Jim Murphy, Labour’s top dog in Scotland, has the kind of “rags to riches” backstory we more commonly associate with the movies than the stuffy backrooms of Scottish politics. He is one of the nation’s most controversial politicians.
This is an open letter I wrote to him, which appears in Issue 1 of our magazine “Enjoy The Silence?”, which is available to download free by clicking on the cover at the bottom of the page.
Ahh Jim, you’re some man you are. Some man.
From an upbringing in abject poverty to becoming leader of the Labour Party in Scotland … it’s been a journey and a half alright. I’d give you more credit for it, except that one or two elements of it confuse me, and I want to try to get them straight in my head.
See, I think it’s important to understand the people who want to lead us because otherwise God alone knows who we’d be giving our votes to.
Oh you’re not going to get my vote anyway, I decided that based on the rosette you’re wearing, but I want to know a bit more about you regardless.
Yes, I get that this is a fairly revolutionary concept in this day and I age. I understand why it would make some people nervous, that I should want to find out for myself instead of simply believing what I read in the papers, but that’s the kind of guy I am.
We knew each other way back when, you know. I think I was your 62,000th best mate, or something like that, when I was doing my stint at Keir Hardie House back in the halcyon days of the 1997 election campaign.
Yeah, I remember you back then, that office of yours, not far from Jack McConnell’s.
What was your title? Something to do with Special Projects, wasn’t it? What did that involve? It was something to do with The Network; you all took enormous pride in that one, right? Helping people get along. Giving them support and encouragement.
You guys … you were so good for party morale. Especially when it came to lending a supportive hand to the guys who’d carried the Movement through the bad years.
All us “lefties”, the trade union branches, the people who had stayed loyal and wanted the party to do the same.
I remember one day when I was there and you were going through the names of people who’d signed a Big Issue petition, looking for prominent party members who might have made the mistake of behaving like socialists, and volunteering support for the homeless, in contravention of Labour party policy at that time, which was to crackdown on “aggressive begging”, a term I always found somewhat bewildering.
It must have been a tough job. Didn’t you find the name of a good mate of mine on there?
Yeah, it was something like that … that’s when we had our wee fall out, right? You didn’t miss me, I’m sure. You still had 61,999 mates to lean on, after all.
I’ve followed your career though. I could hardly have failed to. You seemed destined for big things, and even I’ve got to say you work damn hard. Harder than anyone I’ve seen in the party except for that bright young girl who’s on the telly now, the one who breezed through us all like she was on the way to conquering the world and didn’t have time to stop for tea, the one who won a tough council election and then … err … spent the rest of her time doing the networking bit, and forgot that she’d been elected by actual people and eventually got turfed out.
I remember once hearing a story about you that made me smile. It was during the fireman’s strike, when my then local MSP was calling them “fascist bastards”.
A delegation of them went down to London to talk to the Labour leadership, and, so the story goes, you waited until the meeting had broken up and got the guy who works the tannoy in the House of Commons lobby to remind any fireman who came from Eastwood that you were in the building.
Hey, every vote counts, right? You weren’t going to do something crazy, like get out there and support hard grafting public servants, on strike for better conditions, but if you could at least get the ones who lived locally to tell the world what a good guy you were … well, job done.
Yeah, I’ve got to hand it to you. You’ve got some game.
You see, I’ve been around and I know things, and I’ve seen things and I am well aware that a lot of the lovely wee anecdotes in the papers over the last few months have been … well, not exactly in keeping with the historical reality. That’s my diplomatic way of putting it.
The media says you have the perfect “backstory.” It’s so good, in fact, some might accuse you of having embellished it a little. I, of course, am doing no such thing.
Of the stories I’ve heard and read, one in particular does strike my funny bone, like watching a drunk walk into a lamp-post.
The one where you talk about how your family was so poor that you, little Jim, the Man Who Would Be Leader, had to sleep in the bottom drawer whilst your brother slept in the one above you. John McTiernan actually says you slept in the drawer, in your cot, but that can’t be right, cause what would be the point in that?
Sleeping in a drawer though … I find it amusing; I mean haven’t we all? I once woke up in a kitchen cupboard, with the dishes scattered before me on the floor, broken plates and upturned bowls all I could see. I was still half pissed from the night before though, something a dedicated fellow, tee-total, won’t properly understand.
Things must have been harder in those days. The drawers, that is. I don’t think you’d be able to sleep in one of those monstrosities you get in Ikea. You put a couple of thick books and a few random odds and ends in one of those and the bottom comes out of it. Granted, I haven’t tried to kip in one but they just seem a little … flimsy. It’s good to know that despite the gruelling poverty of the time that your people could afford something more substantial.
From there, of course, your path took you to South Africa, where your family went to try and better their position. I would have thought that England, or even America, might have been nearer but what do I know? It’s a big world, and that’s where you ended up.
You’ve said since that two things brought you to Labour; being raised in poverty in Arden, and being raised white in South Africa. The first I understand, even if it makes me chuckle a little when I think of you now, filing dodgy expenses forms for your houses and pocketing wedges of cash. The second seems peculiar to me though, as if it’s an expression of racial guilt or something.
Your South African experiences made you a crusader for social justice, John McTiernan says. Okay. But didn’t they also make you the man who supported an illegal invasion, and the guy who wanted to bomb Syria into the Stone Age? Was it where you got your affection for ID cards?
The story goes that you left the country, rather than serve in uniform, but according to the timeline your family went there in 1979, when you were 12, and you returned in 1985, when you started at Strathclyde aged 18.
Which intrigues me, somewhat, I’ve got to say.
Maybe I’m wrong, but wasn’t conscription in South Africa’s army mandatory for all white men from age 16 and upwards? Wasn’t the term for two years? That would have meant … oh Hell, I don’t know. Maybe I’m seeing shadows on the wall, because, of course, that never happened. You never actually did serve in South Africa’s apartheid armed forces.
You’ve told people that on any number of occasions. I guess it must be true.
What I do find odd is that there was a major national campaign going on in South Africa, from 1983 onwards, the End Conscription Campaign, which you certainly would have known all about, as someone who was, if I’m reading the histories correctly, fiercely determined to avoid his own impending term of service.
What’s more, I’d have thought that the guy who went on to become the President of the NUS, in Scotland and then nationally, would have found it exhilarating to cut his teeth in such a struggle … and sure as Hell it would have done you no harm when it came to getting elected to those posts, yet none of the biographies I’ve read mention it.
In a sense it’s very fortunate for you that you weren’t conscripted. NUS was one of the leading lights in the anti-apartheid movement. There’s no way you would ever have been elected to any post in that organisation … or in Labour either.
There are other things about your South African experience that are kind of contradictory too. See, you’ve said in some interviews that your dad went there to work after he lost a job at Grangemouth, in the power station. Yet, your local friendly spin doctor John McTiernan has said he was a builder, and that before you went to South Africa the whole family was down in Southampton … living in a caravan, no less, adding yet another layer to your back-story; Jim Murphy – Gypsy.
I guess he was confused about that. Or you were. Perhaps it’s just me who’s confused.
You’ve also talked about all your time there being about study, and work. Isn’t there a tale about how you became a vegetarian after working as a joiner who had to fit out an abattoir? You saw what torment the poor little animals had to suffer, and stopped eating meat?
Does every part of your life need to have a profound story attached to it, or what? Does every decision you’ve made need to be infused with “conviction”? Dear God man, did you ever lighten up?
Well, apparently yes … because according to other sources South Africa was also where you developed your lifelong love of golf.
Which, I don’t know, I find odd considering that it was, then, something of a middle class pursuit. Presumably you played the game on weekends, when you weren’t doing your Joseph was a Carpenter bit.
Why do I think “imperialism” when I ponder South African golf courses during apartheid? There couldn’t have been a lot of coloured faces, except in the domestic staff quarters. I’ll bet some of them slept in drawers when they were young too.
That aside, you came back in ’85, and off to university you went. Strathclyde, wasn’t it? For nine years. Now, I’ve been to university myself, and the average course lasts four.
Mine lasted five because I had to repeat a year after some personal issues. At the end of mine I had an honours degree, and eventually a novel about the whole chaotic experience. What happened to you?
I hear you left without one, but that can’t be right, can it?
Now, I know that you did two years as President of NUS Scotland, and then a further two year term as the head of the Union for the whole of the UK … but nine years mate? To wind up, at the end of it, with no qualification? What were you studying? Particle physics?
Of course, that was back in the days of the student grant, when it was possible to literally loaf about on the tax payers tab, if that’s what you wanted to do. You remember the student grant, right? Your student friends were just about the last people ever to get it, because there were some issues over it back in the mid-nineties, right?
In 1995, NUS was involved in one of its most famous, and important, campaigns; the fight to retain the grant. I am fairly certain the issue came up during your campaign to be President, and I cannot imagine how you would have been elected without having made the promise to defend it. In the end the promise evidently wasn’t worth much.
Hell, you meant it then. I am sure you did. Otherwise you lied to the voters, right? And I will not accuse you of that, Jim. Not of that.
Yet seriously … you can see how some people might just get that idea. Because in spite of an overwhelming vote of support for the retention of the grant at the NUS conference that year, the organisation somehow found itself supporting Labour’s plans to abolish the very thing that made your nine year stint in further education possible in the first place.
And just how did you change minds within your ranks? With your soft voice and good heart?
No quite. We can infer from the evidence that there were one or two people within its ranks who still weren’t fully on board with the decision and the way it was made … such as one of your VP’s, and at least one member of the National Executive.
Perhaps they thought that the decision of the members was paramount. Or perhaps they foolishly believed in making sure the educational opportunities they enjoyed could be had by others. Daft, idealistic sods, am I right?
It’s clear to me that the organisation was too full of lily-livers, who just couldn’t see the need for careerism (that should read pragmatism, sorry), someone with … a military bearing perhaps? Someone who’d get the troops out of the trenches, whether they wanted to or not, right? Thank God you were around to give them the old one-two.
And so it was that in 12.June 1996, whilst you were working for the Labour Party as “Special Projects Manager” – the capacity in which I met you, when you were spending your days going through petitions looking for people to harass – Ken Livingstone proposed an Early Day Motion, signed by 13 Labour MP’s (and amended by one Alex Salmond, to include a reference to your being a Labour candidate), which read, as follows:
“That this House condemns the intolerant and dictatorial behaviour of the President of the National Union of Students, Mr Jim Murphy, who has unconstitutionally suspended NUS Vice President, Clive Lewis, because he took part, in a personal capacity, in an open debate at Queen Mary and Westfield College on the issues raised by the Campaign for Free Education; further notes that along with President Elect, Douglas Trainer, both men have warned NUS Executive member, Rose Woods, that if she attends the Scottish launch of the Campaign for Free Education she too will be suspended from the NUS Executive; reminds Mr Murphy and Mr Trainer that freedom of speech is a right in the United Kingdom, that they have no power to overturn the results of elections that went against their preferred candidates and that, whilst these methods are a common practice in dictatorships around the world, they are not acceptable behaviour from someone such as Mr Murphy who is putting himself forward as suitable for election to the House of Commons.”
Yeah, that’s the Jim I remember alright. Those Special Projects, eah? Those were the days. Everyone pulling together, working towards the same goal.
You had, of course, been selected as the candidate for Eastwood, and it was around that time when the local Conservative Party MP, Allan Stewart, admitted himself to Dykebar Hospital, in Paisley, suffering from a nervous breakdown, announcing that he would not be seeking re-election.
He had been coming apart for a while, as was evidenced the year before when he turned up at a demonstration against the M77 motorway, armed with a pickaxe handle, threatened some of the protesters and then had to resign his ministerial post.
It was almost as if the Gods were smiling on you, clearing the road in the way Nixon always believed they had for him; first his own two brothers, and then the Kennedy’s. Destiny was calling you to your ultimate destination … Westminster.
You rose far, and fast, with one toe ever in Scottish politics and another overseas, where you made friends fast, in Tel Aviv and in Washington in particular, becoming chair of Labour Friends of Israel at a time when the party was in government, and getting in cosy with the neo-cons at the Henry Jackson Society, the organisation that promotes foreign intervention, the reduction of the state, the expansion of American militarism and global business interests.
Having spent the better part of your career promoting these things it is heartening today to see that you are now campaigning for the 50% tax rate. That, and your newfound zeal for the land of your birth, are very welcome, if not confusing, the second in particular, as we know that in 2009 you were involved in the organisation of a cross-party partnership, the objective of which was to prevent a referendum on Scottish independence.
Tell me Jim, how did you get on with that campaign?
It’s odd too how we found this out. Indeed, it might still be a closely guarded secret, except that the story broke when Wikileaks found an unexpected reference to you in a pile of documents they put online in February 2011, some of which were then published in The Daily Telegraph.
Amongst them was a cable sent from the US Embassy in London, to home base at the State Department in Washington. Isn’t it nice to know they were taking such an interest? It begs the question as to who their “man on the ground” might have been, eah?
The relevant section of it reads thus:
“Throughout 2009, UK Secretary of State for Scotland Jim Murphy played a leadership role in organizing the opposition parties, hoping to move Scotland toward implementation of the Calman recommendations as an alternative to an independence referendum, according to Murphy’s advisors, Labour party insiders, and opposition party leaders.”
The Calman report, of course, was published with the recommendation that the UK government should cut taxes in Scotland by 10p, then slash the Barnett Formula to match, and confront the parliament with a “tax decision” … hardly the most progressive, and pro-Scottish, move we’ve seen, nor one likely to strengthen Holyrood.
During the referendum campaign – the one you and your cross-party group of friends failed to prevent – you performed your now infamous “100 Towns Tour”, which some people believe was your audition for the leadership.
During it, you got into an altercation with an egg-thrower. Your reaction was not Prescott-like, but it did nothing for that “hard man” reputation you’ve spent such a long time cultivating.
You fled the streets, and when you returned you were flanked by bodyguards like some latter day JFK impersonator, and you stood behind them as you railed against the “cowards” who had dared to turn up to your speeches and … err … debate with you.
You called the protesters “thugs” and you slammed those who would “split up this union” as wreckers and the enemies of progressive politics. Now you want those same people to vote for you, offering a hand of friendship, in an effort to heal the country.
But heck, you meant it then, right? You’ve seen the light since, of course.
You are ever the gentleman. With a few very minor exceptions, of course …
Let’s return to South Africa for a moment, okay? Now, it was there you and McTiernan and others claim you found your passion in support of the oppressed.
Fast forward a few years, and that passion has become support for Israel, to the extent that when Westminster was voting to recognise Palestine that you and others made a public show of staying away.
I guess that support for the downtrodden and dispossessed doesn’t extend to them, but I digress. The last time I heard you on the subject you spoke so passionately about your commitment to those kind of causes … well, it might have tugged even my heartstrings.
You meant it then, or seemed to.
Now, you have a long history of supporting Israel, so you know this, and I feel a wee bit silly at having to remind you … but wasn’t Israel virtually the last country left in the world supporting the South African apartheid state when it finally collapsed?
In fact, they contributed quite a bit to South Africa’s nuclear project, as I am sure a well-educated (albeit without a degree) guy such as you will be aware.
I mention this only because you are a supporter of the British retention of nuclear weapons, and very anti-proliferation … at least when it comes to Iran and other countries trying for the bomb anyway.
South Africa’s military (the one you never served in) got a lot of its hardware from Israel during that time too, not to mention training, intelligence support and, I have no doubt, there were a lot of exchanges of ideas about how best to keep down the more troublesome elements of the population.
There was a lot of commonality between both nations, historically, which is why I find it somewhat unusual that you would be so supportive of the policies of one whilst being a public critic of the other – albeit one who never seems to have taken part in any direct campaign to that effect.
Things change, yet there are some commitments – like your dedication to the Zionist state – that never waver.
You meant it then, and you mean it now, just as you defend the decision to invade Iraq, just as you are in favour of bombing half the Middle East into oblivion.
Of course, your latest political decision is to return to Scottish politics, this time on a full time basis.
Now, of course, you favour the devolution of all income tax to Scotland, and you appear to have developed a new, and appreciated, respect for the Scottish people. Yes, these are reversals of your previously stated views, but so what?
You meant it then, right? Just as you mean it now, of course.
So the pro-union firebrand is now a fierce Scottish patriot, just as you once supported the student grant and then didn’t.
The man who left South Africa to avoid national service is now the guy who supports the troops so much you want to find work for them wherever you can, and supports laws which would make it a special category criminal offence to get in one’s face. Your zeal is such that one might be forgiven for thinking you’d served yourself.
The guy who fought against his own Executive at NUS, and who spent much of his time from 1995 – 1997 searching for Labour’s “enemy within”, and who, since, has worked hard drawing big dividing lines across Scotland, the man of war who got into a very public altercation with an SNP MP right there in the Commons, is now a man who hates aggression (except on the national scale) and wants to be the unifier of the nation, a healer, hand outstretched, looking for compromise and negotiation.
It reminds me of someone actually …
“Where there is discord, may we bring harmony. Where there is error, may we bring truth. Where there is doubt, may we bring faith. And where there is despair, may we bring hope.”
Who was it said that? Francis of Assisi, wasn’t it?
A good Catholic boy like you (like me) I wouldn’t be surprised if you used those words yourself.
45% of this country voted for independence, Jim. Your party took a tanking at the last Scottish elections. The people of this fair land seem to be quite clear on the message they are sending out to Labour, and to those, like you, who are on the Blairite wing.
Except, you recently rejected that tag too, didn’t you? And you were once so proud of it.
But Hell, you meant it then.
That’s what counts. You’ve simply changed your mind, which some say is the measure of a truly great man … the ability to admit when he’s wrong. Except you’ve never used those particular words.
You meant it then. I repeat that quite deliberately. You had to have.
Because otherwise Jim … doesn’t that make you a snake? Doesn’t it make you nothing more than a charlatan, a self-interested sell out without a shred of principle or conviction?
But I won’t accuse you of that, Jim. Not of that.
I wish you well in your new job, all the luck in the world in fact.
I have a feeling you’re going to need it.
(This website depends on your support and generosity. If you want to support it you can do so by using the PayPal link at the top or bottom of the page, depending on how you’re reading this. The first issue of our website’s magazine, Enjoy The Silence?, is out and, available to download free, right here. Just click on the magazine cover below, and don’t forget to share it and Follow us.)