing to use a new generation of missiles, we are clearly breaching the spirit if not the letter of the Nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty.
Malcolm Chisholm was unable to follow Jack McConnell's logic, and he risks the wrath of his colleagues for not doing so and giving the Liberal Democrats and the SNP political ammunition in May. Many West of Scotland Labour politicians used to be unilateralist, but have allowed their principles to wither. The constitution gives everyone in the Scottish parliament a get-out-of-jail-free card as far as nuclear issues are concerned, since they can always say that defence isn’t a responsibility of the Scottish parliament. Trouble is, the First Minister has made it an issue by his remarks on multilateral nuclear disarmament.
But perhaps Malcolm is doing them all a favour. Trident is hugely unpopular in many areas of Scotland, and Labour is in danger of losing a lot of precious votes over the renewal issue. Politicians like Malcolm Chisholm with delicate majorities don’t want to lose any more votes than they have to, which is why Trident is a political as well as a conscience issue for him. Opinion polls all show that Scots do not like Trident at all, and consider it another English imposition. It does no harm for it to be known that some Labour MSPs in Holyrood share their misgivings.
But that won’t stop the grumbling. Things haven’t been going spectacularly well recently for the communities and housing minister. The flagship policy of council house stock transfer has been a mess, with rejection of the policy in Edinburgh, Stirling, Renfrewshire and Highland. It may be that the Lanarkshire is about to claim another victim.
This would be unfortunate. After May, Chisholm will be the only Labour MSP left who has experience as an MP and minister in Westminster. It would be a real loss to the parliament if someone of Chisholms character were to be lost, especially for saying what his own leader thinks. The centre of gravity of the Scottish parliament is too much weighted to the West. Malcolm Chisholm should be preserved for the good of the nation.