Tuesday, December 01, 2009

As You Were

The received wisdom of Scotland's blethering classes over the past couple of weeks or so has been that the Scottish Government, but in particular the SNP, had somehow hit the skids. The glee in certain quarters has been palpable.

The basis for this observation seemed to be that there'd been a credit crunch. That the SNP hadn't managed to take a rock-solid Labour seat at a by-election. That there'd been a hulaballoo over the cancellation of the rail link to Glasgow Airport. That minimum pricing for alcohol was likely to face defeat in Parliament. That there was still a majority in Holyrood against an independence referendum. Winning 20 Westminster seats was now 'off the agenda', we were told by those who know, just as was independence. Go back to your constituencies and prepare for opposition etc etc.

Mostly, though, it seemed to be because an echo chamber of opposition politicos and unionist-inclined meeja types all agreed with themselves that it would be desirable if this were indeed so.
What was absent was any semblance of a note of caution – I mean, how many times since the SNP started to achieve a leadership position in Scottish politics have we been assured that the wheels have come off what has regularly been described, somewhat inaccurately, as an SNP 'bandwagon'?

Mood music matters in politics. Despite what politicians would have you believe, it's rare that any one single event ever acts as a watershed – instead, it's the drip drip effect over time which alters perceptions and ultimately, voter behaviour. For that reason, it's understandable that people opposed to the SNP and all its works will always do all they can to try and pretend that the party's aims are unpopular, and that its figures and policies are somehow out of step with public opinion, whether this is the case or not.

The problem with this sort of political pyramid selling is that without more people piling in behind to back up the message, if the basic prospectus lacks support amongst the general populace, it quickly falls apart. And so it has, if a new poll published by Ipsos Mori is to be believed.

The SNP has restored its lead in the polls for Holyrood and crucially, for this observer, for Westminster too. When fed into Electoral Calculus, the SNP would on these figures win 16 seats, putting the party on target for its aim of 20. It also puts the support for a future independence referendum running at 75%, even if that is split between 25% who want an immediate referendum which isn't on offer, and a further 50% who say they want a vote at some date in the future.

People will make their own judgments on the so called 'bread and butter' issues, and will continue to take a jaundiced view of the opportunism which sees the main opposition party taking major policy decisions based less on principle than on the perceived tactical advantage they might yield. If Scottish Labour carries on as it has been, alcohol pricing will not be the only touchstone issue where, as Susan Deacon says, the party finds itself 'in the wrong place for the wrong reasons'.

On Calman too, it's back to square one. Labour won't implement any reforms before the next election. Rather than take the initiative now, the party seems willing to risk leaving matters in the hands of a possible incoming Tory government, which has pointedly refused to say what it will and will not implement in the report. The Lib Dems, meanwhile, seem to have got precious little for their efforts. Even after Calman, we still have three parties still holding three different positions, united only by their agreement that they neither want independence nor to give voters a say on which, if any, of the constitutional futures canvassed for Scotland ought to prevail.

For the constitutional debate, read also the policy debate. Everyone, even and especially those in the SNP, recognises that it remains a minority, albeit a sizable one. The difficulty for those who seek to oppose the party at every turn seems to be, exactly as it has been since 2007, in recognising that the non-SNP majority remains remarkably resistant to being moulded into anything coherent.

Just because a majority appears to be against something is no guarantee that a majority in favour of something can be found within those numbers. Both domestically and on the constitution, the debate on Scotland's future has a way to run yet...

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

What's The Welsh For 'Schadenfreude'?

Interesting developments today in Wales, where all hell appeared to break loose after Labour put out a press release declaring that there would be no more progress on a referendum on further devolution until after the general election.

Referendum? Further devolution? Labour? Yes, you read the above correctly. Enacted by a Labour government and supported by the Lib Dems, as a result of the 2006 Government of Wales Act, provision exists for our Cambrian cousins to hold a referendum to decide whether or not the Welsh Assembly should be given primary legislative powers. Even some Welsh Conservatives are now in on the fun, arguing that not only should there be a vote on granting legislative powers, but also arguing in favour of the move.

The statement by First Minister Rhodri Morgan, Welsh Secretary Peter Hain and the Chair of Welsh Labour clearly caught their Plaid Cymru coalition partners unawares. Part of the 'One Wales' coalition deal between the two parties is a commitment to holding the referendum, if it is winnable, by May 2010. In response, Plaid branded the move as a "serious breach of trust" and "completely unacceptable". Things appeared to have cooled down by the afternoon, though, with Rhodri Morgan and Plaid Depute First Minister Ieuan Wyn Jones able to say in an emergency statement following some hasty afternoon negotiations that "all options" on timing were open.

The similarities, not to say differences with Scotland are immediately apparent. With the Westminster Government insisting that there will be no progress on Calman until after the election, and this attempt by Peter Hain to delay a referendum in Wales, the game being played by Westminster Labour is pretty clear. Everything will be put into the deep freeze for now and the election fought on the claim that only Labour can deliver on further devolution in an attempt to try and shore up their vote. This either buys another few years of time in which to do nothing if Labour gets re-elected, or leaves the whole thing for the Conservatives to deal with should they run out winners.

Except, neither Plaid nor the SNP have played ball. The Scottish Government has draft orders in place which would allow for Calman to proceed without any need for further delay. Meanwhile, with Rhodri Morgan due to stand down, Plaid have the option of refusing to back any Labour candidate for the First Ministership who opts to backslide on this aspect of the coalition deal.

But why might Labour, other than its innate conservatism and reluctance to concede any more devolution than it absolutely must to fend off the electoral threat of the nationalists, be so keen to put the brakes on? The answer may lie very close to home, with echoes to be heard in the increasingly shrill cries against holding an independence referendum in Scotland.

Firstly, there's the problem for all of the unionist parties, but particularly for Labour, of being seen to support a Welsh referendum while ruling one out in Scotland. It's a position which holds precisely zero credibility. With public support for a referendum already high, it's a contradiction with which the SNP would need no encouragement to make hay over.

However, the ramifications run so much deeper. Think on the 'neverendum' argument posited by unionists as a reason why Scots shouldn't even be permitted to hold a first vote. Joyously, in section 103 of the Government of Wales Act 2006, it is made clear that if a majority of Welsh voters do not back the transfer of primary legislative powers, this does not prevent Westminster from laying the orders necessary to hold a further referendum in the future.

In just one paragraph, the Labour party in Government, and the Lib Dems who supported the bill on its passage, have enshrined explicitly in legislation the principal that there should be no time bar on holding a subsequent referendum if people vote against. Scotland can't get a vote on further constitutional change, but the Welsh can have as many votes as they like until they deliver what the government considers to be the right answer. Thus, by Labour and the Lib Dems own hands, the neverendum argument, such as it ever was, is killed stone dead.

The timescales promise to be similarly glorious, at least from an SNP perspective since all parties in Wales seem still to be contemplating a referendum prior to 2011. Compare and contrast this position with the unionist advanced argument in Scotland that constitutional ‘navel gazing’ (Calman presumably excepted) is the ‘wrong’ thing to do in a recession. In Wales, we will shortly be hearing the counter argument from a Lib/Lab/Con alliance that only with the further transfer of powers can the measures needed to counter the downturn adequately be taken.

If the Welsh Assembly backs a referendum by the required 2/3rds majority, the Welsh First Minister has to give notice of this in writing to the Secretary of State. The clock then starts ticking – the Secretary of State then has 120 days to either lay a draft of a statutory instrument containing an Order in Council before each House of Parliament, or give notice in writing to the First Minister as to why they are refusing to do so.

If this Assembly vote happens prior to the election, say in mid February 2010, it means that the first thing a Welsh Secretary will have to do post-election is decide whether or not a referendum can go ahead. Whether that person be Labour or Tory, even assuming that matters don't move quite so quickly, it seems likely that just as the unionist parties carry out their threat in Scotland to vote down a referendum bill, the issue will be resurrected almost immediately when matters come to a head in Wales.

Gloating is seldom an attractive trait in politics, but then again, neither is the defence of blatant double standards. Thanks to this piece of three year old legislation, the unionists have slayed every single argument that ever passed their lips against the principal of a referendum on constitutional change, on the principle of having future votes if required and on the principle of having a referendum during an economic downturn.

Peter Hain is due to visit Wales tomorrow, and will doubtless come under intense pressure to explain firstly why today's statement was made, and secondly, to state whether he backs the position as set out this afternoon by The First Minister and his Deputy. It should be fun to watch, but not nearly as much fun as it will be to see Scotland's unionists squirming over why Scotland should be denied a referendum just as the Welsh seem set to prepare to go to the polls.

The twisting and turning in the months ahead will be simply exquisite to watch. Now where's that popcorn?

UPDATE: Plaid Candidate Heledd Fychan seems mildly amused by it all as well...

Saturday, November 07, 2009

Huntly - Monday and Saturday

Work took me to Huntly on Monday, in the aftermath of the floods which saw around 100 people evacuated from their homes.

Almost a month's rainfall in 24 hours, allied to ground already saturated from previous rainfall, saw the River Deveron rise dramatically overnight as water ran straight off the hills. As the river rose, the burn which flows through The Meadows estate quickly backed up and burst its banks in the early hours of the morning, flooding the neighbouring housing estate and the nearby Meadows care home.

First stop was the Stewart's Hall, where many of those affected were awaiting meetings with representatives of Aberdeenshire Council and Grampian Housing, to try and sort out what could be done until their homes were again habitable. Alex Salmond, who is the local MSP, and Cllr Joanna Strathdee, were also there to offer their support.

With the floodwater beginning to slowly drain away, the clean-up operation was getting underway. However, with furniture, carpets, walls and floors damaged beyond repair, it could be weeks if not months before some people are able to return to their homes. It's hard to offer words of comfort in these circumstances, but amongst the residents I spoke to, many of whom were still coming to terms with what had happened, there was a stoic determination to soldier on and to return to normality as soon as was possible.

Later, Joanna and I went round the housing estate to see for ourselves how the clean-up operation was progressing. We also took a walk along the Deveron down by Huntly Castle, which had by that stage begun to return to its normal levels. Even there, down by the Nordic Ski Centre, the extent of the damage was quite remarkable.

Here's a photo of debris, including planks from the scaffolding which had been on the A96 bridge:



The gravel from the riverside footpath was swept away (above), leaving the trench below:
















A flooded car park. The water had fallen considerably by the time this was taken:


The Deveron in full spate, with the riverside path turned into a canal:



However, today saw the second weekend of the Huntly Hairst festival, along with a Continental and Farmers market. I headed along in the afternoon to take a wander round and chat with folk about how the town was responding to Monday's events.

A slightly more sedate Deveron today:

Today's market:




There's a fantastic community spirit in Huntly, and it's been great to see the way that local people have rallied round. However, those still out of their homes are likely to need help for some time to come. Life goes on, but we shouldn't forget that there's still a lot to do to return life to normal for the folk who lost their homes last week.

Friday, November 06, 2009

Taken To Cask

Yes, yes. I know it's a lazy shot, but even after a severe bout of the cold and a protracted case of the canny be bothereds, this still makes me laugh:




Yep, in their press release relating to regulations laid in parliament which will improve the labelling of Scotch Whisky, Jim Murphy's full time press officer, working for a part-time department, has managed to mis-spell the word whisky.

'On the rocks', 'spelling disaster for the industry', 'lacking spirit' - insert your own jokes here...

Thursday, October 08, 2009

Lib Dems "To Mount Referendum Review"

Well, well, well. What to make of the news that the Scottish Lib Dems are to re-examine their position on an Independence referendum at their Scottish Autumn Conference later this month?

I dare say that the hooting and hollering will begin in earnest from both Labour and the Tories, amidst claims that they and only they can be trusted to stand up for the union. However, we should be clear. This may only be a first step towards the Lib Dems changing their existing policy, but it’s not of itself a decision to support a referendum, and it’s certainly not a declaration of support for independence.

For that reason, the SNP would be well advised to play it cool. However, the questions remain - after mounting such a staunch defence of the policy last month, why consider changing it now? And what does this say about the state of Tavish Scott’s leadership of his party?

I see 3 possibilities:

• Tavish does this to try and shore up his position. Rightly or wrongly, he believes that the membership backs him on this issue, and so asks them to show dissident MSP, MPs and candidates that the pro-referendum argument is ‘over’.
• Tavish does this from a position of weakness, having had it forced on him by unhappy Lieutenants who can see the political damage it is doing.
• Tavish has belatedly realised that telling people they can’t have a referendum is a vote loser, and is seeking to u-turn in a way which can be presented as having been as consensual and as ‘liberal’ as possible.

It’s pretty obvious that the virulently anti-SNP/anti-independence streak which exists at the top of the Lib Dems isn’t at all representative of most of their members, far less their voters. Similarly, the hard line adopted over a referendum by Tavish Scott has discomfited many, who are instinctively in favour of giving people a vote on their constitutional future.

Certainly, in my experience, it goes down like a lead balloon on the doorsteps, since most people want a referendum regardless as to how they’d go on to vote. It’s also no secret, as we learned from their recent UK conference, that senior lib Dem strategists are concerned that the longer a referendum is postponed, the more likely it is that there might be a successful ‘yes’ vote to Independence.

However, Tavish’s difficulties aside, could there be another factor at work? The Calman Commission, with Gordon Brown showing no inclination to implement even the uncontroversial bits and with David Cameron rowing away from even the merest tweaking of the financial powers, is now the deadest of dead ducks. It was always destined to be lowest common denominator stuff and as was long predicted, was always unlikely to leave the Lib Dems with anything even approaching their preferred option of Federalism.

The constitutional debate in Scotland runs on SNP petrol. Without the prospect of Scots voting for independence, arguments for further devolution lose all force where it really matters – in Westminster. For the Lib Dems to back an independence referendum would flush Labour and the Tories out on Calman, and force both parties to come up with something, and sharpish. So, there’s a sound, strategic argument for the Lib Dems to back an independence referendum as a means of achieving further devolution. But then, that was always the case all along.

The Lib Dems are all over the place on tax, all over the place on spending, and now, all over the place on Scotland’s future. While conventional wisdom would suggest that inconsistency is a bad thing, I think that most voters would welcome just such a policy change, and might just be inclined to forgive Tavish Scott for his inconsistencies on this issue. Who knows, it might even represent the first act in throwing away the shovels with which the party started digging so enthusiastically when its MPs opted to bury Charles Kennedy.

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

With Respect, Mr Cameron...

Seeing as it's this blog's third birthday today, it's probably time to break the recent haitus...


...and the recent partisan claptrap about SNP participation in a party leaders' debate seems as good a place to begin as any.

Let's cut to the chase. In the UK, there are strict rules about broadcasting impartiality when it comes to politics. These don't often work to the SNP's advantage when it comes to the balance achieved between 'network' and 'regional' coverage during a Westminster election, but the rules exist, and they're there for a reason.

You would think, therefore, that if a party leaders' debate were to be proposed, that any sensible, fair minded person would have little difficulty in agreeing that the debate or debates which resulted ought to respect and reflect these rules. Ha. Mention the necessity to ensure that parties other than Labour, the Conservatives and the Lib Dems be represented, and out sallies a hellish legion of talking heads in parliament and in print, determined to berate others for their impertinence in seeking to disrupt the binary Westminster agenda, in a vain attempt to disguise their own self interest in skewing and narrowing the debate which would result.

The most substantial criticism, if you can call it that, of including Plaid Cymru and the SNP in any debates is that they are are 'regional' parties, that they don't contest seats in all parts of the UK, or that they're not going to form the next UK government. On the first count, you could exclude the Tories, since the SNP has almost as many MPs in England as the Tories manage in Scotland (zero plays one). On the second, you could exclude every party except the Conservatives, and on the third count, you might as well tell Vince Clegg to save his taxi fare to the studio.

Now, lest anyone think I'm ditching my customary reasonableness here, let me say that I can see perfectly well why people in England might not want to see a debate involving Alex Salmond or Ieuan Wyn Jones. I can also see that a debate involving 5 or more people could quickly become unwieldy. However, if there's to be a 'leaders' debate', then over the piece it has to involve the leaders of all the main parties. Let's call it as it is - to exclude those who happen to sit in government in Scotland and Wales, one of whom just happens to be the longest-serving party leader in British politics, would be an act of base gerrymandering, which would discredit the entire process. Grist to the nationalist mill it might be, but frankly, isn't there a better way for everyone?

A separate Scottish debate involving the branch managers of the Scottish parties would be the answer to a question no-one is asking. Given the prevalence of satellite TV and internet video, it's difficult to see how any English-only debate (because let's be honest, that's all a showdown between Brown, Cameron and Clegg would be) could be kept off Scottish screens. Which is why the best way to solve this problem, once fevered brows have been cooled, would be to have separate debates in Scotland and Wales which include Brown, Cameron and Clegg.

I've no desire to keep the titanic triumvirate off English TV screens, but I have a desire to see that fairness prevails in Scotland and Wales. Voters are entitled to see how all the party leaders perform against eachother, as well as getting an idea of how they would approach Scotland and Wales over the next term at Westminster. Separate Scottish and Welsh debates would ensure that this is exactly what happens.

David Cameron has promised, if elected, to govern Scotland 'with respect'. With all due respect to Mr Cameron, I'm afraid I don't really believe him. However, he could make a good start on changing people's minds by agreeing to come to Glasgow to take part in a televised debate with Brown and Clegg against Alex Salmond.

If the UK's politicians and broadcasters can't come up with a solution to this problem which reflects the plurality of the British political system, it really doesn't say much for the prospects of that system surviving much longer. Come on, Dave. Be a man and admit you've called this one wrong. Let's see just how far that sense of fair play of yours extends...

Friday, September 04, 2009

Overnight Rain

The road into Inverurie this morning at Uryside. This is normally a field...



Friday, August 28, 2009

The Independence Impact - On Everyone Else

SI column time again... this time, considering the impact that Scottish Independence would have on the rest of the UK - the theme of a foray I made down to London last weekend, to address the SNP's London branch alongside some august intellectual company...

We all have our own arguments about what Independence would mean for Scotland. In the SNP, it's rare to find a point of view falling short of it being a good thing in every conceivable respect. However, there's one rather significant side-effect of independence which we often overlook – the impact it would have on our nearest neighbours.

Scotland going her own way requires us to establish the identity of a Scottish state and to obtain international recognition. It's often forgotten amidst the spurious claims of isolation which arise from this that the rest of the UK, or rUK, would find itself in a completely new position as well, with the idea that all continues as before left open to serious challenge.

First of all, let's follow the money, or perhaps even the lack of it. The UK national debt is set to reach £1.4tr over the next five years – something which Scotland will have to take its share of. However, with independence, what remains of the UK will have lost 8.5% of its population and nearly 10% of its tax revenues. It will also lose a large proportion of one of the UK's most obvious economic assets – North Sea oil and gas

Potentially, that is eyebrow raising stuff for the markets, leading to the prospect that rUK credit status may be downgraded. There's no reason why, handled sensibly, this should of itself be a huge problem. However, it carries with it the hint of the prisoners' dilemma – the optimum position is for Scotland and rUK to co-operate and emphasise continuity, but it one side 'defaults', for example, by rehashing previous spats about who subsidises who, it potentially leaves both sides in a poorer position in the eyes of the markets.

The creation of a new tax regime north of the border also creates a dilemma for the rUK Chancellor. As an English speaking country with a well educated population, fully integrated into EU law with good transport links and a well developed market in professional and legal services, Scotland is an attractive place to do business. Every change in the Scottish tax code which gives Scotland a potential advantage will, as with the Irish Government guaranteeing savers deposits in the early days of the banking crisis, put great pressure on the UK Government to follow suit.

But if the economic impact is potentially significant, the military impact is huge. Trident is the UK's main expression of military geo-political power and rUK could certainly afford to maintain son of Trident if it chose. Indeed, it might feel that doing so was necessary to maintain status as a world, rather than a mere regional power. However, rUK would face an immediate difficulty in the event of independence, since the deep water submarine base and armaments depot necessary for its operation would henceforth be based in a foreign country hostile to their presence.

A lack of access to these facilities would be even more debilitating to the integrity of the Trident 'deterrent' than any withdrawal of US support for the system. The facilities at Faslane and Coulport would take years to replace elsewhere, but even then, where could they go? And where would they be welcome? As such, it's not beyond the realms of possibility that independence would also mean the end of an independent UK nuclear deterrent.

Then there is the loss of Scottish service personnel to UK forces. While Scottish Defence Forces would undoubtedly find themselves serving alongside those of rUK from time to time, it is inconceivable that they would be used, as they have been in the recent past, in operations such as those in Iraq. With the UK already stretched, if Scotland's conventional military capabilities were to be lost, rUK would find it impossible to fulfill its present commitments.

All of this would have a diplomatic impact. Nuclear weapons or not, the inevitable consequence of a reduced military capability and ability to deploy it would be a diminished status internationally. At the UN Security Council, it would become increasingly hard to justify continued rUK presence in the permanent 5, particularly when a nuclear armed Indian democracy of 800m sits outside. Although it would be fiercely resisted by the French, pressure may build to have a single European seat, or at the very least expand the number of permanent members.

Then we come to Europe, and votes in the European Parliament and Council of Ministers (CoM). Scotland would see an increase in her number of MEPs, and would for the first time gain representation at CoM level. The impact is on rUK, which given a population loss of 5m, would snap into sharp focus the fact that Germany with a population of 80m would still have the same number of votes as rUK, on 55m.

One solution might be to increase the weight of German votes, although this would likely be unacceptable to the French. Accordingly, the most likely option would be to see a reduction in rUK voting power to the same number of CoM votes as Spain – something which, strange but true, would see Scotland and rUK with a stronger combined influence than the UK at presence.

But how much does this really affect England, Wales and Northern Ireland, rather than a British political class which boasts endlessly of 'special relationships' and 'punching above our weight'? Without Scotland, many of the traditional ties for Northern Irish unionists to the UK become less meaningful. Wales, which frequently looks to Scotland politically, would see that the British state was not indivisible, and may perhaps decide that the 'full national status' accorded to Scotland and advocated by Plaid Cymru is something both attainable and desirable after all.

So whither England, when so much of English identity has been tied up in 'Britishness' for the last 3 centuries? If we Scots seem further down the road to resolving outstanding issues of politics and identity in the world, it's probably because we've been obsessing about it for far longer. England, once de-colonised from the British State, can see a progressive, civic identity emerge, which is able to reflect itself politically and sit comfortably alongside the emerging independence of Scotland and Wales. A nation, hopefully, at ease with itself and its inhabitants, and able to look confidently to the future, without feeling diminished by contrasts with the past.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Megrahi - The Aftermath

Busy week and busy weekend, hence the recent radio silence. However, I can't let the events of the past few days pass without comment.

I remember vividly the night that Pan-Am Flight 103 came down, and like everyone, the horror of that evening lives with me still. In the years which have passed since, I​'ve come to admire the great dignity, persistence and vigour with which representatives of the relatives, particularly Dr Jim Swire, have conducted themselves. However, following Megrahi's diagnosis and prognosis, Kenny MacAskill had 4 choices open to him – just as any Justice Secretary of any party would:

1.Leave Megrahi to die in Greenock Prison.
2.Send him home to Libya under the Prisoner Transfer Agreement negotiated by Tony Blair.
3.Place him in secure custody in a safe house or hospice in Scotland.
4.Grant him compassionate release.

The Scottish Prison Service is not well placed to provide the palliative care which we are told Megrahi now needs. As such, option 1 was not a choice which could be described as humane, compassionate or realistic, at least by any code of ethics or morality with which I'm familiar.

The US Government had made plain its implacable opposition to prisoner transfer – given the UK Government's apparent reluctance to confirm or deny what, if any, understandings were in effect with the Lybian and US Governments regarding this, it easy to see why this was a less attractive option than either 3 or 4.

After seeking guidance from Strathclyde Police, it became clear that a minimum of 48 police officers would have been needed to provide adequate security were Mr Megrahi to leave prison custody but remain in Scotland. This would be impractical enough for any safe house option, but completely inappropriate in the context of a hospice where other patients expect to be able to die with dignity in the company of their closest relatives. As such, it was in my view rightly dismissed, which left compassionate release as the best and most humane option.

With dreary predictability, the charge of naivety has been thrown around liberally, particularly in the aftermath of Megrahi's welcome home. This is self-serving nonsense, for whatever you think of the decision to release Megrahi on compassionate grounds, the rightness or wrongness of that decision is not affected in any way by the manner in which he was received back in Lybia, however inappropriate we regard that welcome to have been.

I don't envy the position which Kenny MacAskill found himself in. However, genuine naivety is to pretend that any of the other three choice open to him could have been made without consequences. In particular, it would have been na├»ve to allow Megrahi to return to Lybia under the prisoner transfer agreement – the UK Government's favoured option – only perhaps to see the Lybian Government release him themselves. Far better, then, to release him ourselves from his sentence in view of his medical condition and likely life expectancy.

This was not, as some have claimed, about trying to make a play on the international stage. Rather, it was a temporary overlap between the sphere of international relations and the Scottish legal system, the likes of which we will be very unlikely to ever see again under devolution in its present form. It was inevitable that post-devolution, the decision would find its way into the in tray of a Scottish justice minister at some point.

In terms of political response, the muted criticisms from President Obama and Hilary Clinton were to be expected – they could hardly be expected to say nothing, after all. At home, David Cameron succeeded only in further burnishing his credentials as an opportunistic lightweight. From the likes of Tory MP Daniel Kadjinsky, on Radio Scotland yesterday evening, we hear nothing of greater lasting substance than the plaintive ululations of a post-asteroid dinosaur, not long for Scottish political ecology. And from the other main party leaders in Holyrood, in the words of yesterday's Scotsman editorial [no recent friend of the SNP administration], we saw accusations of opposition “behaviour which was less to do with principle and was more influenced by party political point scoring.”

As squabbles go, it's been all very Scottish – depressingly so - but domestic opinion appears to be hardening in favour of MacAskill's decision – something which I'll bet has only been quickened by some of the less temperate responses we've seen to date. Pride isn't a word I'm wont to use in this case. However, I'm certainly pleased that expedience was rejected in favour of principle, and that we have a justice system in Scotland that whatever its flaws, recognises that justice differs from vengeance, and which can rise above our baser instincts to leave room for compassion, even to those who have shown none for their victims.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

S&I Elsewhere - waleshome.org

I have a new article up on the excellent waleshome.org site. Please go and take a look.

Beginning To Take Notice

Sat 15 Aug 2009 By Richard Thomson

For as long as anyone can remember, the devolution debate in Wales has been towed along by developments in Scotland. But that is changing, and Wales might now set the pace of reform...


Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Murphy's Flaw

Another SI article. What is the point of the Secretary of State these days, except to get in the way? And with his 'activist' approach, will Jim Murphy set an example to any incoming Tory government, thereby marking him out as the midwife of independence?


For students of post-devolution politics, the position of Secretary of State for Scotland is something of a conundrum. With Ministers now accountable to a Scottish Parliament, does Scotland need a territorial minister in the Cabinet any longer? More to the point, if the position didn't already exist, would anyone now bother to invent it?

In days past, the Scottish Secretary was the de-facto Prime Minister of Scotland – the Governor-General minus the feather-plumed hat. With devolution, Scottish Office staff were transferred to the Scottish Executive, leaving the Secretary of State without an empire and in search of a role. It created a political impotence which has been reflected in the chest-beating we've seen from Dover House ever since.

As time progressed it became obvious how little of the role was left. Helen Liddell famously found the position so undemanding that she had time to take French lessons. Alastair Darling and Douglas Alexander held the job alongside the Transport brief, while Des Brown juggled it with Defence. It is only with the accession of Jim Murphy that the position has again been given Cabinet status.

Constitutionally, Murphy's job is to represent Scotland in the Cabinet and to administer the block grant, topslicing the costs of his Scotland Office before passing the rest on to St Andrews House. Yet despite this diminished role, the size of the department has increased dramatically since 1999. From having just 20 employees in 2000, it now has over 60 today, and a budget which has ballooned from £3.7m in 1999 to £7.2m in 2009.

His department has issued just over 100 press releases since the start of the year, mostly welcoming initiatives taken by other departments, or announcing that he had appeared in Parliament to fulfill his responsibilities. Yet if this seems languid, it still marks him out as hyperactive in contrast to his recent predecessors.

While the propaganda machine might be in full flow, the more important functions seem to fall by the wayside. Not a peep was heard when the Chancellor imposed his recent increase in spirit duties. £1bn of Westminster cuts are obscured with spurious attacks on the SNP for poor macroeconomic outcomes in Scotland over which the Scottish Government, through Labour's own design, has little control anyway. The role he's created seems to be that of Labour PR man, rather than any kind of useful ally for the Scottish interest at Westminster.

With their Joint Ministerial Committees and 'compacts', Labour quite sensibly envisaged that direct links between Scottish and Whitehall Ministers would be the norm. Even as these structures fell into abeyance through the use of informal party networks, no significant liaison role was ever envisaged for the Secretary of State. Yet it is in this role that Murphy tries to portray himself as the great conciliator, inevitably in the context of mediating between an exasperated Whitehall and a supposedly fight-picking SNP Government.

Recently, he presented himself as having brokered a meeting between John Swinney and the Treasury over how a replacement Forth Bridge might be funded, despite the meeting having been arranged without his help. While others got on with working out how the bridge might be funded, Jim was busy spinning glory for himself from an inconclusive outcome while casting slights on the Scottish Government for the supposed shortcomings in its approach.

It's a tactic best described as pouring oil on troubled waters before trying to set fire to it. If he was a footballer, he'd be the one constantly pulling your jersey, before throwing himself to the ground in theatrical agony and complaining to the referee that he didn't get a free kick for his troubles. Which takes us to the heart of his new role – that of effective leader of the opposition in Scotland.

Labour in Holyrood has been utterly inept since the SNP's 2007 victory, with successive leaders failing to land a glove on a popular administration. It's debatable whether the next Labour First Minister is even elected yet to Holyrood. Lacking anyone with the talent to discomfit an assured SNP, it's fallen to Murphy to try and take up the job.

Even though he gets a free run from a press corps bored with a narrative of SNP success, he's running out of time, since his position depends not on Labour's performance in Scotland, but rather its performance UK-wide. Even if he holds his seat at the general election, unless Gordon Brown can effect a Lazarus-style political resurrection, it'll likely be David Cameron who appoints the next Secretary of State for Scotland. While Labour's ultra-unionists might not be too dismayed at that prospect, it's still a dangerous tack. For through his approach, Murphy has paved the way for an activist Conservative Scottish Secretary, with all that would entail for the remaining legitimacy of the UK.

Under the current settlement, election results mean that whether we like it or not, Labour has a certain legitimacy in Scotland over matters reserved, although this is not something that will transfer to an incoming Conservative administration. Just imagine, if you will, a Conservative Scottish Secretary trying to pull the same tricks, over matters reserved and devolved, in the face of likely stout cross-party Scottish opposition to a Conservative government at Westminster.

It's not difficult to see happening, at least for a time, nor is it difficult to imagine the likely response from Scottish voters. With Margaret Thatcher described as the midwife of devolution, how ironic it would be if in trying to bolster his party and the union, Murphy's example were to trigger the events which led to a yes vote in a future independence referendum.

Thursday, August 06, 2009

On The Buses

It's not often you'll find me linking to something in the Daily Mail, but this Craig Brown piece is just too good to miss:

Hold on tight, it's Gordon Brown the coach driver

Every summer, I like to board a coach and set off on a sunshine tour. This summer, when I arrived at the coach, I was surprised to find that no-one had yet boarded. The queue of holidaymakers was growing increasingly irate with the driver. 'If I did not think I was the right person to be driving this coach,' the driver was saying, 'I would not be sitting here holding the steering wheel.'

Oddly enough, his voice seemed familiar. 'I have the focus, the energy and the determination to drive this bus. I have never forgotten my father teaching me to change gears, to signal clearly and always to do the right thing. I want to put something back into this bus. This is who I am.'

One of the passengers standing outside then asked him through the window where he would be going. 'I believe in coaches,' he replied. 'I believe in roads. And I believe in driving coaches along roads.' At that moment, it suddenly struck me who he was.

Read the rest here.

H/T - Mediawatch

Friday, July 31, 2009

Top 10

A last-minute dash to the polling station in the Total Politics Top Ten Blogs Poll has yielded the following selection from the Ellon judge:

1. Blether With Brian

All right, he's being paid to do it, but Brian Taylor still sets the standard I'd like to achieve for myself when I decide to be even-handed.

2. Mr Eugenides

He probably doesn't need the vote, but then, who really does?

3. SNP Tactical Voting


Quality and quantity. The undisputed king of nat pack bloggers.

4. Lallands Peat Worrier

Witty, erudite, cultured and always bang on the money. Wouldn't be surprised to learn that he's kind to animals and phones his mother every week as well. His picture is to be found both prominent and hole-ridden on my dartboard in consequence.

5. Clairwill

Thought-provoking and often plain laugh-out-loud funny.

6. The Steamie

Lets David Maddox show that there's more to his repertoire than simply knocking politicians as hard as he can. Also allows Geri Peev to be more prolific, which is always a good thing in my book.

7. Bill Cameron

A place where I find disagreement without disagreeableness.

8. Adam Price

Quite possibly the cleverest MP in the country. Certainly one of the best public speakers, and definitely the most thought provoking blogger in Westminster.

9. Alex Massie

The best thing about the Spectator Coffee House.

10. Leaves on the Line

Didn't get where he is today by wearing underpants decorated with Beethoven, apparently. Another favourite read.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Social Unions

I entrusted myself to the tender mercies of Nationalised Express this weekend to make a visit to London. The occasion was the wedding of two of my friends, Tom and Jacqui, with whom I used to share a house when I stayed in the city. There was never any question of me missing their wedding. Tom and Jacqui are both very dear friends of mine, with whom I always try to hook up on the infrequent occasions I'm down there now.

Their friendship got my experience of London back on an even keel following an early bad flat experience. Politically, it was an interesting house in which to live. Tom and Jacqui met while working as researchers in the House of Commons – he for a Tory and she for a Labour MP. With a Lib-Dem sympathising lodger and myself as an SNP staffer in tow, we very nearly had the full set represented.

Their wedding was a spectacular affair. The church was grander than many a Cathedral I've visited and the mass, with the addition of a choir, was a world away from the rather more austere, if for me familiar surroundings of the Kirk. Officers from Tom's TA unit provided a guard of honour, before we headed off to the Terrace of the House of Commons for the reception.

However, it was the previous evening which provided a cameo as touching as the wedding itself. Heading pubwards up Shaftesbury Avenue around 9pm, we passed Soho Fire Station. There, in one of the doorways, were two firefighters standing behind a table, collecting for Ewan Williamson of the Lothian and Borders Brigade, who tragically lost his life on July 12 tacking a blaze in Edinburgh's Dalry Road - not far from where I went to school.

Those London firefighters most likely never knew Ewan, but that's not the point. It could just have easily been one of their own watch members who had left a family behind in the line of duty, which is why they were there, collecting change from the late night revellers for someone whom through the bonds of the job they regarded as one of their own.

If it's possible to be both humbled and uplifted in the same moment, that's how what remained of our evening began.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Taking Kerrful Aim

It's official, then. With the Labour Government voting down the SNP attempt this afternoon to move the writ for the Glasgow North East by-election, the constituency is going to be left without Westminster representation at a time when job losses in the seat are at the top of the political agenda. Had the bid been successful, a poll could have been held on August 20th - long after the holidays had finished. Compare and contrast Labour's reticence and tactical disarray with their dash last summer in Glasgow East, or the impending contest in Norwich.

Consistent? Only in pursuit of what the Labour Party perceives to be its own best interests. Anyway, with lurid headlines about supposed 'meltdown' now wrapping chips and in the knowledge that we're in for a marathon rather than a sprint, it's maybe worth sharing some thoughts about the SNP candidate, David Kerr – a guy I've known for well over a decade, from when we were both in the Federation of Student Nationalists.



The first time I recall encountering him was at a meeting of the Federation's National Council in Dundee in the mid-90's. Right from the off, it seemed pretty clear that he was someone who was going to go places in life. Turned out in a suit while the rest of us slummed it in jeans and rumpled shirts, he reported on his role as a representative to the party Executive.

Speaking fluently and without notes, he held court for a good ten minutes, keeping eye contact with delegates all the time, making it seem as if he was speaking to every person in the room, rather than just a group. Issues had been long mastered, with their complexities distilled elegantly. Even the most pointed questions were handled with courtesy and a slightly wicked but genial humour. By the end of his stint, someone whom a fair number of those present had began by regarding with suspicion had the room eating out of his hand.

His integrity, personal charm and obvious ability ensured that he was held in the highest regard by all sections of the party, even in the old and unlamented pre-devolution days when being regarded as a 'fundamentalist' or a 'gradualist' still mattered. With his ability to communicate, it was no real surprise when he joined the BBC, and even less so when his name began to appear in the credits of Newsnight as the programme's producer.

The biggest surprise, at least for me, was that he 'broke cover' to contest the Falkirk West by-election just as network greatness seemed to be calling. He almost pulled it off as well. However, there's no second prizes in politics and despite his proven impartiality at the Beeb, the career options at the corporation for an unsuccessful SNP candidate were sadly limited. Reading the football scores – BBC Scotland's answer to Siberia - was to be his most public task for a long time afterwards.

I've no doubt whatsoever that David is a candidate whom Labour fear, which likely goes a long way towards explaining some of the nonsense we've seen in the papers over the past few days. They would be wise to do so. His ability to connect with people means he's as happy singing karaoke or calling bingo as he'd be debating the finer points of the Lisbon Treaty. In David, the SNP has a candidate of uncommon ability, who will have no difficulty keeping the focus where it should be – on Labour's appalling record in Glasgow.

As one lady of a certain age put it to me back when he was cutting his candidate's teeth in Falkirk, 'that boy's got it all'. He certainly has, and I can't help but feel it's not going to be to Labour's advantage to give him until November to prove it on the stump in Glasgow.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Made To Give A Flying Pluck

There’s few more useful skills in life than knowing how to complain properly when things go wrong.

I’m not talking about shouting your head off at some poor underpaid and under-empowered customer service rep, or writing a snarky, self-satisfied letter guaranteed to elicit something equally unhelpful in return. Rather, it’s all about sticking to what’s relevant; not personalising the issue; carrying yourself with a courteous assertiveness and where appropriate, using the right amount of humour.

Having spent a few years working in the complaints department of a big Edinburgh life assurer after leaving university, I know of what I speak. Similarly, having also spent a few years dragging myself and my violin across various continents, when it comes to airlines and musical instruments, I also know of what I speak in this regard.

Luckily, I’ve never had any mishaps. BA has always been excellent, as has Air France. Bizarrely, the worst experience was when I was about to fly from Gatwick to Miami to join a ceilidh band aboard a P&O cruise ship. Despite P&O having chartered the plane for the entertainers joining the ship, a member of the cabin crew was adamant that I wasn’t getting on with my violin since "it could be used as a weapon" (??!), and that it would have to go in the hold instead.



After explaining gently that this really wasn’t a good idea and pointing out that she’d already let another violinist past without demur, off she went to consult with the pilot, never to be seen again. It did make me wonder exactly how she expected me to use it as a weapon, though. Perhaps there’d been a recent spate of violinists bursting into the cockpit mid-flight yelling ‘Fly me to Tehran or I’ll play you something you won’t like’…

Anyway, given the way that baggage gets thrown about, the idea of ground staff chucking fragile and valuable instruments about with no care for their condition fills me with horror. Luckily, a violin can fit in the overhead luggage locker quite happily if the crew and check in staff are agreeable. However, when it comes to something like a guitar, it’s a different story.

Which brings us to our tale. Canadian band ‘Sons of Maxwell’ were en route to Nebraska via Chicago’s o’Hare airport using United Airlines. While on the plane, they spotted ground staff throwing their guitars about on the tarmac. Unsurprisingly, upon reaching their destination, one of the guitars was broken.

Equally unsurprisingly, the band complained and demanded compensation. After a few months of procrastination, United finally said ‘No’ and refused to discuss the matter further. Big mistake – for instead of getting mad or calling their lawyer, the band decided to get even and recorded the following track, which is fast on its way to becoming a YouTube hit:



Anyway, all’s well that ends well. After seeing the video and sensing that they might be about to have a major public relations disaster on their hands, United has decided to reconsider its position and is now in serious talks about compensation. The airline has even gone so far as to ask if it can use the video as part of their staff training. If only the handling of their ground staff had been so adroit to begin with.

So, full marks to Sons of Maxwell for making their point with humour and dignity, and full marks to United for belatedly righting a wrong. I can’t see the songwriter replacing the solicitor any time soon, but it’s still a nice note on which to end the week.

(With thanks to the blogless Russell Horn for the hat tip earlier today)

UPDATE: The band has just posted this short video which brings the story up to date and thanks everyone for their support. It's always nice to see a happy ending where the good guys win and the 'baddie' manages to redeem himself.

Thursday, July 02, 2009

So, Was That It?

So, was that it, then? The Calman Commission – the grand Unionist masterplan – the one which was going to stymie independence and the SNP? The Commission which began with no preconceptions, except that Independence was a bad idea? The Commission that no unionist party saw fit to argue for before the SNP took power? The Commission, in short, designed to improve upon what was already perfection?

You must surely have seen the ecstatic crowds, the cheering throngs ever grateful for being spared the burden of being asked their opinion in advance, hoisting Peerie Kenny aloft? The sundry 3 cheers for Iain, Tavish and Annabel? The melodious sound of a band striking up the Unionist jig to which Alex Salmond would now surely be made to dance?

Nope? Me neither.

Forget all the hokum, flim-flam and flapdoodle about this being an 'intellectually rigorous report'. It's nothing of the kind. Quite simply, it is the result of empty minds being brought to a problem which essentially has no right answer. It is the lowest common denominator solution to how far Labour, the Lib Dems and the Conservatives are prepared to allow Holyrood to progress, carrying with it the pseudo-scientific conceit of being somehow 'evidence based'.


Ah, I hear you cry! But surely there were all sorts of brainy Professors involved! Iain McMillan was there to speak for the CBI! There was even a big Brother contestant to make sure that the kids were who they were down with! How can you be so cynical about such a stellar panel of critical, enquiring minds?

Easy. Just look at the proposals for financial powers – in fact, you needn't bother looking all that closely at all - and it will explode any vestige of belief that we might be dealing with any kind of worthwhile analysis here. Half of income tax revenues raised in Scotland are to stay in Scotland, we hear, in order to improve accountability. Well, cock-a-doodle-doo. What happens in a recession when income tax receipts fall? Why not broaden the base by supplementing this with VAT or Corporation Tax revenues? Why is it a good idea to tether the basic and top rates so that they cannot be altered independently of one another? More to the point, why no control over the North Sea tax regime? Really, if it happens it will be a Potemkin power – there for show and nothing else.

The problem with this power, as many eminent economists have pointed out, including some of those on Calman’s expert committee, is that it removes the certainty of the block grant without substituting it for the benefits of full fiscal autonomy. Without an enhanced funding base, Calman’s funding proposals have the potential to do more harm than good.

While proposals to devolve control over air guns and drink drive limits are welcome, let's not forget that these are areas where the SNP was accused in the past of 'picking fights'. Together with proposals to transfer animal welfare (remember the shenanigans over foot and mouth?), it seems that these are matters which perhaps should, in the opinion of the supreme arbiter, be devolved after all. Is this vindication for the SNP here, or is it simply an approach which owes more to reading back through the papers than any attempt to work out what the best division of responsibilities might be within a union state?


It's exactly the sort of timid and irrelevant stodge you'd expect to get when you seek the resultant of the politically inept but nonetheless enormously self-important great and good. And for that, the SNP should probably be grateful – after all, it now means that people can see exactly how little difference 'more powers' would actually make. This is as little as the British State is prepared to concede – if you want more, you're going to have to vote SNP and keep the prospect of independence at the top of the agenda – it really is the only language they speak.

Even then, as one Commission member put it, 'The potential for long grass is considerable'. How true – the Conservative Scottish Parliamentary Group is split on the matter, while you assume that the Lib Dems would have preferred it to go much further. Meanwhile, Labour are back to their old tricks again, with Jim Murphy claiming that the Scottish Parliament funded report is the 'property' [I kid you not] of the British Government and the parties party to the Commission. Despite there being unanimous agreement across Holyrood about the implementation of certain powers, according to Labour the report can only be implemented as a whole, and to suggest otherwise is SNP politicking.

Which must be news to Calman himself, who has said publicly that elements could be progressed fairly quickly. Meanwhile, there may not be sufficient parliamentary time left to allow Labour to implement any or even some of what has been recommended. Irony of ironies, it may be left to a future Prime Minister Cameron to implement the scheme on behalf of a party that has never entirely come to terms with the devolution we already have.

It promises to be an interesting aperitif to the independence referendum or the 2011 election – whichever comes first.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Oldmeldrum Sports

I spent yesterday afternoon at the Oldmeldrum Sports, a venerable North East institution. The first event was held in 1930, originally to raise money to buy cocoa for local children! Nowadays, the charitable works extend considerably further afield.


The most famous man in Scotland, pictured alongside the local MSP...






Thursday, June 18, 2009

IF, as Calman recommends, the Scottish Government is granted the right to vary speed limits, I hope it's only by plus or minus 3mph.

Richard Lucas

Edinburgh

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Compass - No Turning Back

I was in London last weekend to take part in the Compass 'No Turning back' conference. It came about through Mark Perryman – the driving force behind the 'Breaking Up Britain' book to which I contributed a chapter recently. Although not eligible to be a member of Compass thanks to my SNP affiliations, I nonetheless was invited along to take part in a fringe event to discuss some of the themes of the book.


I've been guilty in the past of harbouring something of an ambivalent attitude towards the 'metro-left' as I've termed it previously. Partly, that's down to my viewing politics from a primarily Scottish rather than a Westminster perspective. Partly, its down to the lazy assumptions made by some about the 'reactionary' nature of the SNP. It's also partly down to the assumption that 2 party politics is the norm, and that all the faults of the country are down to the other lot – a contention which in my view becomes hard to sustain if you happen to live in a place where Labour has been the effective establishment for half a century.

Although most of the delegates were either Labour, ex-Labour or unaffiliated 'progressives', there was an impressive array of 'dissidents' there, including Adam Price MP from Plaid Cymru, Caroline Lucas from the English Green Party, along with representatives from Sinn Fein and Respect. Coming right after Labour's drubbing at the Euro elections, it was a commendable display of political ecumenicism, matched only by what can be best described as a determination to seize a new agenda for the broad left in what might be the final 11 months of this Labour government.

With some early preconceptions confounded and complimentary copies of the Guardian and New Statesman in hand, off I went to the first session. The speeches from Billy Hayes, Harriet Harman, John Hilary, Caroline Lucas and Neal Lawson were enjoyably passionate, although it was a bit odd from the perspective of a relative outsider to hear the contention advanced that you could in fact fit a Rizla between the future spending plans of the Labour and Conservative parties.

Our Fringe session, 'No Turning Back on Devolution', attracted in the region of about 40 of the 1,000 delegates. In addition to Mark and myself, there was Professor Arthur Aughey from the University of Ulster; John Osmond of the Institute of Welsh Affairs; Sean Oliver, Sinn Fein's Director of European Affairs; and an impressive one-time Labour PPC, Rupa Huq, whom it must be recorded indulged in some quite shameless buttering up of Pat Kane, who himself took part in proceedings from the floor.

My own contribution was based on the theme of how the SNP had approached government, and how this fed into moves towards independence. With the theme of performance in the Euro elections a popular one for discussion, perhaps unsurprisingly, I began with some thoughts on how the SNP had managed to hold and arguably increase its base of support since May 2007 – something which can be put down to a few factors:


  • The SNP Government is perceived as being a competent manager of Scottish affairs. Ministers are seen as accessible and have likable public persona's. This has won a fair amount of goodwill and support in business, the civil service, the professions and the third sector – much of which was sceptical before not only about independence, but arguably about devolution itself.

  • Voters like the policies being put in place. Proper funding of free personal care, the ending of back-end tuition fees, the lack of marketisation in the NHS, the promotion of not for profit alternatives to PFI, opposition to ID cards, Trident and Nuclear Power, alongside freezing council tax and business rates, have been instrumental in garnering support from across the political spectrum.
  • People like the 'breath of fresh air' factor of a party other than Labour running Scotland's affairs, and actually quite like the fact that the government lacks the majority to always get its own way.

  • Much of it can also be put down to a 'normalisation' of politics in Scotland. Previously, the SNP had been viewed as somehow illegitimate in many quarters. However, the party's very presence in Government had done much to exorcise this. There are budgets which self-evidently do balance and ministers who quite obviously manage to work happily with Whitehall – the sky has emphatically not fallen in, which leaves a lot of people's previous rhetoric looking rather foolish.

When it comes to a referendum, the SNP continues to make the democratic argument for a vote liberated from party politics. While this had been accepted by Wendy Alexander, Labour had now retreated. However, who was to know what the attitude would be in 12 months time. Although there was no referendum majority in Holyrood, a majority outside Holyrood supported a referendum regardless as to how they'd vote given the chance. Support was also finely balanced between those intending to vote 'yes' and those intending to vote 'no'. Again, regardless as to preference, a majority expected Scotland to become independent in their lifetime. This wouldn't deliver independence in itself, but was perhaps an indication as to the overall direction of travel.


While Calman was likely to recommend more powers, it would need Westminster to deliver. With such a short time left to run in the present Parliament, this would likely rumble up to the Holyrood elections in 2011 and through a referendum vote in Holyrood. This meant that everything was building to further devolution and a crunch decision on whether or not the voters should have their say on full independence.


However, even if Calman's recommendations were implemented before the Westminster election, it still couldn't prevent the election of a Conservative government if that were to be the way the polls went south of the border. In that event, the choice at a 2010 referendum or a 2011 Holyrood election would be between a Cameron government and all that might entail, or the chance to build a progressive, nuclear free and self-governing Scotland. For a lot of left-inclined voters, the prospect of independence could become quite a tempting choice.



And so expired my 5 minutes. Although it's familiar territory to anyone in Scotland, these aren't issues which get aired very often south of the border, and it was fantastic to get the chance to air them and to be open to question and challenge. A disproportionate number of those who argue for England to be governed differently define themselves by opposition to the EU, to immigration or the welfare state. If we are to achieve a new but importantly amicable constitutional settlement between Scotland and the rest of the UK, these are discussions which need to take place, and involve a lot more people.

Big thanks to Mark Perryman for making it all happen, and I look forward to getting the chance to do it all again with him at the SNP's London Branch meeting in August!

P.S. Soundbite of the day has to go to Caroline Lucas: “Tony Blair's big tent is well and truly over. Now we need a campsite of smaller tents."

Sunday, June 14, 2009

More London

Been down for the Compass conference, of which maybe more later. In the meantime...






Monday, June 08, 2009

The Euro Political Map

Last night was a late one for a Sunday, what with staying up for the Euro Elections and all. I'm really pleased to see the SNP topping the Scottish vote, although there's more than a twinge of regret that we didn't get Dr Aileen McLeod elected. Just another 5% would have done it, but nevertheless, the overall result goes to show that 2007 was no flash in the pan.

For Labour, it's the individual stories that are probably more damaging than the overall result: losing the popular vote in all but 3 Scottish council areas; beaten into 3rd place in the English popular vote; coming behind the Conservatives in Wales; finishing behind Mebyon Kernow in Cornwall; and (sadly) what became the story of the night - the BNP picking up a seat in the North west and another in Yorkshire and the Humber.

Anyway, numbers are all very well in charting an election, but here's how people voted in Scotland by local authority:


Incredibly, that's 3 Labour (they 'won' Fife by only 205 votes!), 3 Lib Dem, 4 Tory including East Renfrewshire (where the SNP came a close 2nd to push labour into 3rd - bye, Jim) and 22 SNP.


In Aberdeenshire, the SNP topped the poll comfortably (35%) with the Conservatives second (23%) and the Lib Dems trailing some way behind in third (14.5%). The SNP vote is up over 10% on 2004, with the Lib Dems down over 4%.

That's a 7.5% swing from Lib Dem to SNP since last time - a figure which given their poor showing last time in Banff & Buchan, is going to be even larger when applied to Gordon [declaring an interest...] and to West Aberdeenshire. Again, this suggests that our advances here in 2007 are not only solid, but are being built on.

The results from Aberdeen City were every bit as encouraging for the SNP:

Given that the Gordon Westminster seat has a fair chunk of Aberdeen North in it including Dyce and Bridge of Don, from my perspective, it's all good.

All told, it's hard to see any positives for Gordon Brown in this. As one backbencher said last night, their choice seems to be instant death in an election led by a new leader, or a slow death next June with Brown. Who'd want to take over if that were to be their fate?

Monday, June 01, 2009

Move Over, Darling

Apologies for the corny headline* – I just felt that while it's a gag that's been overused in the past, it's one we're about to see a fair bit of once the dust settles from the European Elections.

Alastair Darling is most high profile MP to date to be caught up in the firestorm over expenses. While the details of his claims needn't detain us here, let's have a quick look at the politics of the situation.

The member for Edinburgh South West (or Pentlands in old money) has, or rather had, a reputation as the safest pair of hands in the Labour Cabinet. While John Reid was the 'enforcer' of choice throughout the Blair years, it was Darling who was left to smooth ruffled feathers in departments and restore a bit of stability where previously there had been uproar.

Never ostentatious or attention seeking in manner, it was his advocate's mastery of the brief which was his strongest asset. Always ready to disarm an attack with a seemingly credible diversion, his could be made to sound like the voice of sweet reason. While John Reid was described once as having the knack for making any old cobblers sound plausible, Darling was the one who could sidetrack you into submission or spike your guns. Many a Conservative shadow was left bemused and befuddled by his deft footwork and seeming ability to dodge any political bullet headed his way.

Always close to Gordon Brown (they had both been around Edinburgh Labour politics for many years before either was elected), he was the natural choice to take over as Chancellor when Brown was elevated to the Premiership. He would even have been an outside bet to take over were Brown to have fallen under the proverbial number 38 bus. However, with the credit crunch and global crisis (it started in America, dontcha' know?), his star has been looking decidedly tarnished of late.




Of course, this isn't entirely fair. If the UK finds itself in straightened circumstances, it surely has a bit to do with the man who was Chancellor for a decade before him – for which step forward one Gordon Brown. As Chancellor, Brown made his own fiscal rules and bent them to suit, cutting down critics with staccato sten-gun volleys of statistics, aided by the covering fire of hear hears from braying backbenchers, most of whom, truth be told, didn't really have a clue what was going on at the Treasury. Nor did those backbenchers particularly care. Everything was fine – it must be true because Gordon says so. Record employment, stable finances, no more boom and bust, lowest mortgage rates for however many years blah blah blah... just so long as all the other parties were being held at bay, it was all good.

Except now they are not being held at bay. If the polls are to be believed, Labour faces a hammering at Thursday's Euro poll as voters seek to exact revenge on the government for the poor state of the economy and to show their disapproval for the expenses scandal. Brown has let it be known in advance that he will not step down as Prime Minister if the results are bad and, being realistic, it's hard to see who in Labour at Westminster might wish to step up to the plate in any case. Labour missed their chance to replace him last Autumn – with capital being made about his being a Prime Minister without the personal mandate of a general election victory, the prospects of Labour offering the country a second 'unelected' PM are slim. As such, the parliamentary infantry will remain bedraggled and demoralised by the prospect of almost certain defeat next year, while those in the bunker stay convinced that the non-existent battalions being pushed around their maps can be steeled once more to 'win the fight for Britain's Future'.

So, if Brown is to stay on, how does he convince us that there can be a new beginning under his watch? How can he show 'courage' and 'leadership' over expenses, while trying to make a symbolic break with the political past of which he is so much a part? More to the point, upon whom can he prevail to partake in a political 'Rite of Spring' to make the ultimate sacrifice for the greater good, in the hope that his blood fertilises the soil for a bountiful harvest nest year? Just as Norman Lamont served this purpose for John Major, step forward (or down) Alistair Darling.

It's a dirty business sometimes, and Lamont was hardly a placid presence for Major following his dismissal. As Jeremy Thorpe said of MacMillan after the 'night of the long knives': “Greater love hath no man than this – that he lay down his friends for his life.”

*UPDATE: Actually, I'm no longer sorry at all. Newsnight has just used a bit of 'Move Over Darling' as background music, with Paxo making use of the Thorpe quote in his link. If it's good enough for the BBC...

Thursday, May 21, 2009

One For The Connoisseur

As long-term readers will know, I'm a close observer of Lib Dem election literature. Not because of its quality so much as my having a morbid fascination with the low-grade cunning they use which no other party stoops anywhere close to - for example, claiming to have supported that which they haven't, the selective editing of newspaper quotes to imply endorsement, the transparent ruses of "many people have been saying..." etc etc.

Nowhere is this exhibited quite so brazenly as in the bar charts which they churn out, alongside the 'can't win here' arrow directed at those who are often in fact their nearest rivals. A particular favourite of mine was the one they had in Glenrothes, which actually used the result of the Dunfermline and West Fife contest! I can only imagine the squeals of outrage there'd have been in Lib Dem quarters if I'd decided to barchart the last Banff and Buchan result to indicate SNP momentum in Gordon...

Fortunately, thanks to Alex Salmond and Brian Adam representing every last square inch of the Gordon Westminster seat at Holyrood, that's not something the SNP would ever have to stoop to, even if we were of a mind to do so. It was therefore with some surprise that I saw the bar chart which the Gordon Lib Dems have opted to use on their literature to promote their Euro campaign:



Take a close look. The bar chart, perhaps understandably, refers to the last Westminster result rather than the more recent Holyrood results which if repeated, would also give the SNP a majority on the Gordon Westminster boundaries. The 'can't win here' tactic aimed at the SNP is therefore clearly rubbish. Nevertheless, even if this chart were an accurate reflection of the current state of play, it would still be completely irrelevant in an election which is being counted on a Scotland-wide basis.

Just take a look at the 'It's so close here' heading, though. Normally, the Lib Dems deploy this tactic alongside a chart which they've manipulated to show them within touching distance of those whom they are hoping to unseat. However, this one's above a chart which shows the Lib Dems outpolling their nearest chosen rivals by over 2:1!

While at one level it's interesting to see that they're trying to deny the fact that the SNP has improved its position in this part of Aberdeenshire considerably since 2005, there's a more subtle message in there. When they say 'it's so close here', what I suspect they really mean is that with Scotland seeing her number of MEPs reduced from 7 to 6, with their precarious position in the national polls it's touch and go as to whether the Lib Dems will manage to get an MEP elected from Scotland at all.

Whatever else you might be able to say about Lib Dem election literature, it is nearly always hallmarked by a clear message, whether it stands up to scrutiny or not. This one, on the other hand, tries to claim that those who are winning can't win, while pointing to a closeness which on their own terms of reference, simply doesn't exist.

Fail.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Mucking The Stables Out

So farewell then, Michael Martin. After a fevered build-up to his statement, it was done and dusted in less than a minute. The brevity and suddenness of his statement spared us, at least for the moment, from the glutinous, treacly tributes which politics tends to reserve for these occasions.

The charge sheet is well-rehearsed elsewhere. However, in his defence, Speaker Martin was generally fair to the minority parties in terms of giving them opportunities to speak in the chamber. He was also excellent at keeping order in the Chamber, letting the setpiece occasions flow with an easy, softly spoken humour.

Nevertheless, weaknesses were there to be seen. He relied heavily on the direction of his clerks during debates. It was noticeable that whenever complex bills were being discussed, it was his deputy, Sir Alan Hazlehurst, who was generally in the chair. And when it came to reform of the procedures of the House, he had become too much of an obstacle to ever credibly be part of the reforming process.

Usually a charming and courteous man, his uncharacteristically stinging rebuke to Kate Hoey last week appeared to galvanise opinion against him. Following his statement yesterday, the succession of MPs seemingly prepared to wound but not kill is what finally did for him.

The TV studios have been filled with ‘friends’ of Mr Martin over the past few days, throwing around accusations of class prejudice and sectarianism at those who failed to back him. This does him no service whatsoever. That goodwill has been exhausted has nothing to do with his not having gone to a fancy school. Quite simply, he had gained the confidence of the House after a shaky start, but went on to lose it through a series of poor decisions. That’s really all there is to it.

That said, the problems with Westminster expense claims didn’t start with Mr Martin, and nor will they disappear with his resignation. The advice offered to him regarding expenses was cross-party in nature (Labour, Lib Dem and Tory). It’s going to take more than a ceremonial beheading to calm people down after the scandal of ‘flipping’, and using expenses for moat cleaning and tennis court repairs.

The best thing which could happen now is for an independent audit of expense claims to take place, so that people can see objectively which claims are legitimate and which are not. ‘Flipping’ must be stopped – and consideration should be given to only allowing MPs in need of a second home in London to rent at the public expense rather than buy.

When the expenses scandal threatened to engulf the Scottish Parliament, George Reid took the problem by the scruff of the neck. Every receipt and claim was published – while it resulted in a few red faces and a couple of high profile casualties, the effect was salutary. Sunlight truly is the best disinfectant sometimes and not only were voters able to see that their MSPs were, on the whole, a pretty honest lot, the knowledge that each claim would be made public doubtless helped a few of the others to temper their desire for reimbursement.

There might be a few more high profile casualties yet before the system can be said to be clean. However, if MPs are going to be able to look voters in the eye in future and reassure them that the democratic system is sound, nothing less than full disclosure of expenses, as we have at Holyrood, will do. That desire for a clear-out might be tough on Michael Martin right now, but as a creation of the establishment, it’s perhaps to be expected that his position would ensure he was amongst the first to be swept away.