Sunday, October 14, 2007

"Sit down, and behave yourself, Sit down..."

I went out to watch the Scotland-Ukraine game yesterday in the Rob Roy. After getting drenched by other people's spilled drinks twice inside the first ten minutes, we decided to adjourn to the bar across the road for the second half. It was packed as well, but you could at least get served and move your arms. But when goal number three went in, this place erupted as well.

Fair to say the landlady wasn't best pleased. However, karma was restored when one guy standing on the seats and ignoring the landlady's requests to get down, was subject to a collective musical admonishment from the rest of the pub of "Sit down, and behave yourself!". Result? One shame-faced fan, newly positioned on his rear end, and one landlady now beaming from ear to ear.

There's been a few other people who could have benefited from similar injunctions this week. No sooner had the Comprehensive Spending Review been announced, before Labour figures were out and about spinning that this was a remarkable financial settlement for Scotland, but that the SNP wouldn't be able to meet their spending commitments. Labour good, SNP bad. Four legs good etc ad nauseum.

I'd have thought that they might have confined themselves to boasting of their own financial prowess, rather than trying to slate anyone else. However, it all fell to bits for them as the Scottish Government was able to show that the £7.2bn figure over 3 years being trumpeted by, amongst others, Scottish Secretary Des Brown, didn't take account of inflation; was calculated from a spending baseline reduced in advance (thus making any spending increases look bigger than they actually were); and relied on the old Labour trick of double and triple counting money (year 1, plus year 1 plus year 2, plus year 1 plus year 2 plus year 3 - great, eh?).

Next up, it was Hilary Benn and DEFRA. Despite being a mainly English department, animal welfare is a reserved issue, meaning that when there's compensation to be paid out as a result of the restrictions from foot and mouth disease, it's DEFRA that has to foot the bill. No ifs, no buts - that's how it works and that's how it is in the Scotland Act.

Due to the movement restrictions and the current export ban, there are tens of thousands of sheep, in particular the 'light lambs' bred for export to southern Europe, now facing starvation due to lack of fodder. Because the grazing and climatic conditions are different in Scotland to most of England, a herculean effort was made to try and convince English Ministers and officials that unless action was taken, sheep would be left starving to death on the hillsides.

Scottish Agriculture Minister Richard Lochhead tried to contact Hilary Benn at least 3 times last week, but not once were his calls returned. Strange, you might think, when in a draft statement from Friday to be delivered to the Commons on Monday, Benn was planning to announce an £8.1m package for Scottish farmers which had been agreed by the Treasury. However, by the time the statement was made, the compensation scheme was announced for England only, with the devolved administrations being told to fund, at least initially, their own disposal schemes.

Of course, that Friday everyone was expecting a general election, but by the Monday, Gordon Brown had called the whole thing off. A coincidence? Well, I'm more inclined than most to give people the benefit of the doubt, since cock-up is usually a lot more prevalent in most organisations than conspiracy. But here, the Westminster government has been caught bang to rights, and their squeals of indignation at being rumbled are as ridiculous as they are unjustified.

We've got junior nobodies in Westminster jumping up and down, fulminating about 'breaches of confidence', and 'playing politics'. We've even had some silly suggestions that the Scotland Office will henceforth vet all government documents 'to make sure Alex Salmond can't make mischief with them', and a lot of hand-wringing nonsense about how bad relations now are between the Scottish Government and Scotland Office, which of course is all the fault of the SNP.

Well, the 'vetting' initiative will last about a week, if it even starts at all, simply because neither ministers nor officials have the time, or the appetite to wade through everything on its way to Edinburgh. And even if they did, the outrage that would come back on them when important information reaches Scottish Ministers and officials late, would destroy any vestage of credibility which they might seek to salvage from this week.

The difference we have seen over the past week is that while Jack McConnell's Executive would simply have gone along with the exaggerated spin about funds available form the CSR and kept quiet about the 'now you see it, now you don't' foot and mouth compensation, the SNP government has no such qualms. Those informal, internal Labour networks which allowed information to be shared and conflicts 'resolved' are now no longer there. Good - on the evidence of the last few months, it seems that their only purpose was to keep everyone thinking that Scottish interests were being served well, even (and especially) when they were not.

That's a huge step forward in my view, and one which only goes to show 1) how timid the previous government was in its dealings with Westminster departments 2) the subordinate nature of the relationship and 3) the need for more formalised lines of communication if devolved government is to work as well as it can. On reflection, a collective chant to Alasdair Darling, Des Browne and Hilary Benn to "Sit down, and behave yourselves" might actually be a bit too mild. How about "Same old Labour, always cheating" instead?

P.S. Wendy Alexander's been very quiet this week, don't you think?


Richard Havers said...

The ineptitude of the Labour Londoners to deal with the SNP run Scotland is little short of amazing, almost inexplicable. They surely cannot think that this is going to do them any good at all come the next election in Scotland, whether it's for Westminster or Holyrood. It seems to me that they are hoping that you boys will drop a major clanger in the coming months and thereby let them back in. It's an interesting tactic but one that is out with their control.

Having said that it could be just Wendy being allowed to get her feet under the desk and her ducks in a row, mixing my metaphors, but you know what I mean.

I'd have loved to have been a fly on Gordon's wall when they were discussing an possible election ten days or so ago. You can't help believe that they thought, we might gat a pasting in Scotland.

Richard Thomson said...

I still can't get over the fact that they're going round accusing the SNP of breaking promises (a little harsh since the CSR only came out last week, thus rendering any budget impossible), and accusing us of 'picking fights'.

Even if picking fights were an advantageous thing to do (which I doubt), so far the SNP hasn't needed to. With each major hoo-hah to date - Lockerbie, the CSR numbers tweaking and the F&M compensation issue - the SNP has had a case every time.

Fair enough, it's often hard to lay a glove on a new government in the first few months. However, with the saga of the election that never was, it seems that even at Westminster, Labour is determined to fritter away any credibility it might have left!

Mountjoy said...

Of course Ms Alexander was quiet this week. After all, she made "the case" for cutting funding to the Scottish Government - i.e. supporting Brown's plans to cut funds going to the victorious SNP. There is no "case" for doing so; it is just because Brown has messed up the public finances and he will lose many seats to the SNP in Scotland if he cuts funding any more.

If Ms Alexander is supporting the London based Labour Government on the matter of tax cuts, was she supporting Scotland in the football? Or is she going to be like Gordon and support England? Depressing, isn't it?

Mountjoy said...

Sorry I meant to say 'funding cuts#, not 'tax cuts'!

Richard Thomson said...

I don't get the impression that Wendy would know the first thing about sport, somehow.

Great story from the Paisley South by-election where her brother got into Parliament. Douglas was beefing on at a Labour Press Conference (when they still held such things) about being a 'Paisley Buddie' and how much he liked watching St Mirren, to which a very irresponsible member of the Scottish press corps enquired of him who the St Mirren manager was.

He didn't know, and was left floundering for all to see. By the time the hacks had made it to the SNP press conference, our candidate had been fully briefed and was able to answer the same question with a flourish: 'It's Tony Fitzpatrick. Aye, he was a great player...' :-)