Thursday, March 26, 2009

Hauled Up By The Rector

The town I now call home has been in the news a bit of late. Ellon, or more accurately, the state of repair of its Academy, seems to have attracted the attentions of none other than Iain Gray, Leader of the Labour group in the Scottish Parliament, or if you prefer, ‘Leader of the largest parliamentary group not represented in the Scottish Government’, to give him his Sunday title.

There are a few issues on which Labour likes to claim a monopoly of concern, of which perhaps the most trumpeted yet least justified is education. In particular, during their time in office together with the Lib Dems, the number of schools being either built or refurbished became the statistic of choice to demonstrate just how much more they cared about Scotland's future than did anyone else.

A school which started life under a Labour led administration is a ‘Labour School’. Not an ordinary, common or garden ‘school’. Not even a ‘Labour/Lib Dem school’, but a ‘Labour School'. This delusional annexation of the public good for sectional interest has even led the party to claim that not a single school project has been initiated by the SNP since taking office.

In fact, something like £1bn of school projects have commenced since the SNP took power. Some, yes, will have had their genesis prior to the election, but the fact remains that just as new schemes are progressing, the monies to build those signed off by Labour are being found under the present administration. Much of this is financed through the conventional capital allowances of [shock, horror!] local authorities – in other words, the way we used to build schools before the false God of PPP/PFI came along to bamboozle the credulous and enrich the unscrupulous.

Although PPP was never ruled out by the Scottish Government as a means of financing projects, the fact that the liabilities are due to come back on balance sheet has removed any advantage which the initiative might ever have brought. The cost of capital under PPP was always excessive, and with the Westminster government now having to offer to bail out PPP projects thanks to the drying up of the capital markets, it’s pretty clear that as a funding mechanism, it’s dead in the present climate.

Anyway, to our tale. The present main building at Ellon Academy opened in 1979. It was cobbled together by the then Grampian Region based on what was an existing design for (I think) Dyce Academy, in order to meet the needs of what was, thanks to the oil boom, a rapidly expanding town.

The big problem was that it wasn’t only Ellon which was beginning to fill up with new houses and young families. The same was true of a swathe of East Aberdeenshire and it wasn’t long before the Academy had the highest school roll in Scotland, serving 22 ‘feeder’ primaries. This put a great deal of pressure on the building and temporary accommodation had to be provided for pupils – a situation which lasted until the new Meldrum Academy was opened, which allowed for numbers to ease somewhat in Ellon.

The nature of the school building and the heavy use to which it has been put over that time means it’s now nearing the end of its useful life. The signs of wear and tear are obvious as you walk around. Given the difficulties of refurbishment while the school is in use and the dubious value in any case of refurbishing the 1970’s main building, the need for a new school on a new site is obvious.

Aberdeenshire Council has now brought forward detailed proposals for a new Academy. Some £3m has been set aside for initial architectural works, and the new building, together with replacements for Kemnay Academy and Means Academy in Laurencekirk, will be funded out of the council’s capital budget.

From this, I hope I’ve been able to make it clear that although the present state of the Academy buildings is one which has built up over a considerable period of time, the wheels are now in motion for a new school to be built. Which makes it all the more surprising that Iain Gray should have chosen to use the school as a political football at FMQs recently.

After admitting that he didn’t know very much about Ellon, Gray chose to lambast the state of the school buildings, in a crude attempt to taint the Government in the constituency of the First Minister. There was, he told Parliament, a ‘plan to refurbish Ellon Academy under the previous Executive’.

This came as news to one Ellon resident – past Rector of the Academy, one-time Councillor and former member of the Education Committee, Alan Cameron. He wrote to Mr Gray last week, pointing out that not only were his claims that there were plans to refurbish the Academy under the previous administration completely untrue, but that it was only under the SNP government that any monies had been allocated towards replacing the school:

Dear Mr Gray

I note last week during First Minister’s Questions that when making comments about
Ellon Academy you claimed “a new school would have been built under the plans of the previous Labour-led Executive.”

This is completely untrue.

As you may be aware I served as Headteacher of
Ellon Academy between the years 1981 and 1996. I also served on the Education Committee of Aberdeenshire Council between 1999 and 2007 and am well aware of the need for a replacement school building.

I was extremely disappointed that Ellon Academy was not included in the Outline Business Case submitted to the Scottish Executive in December 2001.

In 2004/5 the school appeared on Aberdeenshire Council’s own list of 24 potential school projects they viewed as a priority. However, no funding was attached to this list and it is simply not credible to claim that “a new school would have been built”. In fact it was never on any Scottish Executive programme.

Indeed it is only under the SNP in Government that progress has been made. Aberdeenshire Council have confirmed that the first time any funds have been made available for the Ellon project is this year and they have identified £3.3million within their current Capital Plan for preparatory architectural works and site acquisition.

I’m sure you never knowingly misled Parliament and think it appropriate that you issue a public apology as soon as possible.

Yours sincerely

Alan Cameron

Gray decided to visit the Academy last Friday, and responded to Mr Cameron by repeating his fallacious claim that the Government hadn’t commissioned a single school since coming to office. However, although the present lack of a new building was the fault of the SNP, the fact that a new Academy hadn’t been built under eight years of Lib/Lab government was because “it was up to councils to prioritise and make up the programme which schools got built”.

Aha - so by Gray’s own admission, it was the council’s fault between 1999 and 2007 rather than the Lib/Lab government, but became the SNP Government’s fault instantly thereafter! But it gets better still, when Gray claimed that “if Labour was still in office there would have still been a programme with a level playing field and real progress could have been made building a new Ellon Academy.

So, in the space of a week, Gray has gone from saying there ‘would’ have been a new academy, to saying only that there ‘could’ have been a new academy – which as we all know there’s now going to be anyway. Which leaves us where, exactly?

Well, Ellon will in due course get a building which matches the ambitions of the pupils and teachers inside it, and not before time. However, it’s no thanks to Iain Gray, either in Government or in opposition. For him, this issue was never about Ellon Academy or the well being of the staff or the pupils - it was always about trying to score debating points against Alex Salmond at FMQs. In the end, he couldn’t even manage to do that bit right.

I've long suspected from his performances at First Minister's Questions that Gray is receiving some very poor advice from his backroom staff. Having made a complete fool of himself and likely very few friends on his daytrip, I suspect it’s the last that either Ellon or its Academy will be seeing of Mr Gray for quite some time.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Gordon SNP Facebook Group

It's been a week with too many distractions for blogging. However, just to reassure you that I've not been slacking in any way, here's a couple of links to show that my eye has simply been on some other more important things.

There'll be more from me on Labour's Ellon Academy related shenanigans later, but I've embargoed that post until the morning. In the meantime, please feel free to head over to my new-ish Facebook Group: Elect Richard as Gordon's Next MP. Sign up as a member, and you too can be in the vanguard of helping the SNP meet its 20 MP target :-)

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

The Scottish Play

Given that it's supposed to be all 'hands to the pump' in the present economic crisis, you have to admire the sheer chutzpah of Lib Dems in demanding that the SNP forget about independence, while seemingly talking of little else themselves.

The spin and the cycle can be summed up thusly: talk of constitutional change is bad right now if it concerns Independence, but is tickety-boo if it's concerned with 'further powers', whatever that means. Independence is a distraction in the present crisis; will put at risk recovery when it comes; and will be deemed pointless in an economic upswing which shows, we will be told, that Britain is working. In short, it's always going to be 'not the time' for any constitutional option which the Lib Dems decide they don't want the people to have their say on, in the vain hope that eventually, Independence will become the constitutional choice that dare not speak its name.

Genies and empty bottles spring to mind, almost as readily as does this little skit from Blackadder. Given the evident discomfort of the Lib Dem leadership to talk of referendums, I wonder if they go through a similar rigmarole each time the word is mentioned? I do hope so :-)

P.S. I admit I'm coming a little late to this, but in light of some of the present mince which there is about, I can't recommend this post from Julie Hepburn highly enough.

Friday, March 13, 2009


So... Sir Menzies launches some kind of setpiece attack about something or other, yet it's my old colleague Craig who tops the news after winning the Maryfield by-election in Dundee for the SNP...

Well done Craig ! :-)

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Those That Can

I was delighted to see one of my former Primary School teachers on Reporting Scotland this evening. Maureen Tremmel, or Mrs Tremmel as she always was to me, is now Headmistress at Gullane Primary, where pupils have just won a national cookery award.

To win, the pupils cooked, sourced and prepared a meal using local food, even visiting a local pig farm in the process to learn how to make sausages. All good stuff, and TV interest notwithstanding, just a little bit different, I'll bet, from how the same part of the curriculum will be taught elsewhere.

I encountered a few inspirational teachers along my way through school. Straight away, I can think of Mr Wood and Mrs Brydon, both Heads of the Music Department and Conductors of the school orchestra; Mr Tillie, the Head of Geography; Mr Savage, the Head Teacher of History, who would probably be quite chuffed to know that even though the timetable meant I had to drop his class in 3rd year, I still ended up with a degree in his subject; Mr Wilson and Miss Scotland in the English Department, and Mr Simpson in Physics - all of whom spurred me on in their own particular ways. However, I'd have no hesitation whatsoever in placing the redoubtable Mrs T, my teacher in primaries 6 and 7, right up there at the top.

Why? Simply, without a word of exaggeration, she is one of that rare breed who was born to teach young minds - really. She treated every one of her pupils, and I mean every one, like the individuals they were while brooking absolutely no nonsense whatsoever. She encouraged us to think in shades of grey, to challenge, to express ourselves, and once the work was done, invariably to her exacting high standards which could push you well beyond what was required just to simply 'get by', drew out hidden talents in us all by giving us the absolute freedom and trust to go and discover things for ourselves.

Maybe there was a touch of the Jean Brodies at work. You always felt special as part of her class – somehow trusted, mature, adult. Her confidence and presence rubbed off, helping turn us into the young adults we were inevitably going to become. And knowing the challenges that would come as we entered high school, no matter what the guidelines did or didn't say, she had the foresight and interest to encourage us to work ahead of the class as we felt able, so that we'd be as well prepared as possible academically for the jump that was to come.

Particularly, I remember the gentle nicknames, the obvious affection for all her pupils and interest in their lives outside school, the class debates, the time I was allowed to spend on art and music, the class trip over the water to Pittencrieff Park, the party the class organised for her in strictest secrecy before we left for high school... only in retrospect can I see that perhaps more than any other teacher I ever had, she epitomised that 'leading out' process of what is within, the very educto root from which we derive the word education itself.

Lots of people become teachers, most of them I'm pleased to say very good ones. However, there's precious few who have the sheer natural talent and obvious love of the job which Mrs Tremmel did. The very fact that the purple prose can still flow here, even after two decades have passed, might in some way serve as a testament to how fortunate I think the pupils and parents at Gullane are to have a teacher like her in their midst.

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Simmering Away

I've been trying to avoid commenting on matters financial of late. After all, who could not be chilled to the marrow, indeed disgusted to the very core of their being, at recent disclosures on remuneration? What could be more galling than seeing an individual who helped precipitate the collapse of some of our best known financial institutions being able to walk away with a gold-plated pension scheme, tacitly approved by government and bankrolled by the same taxpayers who will be left to sweep up the resulting economic carnage left in his wake?

It's absolutely disgusting, and frankly, no matter what the law says, someone should intervene to stop it. But that's probably enough for now about Gordon Brown's future pension arrangements. There's bigger issues to concern us, after all.

A post about the politics of the financial crisis has been brewing for a while, but every time I've sat down to do it, somehow I've just got so far and stopped. I think that's largely because I've found it hard to adequately express my distaste at the sheer neck demonstrated by senior figures in the Labour Party in pointing the finger of blame at everyone but themselves.

That's not to deny the trans-national nature of the present situation – far from it. However, with the whole 'it started in America' meme, alongside the depiction of Scotland and the so-called 'Arc of Insolvency' - effectively using British weakness and failure as a justification for the constitutional status quo - sometimes, there just isn't enough Brasso in the world to go around.

You can say what you like about Fred Goodwin and let's face it, many have done exactly that over the past week. However, there's something deeply hypocritical about the way Labour has tried to scapegoat bankers in general and Mr Goodwin in particular as a diversion from the bigger picture. After all, capital is amoral - in going on the acquisition trail and in lending freely in the mortgage and unsecured debt markets, bankers only did what they were allowed to get away with by the regulators.

During the resulting growth and profits spree, the Labour Government was happy to hoover up the corporation tax receipts. The consumer debt boom went on buying up imported goods and in fuelling an unsustainable housing bubble. Meanwhile, huge public spending increases seemed to disappear to little discernible effect, with billions squandered on the dripping roast of PFI.

Even before 1997, Labour was keen to get in with the City. In one of his first acts as Chancellor, Brown tore up the old model of discrete regulation by the Bank of England, only to replace it with prescriptive box-ticking and a glossy brochure industry. He crowed about new models of regulation and harangued others for not following suit. Sadly for us, Brown's 'light touch' also meant soft touch. With responsibilities blurred and with few having the understanding or the ability to adequately quantify risk, the dangers grew. Armed with the twin mantras that 'boom and bust' had been abolished and that we were only 'borrowing to invest', Broontania marched fearlessly toward the guns.

Ah, but Brown led the world in responding to the crisis, bleat the apologists. Even Paul Krugman entered the fray, much to the delight of the Brownies. Well sorry, but not even a Nobel Prize in economics offers a guarantee against talking nonsense periodically.

Let's examine the evidence - in response to the banking crisis, Brown had the opportunity to lead when Northern Rock failed. However, instead of allowing a private sector takeover by Lloyds TSB, Brown dithered for 6 months before opting for nationalisation, on the grounds that allowing for a takeover on a weekend was anti-competitive. Compare and contrast this with the swift and decisive manner in which the US Government allowed Bear Stearns to be taken over and through the swift recapitalisation of insurer AIG.

When it came to liquidity, the Bank of England reacted more slowly than the Fed or the ECB. In guaranteeing deposits, Gordon Brown trailed behind the much sneered at Irish. On stimulus, he was also well behind many other major economies, and as Eddie George says, Brown's earlier borrowing ultimately left little room for stimulus, with the eventual package representing 1% of GDP as opposed to the USA's 5%.

Brown's Labour has been behind the curve on every major response to the crisis, yet still the courtiers preen and posture in spite of this. While the Tories have been attacked with the idiotic 'do nothing' line in England, understandably, it's been the SNP which has born the brunt of Labour's ire in Scotland. After breaking their own call for unity late last year, they launched a series of attacks on the Scottish Government for not acting on matters where it has, by Labour’s own design, little powers anyway.

Whether it's spurious attacks on jobs or investment, the Labour line has been simple – just leave the complicated economy stuff to the big boys in London – they know what they're doing and anyway, youse could never afford a national debt like ours. Meanwhile, Labour's Scottish spokespeople exhibit prolier-than-thou cretinism, trying to associate real world experience outside politics with ideological unsoundness and the sort of cosiness with the financial sector which Brown himself was only too keen to cultivate over the previous 2 decades. Whether it's over paintings or political 'pedigree', the game has been, however implausible it appears in reality, to try and somehow pretend to be on the side of the people.

The less said about Iain Davidson's foray into the art world the better. However, with his acceptance speech as Leader of the Labour group in Holyrood, Ian Grey managed to make a life lived well sound less like a principled set of career choices in service of his fellow man, and more like an extended penance to exorcise repressed middle class guilt. It's like being back in the students union – an experience hardly dissipated by a Secretary of State and Holyrood party spinners steeped in the swamp of NUS/Labour Students politicking.

In the much-vaunted 'court of public opinion', the verdict is that Brown's is a government which has lost all direction or semblence of coherence. It is pitifully, woefully, even dangerously out of its depth. It is devoid of ideas, denuded of principle, absent even of endearing personalities. In Scotland, it has long since ceased to be a Labour party and is now simply the anti-SNP party, infected with the canker-ridden sourness of temper tantrums that flow from someone having ‘stolen’ their sweetie.

Somewhere in the 80's or 90's and we can no doubt all point to different dates or events, the Labour Party became solely about the pursuit and retention of power. Entrenched in swathes of Scotland on a minority share of the vote by the first past the post system, there was no competition to drive out the cliquishness, clannishness and petty rent seeking which came to scar it. Swept out of office in 2007 and with municipal power bases weakened by the plurality of PR, it found itself unable to distribute patronage as it once had.

Without economic credibility, Labour in England has lost its reason for being in power. Without power and patronage, Scottish Labour lost its reason for being a long time before.