Whatever happened to Jack McConnell, the one time first minister of Scotland? Appearances of the Labour leader are becoming increasingly rare. He has been absent from the last seven major debates in Scotland and the BBC’s Question Time has tried fifteen times to lure him out of his lair without success.
Websites devoted to sightings of Elvis Presley, are adding Jack McConnell to their list. Indeed, people are beginning to wonder if the First Minister exists at all or if it's just a cardboard cut-out at FMQ’s in Holyrood connected to a speak your weight machine. Conspiracy theorists are saying that there never was any concrete evidence of McConnell and that it was a plot by British intelligence to save Scotland from the SNP branch of al Qaeda.
But, assuming that Jack McConnell does indeed exist you have to wonder why he has decided to empty chair himself at every broadcasting opportunity. Aren’t politicians supposed to thrive on the oxygen of publicity? Surely he is keen as mustard to get stuck into Alex Salmond, to show what a gambler and carpet-bagger he is? To trash the other opposition leaders beneath the sheer weight of his dialectic?
I would not entertain for the merest nanosecond the idea that Jack McConnell is actually afraid of going into the television studio in case he makes and arse of himself. I’m sure that the memory of Henry McLeish failing to answer David Dimbleby’s question on his sublet offices does not enter McConnell’s head. It would be unthinkable for the leader of the nation to be incapable of arguing his case on the mass media.
After all, as First Minister, McConnell has been in office now for five and a half years, making him the most experienced politician in Scotland. There is practically nothing that has happened in Scotland in the last half decade that he hasn’t answered questions on or been briefed about. He should be more than a match for an absentee landlord, a Tory matron and a LibDem schoolboy.
McConnell has, moreover, a good message to sell. Scotland, we are told, is on the up and up - leading the UK in educational performance, child poverty, employment levels, skills, graduate numbers and salary rate rises. Gordon Brown comes north nowadays to get lessons in economic management from Jack McConnell.
There’s no political mileage in hiding your light under a bushell. Okay, McConnell may be looking forward to early retirement in the House of Lords, and lots of golfing holidays, but he has to win an election first. That bully Alex Salmond isn’t going to stop his taunts just because the FM closes his eyes and counts to ten thousand.
And as for the public, well, absence makes the heart grow fonder, but there is a danger that, if this goes on, McConnell will become the forgotten man of Scottish politics. And when he finally does appear, there’sa danger that no one will recognise him.
Now, there is a Westminster convention that the Prime Minister doesn’t lower himself by debating with his opposite numbers. Splendid isolation is supposed to enhance the dignity of his office. You wouldn’t catch Tony Blair entering a studio on equal terms with a minority party leader like Alex Salmond. But Jack McConnell isn’t Tony Blair, and anyway, Blair regularly submits himself to interrogation by John Humphries.
In Scotland, politicians are expected to speak their minds and expose themselves to debate with their peers. Especially when they are leaders of minority parties themselves, as Jack McConnell is. There are no constitutional airs graces in Scottish political culture, and when individual politicians start adopting them, and getting above themselves, then they are likely to lost public sympathy before you can say Jack the Lad.
They are likely to be accused of being ‘frit’, and once that charge sticks, it is very difficult to unstick it. Once columnists and cartoonists get the idea that McConnell is afraid to come out of Bute House, then he will find that people will start to believe it. Then, no matter how often McConnell takes part in debates and media forums, he will still be accused of being a wuss.
But it’s not too late. McConnell can still make an impact if he comes out of his corner. The UK ministers made idiots of themselves in November, coming north to Oban and trying to frighten Scots about border controls, terrorist threats and national bankruptcy if Scotland became independent. They rudely brushed McConnell aside, afraid that his more upbeat pro-Scotland message might sound too much like nationalism.
Well, they have changed their tune. Gordon Brown is now playing pussycat, and commending Scots on how well hey are doing in becoming the skills capital of Europe. If this is down to McConnell and the “devolution dividend”, then now is surly the time to press home the advantage; challenge Alex Salmond to say why independence would make Scotland any better.
The opposition’s job is to oppose, and the SNP have every right to accentuate the negative, to portray a London-dominated Scotland as an impoverished dependent incapable of generating its own economic dynamism. It is up to the First Minister to challenge this representation - but he has to be there first.