Scotland politics

Life and times of Scottish Labour leader Iain Gray

Enoch Powell once remarked that, "all political lives, unless they are cut off in midstream at a happy juncture, end in failure, because that is the nature of politics and of human affairs".

As Iain Gray prepared to stand down as Scottish Labour leader, it's a phrase which probably hadn't escaped his thoughts.

Nobody ever really doubted the commitment in the beliefs of the former foreign aid worker, who often spoke of his time "walking the killing fields of Cambodia".

And even though Scottish Labour's problems are wider than simply the quality of its leader, it was Mr Gray who ultimately had to take the fall in the wake of the SNP's historic landslide election win.

Despite the way things have panned out, the MSP for East Lothian says he's still got plenty to be proud of - including stabilising his party, for one thing, after Wendy Alexander's problematic stint as Scottish Labour leader.

She had quit amid an on-going row over donations to her leadership campaign.

At the time the former maths and physics teacher stood for the leadership in 2008, he had only just made a return to parliament, after having lost his Edinburgh seat to the Tories in the 2003 Holyrood election.

Mr Gray, who had grown up in Inverness and Edinburgh, had previously played a leading role in the old Labour-Lib Dem coalition government and, while between seats, worked as a special adviser to the then Scottish secretary, Alistair Darling.

After winning leadership backing from the party big guns, including Gordon Brown, Mr Gray launched into his plan to make Scottish Labour electable again, after the SNP's first Holyrood win in 2007.

He told the 2009 Scottish Labour conference his party was "back", telling supporters to regroup and recover.

Over the next few years, Labour, even though in opposition, started to feel it was regaining the initiative, taking credit for forcing the then minority SNP government to increase apprenticeship numbers, as well as backing climate change targets and playing a leading role in the battle against coalition defence cuts affecting Scotland.

There were even indications that things were improving on the electoral front, with Westminster by-election wins in Glasgow North East and Glenrothes.

But ultimately, a resurgent Scottish National Party proved too strong for Labour.

Much of a Scottish party leader's talent is often defined by their performance at the weekly first minister's questions jousting session.

From the outset, Mr Gray always sought to distance himself from the personality of first minister Alex Salmond.

Mr Gray said that, while the SNP leader had furthered his early career as a civil servant, working for the Royal Bank of Scotland and "developing the tricks of politics in Westminster", he had taught in a tough school in Edinburgh and had helped youngsters in war-torn Mozambique.

Mr Gray's question time strategy often took the form of a two-pronged attack on the economic "Salmond slump" and the "Tory/Lib Dem attack on public services".

But Mr Salmond, a Westminster veteran, was always going to be a tough opponent, and regularly made reference to Mr Gray's time as employment minister during 2002, at a time of sluggish growth.

And the first minister never tired of blaming the UK Labour government's economic legacy for the most brutal spending cuts in decades.

Even though Labour lost the last general election, the party held its vote in Scotland.

Mr Gray declared himself "ready to serve" in office and set about fighting the 2011 Holyrood election.

Image caption Iain Gray became Scottish Labour leader at a troubles time for the party

But there was one event he didn't figure on.

In one of the most infamous incidents of the campaign, Mr Gray was forced to cancel an election campaign event at Glasgow Central train station, after it was hijacked by rowdy protesters.

In an incident played out in front of the TV cameras, he took refuge in a sandwich shop.

He later emerged to declare: "I've worked before for two years in a civil war. I've been in Rwanda just after the genocide.

"I've walked the killing fields of Cambodia and I was in Chile three days after Pinochet demitted office.

"I've been a lot of places, seen a lot of things - that certainly wasn't the worst of them."

The SNP's victory aside, it became the defining event of the election - and it threw Labour.

After acknowledging his party's "terrible result", Mr Gray, who only held his own seat by 151 votes, announced his intention to stand down that autumn.

As his notice period extended into December, opponents pounced, saying the party was in such a state that nobody wanted to be leader.

But Labour's problems went further than that.

Mr Gray was only ever technically leader of the Labour MSPs and, with the party largely under central control, lacked the authority he felt he needed to be a genuine Scottish Labour head.

Plus, the party, as it now admits, was in denial that it had actually lost the election.

Others in Labour had convinced themselves the SNP win was a blip, and that the party would soon be back in power, almost by default.

It's prospects were not helped by UK leader Ed Miliband's remarks that he wanted to use victory in Scotland as Labour's basis for regaining power at Westminster, not getting that his comments might have come over as just a tad condescending.

A party review has now concluded the new Scottish Labour leader will get those powers, with the new fully devolved leader now able to effectively distance the party north of the border from Westminster.

It took Labour one UK and two Scottish election defeats to come to that conclusion.

Image caption Iain Gray lost his seat in 2003 to the Tories' David McLetchie

Mr Gray used his last conference speech to warn his successor they would be smeared, lied about and threatened in "ugly" attacks by SNP supporters.

"The 'cyber Nats' and the bedsit bloggers will call you traitor, quisling, lapdog, liar and worse," he said in an outspoken attack, adding: "They will question your appearance, your integrity and your sexuality.

"They will drag your family and your faith into the lies and the vitriol."

Even though Mr Gray's tenure as leader has ended in election defeat and resignation, he still earned the respect of even his most bitter enemies.

During his final FMQs as Labour leader, Mr Salmond said his rival had "served his party with distinction", adding: "I have greatly enjoyed our weekly jousts in this chamber and I know that whoever his successor maybe, he or she will have a hard act to follow."

Whether or not Iain Gray is a hard act to follow isn't the problem for the new Scottish Labour leader.

With the SNP riding high, council elections round the corner and the independence referendum approaching, his replacement Johann Lamont has it all to do.