Friday, October 26, 2007

The Most Expensive Weekend Of The Year

Has just started for me. Yes, folks, it's SNP conference time again, and the orgy of argument, agreement, eating out and drinking till all the hours discussing who's up and who's down, is now underway.

I flew up from London yesterday afternoon, arriving in Aviemore just in time to see Aberdeen lose to Panathanaikos. Anyway, things improved thereafter, as familiar face after familiar face burst through the door of the Cairngorm Hotel as the night wore on, turning it into a kind of 'This Is Your Life' occasion. Of course, for lots of us footsoldiers, the Conference is a big event in our lives. Quite apart from the politics, it's a chance to let your hair down a bit and catch up with the folk whom you haven't seen for months or even years.

There's over 1,000 delegates registered to attend this year, which has made getting a seat in the auditorium difficult. There's a couple of debates I want to speak in tomorrow, but before I can, I'll need to get hold of some of the Gordon Constituency representatives so that I can get registered as one of their delegates. There's also the North East reception tomorrow evening, at which myself and Banff & Buchan candidate Eilidh Whiteford are going to be saying a few words. An hour or two back at the hotel to gather my thoughts may be in order.

Anyway, there's more nonsense planned for this evening. A good dinner needs to be had (there's an extra hour to be had in the pub tonight, after all), and then I think it'll be back to the pub to chew over the day's events. I'm also told that there's a picture of myself and Alan Cochrane of the Daily Telegraph in conversation from last night, for which captions are now being solicited. The best one to date has been: 'At last, Cochrane meets someone more right-wing than he is'.

It did come from my good friend and Convener of our Trade Union Group, Chris Stephens, so these things are all relative... :-)

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

"Partisan Interest Above The Public Interest"

So, it's now official. Douglas Alexander has contrived to make a mess of 1) an election which did take place and 2) an election which didn't take place. Is there no beginning to this man's talents?

And as Secretary of State for International Development, he's also now the figurehead for this initiative. Heaven help us all.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Huntly, Harleys and the Perils of a Dual Mandate

I was at Harlaw Park in Inverurie on Saturday, home of the Locos, to watch the SFA Challenge Cup Final between Huntly and Deveronvale. My mission for the afternoon was to escort the First Minister, and to make sure that everything ran smoothly for him. Luckily, Locos had organised everything perfectly down to the very last detail, so all I had to do in the end was sit down and watch the game.

It did highlight the peril for Alex Salmond of having a dual Holyrood/Westminster mandate, though. Huntly is in his Gordon Constituency for Holyrood, but Deveronvale play out of his Banff and Buchan Westminster seat! I had no such qualms, though – Huntly play in the constituency I hope to represent after the next election, so as far as I was concerned, with no disrespect to the Vale, it was Huntly all the way.

And in the end, it was Huntly who triumphed after what was at times a hard fought but clean game. They took the lead early on, and to be honest seldom looked like losing it. They were first to just about every ball and just looked altogether more up for it throughout the game than did Deveronvale. Their spirit was epitomised with just minutes remaining by their striker, Keith Reid, who fearlessly went head to head with a centre-back twice his size for an aerial ball.

He came off worst in the clash of heads that followed and was unconscious by the time he hit the deck. We all started to fear the worst when he complained of neck pains after coming round. However, the news from the hospital later that evening seemed to be that apart from it having been a nasty clatter, there was no lasting damage done. I hope he gets to join the celebrations with his teammates sooner rather than later!

I spent Saturday night out in Huntly with local SNP Councillor Joanna Strathdee and her partner, Mike, watching the Rugby World Cup. To blow the cobwebs away the next day, we went out on their Harley Davidsons for a quick blast round the area. Sadly, I was a pillion passenger, since I've never quite got round to getting my full bike license. One of these days, though :-)

Anyway, I was back on the redeye on Monday morning for a full day’s work, then went off to Brixton Academy at night with my mate Rich and his girlfriend Nicola to see The Bloodhound Gang and Bowling For Soup. I’ve also been offered tickets to go and see Runrig tonight at Shepherd’s Bush Empire. Tough choice - concert or hot bath and collapsing in front of the telly? Normally, Runrig would win out of the park, but unless I go home first, I’d have to go in a suit. And it’s going to be a heavy week anyway, what with the whisky olympics SNP Conference being held in Aviemore…

Social events. Like busses, sometimes.

Tech Problems

The more observant may have noticed that I changed the domain name for this blog a couple of weeks or so ago. I annexed as my own little bit of cyberspace a few years ago, and after Blogger introduced a feature to let you use your own domain, that's what I decided to do with it.

Unfortunately, at some point on Friday/over the weekend, the domain seemed to crash. I haven't had time to investigate properly yet (I suspect the host – everything that goes wrong with it is nearly always their fault), so in the meantime, the old url is back up and running.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Wrong Korea Move

Oh dear. No sooner had Alex Salmond suggested that the Scottish Government should seek observer status in the nuclear non-proliferation treaty talks scheduled for next spring, and Pavlov's dog, AKA David Cairns, started yapping:

"Another week, another conflict. Alex Salmond prefers posturing on the world stage to delivering on bread-and-butter issues. He should be funding 1,000 extra police officers and sorting out the mess over free personal care. Instead he seeks to cavort across the world stage with his discredited looney left policies."

Yes, David. Nuclear disarmament will be the same 'discredited, looney left policy' to which your party membership commits itself every time it gets the chance; which is supported by a majority of your party's Scottish MPs and MSPs; which is supported by a majority of Scots and which is also supported by the Catholic Church. You know, the church in which you were once ordained as a priest...

But I wonder who the 'Scottish Office source' could be, who offered the following asinine comment: "For Alex Salmond to seek an alliance with Iran and South Korea is an unpardonable folly".

Yes, yes. I know they meant North Korea. But it seems that in this instance, the knee jerked so violently that the Labour source who didn't want to be named managed to injure themself instead of the SNP. I've heard of people making wrong Korea moves, but honestly... :-)

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

A Patsy – And Everyone Kens It

It’s not been a good week for the Lib Dems, but spare a thought for their Orkney and Shetland MP, Alasdair Carmichael. On Monday afternoon, his party leader Menzies Campbell decided to call it quits. Later that evening, Carmichael was to be found snarling and spluttering his way through a Newsnight Scotland interview, lashing out left right and centre at those whom he deemed responsible for the end of Ming’s Dynasty.

His repeated shouting down of presenter Glenn Campbell was inexplicable. However, most extraordinary of all was his attack on fellow interviewee, Scottish Editor of The Times, Magnus Linklater, whom he accused personally of undermining Campbell on the grounds of age – an utterly risible suggestion given Linklater’s own vintage, well-known Lib Dem sympathies and long-standing personal friendship with, er, Menzies Campbell!

However, there’s another story involving Carmichael, this time relating to Foot and Mouth which emerged only late last night. As such, it is not covered very extensively in today’s papers, so please bear with me, while I set out the background:

On 10 October, given the plight of Scotland’s ‘light lambs’ following the foot and mouth movement restrictions, the Lib Dems were urging Scottish Ministers to ‘stand up for Scottish farmers’. When First Minister Alex Salmond did exactly that, revealing that an £8.1m compensation package intended for Scottish farmers had been withdrawn by Westminster over the weekend, the Lib Dems then complained that the SNP government was ‘grandstanding’, and that by publicising Westminster’s change of heart, what they were doing could only ‘harm government links’.

You can see how the Lib Dems were hoping that this story would pan out: ‘Typical SNP, always picking fights with Westminster for their own partisan ends… only the Lib Dems can be trusted to….. blah, blah, blah’. So to try and reinforce the point, Carmichael decided to arrange and put himself at the head of a cross-party and farmers’ delegation to Hilary Benn and DEFRA, which would ‘repair the damage done by the SNP in Edinburgh, and bring about an early resolution of this critical issue, which will benefit Scotland’s crofters and farmers’.

His initiative was greeted enthusiastically by a Labour Party feeling the heat over the SNP’s refusal to cover up a blatant attempt at electoral bribery. In particular, it was embraced by Scottish Secretary Des Browne, who went out of his way to reciprocate the love-in at Scottish Questions yesterday. It was all set up - the SNP would be made to look like constitutional wreckers, while the Lib Dems would be allowed to pose as an effective voice of reason, and would come away with some beads and knives for their trouble.

What a shame, then, that no-one told Agriculture Minister Hilary Benn, who according to James Withers, the Deputy Chief Exec of the National Farmers Union Scotland, told the delegation that the problem facing farmers north of the border was "not big enough" to merit any compensation, and effectively “washed his hands” of the problem. As one MP allegedly put it to Benn during the meeting, “As a unionist, you’re not leaving me with much”. But really, what more did they expect?

So, despite all the posturing and politicking, Carmichael too has been told to get lost by Westminster. The difference is that Carmichael and his party, through their naivety and willingness to grandstand against the Edinburgh Government, have shown that when it comes to a choice between standing up for farmers, or standing up for Labour, their priorities certainly aren’t with the farmers.

So – leaderless, directionless, guileless… the charge sheet just keeps growing. Meanwhile, Scotland is kept waiting for Westminster to face up to its constitutional responsibility to offer compensation. Having walked away from government in Edinburgh and Cardiff, after the events of the last week it seems that the Lib Dems are walking towards irrelevance at Westminster as well. Really, what purpose do they serve any more?

Monday, October 15, 2007

Menzies Campbell Statement

Rumours sweeping Westminster that there's to be a statement in the hour about Menzies Campbell's future as Lib Dem Leader. More soon.

UPDATE 18.35: He's gone. And the press conference is being led by Simon Hughes and Vince Cable, who is to act as interim leader. The process for electing a new leader will be announced tomorrow.

Both have just exited stage left, refusing to answer questions of "Did you wield the dagger?". Given Campbell's role in Charles Kennedy's eventual departure as Lib Dem leader, it reinforces the proverb that 'you can build a throne of bayonets, but you can't sit on it for long'.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Scotland v Ukraine - first two goals

Had to be done :-)

Scotland - Ukraine 3:1 McFadden goal

Again, had to be done :-)

"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?

Sunday, October 07, 2007

A Gordon For Me...

After a week of keeping things under wraps, in finest Gerry McNee fashion, I can now exclusively reveal that I've been selected as the SNP Westminster candidate for Gordon. Of course, Gordon just happens to be the seat held at Holyrood by a certain Alex Salmond. So no pressure, then :-)

Needless to say, I'm delighted. Although I was born in Edinburgh, my family on my mother's side are all from Aberdeenshire, and my grandparents still farm near Strichen. Although that's a wee bit further up, there's still a nice sense of symmetry in a member of the family heading back north, which runs against the grain of recent years.

I was in Inverurie on Friday night for a double celebration - the opening of Alex Salmond's new constituency office, and my formal unveiling as the SNP candidate. We managed to fill the local Catholic Church Hall, and in a display of political ecumenicalism, the hall was packed with well-wishers, of all parties and none and from all parts of the constituency. It was made all the more vibrant and successful by the large number of under-20s who made it along too, although the presence of the superb local band 'Rock and Reel' may have been a contributory factor there :-)

Anyway, it's back to London this week to sort out some affairs, and for the Comprehensive Spending Review and Pre Budget Report, both brought forward for the election that is now not to be. After stoking expectation of an election, Brown and his representatives on earth have left themselves looking utterly ridiculous, handing in the process the Conservatives in England a credibility which they probably didn't deserve. After all, if your reason for contemplating an election is because you think you'll win, there's only one possible conclusion to draw when you then pull back from the brink.

Once again, it seems that where our Prime Minister is concerned, his indecision is final. Anyway, whichever comes first - Brown regaining his bottle or his running out of time in office, on the strength of this weekend's efforts, I know our team in Gordon will be up for it.

(Pic by Andrew Mckay)

Friday, October 05, 2007

I am 1

Hard to believe, I know, but 'Scots and Independent' celebrates its first birthday today. Yes indeedy, together with fellow 'Nat Pack' bloggers Tartan Hero, Davie Hutchison, and Mark McDonald, I've now been ploughing this online furrow for a whole year.

I have to confess, the blog very nearly didn't make it out of the maternity ward. Although I'd been writing for the 'Scots Independent' newspaper and associated 'Flag In The Wind' website for a good few years beforehand, I'd always managed to resist the temptations of blogging, probably because when I'd first had the concept explained to me years before, it had been as an online diary. Which I suppose, in a way it really is, or at least is if you want it to be.

Frankly, it all seemed a bit voyeuristic and self indulgent. So when an SNP press officer badgered me to do a short blog for last year's SNP Conference in Perth, it was my intention to do it as a sort of 'conference diary' type of thing for the duration, before stopping again as quickly as I'd started and getting back to the real world.

But something strange happened. I started to read and leave comments on other blogs. People started to reciprocate. I found that I actually quite enjoyed being able to rattle out a couple of hundred words whenever I felt like it, on whatever I felt like discussing, instead of turning it into 850 words of highly polished prose complete with sub-headings and text-breaks. And so, I kept on going. And despite a bout of writers block for a few days round Christmas, I've managed to keep things going with a post every couple of days or so pretty much ever since.

Although the main theme here is clearly politics, after getting past the 'conference diary' thing, I didn't really have much of an idea of how it should develop, so just left the blog to take on whatever character eventually emerged. That said, blogging as someone who works for politicians has left me treading a fine line sometimes.

I freely admit that I don't always commit to HTML every thought that crosses my mind, and I sometimes have to pull my punches a bit, not least because since I put a name to everything I do, it could therefore be used to damage those who employ me. Accordingly, the catharsis of occasionally being able to really let rip, sadly, can never be mine, at least not here. You'll just have to buy me a pint and wind me up in the pub instead if you want the benefit of more trenchant commentary.

Equally, I didn't want to end up with some sanitised piece of relentlessly on-message nonsense - some intellectual cyber-morgue which had no higher ambition than to simply regurgitate party press releases. For that reason, I've tried to share ideas, thoughts, virals and the like, which either interest or amuse me, while trying not to be too partisan (well OK, maybe just a wee bit!) in the process. While the result has been a bit untidy and eclectic at times, hopefully, like its author strives to, it's managed to be serious when needed, but without ever taking itself too seriously.

Anyway, if the SNP conference hadn't been put back until later this month, the aforementioned 'Nat Pack' could have been supping pints tonight to toast a year of keyboard-bashing. As it is, we'll just have to wait until later in the month. In the meantime, a big thank you to everyone who either links, comments, or reads what appears here. Without your feedback, the blogosphere would be pretty lonely, and not nearly such a fun place to be. Cheers!

Thursday, October 04, 2007

SNP & Labour 'Neck And Neck' For Westminster

Thanks to a tip off from a commenter on another post (Cheers, Tom), I've been alerted to the Scottish sample of a Channel 4/YouGov poll which makes for very interesting reading. Usual disclaimers apply re sample sizes, but with the Scottish sample putting Labour on 38%, the Tories on 14%, the Lib Dems on just 9% and the 'others' (it's a UK poll...) on 39%, it can't fail to furrow Brown's brow as he contemplates an election this weekend.

The UK figures don't make much better reading, with Labour on 40, the Tories on 36 and the Lib Dems on 13. Meanwhile, another poll for The Times has Labour on 39 - down 2; The Tories on 36 per cent - up five; and the Lib Dems on 15 per cent- down two.

Fair do's, as dougthedug points out straight after, Scotland might not be crucial to Brown's calculations. But taken with a swing back to the Tories in England over the conference season and seemingly unstoppable momentum building for an election, it looks like the best Brown can hope for is to scrape home on a reduced majority. Ah, well - you reap what you sow :-)

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

A Dave New World?

Well, first things first. Despite the lack of raised voices or blood on the carpet, as a conference speech, it wasn’t bad at all. Comparatively few digs at the opposition, some well-judged bits of tummy-tickling for the delegates… if anything, this was the ‘quiet man’ speech, that Ian Duncan Smith wanted to but failed to deliver.

This was all ‘Trust the People Dave’ comparing himself against Brown the meddling micro-manager. It was mercifully shorn of the revivalist hyperbole that scarred the Prime Minister’s address to the Labour conference last week. But Dave does buzz-words too… I counted at least 40 references to ‘change’, 20 ‘freedoms’ (Mel Gibson would be proud), and 10 mentions each for ‘responsibility’ and ‘family’. Even the references to restricting immigration and pulling out of the European Convention on Human Rights were couched in such a way as to appeal to the faithful, without alienating swing voters.

There were 4 ‘It’s time’s (the SNP creative team will be having him electronically tagged for that). Also, which was it? A ‘new world of freedom’, or a ‘new world of insecurity’? And what to make of the double use of ‘You can get it if you really want’ towards the end? Is he a closet Jimmy Cliff fan? Or is his confidence such that he really does believe that the harder they come, the harder they fall?

So what was there for Scotland? Not a lot. Apart from mocking briefly Gordon Brown’s pronunciation of Bournemouth, Scotland didn’t rate a single mention. Nothing on how the Tories might react to the ‘English question’. Further powers, freedoms, responsibilities – all to be entrusted to the lowliest English local authority, but not, apparently, to Holyrood. But then again, as we all know, with just one MP north of the border, it’s not Scotland he needs to win if he’s to become Prime Minister.

Anyway, the coverage tomorrow will mostly be concerned with one thing – does this make it more or less likely that Brown will call an election? Up until last week, I was prepared to say that he wouldn’t go for it – that it was a ploy to discomfit the Tories and nothing more. Not now – Brown would probably edge it over Cameron right now for the affections of Mr & Mrs Middle England, but on the strength of today’s performance from Cameron, I can’t see that position surviving indefinitely.

I heard the analogy used at the weekend that Brown was now like the pilot who was half way down the runway, whom if he didn’t take off, was going to be in considerable difficulties. It’s certainly better than comparing him to the ‘Grand Old Duke of York’. But then, once they were neither up nor down, didn’t they all sing ‘Rule Britannia’ afterwards? The Prime Minister might actually quite like that idea, now I think about it.

The Last King Of Britain?

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Filler, Not Killer

This is something of a filler post - the last few days have been pretty busy, and I expect the next few to be as well. For the moment, then, I'll confine myself to congratulating Rangers on tonight turning in, even if it wasn't always pretty, what must be one of the most effective performances by a Scottish team away from home in Europe in quite some time.

Best of all, being in Scotland this week, I could watch it live, and with Arsenal winning too, I'll have some happy housemates into the bargain. If
Aberdeen manage not to lose to Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk on Thursday in the UEFA Cup, then all will be right with the world, at least in a footballing sense, anyway.

As I said, I'm in Scotland this week, so I'm returning to the pleasures of working remotely - have laptop, will travel - sort of thing. Still, having managed to set up my folks' new broadband connection a couple of days ago, that opens up a few more possibilities. They come back from holiday tomorrow afternoon, so they'll no doubt be getting the tutorial once the video camera gets put away :-)