Sunday, November 30, 2008

A Pedant Writes

Courtesy (if that's the word) of Matt Wardman,I've just learned that an anagram of 'Scots and Independent' is 'Snide Pedant Contends'.

Heh, heh, heh. Love it :-)

Light Up Inverurie/St Andrews Day Parade

Not long back from the Light Up Inverurie event and the town's St Andrews Day Parade. After a day in the cold, it's nice to be home and sitting in front of a warm, glowing plasma screen. The Christmas lights, groups from the local music school, massed pipe bands, Christmas tree (switched on by local Olympian Hannah Miley) and fireworks spectacular made it a St Andrew's Day to remember. Here's a little montage, which I may add to later when I get the other pics...

Saturday, November 29, 2008


Just back from a week down south, of which maybe more later. In the meantime, here's the video produced for Scotland's 'Homecoming 2009' series of events.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Local News. For Local People.

I’m getting ready to head off to London tomorrow – an old uni pal’s birthday, a couple of days work, then a couple of days holiday to see other friends. I’ve remarked before about how it feels to be itinerant in a place where you were once before fixed. Since this will be my first visit south since moving to Aberdeenshire, I expect that a week of dodging between hotels and people’s spare rooms will prove to be very strange indeed.

Of course, the idea that you’re going to be living a permanently cosmopolitan and vibrant lifestyle in London soon runs into exactly the same constraints as it would anywhere else. The whirlwind impression of the place you would get from a weekend city-break packed with museums, Ferris wheels, musicals and nightclubs, must be set aside the need to manage your finances, do your shopping, clean the house and endure the drudge of the daily commute. Just like Edinburghers tend not to visit the Castle, Londoners aren’t living it up every night in the West End.

So, life in London can be every bit as mundane as it is everywhere else. And boy, is this mundanity reflected in the local TV news. Tedious Mayoral intrigue, murders in Peckham, tube delays, vapid Oxford Street vox pops, lost budgies in Brockley, the latest transfer news from Leyton Orient… all important to someone, no doubt, but still hardly at the cutting edge of anything much.

Frankly, any faux sophisticate who wants to criticise Reporting Scotland for being parochial should be made to watch a week of the London news - on loop. You’ll soon develop an appreciation for the job which BBC Scotland manages on fairly limited resources. Which brings me onto one of my favourite topics.

One of the rationales given by BBC Scotland Controller Ken McQuarrie for sidelining a ‘’Scottish 6’ was that the BBC was going to pursue more local news in Scotland, using the internet as a delivery vehicle. While BBC Scotland now has regional news pages within the Scottish news section of the BBC website, the intention was always to do more, in terms of providing professionally produced video content.

A worthy enough idea in itself, but hardly an answer to the shortcomings of the overall news coverage offered to Scottish viewers. After all, it’s not as if anyone sits at home saying ‘You know, all this duplication of Scottish stories and coverage about the English education minister getting slow hand clapped by the NUT is fine, but what would really make news relevant to me is being able to get vox pops from the folk in my local shopping centre’.

So, it was with great interest that I stumbled over this item, which seems to sound the death-knell for micro-local (if I can call it that) news coverage from the BBC. While the state of most local ITV newsrooms might be deplorable, I’m not convinced it’s the job of an already far superior BBC to further undermine their business model.

Of course, the Scottish Broadcasting Commission, in calling for a digital Scottish channel, has in many ways moved this whole debate on. There’s a strong argument that a distinct, Scottish-based public service broadcaster could provide at least some incentive for the best artistic talent to spend more time pursuing their craft in Scotland, instead of being always drawn to the bright lights of London. To me, that’s far more important from a creative, cultural and economic standpoint than any news bulletin, however it is packaged.

I’ve been quite impressed with BBC Alba since it began, despite not having a word of the language myself. Of course, some folks will never be able to get past the fact that it’s in a ‘foreign’ language, and will bump their gums about their hard earned tax dollars being squandered on such a frivolity. However, my tax dollars are spent on aspects of BBC output which have zero interest for me – Radio 1, for instance. Eastenders. Formula 1 racing. But I’m still glad these things are there for others.

Clearly, given current viewing figures, BBC Alba’s content has an appeal which transcends the language barrier. If that’s what can be done on what is, let’s face it, a shoestring budget, then an English language Scottish channel could be just the thing to dip in and dip out of.

I was sceptical about a Scottish Channel when the Commission first produced its report, since maybe unusually for a supporter of independence, I was quite happy for the BBC to continue as was, but with a fairer distribution of resources and a Scottish ‘6’. Nonetheless, a new channel would give us the option of doing so much more than simply giving a better integrated roundup of world events as they relate to Scotland.

I can hear the squeals of anguish already. However, thanks to the wonders of digital TV, it’s possible for me to watch the BBC News for Oxfordshire or the Channel Islands if I so desire, just as it’s possible for me to skip Newsnight Scotland and carry on watching the Brit version post-11pm (as I sometimes do). If there were a ‘Scottish 6’ on BBC Scotland, you could still, if delicate sensibilities were offended, watch the UK-wide version. No-one need ever know your sordid little secret :-)

However, this is a matter on which most unionist minds in Westminster and Holyrood are closed. Given Labour’s shameful bullying of the BBC both pre- and post-Hutton, short of an SNP landslide at the next election to provoke a wholesale buying-off of Scottish public opinion, I just don’t see it happening.

Still, with this report from the BBC Trust, yet another of the arguments mustered previously against a Scottish-produced evening bulletin has fallen. If it’s not going to happen on BBC 1, let’s see what a new Scottish channel, with all the other attendant benefits for cultural life, is able to do instead.

With 9% of licence fees coming from Scotland which has just 8.5% of the UK population, you’re already paying for it but not getting it. And if you want to stick with the conventional UK-wide content, then with digital switchover you’ll be able to do exactly that. It’s not as if anyone’s going to be jamming the signal at Berwick, after all.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

A Calman Influence

Sorry about the infrequent posts of late. Don't worry – I haven't caught the travel, quitting or simply taking a breather bugs like many other Scottish blogistas. I've actually been trying to get back to normal after several lost weekends in Glenrothes, restoring in the process a modicum of domestic order (Saturday long-lies, how I've missed you). That, and dipping into the recent submission of HM Government to the Calman Commission.

Calman was a response to the Scottish Government's 'National Conversation'. Initiated by Wendy Alexander, it represented a shift away from the 'no change' position on the constitution under which flag Labour sailed to defeat at the last election.

Regular readers are probably already aware of my scepticism towards Calman, and more casual surfers would probably be able to work it out in short order. Essentially, the Commission was based on the same ploy as the Constitutional Convention - exclude the SNP from the outset, and thereby some of the minds which have thought most deeply about how Scotland could be governed differently. Draw together a group of the politically reliable great and good, whom after weighty deliberation will come down for a suitably safe and minimalist solution, which will then be portrayed as a sensible consensus position with which only the fringes could possibly take issue.

Calman, which claims to be 'evidence based', will listen to any opinion unless it supports independence. However, constitutional arguments are based on principle foremost. Even if all the evidence gathered pointed to independence as the constitutional settlement superior to all others, they would in principal hold key powers back, because its participants have been chosen on the basis of being ideologically thirled to unionism come what may. In that respect, it's a contrasting approach to the Conversation in that subject to a referendum, the Conversation at least held out the possibility of navigating towards a settlement which fell short of Independence.

Surprise surprise, the HM Government submission states its belief that 'devolution within the Union is working well for Scotland'. Further, it believes that 'the Union benefits all parts of the United Kingdom'. We also 'benefit from a strong economy and share critical common interests, in respect of national integrity and security, in facing global challenges which are played out on an international stage'. Furthermore, with our 'strong set of shared values', we 'share in a British identity, represented by a common culture and institutions, which further serves to unite people across our historic nations'.

Stirring stuff. I'm not going to criticise these sentiments here in any way because for many, they will indeed be held deeply. It's hardly a surprise to find that the Labour Party in government continues to support the fundamental principals behind the Scotland Act which was amongst its first pieces of legislation in office. However, what I will criticise is the way in which what purports to be an impartial submission from government has been allowed to become an outlet for Labour Party point scoring.

Essentially, all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds, with the current settlement, if not quite perfect and holy in all ways, then pretty damn close. While there might be a prima facie case to consider, at the margins, some further executive devolution in the interests of sound government and administration, the case for re-opening the Scotland Act is as yet unproven. Although the time may be right to consider the successes of devolution to date, the climate for change is not opportune. There are a number of difficulties which must be overcome. Frankly, given the extensive nature of the powers already devolved, it is hard to see which further powers, if any, it would be desirable to transfer.

Sorry, I was paraphrasing there while half-watching an episode of 'Yes Minister' on DVD, but you get the drift. All this would be fine in itself – after all, as a nationalist, It'd be ludicrously easy to present my case for Independence against a backdrop of no change, rather than against a moveable feast of further devolution which would be trimmed in accordance to how big an electoral threat the SNP happened to be at the time. No, it's the political posturing which has been allowed to creep into a government document in which gets me.

What on earth has the future of council tax benefit following the introduction of a local income tax got to do with the possible reconfiguring of the constitutional settlement? Why are planning laws clearly devolved to Scotland being cited in connection with nuclear power? Is it because they might be used? Why is the Treasury talking of 'assigned revenues' – which would remove the stability of Barnett without replacing it with the benefits of fiscal powers – unless to hint that further change would be used to put Scotland at a disadvantage? And so on and so forth.

As you'd expect from Whitehall, it's a polished and unified presentation. Allied to the natural reluctance of the lesser spotted Permanent Secretary to lose any influence over his Bailiwick, I suspect the dead-hand of Scotland Office special advisers and their Scottish counterparts elsewhere in Whitehall, ensuring that the views of Gordon Brown prevail, not just on matters constitutional, but also to make further political points on issues largely unrelated.

I can certainly appreciate the artistry involved, if not the politics or the principle. Nevertheless, the interesting bit for me is how all this will play back amongst the devol-unionists in Scotland, whom you can split broadly into two categories – the tacticians, who only want to do what is absolutely necessary to blunt the SNP challenge, and the genuine devolvers, who think that granting further powers is the right thing to do irrespective as to how well the SNP performs.

Unloved in Downing Street from the outset, following Ms Alexander's fall from grace the Commission has lacked a patron. However, even if the Commission surprises us all and comes up with a substantial package of fiscal and political powers to transfer, the signs for success, if you define proposals turned into actions as success, seem limited.

Westminster is where the legislation has to take place. Clearly, there is scant appetite in government and amongst Labour MPs for further significant devolution. Also clear is the lack of influence which anyone in the Labour parliamentary group at Holyrood has over their Westminster counterparts. As such, what leverage will there be amongst participants to actually implement the proposals of the Commission if they turn out to go much beyond what this document seems prepared to concede?

If you only want to dish the nats, then that's something you can live with so long as they cease to be a political threat. However, it's unlikely to please Calman supporters whose leverage, on their own, is negligible. The greatest influence they have, if only they could realise it, comes from the prospects of further electoral success for the folks they were so determined to again exclude from the outset.

People have long known that you need to vote SNP to get independence, but what a bounteous electoral reward awaits if the penny drops that the route to a stronger parliament within a reformed union also lies with a strengthened SNP. It doesn't suit the occasionally tribal nature of Scottish politics to recognise, but there's much more common ground out there than many are prepared to admit. The next Westminster election could be about to get very interesting indeed...

Friday, November 07, 2008

'Roth Of The Gods

First of all, a very sleepy ‘congratulations’ to Scotland's newest MP, Lindsay Roy. With Labour having made great play throughout the campaign of Mr Roy not being a professional politician, the electorate delivered a cruel snub to Gordon Brown, deciding that it was time for a novice after all. I suspect that eventually, however, Mr Brown will perhaps find a way to overcome his grief and dejection...

There’s no getting away from it, this was a very good result for Labour. Even allowing for their deliberate spinning of expectations over the past few weeks, this was a win on a scale of which few of their number would have dared to contemplate.

I genuinely thought that the SNP was on course to win the seat, albeit not by much. After all, overturning a 10,500+ majority was always going to be a big ask. For that reason, I was wary of expectations running ahead of reality. After all, Fife is a very different kettle of fish to somewhere like Glasgow East.

For one thing, this time Labour took the precaution of selecting a candidate beforehand. Also, unlike in Glasgow, we weren’t dealing with a community which had a palpable set of grievances against Labour. Gordon Brown has had a much better press recently, and with a new leader at the helm in Holyrood, Wendy Alexander and her immediate memory no longer looms as a standing rebuke to humility and competence.

The by-election came about in tragic circumstances, rather than as a result of a sudden resignation under a cloud of murky financial dealings. Labour roots were also strong in parts of the constituency in ways that they simply weren’t in Glasgow East. As such, the conditions weren’t ripe for a big shift in allegiance as they were in Glasgow.

The SNP already represents tracts of the Glenrothes seat at Holyrood. Despite this, the swing to the SNP, at 5%, was relatively modest, despite the fact that the party’s vote went up by 13% to cut Labour’s majority in half. Given the differential turnout in parts of the seat, with areas where the SNP was expected to do well polling strongly while traditional areas of Labour strength stayed at around 40%, it's hard to avoid the conclusion that some complex factors were at work.

Of course, the temptation will be to say that Labour made a better job of getting out it’s vote than did the SNP. I have to say, I doubt it. The identified SNP support turned out and was motivated. On the eve of poll, I saw 2 Labour parliamentarians knocking on the doors of houses which already had Labour posters in the window, which hardly seemed the best use of their time. While I bet Labour had a general idea where their support might come from, I’m sceptical as to the extent they knew which individuals could be relied upon to turn out for them.

Did they manage to ‘re-activate’ dormant support? It’s possible, but a clue might be found in the squeeze which there was on the Lib Dem and Conservative vote, with both parties losing their deposits. I found very few people identifying themselves as Tories or Lib Dems, or for that matter people saying that they were switching from those parties to the SNP, at any point in the campaign. Could it be that some Lib Dem and Tory voters simply decided that on this occasion, they’d vote tactically and back Labour rather than an SNP which might have been doing just a little too well of late for their liking?

It’s been remarked upon already that Labour’s campaigning throughout was remorselessly negative. However, we knew it was happening, and the fact is, we should have been able to deal with it. Yes, we fought a positive campaign, highlighting the many good things which the SNP government has done for Fife, but it wasn’t enough.

When you look at it, you have to wonder how Labour managed to get any traction whatsoever over the issue of care charges. According to Audit Scotland, Labour’s stewardship of Fife Council had left finances in a ‘precarious’ situation. The previous administration had dodged the issue; the charges brought in by the new administration remain lower than those levied by many other Labour councils, and fewer people now pay than ever did before.

Nonetheless, they hammered it relentlessly and it took its toll. Incumbency is new territory for the SNP, and it’s clear that we haven’t quite yet got our heads round the idea of how to deal with being the front-runners. Better to have this exposed in a by-election now than in a wider contest later, but I can’t help but feel we need to develop a harder edge when it comes to dealing with these sorts of mendacious attack.

Lindsay Roy, by common consent, was a fairly poor performer in the hustings and the media. He failed to master his brief, even on care charges, and at one stage even blurted out on TV that he didn’t know what the Post Office Card Account was. However, that didn’t seem to matter to the voters, possibly because his local reputation preceded him. While I didn’t encounter him at all on the stump, he wouldn’t be the first candidate to have a completely different persona in the flesh to that which they enjoy on TV.

A widespread perception of being a decent guy, if you’re lucky enough to have such a thing attached to you, clearly counts for a lot more than a few woeful appearances on TV seen only by the already committed. It’s a timely lesson, perhaps, that the first rule of political punditry is never to assume that your perceptions will be the same as those of the electorate at large.

Anyway, there’ll be plenty time to reflect on what went well and what could have been done better in the days ahead. I have to say, I don’t buy the idea of Gordon Brown as saviour of the financial universe. While present turmoils may have driven some voters into the unfamiliar arms of Labour, his Norwegian-style (that’s 1990’s Norwegian style, before anyone kicks off again) taking of equity stakes in the banking system may not win him many bouquets in the long term.

Cutbacks, lay-offs, repossessions and increased charges, previously the responsibility of anonymous ‘fat cats’, will now be the responsibility of the Chancellor. In addition, I really can’t see how Brown, even with his dedicated band of cheerleaders, can seriously get away with the idea that everything which went well over the past decade was down to him and that everything which has gone wrong subsequently was down to regulatory failure in the US.

There’s a trail of debt and dodgy decisions leading back to Brown’s door, and I suspect that there’ll be a day of political reckoning for him yet to come. My own view of him is that he’s a bit like the fire-raiser who expects credit for dialling 999, after he’s already torched your house. While people aren’t making that judgement quite yet, it doesn’t mean that they won’t do so in future.

So, plenty to think about over the weekend. I’ve written before about how things might start to unravel for the SNP, and having read that piece again this morning, I think much of it remains apt. The SNP Government still remains popular, but there’s also a hard core of people out there who are not now nor will ever be reconciled to the idea of the SNP in office.

If you’re in a minority, just occasionally, the majority of others, united or otherwise, will be able to combine in such a way as to stop you in your tracks. Yesterday, I suspect if they didn’t already vote Labour, some of that hard core held their nose to do so. That section, who could probably still find fault in the SNP even if we suggested taking plenty of exercise and eating 5 portions of fruit and veg a day, aligned to those with traditional Labour loyalties and the more workaday concerns of floating voters which we were not successful in countering, were probably what kept corks in SNP champagne bottles last night.

However disappointed we might be, this one needs to be taken on the chin. I don’t like talking of honeymoons in politics, but it’s clear that the charmed existence which the SNP has enjoyed since 2007 is probably at an end. If that means an end to the hyperbolic trumpeting of every minor bump in the road as some kind of setback for the SNP, then that in itself is probably a good thing.

Monday, November 03, 2008

And now for something completely different

It was a busy weekend. After attending the dinner below on Friday evening, I was off to Glenrothes on Saturday. More accurately, I spent my day canvassing in Methil, fathoming the numbering system of a couple of the streets. Of the actual results I'll say nothing, other than that I was sorry to run out of time (and daylight), as I could quite happily have spent another couple of hours chapping doors :-)

Anyway, I had another early start on Sunday to head back north. The drive up the A9 was wonderful, and I only wish I'd stopped to get some pics of the autumnal trees and the snow-capped mountains. It'll probably only last another week or so before it takes on a more wintry look, so if you have the opportunity to take a look, do so.

I got to Huntly just after lunch to catch the tail end of the town's 'Hairst' festival. I had a blast there last year, ending the evening by dancing a 'Strip the Willow' in the square. This time, I went up to the Nordic Ski Centre, and had a shot at hurtling down the dry ski-slope in an inflatable:

All good, clean fun, and just a little bit different from the usual duties of a candidate!

Saturday, November 01, 2008

R B Farquhar Dinner

I was fortunate to be able to attend the RB Farquhar charity dinner last night in Aberdeen. This year, the dinner was in aid of CLAN, a cancer charity helping patients and their families in Aberdeen and the North of Scotland.

Just about every family will have been touched by cancer at some time, and mine is no exception. While the NHS does what it can, the support of the voluntary sector can be invaluable in helping not just the patient, but everyone else in the immediate family who is affected also, even if only to let you realise that you're not fighting it alone. The illness is often accompanied by job, money or family worries, and simply being able to offer counselling, support, a short break or accommodation to allow a friend or relative to accompany a patient while they are in Aberdeen for treatment, can boost morale at a time when feelings are often at their lowest ebb.

Even in these more difficult times, the auction on its own managed to raise well over £30,000. And in addition to the official entertainment, one hotel guest managed to drop in to offer a few words of support of his own:

All told, a great night in aid of a great cause.