Friday, November 30, 2007

Welcome To Scotland

I'm about to head off to Inverurie for a ceilidh and then to Huntly for a racenight - both in aid of funds for the SNP campaign in Gordon. However, arriving at Edinburgh Airport last night, it's impossible to describe how much my heart lifted not to be greeted by a braggart yet brittle hoarding proclaiming my arrival in 'The Best (small) Country in the World'.

'Welcome to Scotland. Edinburgh - Home of the Enlightenment' says all that needs to be said about your arrival in the capital, and beats any corporate slogan which the city has adopted for itself over the past two decades. Meanwhile, I defy anyone not to crack a smile at the Glasgow board pictured below:

Well, I defy almost everyone. Leave out the 'my six year old could do better' tendency who bump their gums at everything, and you're left with substantial critics like Anita Califano, a senior consultant with the 2012 London Olympics logo creator Wolff Olins, who opines "It all fails to convey the spirit of the place, the emotion. If the purpose of branding is to create an emotional connection, they're not doing that."

Y-e-e-e-s. I rest my case :-)

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Goodnight, Mr Bean

It's not often you get to see a government disintegrate before your very eyes, but it's happening now all right. To seek some parallels and also for a wee bit of light relief, I went trawling through the Hansard archives to find the debate which took place on 9th June 1993.

That was the day Norman Lamont resigned as Chancellor of the Exchequer, accusing John Major's Conservative government of being 'in office, but not in power'. Later in the day, Labour leader John Smith opened an Opposition Day debate which excoriated the Major government. Listing the government's failures, Smith opined that 'if we were to offer that tale of events to the BBC light entertainment department as a script for a programme, I think that the producers of "Yes, Minister" would have turned it down as hopelessly over the top. It might have even been too much for "Some Mothers Do 'Ave Them".

John Major as the Frank Spencer of British Politics? Cruel, maybe, but it stuck, and more importantly, set the tone for the remainder of his bedraggled, wretched, unlamented premiership. The question is, did Gordon Brown have his 'Frank Spencer' moment today at Prime Minister's Questions?

David Cameron's demolition was workmanlike and withering. "Aren't people rightly asking now, is this man simply not cut out for the job?", he asked. But while that might have been what everyone was thinking, it took the unlikely figure of Lib Dem stand-in Vince Cable to crystalise the image of Brown's bumbling inadequacy, when he noted "the Prime Minister's remarkable transformation in the last few weeks from Stalin to Mr Bean, creating chaos out of order rather than order out of chaos."

It's one thing to be criticised and heckled by your opponents - indeed, it's par for the course. When they all start laughing at you like that, though, you really are finished.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Labour General Secretary Resigns

A replacement spin doctor down; the replacement for the replacement exposed as having blasted his new bosses prior to his appointment; accused by 5 former Chiefs of Defence Staff of showing contempt for the armed forces; the Director of Public Prosecutions stating that a 28 day limit for the detention of terror suspects 'suited us quite nicely'; a run on a bank; the loss of 25m people's personal and bank details...

All bad enough. But now, we have the resignation of the Labour Party General Secretary, after having been exposed as accepting donations by proxy from a Tyneside property developer, so as to circumvent the rules which Labour had itself introduced to improve the transparency of political funding.

This isn't a 'Black Wednesday' for Gordon Brown - Black Wednesday was far less damaging. This is just a black month full stop; the point at which public opinion tips, perhaps irrepairably, against the government in Westminster. Prime Minister Cameron, anyone?

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Will Sentiment Endear It?

I went out twice this last week and met two different girls – let's call them Jenny and Louise. Jenny I met at a pub quiz and we started chatting after a friend and I had shoved our way into their team. After the friend had headed off, Jenny and I spent an hour flirting gently over what remained of the quiz. Then it suddenly started getting heated and serious.

Sadly, I mean in a political sense. What on earth was independence all about, she demanded? Weren't we all Brits together? Independence was all about borders and barbed wire, surely? What on earth did we want to cut ourselves off like that for? We had a Scottish Prime Minister for goodness sakes. Did we really dislike the English so much that we could no longer share a country with them?

Curses. And it had all been going so well, too.

Sensing there was no way to laugh this one off quickly and therefore resigned to a discussion about politics, I gave a quick rationale for the union as seen from 1707. The Scots wanted free trade, which was about to be denied them by the English and the Spanish, while the English wanted to secure their troublesome northern border against the threat of invasion from France. Leaving dynastic and religious concerns aside as most of us have, 300 years on, we were in a free trade block of over 500m peoples, with full access to global markets. The threat of a French invasion of England also seemed, well, remote these days, despite the fact that London can now be referred to with some accuracy as France's fourth largest city.

Over that time, Scotland had retained her unique legal, educational and ecclesiastical independence – institutions which for better or worse had shaped our country differently to the rest of the British archipelago. Scotland had always been administered differently, and as the scope of the state expanded, rather than incorporation, there was administrative devolution in 1885. The Scottish Parliament had brought proper parliamentary accountability to that administration. Accordingly, it was difficult for me to see why that administrative and political independence shouldn't also be extended to economic policy and international relations, especially when we can see on many issues that the opinions and interests of Scotland and England don't always coincide. In the end, Independence simply represented for me the single constitutional settlement superior to all others.

I appreciated that there were strong feelings, but that all my English friends and family members would still be there after independence, and my relationship with them unchanged. The economic, social and cultural links which we all valued were things which transcended politics anyway. Those which were worth preserving and which enjoyed public support would continue to thrive. Scots would still watch Wimbledon and Eastenders, and England would still be rubbish at football. For all that I had in common with folk from Wales, Northern Ireland or England, or for that matter Canada or the USA, Britishness really wasn't part of my identity, but if it could be said to be, it would be in the same sense that a Swede or a Norwegian was Scandinavian. Fundamentally, I was more concerned about the person you were than I was in where you were from.

And as for borders, Ireland had one of the most heavily policed and fortified land borders in Europe until the end of the troubles. Now, you can cross from one side to the other without even seeing a sign to tell you that you'd done so, other than to tell you you were now in Monaghan instead of Fermanagh, or Donegal rather than Tyrone. If we were 'all one people', did she feel the same sense of alienation about the existence of the Irish Republic? (No).

It's been pointed out before that all this dispassion and rationality sometimes makes Richard a very dull boy, but that's the way it is. I do get fired up emotionally and culturally about independence, but to be honest, that's never enough on its own – it's got to be both head and heart as far as I'm concerned. Anyway, this was logic in a head-on collision with feisty sentiment, and my argument did seem to placate her, but only slightly. It upset her that anyone could want independence, but I'd be lying if I denied that it upset me that my views on Independence (unexpressed all evening until that point, as it happened) had upset her.

As Walter Bagehot said of the mystique needed to sustain royalty, you do not let sunlight in upon magic. The same is true of the economic and constitutional arguments surrounding the union (at least it is if you are a unionist), for once you do, the internal contradictions of a state which has lost its reason for being become all too apparent.

Let's forget about the mad, the bad and the frankly dangerous to know (3rd article down). However poorly Gordon Brown may have articulated it in the past (2nd article down), for many people, there are huge emotional attachments to the idea of the union, even if not to the reality. Debating the economic and constitutional arguments might be all very well, but there's a sense almost of hurt building up in England that the Scots might be in some way about to reject them. Now that's no argument against independence, but it's one factor which nationalists would do well to try and ameliorate in whatever ways we can.

Anyway, I'll finish with Louise – a sociology student from London doing her dissertation on Scottish Nationalism. I'd been invited along by a mutual friend to their post-lecture drinks session as a 'primary source', if you like. Her choice of subject might have been unusual enough on its own, but when she outed herself as a supporter of independence, my curiosity was piqued – what on earth had prompted a London lass like her to give a moment's thought to Scottish Nationalism, far less to support it so strongly?

Her answer was poignant. Her father, who had passed away while she was very young, had been Scottish, and despite marrying a Londoner and bringing up his family in the city, had remained a passionate supporter of independence. She was proud of her heritage, and wanted to know more about the movement to understand a bit more about what had burned inside her father. We moved on to other subjects as the evening wore on, but her tale moved something inside even a cynic like me.

So, one for, one against, and in the end, I'm not sure how my reasons for supporting independence come close to matching the intensity, felt from different sides of the argument, by Louise and by Jenny. Ultimately, you can't let your future be governed by sentiment alone. Nonetheless, it's certainly a factor, and one we shouldn't discount, no matter what side of the debate or the border it comes from.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Move Over, Darling

So... 7.25m families - amounting to 25m individual personal records - have had their names, addresses, dates of birth, Child Benefit numbers, National Insurance numbers, and bank and building society account details lost in the post by HM Revenue and Customs.

Well, let's look on the bright side. At least it wasn't anything important like, ooh, the data for a National ID card that went walkies instead...

Monday, November 19, 2007

A 'Scottish Spring' In The Step.

The cause of Independence gained a new and very welcome convert over the weekend. Writing in the Scottish Edition of the Sunday Times, Gerry Hassan – a mainstay of Scottish Labour sympathising policy groups; leading thinker; political 'futurologist', and prolific writer and columnist - has thought the previously unthinkable and completed a personal intellectual journey from unionist to independista.

Wendy Alexander once said famously in an email to Jim Sillars that the Scottish Labour Party had not contributed a single idea to the wider Labour movement in over a century. Although that was maybe a bit harsh, there was still more than a grain of truth in the observation. However, if anyone could be said to be putting some intellectual meat on the bones of New Labour in Scotland, it was Hassan. Although he has not endorsed any other political party, for such a progressive and enlightened thinker who was so steeped in the Labour Party (he was a member for 24 years) to have rejected such a central plank of their orthodoxy and political platform, is nothing short of a hammer blow, not just to Wendy Alexander's remaining credibility, but more significantly to the credibility of the UK.

If the UK can no longer command the philosophical support of someone like Hassan, it really is endgame for the British state. Putting aside a lifetime of belief to embrace that which you previously opposed and doing so publicly takes a hell of a lot more intellectual and personal courage than most of us realise. So welcome, Gerry, and well done. Great to have you onboard at last :-)

(I typed out his ST article on my flight into Gatwick this morning. As such, any typos in what follows are most likely to be mine...)

Alex Salmond this week made the prediction that Scotland will be independent by 2017 and set out to woo the waverers he needs to achieve this. He has made these sort of predictions before, but this time things are different with the Scottish National Party (SNP) in power in Edinburgh and the Union slowly cracking up.

The argument for independence and the merits of the Union has been going on for centuries, and in contemporary times since the breakthrough of the SNP in the 1960s.

Scotland has changed dramatically and in many ways for the better, while England and the whole notion of the UK has changed for the worse. This is why I have finally come round to the view that independence is good for Scotland, the UK and internationally.

Scotland has gained a degree of self-government. Edinburgh has become a capital city with a purpose. The nation feels a more thriving, confident place. It is less white, and more at ease with diversity and multiculturalism. The arrival of an SNP administration has played a part in this change. It almost feels like a Scottish spring.

Given that many of the arguments for Scotland remaining in the union were based on finances alone, and on Scotland being incapable of governing itself, where do their proponents turn to now?

In reality, whether Scotland becomes independent or not has never been about the money. This has always been a smokescreen. It was always the case that if unionist politicians were to find that Scotland could be viable independently, they are not going to turn around and say they got their figures wrong and change their views.

The same is true of SNP politicians. If the Scottish structural deficit, post-independence, proved to be a chasm, they would not change their positions and settle for the union. It is also not about what happened in the past. The rights and wrongs of the 1707 should have little bearing on whether Scotland should be independent. Instead, we should be looking to the future.

It is striking that those who now make the case for independence are internationalist and outward-looking, whereas unionists tend to cling to British insularism and the politics of fear. It never used to be so. Nationalists used to invoke couthy, romantic notions of Scotland, while unionists felt the UK was the future. Unionists such as Gordon Brown and Douglas Alexander love to wax lyrically about the progressiveness and uniqueness of the United Kingdom. They talk of a land that is a great big melting pot of multiculturalism and international values and a force for good at home and abroad. This is the kind of British chauvinism which the Labour Party has bred since it was born, ignoring the other diverse countries in the world and turning a blind eye to how we look after our own people, let alone the consequences of how we act in the wider world.

One of the worst arguments made by unionists against Scottish Independence is to invoke the age of “globalisation” and “interdependence” and patronise nationalists with being out of time and out of tune with the modern world. This is a marvellously insular British argument that ignores what has happened beyond the shores of the UK.

The past decade and a half has seen an unprecedented springtime for national across Eastern Europe and Central Asia. From the Adriatic to the Baltic and Black Seas, an astonishing 23 new independent nations have come into being. Indeed, only days after the recent Scottish parliamentary elections, the small, former Yugoslav republic of Montenegro, which voted for independence in June 2006, became the 47th member state of the Council of Europe.

Small countries around the world and particularly in Europe, whether newly independent such as Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, or nations which became independent earlier in the 20th century, such as Ireland and Norway, have all managed to be successes, economically, socially and culturally. When unionists talk about these nations – and cite the Irish success story or what has happened in Estonia – they want to talk about every factor (church v state, public investment) bar one; the fact that they are independent.

Independence has had a significant impact in bringing about change in all these countries. It may have taken the Irish several decades to embark on the road to prosperity, but the Baltic nations and many others, starting from a more rocky place than Scotland have succeeded in the transition from being part of a transnational empire to independent states.

The road to independence is as much about culture and psyches as it is about economies. Independence provides the Scots with an opportunity to develop a new national narrative, a story which motivates and inspires us, and includes most elements of Scottish society, with a sense of purpose and mission.

This would be exciting and emboldening for most people in Scotland and not without some risk. However, the opportunities are so much more. Scottish independence would be good for Scotland, good for the United Kingdom, dealing a crucial blow to the deformed nature of Westminster and British politics, and good internationally, weakening the Atlanticist nature of British foreign policy.

I would like to contribute a small part to this.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Some Thoughts On The Budget

Well, this was the point where it was all supposed to fall apart for the SNP. The wheels would be off, the honeymoon would be over - this would be where the SNP would finally be exposed for the charlatans they really were. A nation which had elected the SNP in haste would thereafter be left to repent at leisure. Chaos would ensue, the government would fall, and after a rude interruption, LibLabbery would once more arise resurgent, ushering in the reign of Queen Wendy and a new era of perpetual peace and prosperity for her loyal subjects.

This budget should have happened at least a couple of months ago, but was delayed by the tardiness of what was then thought to be the pre-election Comprehensive Spending Review at Westminster. In the interim, there's been a bit of a vacuum politically - a phoney war if you will. So when the numbers were crunched post-CSR and it became clear that Scotland was in line for some of the lowest spending increases since the early 1980's, opposition parties were ready to leap like hungry hyenas on anything which suggested that the SNP manifesto might not be implemented in full.

In the end, the SNP has done better than most people, friend or foe, could have expected. Highlights include a deal with COSLA to recommend a council tax freeze and to advance policies on reducing class sizes in P1, 2 and 3; a cut in business rates, before their eventual abolition for businesses with a rateable value of under £8,000; prescription charges being abolished; and transport spending increasing to deliver much needed road and rail improvements around the country.

Of the pledges that had to be modified, I'd have liked to see student debt written off, but without the support of any other parties in the chamber to do this, it was always dead in the water. I am pleased though that tuition fees have finally gone, and that student grants will be reintroduced. And on police numbers, with something like 2,300 officers eligible to retire in the next 3 years and working practices which mean only 7.5% of officers are on patrol at any one point in time, any commitment to delivering 1,000 new officers (it was always more officers, incidentally) was always going to be meaningless without a focus on recruitment, retention and redeployment. That's what's now going to happen, and I find it hard to see how anyone could reasonably object, or think it desirable to continue with existing practices unreformed.

In the end, with his response, Iain Gray flopped for Labour, his turgid speech simply recycling the previous two months nonsense about sums not adding up and promises supposedly being broken. Nicol Stephen was even worse, saved from national ridicule only by some judicious BBC editing before his contribution was broadcast on the evening news. Andy Kerr shrieked and shouted when his turn came, in the process losing any vestige of gravitas he may once have carried as a former Health and Finance Minister. Meanwhile, south of the border, the commentariat seem unable to set these measures in any context other than a desire by the SNP to irritate our southern neighbours (eh?) who, as everyone knows, will be the ones picking up the tab (yeah, right - keep taking the tablets, boys and girls).

Anyway, now the process of scrutiny in committee begins. It used to be that Labour could damage the SNP simply by putting on their most serious faces and claiming that the sums didn't add up. Well, no more, and with former Minister Rhona Brankin MSP resorting to silly 'points of order' to try and score the points which her leader previously failed to score in the chamber, whatever shred of a scintilla of an iota of a smidgen of the plot which Labour may have retained, has now surely been lost.

This was a watershed. Labour, the Lib Dems and the Conservatives have the power to vote down this budget, but not to vote down the government (they need a 2/3rds majority to do that). However, if the budget is voted down leading to a vote of confidence, it would be very tempting for the SNP to vote themselves out of office and force an election. After the SNP showing that they can govern and put together a sensible budget which seeks savings, cuts taxes and delivers spending to where it is really needed, the unionist parties would really need to have overdosed on the bravery pills to want to face the country in the New Year.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Sent For Re-Education?

Spot the difference:

8:20 am: Labour Security Minister Admiral Lord West tells the BBC that when it comes to detention limits for terrorism suspects, he still needs "to be fully convinced that we absolutely need more than 28 days".

9:30 am: After a meeting with Gordon Brown following the above interview, Admiral Lord West seems to have been fully convinced, saying that: "I personally, absolutely believe that within the next two or three years we will require more than [28 days] for one of those complex plots".

Here's the transcript, courtesy of Gallery News, from this morning's Lobby Briefing. I don't envy the press officer trying to argue here that 2+2=5, that black is white and that the earth is in fact flat. Surely, though, this sort of bilge just demeans every intelligent adult?

The spokesman was asked, " Does the Prime Minister have full confidence in Security minister Lord West."

He replied, " Yes. I think Lord West's statement speaks for itself. It was necessary to ensure that his position was properly understood."

What had made him change his mind, he was asked.

" I am not sure he has changed his mind, " he replied. " There is no contradiction. Lord West has given his views quite clearly in the second statement. He said on radio that it was possible to build up a good case for extending the detention period beyond 28 days. That is Government policy as long as it is accompanied by stronger and tighter parliamentary and judicial oversight."

He was asked if the Prime Minister's 'powers of persuasion' had been employed in encouraging Lord West to issue the second statement. The spokesman replied, " Lord West made clear his potion in his second statement. I will let Lord West's words speak for themselves."

It was put to him that the way Lord West had been treated by the Government had 'destroyed his credibility'.

He replied, " I do not think that is the case."

He was asked if there were 'any induction courses' for ministers who were not formerly politicians.

The spokesman replied, " Lord West is a very experienced individual, a former First Sea Lord and a security expert. He has a lot of experience of speaking in public."

Were there any plans for Lord West to give further interviews today.

" Not that I am aware of, " he replied.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Galileo - Go Figure

I bought a satnav for the car last week. Nothing fancy, but as well as doing the whole showing you where you are thing, it gives you live traffic reports, speed camera alerts and works as a handsfree kit for your mobile into the bargain. In short, it's everything a parliamentary candidate could possibly want to help stay on route, on time and on the right side of the boys in blue.
Most impressive of all, though, is the accuracy. When GPS first came on the market, the signal was 'fudged' by the US military so that for civilian applications, you would only be able to tell where you were to within 100m or so. Now, thanks to the removal of this restriction and a correction system known as EGNOS, even cheapo units like mine can be accurate to within a couple of metres. While you still wouldn't use it to walk atop a narrow mountain ridge in the fog, as the blurb says, it does make GPS 'suitable for safety critical applications such as flying aircraft or navigating ships through narrow channels'.

Three cheers then, for the EU and the European Space Agency for developing this initiative? Well, yes and no. Not content with improving the existing, free GPS system to a level which would satisfy the most demanding non-military users, they seem intent on ploughing on with the Galileo project - a European Satnav system which would duplicate, in all but a few aspects, that which the self-same European agencies have now enabled GPS to do perfectly well.

Galileo was budgeted at a cost of €4bn (£2.7bn) as recently as May 2007, which, it was claimed, would have needed to come out of the public purse if the project were to go ahead at all. However, in a report published this morning by the House of Commons Transport Committee, the cost is now being put at €7.96bn (£5.5bn) to build and launch, with a total operating cost until 2033 of €14bn (£9.68bn).
Ouch - and all this, remember, for something which will only really do what with a few tweaks, we can already get GPS to do. But there's more - just flicking to page 11 of the report, we can see the Committee's lack of confidence even in this forecast, when they remark that:

"The estimated and outturn costs of the Galileo programme have increased at every stage of its history. We have no reason to believe that even the very substantial costs now estimated for the total programme bear any significant relationship to the likely outturn".

In fact, the report comes as close as anything I've ever seen to telling a Government to bail out of a project:

"The jury is out on the continued rationale for Galileo"; "The evidence provided by the Commission is scant, and gives no real thought to crucial risks and alternative options"; The history of the programme provides a textbook example of how not to run large scale infrastructure projects"; "British taxpayers will be paying around 17% of the cost of Galileo"; "The government must work to ensure that common sense and good governance are reinstated"; The time has come for the government to initiate a reappraisal of other large EU projects to ensure that the Galileo fiasco is not repeated elsewhere, outside the limelight".

And so say all of us. Lets be honest - private involvement in Galileo foundered because the sector thought the revenue forecasts over-optimistic and the risks too high. Even the likely public sector users of the system are showing little enthusiasm, as are the consumers already happy with their accurate to 2 metres GPS handsets.

Expect to hear, as with the EARL project and Edinburgh trams, that so much has already been spent that we have no choice but to continue with the project - the Magnus Magnusson defence of 'I've started so I'll finish', if you will. Well, as our Professor drummed into my accountancy class, sunk costs are exactly that - sunk, and shouldn't be considered when deciding whether or not something represents a worthwhile investment into the future.

The rest of the EU can do what it likes with this vanity project, but not a penny more of Scottish or British taxes should be spent on this folly.

Friday, November 09, 2007

Ya Beauty!

Fantastic news - Glasgow is to host the 2014 Commonwealth Games!

Since most of the facillities are already in place, hopefully we can focus on regeneration and on making these the best games yet. If it has the same effect on young folk as the 1986 games in Edinburgh had on my friends and I, it'll be worth every penny and more of the £288m cost.

Anyway, there'll be a few celebrations tonight, I'll wager. Today, we're all Weegies ;-)

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

A Friend Writes

Just had this email from a friend regarding this story on the London Olympics:

"£496m for what will, in the end, be a 25,000 seater stadium. I think Mad Vlad's plans for a £50m stand at Tynecastle appear to have been better thought through and costed than this.

"Here's my breakdown of how the new design will pan out: A sunken bowl - so the drainage will be rotten. 55,000 temporary seats - just like the wendy house behind the goal at Brockville? A roof that covers 2/3 of spectators - 1/3 not covered?? That's well designed forthe London weather. A curtain wrapped round the ground to offer extra protection i.e. a big bit of canvas. Catering and merchandising will be grouped into self-contained 'pod' structures - otherwise knows as burger vans...

"I hope those grannies in Scotland getting free prescriptions don't take any funding away from this masterpiece of design".

There's no answer to that, really...

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

How Do I Get In? Pass...

It's the state opening of Parliament today at Westminster, and the place is surrounded with a ring of barriers and heavily armed police. Which obviously meant that it was a good day for me to pick up my security pass for Holyrood on my way out of the house this morning, instead of my security pass for the House of Commons.


Sunday, November 04, 2007

The Huntly Hairst

I've just returned from spending the weekend in Huntly at the 'Hairst' - the town's Halloween celebrations. It began for me early on Saturday afternoon, wobbling through the town on a bike; continued with me watching Huntly hammer Fort William 8-1 in the Highland League later in the afternoon; before finishing up the evening in a giant 'strip the willow' in the town square to the sound of the Strathspey Fiddlers.

The bike episode was all part of the Huntly Food Trail, where I was part of a group which included local councillor Joanna Strathdee and the star of the event, TV cook Nell Nelson. Our tour took in the Strathbogie Bakery (tasting shortbread) Forbes Raeburn Butchers (haggis and a dram), Deans (more shortbread), Rizzas (ice cream), and Duncan Taylor & Co (even more whisky - it's a dirty job!). Anyway, it was a great event to promote the town and local business, and I look forward to being there again next year.

I'm back down the road again tomorrow. In the meantime, though, here's a shot of the River Don which I took on my way back south earlier tonight.

You don't really get a sense of it here, but as I came round the corner, it looked as if the river was flowing bright red. I probably just got there 5-10 minutes too late for my camera to be able to take a really stunning picture.

Thursday, November 01, 2007

Oops... He Did It Again!

Poor Alex Fergusson. After yesterday's pantomime in the Scottish Parliament, he's now managed to muck up something much more important - by miscalling the draw for the CIS Insurance Cup Semis.

Still, as a Stranraer supporter, he's probably not used to having been involved in the latter stages of too many football tournaments :-)


An interesting story reaches me regarding yesterday's statement at Holyrood, or rather the lack of one, on the SNP government's decision to end the 'right to buy' for tenants in new social housing. Incensed at the apparent 'leaking' of the announcement before it could be made in Parliament, Presiding Officer Alex Fergusson decided that Cabinet Secretary Nicola Sturgeon would no longer be allowed to make her statement, and that it would instead be taken as read.

While there's no doubt a debate to be had about how much information should be in the public domain before announcements are made to Parliament, whichever way you look at it, this was still a bit embarrassing for the SNP. Tut-tut, slap wrists, go and stand on the naughty step etc. But the best was yet to come.

It later emerged that Labour had issued a press release congratulating the Presiding Officer on taking up THEIR complaint (the implication being that the PO would not have acted without their intervention). But better still, had done so BEFORE the Presiding Officer had even made his ruling public, thus breaking the self-same principle of which they had already accused the SNP of breaking. When challenged on this by the SNPs Alex Neil, the PO apparently did not answer himself, but instead allowed Labour's Jackie Baillie to make a short statement masquerading as a Point of Order, which offered only a heavily qualified apology and threw more mud at the SNP.

Yes, someone on the SNP side probably overstepped the mark somewhere, but when you have the PO declaring that your opponents are, as they say, caught bang to rights (whether they really were or not), it takes a special type of incompetence to then land yourself in it like that. It looks like opposition is a role Labour is still having to learn.

UPDATE: The Official Report is now online. Jackie Baillie's histrionic self-justification needn't detain us, but I do want to draw your attention to David McLetchie's acid put-down of the Presiding Officer. Given what we now know about Ms Baillie's own discourtesy to Parliament and Fergusson's apparent reluctance to censure her for her troubles, it was a barb which he thoroughly deserved to receive.

Alex Neil (Central Scotland) (SNP): On a point of order, Presiding Officer. Can I draw your attention to a press release that was issued this afternoon by Labour in the Scottish Parliament? It was issued at nine minutes past one o'clock and was about your decision not to allow Nicola Sturgeon to make her statement on housing.

The press release states:

"Following representations from Labour's Business Manager Jackie Baillie MSP, the Presiding Officer has decided to cancel the Health Secretary's statement to Parliament."

Is it right, Presiding Officer, that the Labour Party should issue advance notice in that way, before you have had the opportunity to impart your decision to the full Parliament? Is it in order for anyone in this Parliament to try to give the impression that your decision is based on their representations rather than on your own independent powers of judgment?

The Presiding Officer (Alex Fergusson): Ms Baillie has indicated that she would like to respond to that. I think it is appropriate that she should do so.

Jackie Baillie (Dumbarton) (Lab): Thank you, Presiding Officer. I am sure that the chamber agrees that I would not—[Interruption.]

The Presiding Officer: Order. Please allow Ms Baillie the courtesy of listening to her response.

Jackie Baillie: I hope that the chamber agrees that I would not at any point want to be discourteous to the Parliament or, indeed, to the Presiding Officer. If that has been interpreted as being the case, it is a matter of personal regret. I would take full responsibility for the inadvertent release of a press statement in my name. I wish to make it absolutely clear to the chamber that, in line with the standing orders of the Parliament, the ultimate decision on whether the statement was heard was for the Presiding Officer, and for him alone.

I hope that members and you, Presiding Officer, recognise that I would not abuse this Parliament, unlike some others in the chamber. Frankly, despite Alex Neil's best attempt at smoke and mirrors, there is no getting away from the central reason behind your ruling today, Presiding Officer. That view is shared by all the parties in the chamber, bar one.

The Scottish National Party Government has been found out today. It has no regard for this chamber. It appears to have quite deliberately

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released information into the public domain before coming to the chamber. That, as you pointed out today, Presiding Officer, is indeed wholly unacceptable.

David McLetchie (Edinburgh Pentlands) (Con): Further to the point of order, Presiding Officer. I wonder whether, given that your statement was leaked in advance, you should have made it at all.

The Presiding Officer: I think it is best if this matter is left and we move on, but I will say just one thing: any suggestion that the ruling that I made earlier was in any way influenced by any other party is very wide of the mark. I think that we should move on to other business.