Monday, December 20, 2010

"Of Course, They Know They Can Trust Us Not To Be Really Impartial"

The above is a quote from Lord Reith, who wrote those words in his diary following the decision by the Cabinet not to take control over the Corporation during the 1926 General Strike. In light of some of the bare-faced faleshoods perpetuated by the Corporation's Scottish outpost over weather and tax powers, as well as the belligerence of certain presenters when confronted with the existence of SNP Ministers, little seems to change.

The piece below is due to appear shortly in the Scots Independent. As the noise against the SNP reaches a shrillness unparallelled since Gordon Brown's baseball-bat approach of 1999, it's time to start returning a few of these serves with interest...

Winter's Here – So Let's Get The Gloves Off

Summer, according to the Rolling Stones, was the time for fighting in the streets. Clearly no-one had bothered to share this information with the student demonstrators in sleepy London town just before Christmas, as a minority opted to vent their anger by rioting against the coalition government's plans to lift the cap on tuition fees in England's universities.

As the debris is cleared up and a winter of discontent falls upon us as surely as snow which the BBC fails to forecast, the time is right for the SNP to get the gloves off. For make no mistake, a thoroughly competent and responsible SNP Government which has played scrupulously by the rules since coming to office, needs to start punching back hard against a political and media establishment which seems willing to stoop to any level of misinformation in order to try and discredit it.

In all the talk of enhanced powers for Holyrood, who amongst us knew that weather and the freezing point of salted water had been secretly devolved to become the responsibility of the Scottish Government? The ministerial demise of Stewart Stevenson, together with the nonsense over the readiness of Holyrood's pocket money tax powers which no-one planned to use, has given us an object lesson, as if any were needed, in the willingness of the Holyrood opposition and the Westminster government to grandstand when it suits.

All's fair in love and politics, though, and thanks to the talents of the SNP ministerial team, navigating the choppy waters of minority government has been made to look rather easier at times than it actually is. The opposition has, of course, always been able to bring proceedings to a grinding halt whenever they wanted. Increasingly, the temptation will be, as over minimum alcohol pricing, to try and do the same in the remainder of this parliamentary session, trying to claim as many apologies and ministerial scalps as they can along the way, whether justified or not.

The overhet nonsense over Holyrood's useless tax powers, just as with the Megrahi release, allowed the opposition to pull together motions compiling a list of grievances against the government, while declining to put forward the alternative proposals which would have surely fractured their little coalitions of convenience. Parliament can unite to pass a motion declaring the moon is made of cream cheese if it so desires. It doesn't make it so, yet the resulting fall out from these occasions generates headlines for days afterwards, which our friends in the media are then only too happy to try and draw wider inferences from.

The election will be won outside parliament, but it can certainly be lost in the television studios. The ridiculous slant of certain BBC Scotland presenters over the weather was as nothing compared to their partisan fanning of the flames over the 'lapsing' of the tax powers. No thanks to the BBC, we now know that the powers had been mothballed by the previous Lib/Lab coalition, long before the SNP took office. We also know that the Secretary of State for Scotland was on maneuvers, as he tried in vain to cut the feet from the SNP critique of the inadequate Calman tax proposals, while attempting to circumvent long-standing Treasury funding statements to leave Holyrood with the bill for paying to administer them.

However, the willingness of an obedient BBC Scotland to run after this particular stick the instant that Moore bellowed 'fetch!', ought to give any remaining supporters of the licence fee pause for thought about whether the Corporation can any longer be trusted to report impartially. Mike Russell's recent demolition of Gordon Brewer on Newsnight had nationalists cheering into their cocoa - we need to see more of this in the weeks and months ahead, and to tackle square-on the confrontational approach and apparent determination of certain programmes not to give the SNP position a fair crack of the whip.

The opposition, as well as the BBC, is in danger of crossing a line in public credibility. Whether over Megrahi, tax powers which no party intended to use and which are soon for the chop anyway, or indeed the weather, voters can spot nonsense and opportunism a mile off. As they decide who to praise and who to blame in May, we need to be making our case vigourously, without giving any of the quarter that our opponents are clearly not prepared to give to us.

As well as robustly defending our positives, the SNP also needs to rediscover the ability to showcase the paucity of its opponents. Writing of First Minister's Questions recently in The Herald, Rab McNeil put it superbly in describing the way Labour members conduct themselves: “Every week, starey-eyed, purple-faced, vein-straining hatred abounds.” And that's before you even consider averting your gaze from the supposed better performers on Labour's front bench to what lies beyond.

The SNP government has a great story to tell about how it has protected services and prioritised public investment in the face of deep Westminster cuts. However, a record of competence and mild-mannered pointing out of the error of the ways of others will not be enough to defend this against a sea of belligerence, feral opportunism and lack-wit populism. To get our message across and advance next May, we need to leave the emollience of the civil service briefs behind more often and start putting to good use the cold political steel we developed from years of hard opposition slog.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Hammond Must Go!

From BBC News:

North-west England travel warning after heavy snowfall

Hundreds of vehicles spent the night stranded on the M6 after a lorry jack-knifed in the snowy conditions.

Ambulance bosses warned of delays reaching patients in some areas, while transport operators said there was severe disruption to services.

Liverpool's Premier League match against Fulham and Wigan versus Aston Villa are both called off.

Up to 10in of snow fell in parts of Cheshire, Lancashire, Manchester and Merseyside on Friday night.

It caused widespread disruption on the roads and the M6 crash happened at about 0030 GMT, leading to tailbacks and stranded vehicles on the M61, M62 and M58.

Both Heathrow and Gatwick are shut too. Since snow was forecast, there's really only one honourable route for the transport minister to take. Following the inevitable tabloid hounding, and with BBC North West presenters baying for blood at the head of the charge, Phillip Hammond must surely do the decent thing and resign immediately.

What? Hammond's a Tory Minister and this happened in England, you say? And the BBC has done its job of reporting the facts without the greetin-faced editorialising we normally expect from the Scottish outpost? Oh, that's all right, then. As you were...

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Tomorrow's News, Today

As support for Scottish Independence hits 40%, with 44% against, an early draft of a political story certain to appear in tomorrow's Daily Mail/Daily Record/Scotsman etc reaches me. I hope they won't mind if I steal their thunder by posting it up here in advance...


The SNP was left reeling last night after a fresh opinion poll showed that a majority of Scots continue to resist their separatist agenda to rip Scotland out of the UK.

In a political body blow to First Minister Alex Salmond, the results of the survey, newly released by pollsters TNS, show that support for independence has soared by a disastrous 9% since 2009, rising from 31% to 40%. Support for the union meanwhile continues to remain steady, dropping to 44%, with 16% of respondents unsure.

Phillip McCludgie, Labour MSP for Brigadoon Central, last night said that the result was 'another nail in the coffin' for the SNP's dreams of a separate Scotland.

“Alex Salmond will be choking on his porridge this morning. These results are a disaster for the SNP, and confirm that even after his Mugabe style power-grab in 2007 when he unfairly managed to persuade more people to vote SNP than Labour, he still hasn't managed to convince Scots to back his mad plans.

“Everyone knows that independence would be a disaster, with higher debt and spending cuts needed to bail out global banks with the word Scotland somewhere in their name. This would obviously be different from the higher debt and spending cuts of the LibCon Coalition, and very different from the much fairer higher debt and spending cuts which Labour would have brought in if we'd won the election.

“A referendum would just be an excuse for those haggis-bashing wierdos to run around shouting 'och aye the noo' at one another, and distract everyone from the important task of sorting out the complete hash Gordon Brown made of running the economy... er, I mean securing recovery in these difficult times for hard-working families.”

Scottish Conservative Leader Annabel Doily welcomed the results as a boost ahead of next year's elections, and said it proved how 'obvious' it was that Scots continued to reject independence.

“These figures just go to show that the SNP is living in a fantasy land”, she said. “It's obvious that independence remains hugely unpopular with ordinary Scots. That's why we're right not to have a referendum, because if people did vote for independence, then it would upset the overwhelming majority who time and time again say in these polls that they oppose separatism.

“It's time that Scots stood on their own two feet and took some responsibility for their future. We in the Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party will never resile from our long-standing and solemn commitment to do everything we can to get in the way of that happening.”

We couldn't be bothered to get a quote from anyone in the SNP at the time of going to press.

© All Scottish Newspapers, between now and May.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Coming Soon - To A Doorstep Near You...

This weekend, on a doorstep not far from your own, a bell rings. Outside, four figures in search of the householder's vote stand huddled against the cold…

Householder: Yes?

First Visitor: Hello, I’m Iain Gray. Leader of the Labour Party in the Scottish Parliament.

Second Visitor: And I’m Annabel Goldie. Leader of the Scottish Conservatives.

Third Visitor: How do you do? Tavish Scott. Leader of the Scottish Liberal Democrats.

Householder: I see. And who is that jumping around behind you, trying to grab my attention?

Fourth visitor: [Excitedly] My name’s Patrick Harvie! And I lead one of the major parties in the Scottish Parliament!

HH: Of course you do. Right, what can I do for you all?

All: [Chorus] We want to tell you about how awful John Swinney is, and what a terrible mess the SNP has made of Scotland’s tax varying powers.

HH: Oh? Why’s that?

IG: He let the Scottish Parliament’s Tax Powers slip!

HH: Goodness! All by himself? And how did he manage that?

AG: He didn’t pay a bill to HMRC which would have allowed the tax powers to be used.

HH: I don’t understand. How can a minister in a government with no powers over the Scotland Act change the terms of that Act simply by not paying a bill?

TS: Er, well, he can’t. But it means that the tax powers can’t be brought into effect as quickly as he said they could.

HH: Ok. But none of your parties even want to use the powers...

PH: [Interrupting excitedly] Mine does!

HH: ...2 MSPs want to use the powers while 127 others don't. So why should John Swinney be spending taxpayers money to maintain at peak readiness a system which wasn't going to be used anyway?

All: That’s not the point!

HH: So how big was this bill that he didn’t pay?

All: Erm, about seven million pounds.

HH: I'm confused – if spending around £7m on the National Conversation was such a waste of money, why would spending money on this be any better?

All: Because the people voted for it so that it could be used if necessary.

HH: Well, what about the fact that Mr Swinney was trying to negotiate a deal with HMRC to ensure the power could be used immediately from next May, but that the HMRC systems were inadequate for the purpose without that £7m being spent. How does that square with the charge that he deliberately let the power slide?

All: But he was in charge. And he didn't tell us what he was doing. So it’s all his fault!

HH: Maybe. But what have you to say about the first response from the UK government to Mr Swinney regarding his querying of this £7m demand coming in a press release from Michael Moore? Isn't there supposed to be a 'respect agenda' working here?

All: Everyone knows that it's always the SNP that starts fights with Westminster.

HH: Doesn't sound like it in this case...

IG, TS & AG: You sound like a raving Nat.

HH: Look, do you want my vote or not?

IG, TS & AG: [Mumbling] Sorry...

HH: Right, moving on. This power is about to be scrapped by the Westminster government anyway, and replaced with the Calman tax powers. What’s the point in maintaining it under those circumstances? And if Scotland is expected to pay for the costs of a tax power that no-one ever intended using, which government is going to end up footing the bill for the Calman tax mechanisms?

All: [shuffle feet and whistle]

HH: I see. So what difference did not paying this money really make to the overall timescale of when the powers could be used?

IG & TS: [examining shoes] Erm… now you come to mention it, not a lot.

HH: And why’s that?

IG & TS: Er, our parties mothballed the power back in 2000 when we were running the first Scottish Executive.

HH: I don't remember hearing about that at the time. Did nobody think to tell Parliament?

IG & TS: No, but that was different.

HH: Why, exactly?

IG & TS: Look! It just was, alright? You are a raving Nat...

HH: So let me get this straight. You want me to get irate about John Swinney not spending £7m on maintaining a facility to raise a tax that none of you ever intended to use...

PH: [Irate] Except me!

HH: OK, which none of you - except him - ever intended to use; which had been mothballed a decade previously; which was about to be replaced anyway; for him not telling Parliament what was going on even though Parliament wasn't told a decade ago that the mechanism had been mothballed; and for not confirming to Parliament something that the last Lib Dem and Labour finance ministers should have known anyway at the time they left office?

All: Yes!!!

HH: Goodbye. [Slams door, whilst shaking head]

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Green Climate Spin - Unravelled

When it comes to 'Green' politics, I'm pretty much like the Burd, just as I am when it comes to the Scottish Greens themselves. Those feelings came to the fore again yesterday, when a Google alert popped into my inbox highlighting a Green press release. 'SNP CLIMATE SPIN REVEALED', screamed the headline. Thinking it had to be at least worth a read, I followed the link.

The gist of their argument is that the Scottish Government claims to have reduced CO2 emissions by 21.2%. Yet, with their magnifying glasses and floppy-eared deerstalkers on, the Greens have noticed that this excludes 'unallocated' emissions from offshore North Sea oil and gas platforms, which if included, would allegedly reduce that figure to 16.7%. Quite outrageous, I'm certain you won't agree, although to be fair, they do make one reasonable point: namely, that some offshore emissions, for all that they are 'unallocated', do take place in Scotland.

To arrive at this figure, they allocate 90% of offshore emissions to Scotland, on the basis that this is the 'SNP's own figures' for allocating the revenues. Now, this may be a minor point, but it's not the SNP's figure.

This figure came originally from Professor Alex Kemp of Aberdeen University, and it varies in line with the price of oil and gas. His last estimate was that 84% was the correct estimate for revenues. However, that's just nitpicking, since the main flaw with this attempt at allocation is that revenues are not the same as emissions. The fact is that no real attempt has been made to allocate emissions based on location. While that data may not be readily available, although emissions are likely to be significant, there's no way of telling whether 90% is a fair estimate or not. For the record, I'd suspect it's not.

Another blooper comes in the claim that 'Even these [unallocated] emissions do not count the climate consequences of burning the oil and gas extracted, merely those associated with extraction and production.' That's probably because they're included in the 'allocated' emissions in the report being referenced.

However, the real howler is a constitutional one. While emissions do take place in Scotland's waters and would indeed be the responsibility of an independent Scotland, unless I've been asleep since the passing of the Scotland Act, oil and gas remains reserved to Westminster. There is therefore next to nothing that the Scottish Government can do within its powers – even it it was a government comprised entirely of Greens – which would have any effect whatsoever on offshore emissions. As such, it is just plain wrong to try and allocate these emissions when assessing the effectiveness of Scottish Government measures to reduce greenhouse gases.

Think about it. If you're being appraised at work, in order for the process to be fair, you can only be assessed on those aspects of your performance which are within your control. To do otherwise, like the Greens are trying to do here, is like assessing whether Mark McGhee is making a good job as Aberdeen manager based on the league position of Aston Villa.

Of course, the doubtful methodology and conceptual errors are incidental to the wider point that the Greens want to try and make, which is that the SNP is somehow 'addicted' to oil – as daft a charge as you're ever likely to hear made on the stump. Presently, oil and gas meet 75% of the UK's energy needs, and provide nearly half a million jobs. Even if all our electricity were to come from renewable sources starting tomorrow, there would still be a huge reliance on oil and gas for heating, transport and industry. If there's an addiction to oil, it's one which we all share, unless we wish to see the industry shut down overnight.

The irony is, if we are to meet our renewable energy targets, it's going to need the manufacturing base, the engineering expertise and the infrastructure which is only found right now in the oil and gas industry. If Scotland stands ready to lead in the emerging renewables sector, it's because of this indigenous advantage as much as it is to geographical location.

Anyway, I'm delighted to have the Greens set this out as a dividing line. Whatever constitutional status eventually becomes Scotland, or however close we really are to that most nebulous concept of 'peak oil', the North Sea is going to be a major source of employment and energy needs for the forseeable future. It would be fascinating to learn how the Greens would like to see us reduce our oil dependency within a timescale that wouldn't render them hypocrites on the issue of how successful the Scottish Government has been on reducing emissions.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Reasons To Be Cheerful - 1, 2, 3, 4....

You can call me cynical if you like, but I think there's a big dollop of the herd mentality and perhaps a more than a little wishful thinking in the current received wisdom that Labour is somehow coasting to victory in next May's Scottish elections.

Jeff gives some interesting reasons from Sweden over at Better Nation as to why Labour's current position may not turn out to be the winning one that its own people and some allegedly disinterested commentators so clearly hope. However, there's more than a few reasons closer to home to suggest why this might also be the case. Never being one to miss a chance to stick my head above the parapet, here's just a few of them.

The first reason is the polls themselves. While Labour enjoys a lead right now over the SNP, there's good reason to doubt the weighting of some of the polls suggesting that this is so. However, even taking polls at face value, the SNP, astonishingly for a party in government, is still consistently polling higher than it was at this stage four years ago.

Admittedly, the SNP was still ahead of Labour at that stage. However, the fact remains that Labour's lead has not come at the expense of the SNP. In the aftermath of the Con Dem tie-up at Westminster and the nose-diving of the Lib Dems fortunes in the polls, it's pretty clear that Labour's present advantage has been built on taking support from those who no longer agree with Nick.

Given the First-Past-The-Post boundary changes and the volatility of the list system, it's tough to go on anything more than gut instinct unless you're prepared to don your anorak and make a forecast based on the individual ballot box results from the 2007 elections. However, if you assume a significant shift from Lib Dem to Labour, you have to imagine that seats held presently by the Lib Dems like Dunfermline West and Edinburgh South look likely to fall to Labour.

All other things being equal, that would put Labour one ahead of the SNP, assuming that Labour didn't go on to lose list seats in Mid Scotland and Lothian in consequence. However, with the changes in Aberdeen South to take in parts of Kincardineshire, you'd have to assume that the SNP would also fancy its chances here. Which would make it even-stevens, providing that a slightly increased SNP vote can make sure that any shift from Lib Dem to Labour doesn't trouble SNP constituency members in the central belt who are sitting on slim majorities from last time.

The real unknown is in the regional lists. With there being no apparent coalescence of the hard left vote around either Solidarity or the SSP and seemingly little shift in the Green vote, any fall in the Lib Dem list vote could put some of those lower list positions in play. However, given Labour's constituency dominance in Glasgow, Central Scotland and the West, even if constituency seats do fall, it's hard to see the SNP slipping back if the list vote remains solid. Similarly, there is room for the SNP, which topped the list vote in the Lothians last time, to pick up another list seat with Margo MacDonald standing down if Margo MacDonald stands down.

So, if it's hard to see an SNP advance, it's also hard to see where any significant fall would come from. That's where other political factors come into play... can the Lib Dems claw back some of the support that they appear to be losing to Labour between now and May? Can the SNP make a successful pitch for those Lib Dem voters scunnered with their party's role at Westminster? And how will personality play when voters make up their minds about who they want to lead Scotland for the next four years?

I expect we'll be hearing quite a bit about the respective merits of Alex Salmond versus Iain Gray over the next few months. However, the interesting bit for me is how the rest of ministerial team shapes up against their opposite numbers. Nicola Sturgeon against Jackie Baillie at health is no contest, while John Swinney's command of his finance brief regularly reduces Andy Kerr to shouty incoherence. Mike Russell easily swats away all-comers, and stands head and shoulders above (I had to look this up) Des McNulty. It's seldom difficult to distinguish between Johann Lamont and a ray of sunshine, but sheer ability places Alex Neil a country mile ahead of her. Finally, the idea of shoogly bandwagon jumper extrordinaire Richard Baker replacing the robust Kenny Macaskill as Justice Minister ought to be enough to bring any thinking adult out into a cold sweat.

Then there's the matter of policies and general approach. Labour has done itself no favours with its opportunistic approach to minimum pricing. Their approach to knife crime is a joke, and their opposition to increased police numbers puts them dead against a policy which has seen a marked reduction in crime. Having spent four years decrying first local income tax and then a freeze in council tax, their apparent determination not just to persevere with this most unfair of taxes but to see council tax increase during the present downturn, alone deserves to see them given short shrift.

Westminster will also play a factor. With impending budget cuts, it's simply not credible for Labour to announce billions in spending increases without saying what they will cut to pay for it all. Nor is it credible for the party which led us to the brink of economic catastrophe to decry the spending reductions being made by others, which they made necessary and would have had to see through themselves if in Government. Given their cack-handed approach to each and every budget under the SNP to date, it's hard to imagine Labour adopting a position that is any more honest or intelligent this time around.

Finally, at least for this post, there's the matter of the tone of voice which the party projects. Iain Gray, whatever his other qualities, strikes a consistently carping and negative tone, which goes down badly. All too often, whether under Wendy Alexander or Gray, their policy stance has been a binary calculation that if the SNP is for something, then they have to be against it.

The overall tone over the past four years has been one of gripe, groan and moan, alongside a refusal to accept their responsibility for the mess of our military entanglements and the fiscal devastation created by Gordon Brown. The voters know it too, and in the absence of anything positive to say, it's by no means a foregone conclusion that with a Con Dem coalition in London, that Scottish voters will when it comes down to it return to a Labour Party that has given plenty of good reasons not to vote for it.

So Labour's lead is weak, while the SNP core support remains strong. The SNP has governed well and has a team of credible and experienced ministers who can readily see off their opponents. Labour, unforgivably for a party seeking a return to government, remains dangerously weak on policy and on answers on how to deal with the downturn. With the scrutiny which the next few months will bring to their overwhelmingly negative prospectus, that, above all else, is why there's all to play for between now and May.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Decline and Fall

It’s been pretty galling over the past two years to have to sit and listen to the gloating of certain unionist politicians and pundits, utterly convinced that the restrictions placed on an SNP minority government has meant that the spirit of the times is back with them.

The assertions of conceptual superiority have flown thick and fast. We've been told, seemingly without irony by those who led us neck-deep into the big muddy of Iraq, that an independent Scotland would have no standing or influence in the world. We've also been hectored that Scotland couldn't afford to maintain current defence spending, at the same time as the UK presides over a £4.5bn defence underspend in Scotland.

It's hard to take lectures about a credible defence posture from a government set to deliver us aircraft carriers with no aircraft to carry and submarines that can't seem to tell where the Isle of Skye is. However, it's harder still to take lectures about economic prudence and competence from a political establishment which has led the country to the brink of financial ruin.

Gordon Brown designed the very system of financial regulation which has served us so badly. However, that didn’t stop Labour politicians who very pointedly failed to properly regulate the banks they were responsible for, from castigating the SNP for apparently failing to regulate Icelandic banks the SNP self-evidently wasn’t responsible for. Nor did it stop them from slating the SNP for failing to act in areas of the macroeconomy where by Labour's own devolutionary design, the Scottish Government had no powers to act anyway.

No more. October 2010 is the month where the case for devolved Scotland in the Union unraveled in spectacular style. Britain's decline has been inexorable and long-term for a century or more, but rarely, if ever at all, has there before the recent defence review and Comprehensive Spending Review, been a series of events which have exposed so cruelly and so quickly the gap between the rhetoric and the reality of the nature of the modern British state.

The defence review has been little more than a cost cutting exercise dressed up as grand strategic design, which will see Britain unable to fight another Falklands war. As if the carrier position weren’t farcical enough, we will sacrifice 4 frigates and their abilities to keep sea lanes clear at a time when piracy has returned to the seas.

Further big power pretensions remain in the ongoing £100bn commitment to Trident. Yet with the scrapping of the Nimrod replacement maritime patrol aircraft, the government has sacrificed a key element in keeping safe from potential hostile forces the one Trident submarine on patrol at all times. Incredibly, at a time when Russia is probing Atlantic air space several times a month with bomber and reconnaissance aircraft, there also now hangs a question mark over the future of RAF Lossiemouth as a fast jet base.

Yet if the defence situation is dire, the economic situation has also come home to roost with the comprehensive spending review. Tory Chancellor George Osbourne and his Lib Dem mini-me Danny Alexander have managed what previously seemed impossible – uniting Labour and the SNP in a consensus that the spending cuts are coming too quickly and go too deep.

The outcome of the CSR means that Scotland faces a dismal future of cuts which will deflate the economy and create a further widening of inequality. A swingeing cut in university funding south of the border, to be filled by massively increased student contributions, will have an inevitable knock-on effect in Scotland through Barnett. It’s the final proof, as if any were needed, of how unbalanced our economy has become, and the growing gulf in expectations north and south of the border of what the state is there to do.

Through lazy overreliance on easier Empire markets, a potent cocktail of toxic labour/management relations in the 60's and 70's and suicidal economic policies in the 1980's, Britain cast aside manufacturing to become dangerously over-reliant on the turbo capitalism of the square mile. All the while, through follies like Iraq and Trident, we've been bankrupting ourselves diplomatically and economically, all in order to underwrite the global pretensions of a Westminster oriented political elite, who's sense of prestige and self-worth is inextricably bound up in the idea that somehow, Britain still matters.

The pretensions of this elite have rendered Britain a failed state. Once unifying institutions like the Post Office are to be privatised to help pay the bills. Even the so-called national broadcaster has become a slave to Government interference, rendering it unable to reflect the diversity of the state which pays for it. Anything that there might have been worth saving about Britain’s politics – an ethical Labourism, one-nation Toryism, Scottish Liberalism - has all been trampled underfoot by a metropolitan power grab.

If we can't rely on the British state for economic stability, for international prestige, for defence, to be a force for good in the world, as a force for modernisation and social progression, then what on earth is it for? More to the point, with our own Scottish institutions of government in place, why do we allow our own ambitions any longer to be subordinated, when we could get on with building a state better attuned to reflecting the aspirations of the nation we want to be?

The gentle, almost unspoken social union, the familiarity of ties of family and friends will remain, but Britain as a political entity deserves to be put out of its misery. Under independence, just like now, our ambitions may be constrained by a lack of resources or by our own limitations. At least we’ll never be held back by the decisions – or delusions - of anyone other than ourselves.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Nae Mayor

Long-term advocate of elected Mayors, Ross Martin, asked in Wednesday's 'Hootsmon' whether there was room at the top for 'strong leadership' (i.e. Elected Mayors)in Scotland's cities. In his piece (behind the paywall, sadly) he asks us:

“Do we have a single political personality to match the gung-ho dynamism of New York's former leader Rudolph Giuliani, the bold character of a Boris Johnson or the direct political purpose of a "Red Ken"? These city leaders make a real difference when they combine their own character with real political power. Sadly, our city councillors simply don't have that political power to impose themselves and their programmes in the same way that these leaders of real world cities do.”

Now, regardless as to whether we do or don't have similar 'personalities', some might question whether having all-powerful characters like these at the helms of our cities would be in any way a good thing - some people like me, for instance. Those same people might also question the value of comparing Scotland's cities to London, Paris and New York rather than to cities closer in size like Oslo, Bilbao or Stuttgart. However, that's by and by – Martin's objective was clearly to pick high profile examples of Mayors in action so as to illustrate his point about individual leaders being able to put their stamp on a city.

An old favourite argument then rears its head. I paraphrase, but it runs something like this:

London's elected Mayor was instrumental to the introduction of congestion charging, which has been a good thing. Edinburgh doesn't have an elected Mayor, and its former Labour administration failed to bring in congestion charging. Therefore, to get anything big done, Scottish cities need elected Mayors.

As arguments go, it's plucked straight from the political school of thought that says 'we need to do something, this is something, therefore we must do it'.

The argument regarding congestion charging shows a certain lofty contempt for voters. Firstly, it's by no means clear that Edinburgh's congestion problem would have been solved by a deeply flawed toll scheme. The way the 2 cordons were drawn, when I lived in Edinburgh I could have used the car all week around town for work and leisure without ever once paying a toll, but would have been stung any time I returned home after leaving the city.

It was only ever proposed to try and part-fund a third tram line, and given the complete balls that TIE has made of the first one, thank goodness their ambitions were constrained. In the end, our existing system worked perfectly to reflect opinion – there was a lack of unanimity in Edinburgh City Chambers, and Edinburgh folk saw through the PR guff and voted accordingly in the resulting referendum. Frankly, the idea that all we needed was an Eric Milligan with executive powers to get us to see the merits of what was being proposed is insulting and preposterous in equal measure.

The concept of elected mayors plays to the fallacy of the strong political leader, who bestrides their bailiwick like a collosus, sweeps away opposition and pointless bureacracy, galvanises opinion, builds partnerships and inspires us to ever greater civic heights. It's a technocratic, rather than a democratic argument, which ignores what happens if, rather than this shining specimen of civic virtue you instead elect an incompetent rascal to preside over an emasculated local authority. It also, surprisingly for someone like Ross Martin with a background as a Labour 'moderniser' in local government, ignores what our existing structures allow us to do.

Back in the 60's and 70's, Edinburgh was a drab and declining city, with the Edinburgh Corporation a byword for dull conservatism. The District Council which replaced it wasn't much better, and despite the presence of young talents in council politics over that time like Alastair Darling, Malcolm Rifkind and George Foulkes, it took a dynamic group of Labour councillors at District and Regional level (they were New Labour before the term was invented) in the early 80's to get the city moving.

Daft projects like the Western Relief Road were killed off and the regeneration began of gap sites, particularly around Lothian Road. Gradually, through the 80's and 90's, Edinburgh regained her dynamism, and without having anything like the government financial support available to other cities over that time, managed to develop significant assets like Cameron Toll and the Gyle Shopping Centres, Edinburgh Park, the new Financial District, the Festival Theatre and the EICC.

Eventually, this cadre ran out of steam. Keith Geddes left the council and narrowly missed out on getting elected to Holyrood, before making a career in quangoland and in PR. George Kerevan concentrated on academia before turning to journalism and crossing over to the SNP. Angus Mackay, once tipped for a glittering career in local government, saw his future in the Scottish Parliament and made it to Finance Minister, before being knifed first by Jack MacConnell and then by the electorate of Edinburgh South.

Without people of similar calibre, Labour limped on for a few more years, with ideas no more inspiring than building pointless guided busways, painting bus lanes green and excavating to create some more retail space under Princes Street. When PR was introduced, they were cut back down to the minority status their support had long merited, and a new administration emerged with a mandate to clear up the mess that he been left behind. In other words, Edinburgh's experience, shows that dynamism, while cyclical, can be created and sustained by group effort, without the need for a single all-powerful leader.

If we want dynamic cities, we need ideas, a group of people to take them forward, and an engaged electorate prepared to reward the virtuous and vanquish the scoundrels. If Edinburgh, or any of our other cities are experiencing a long-term lack of direction, what we need is a decent debate about the role that cities play in the lives of their residents and all who come to work rest and play there, the nature of the services that their local administrations provide, how different sectors can work across boundaries for the common good, how to work towards economic and ecological sustainability in the present environment and perhaps most important of all, rethink what people can do for themselves and others in terms of building a strong social fabric.

It strikes me that the best way to bring that about is to have a more pluralistic political culture which encourages more diverse voices. Reducing a city to a single powerful voice and concentrating power in the hands of officials, no matter how well intentioned they might be, is unlikely to create the cacophony of diverse voices and ideas that we need. Having elected Mayors – a kind of Lord Provost on steroids - will not do a thing to improve our governance, nor will they provide the momentum to change our cities for the better, since the factors required for this are far more complex than simply putting an Admiral with shinier medals on the bridge.

Nae Mayor, Ross – put this idea back in the box.

Monday, September 06, 2010

Unintended Consequences?

I see that Hamish Macdonnell is busy arguing in today's Hootsman that by making independence a key issue at the next election, the SNP risks scaring off those voters who backed the party last time but who didn't want a vote on full self-governance. Now, Hamish is a smart fellow, but by regurgitating the conventional wisdom on this point, he's in danger of missing a trick. A couple of tricks, even.

Here's why. Despite the perpetual spinning to the contrary from politicians and talking heads alike, a referendum on Independence is backed not just by those who want independence – it's also backed by those of other opinions who want to see the question put or who simply would like the right to choose. That's why support for a referendum commands heavy majority support, even if independence itself might not.

Now, the reason any bill won't pass right now is because the majority of unionist MSPs won't back a referendum, as it is their right to do. Yet the parties those same MSPs are elected on behalf of are prepared to back referendums on AV and on further powers for the Welsh assembly. It's impossible to argue for referendums on those matters but not independence without leaving yourself open to a charge of hypocrisy.

Even if you're agnostic on the referendum question, the contradiction is apparent. If you feel strongly enough about it, then that's a pretty good recruitment sergeant for the SNP. After all, what politician ever lost votes by making it clear they trusted the good sense of the voters to decide an issue for themselves? Or put it another way – what politician ever gained votes by telling voters that they should butt out of an issue and leave it all to the grown-ups to decide for them?

However, here's the killer for Hamish's argument. Through their entrenched opposition, might our unionist politicians not be making it easier for unionists to back an SNP government whom, the independence issue notwthstanding, they might actually hold in high regard?

Think about it. By going into the next election pledging to vote any referendum bill down, then any subsequent unionist backsliding on the issue notwithstanding, voters who don't want either independence or a referendum will almost certainly be spared the prospect. As such, they will be as free, if not freer than they were last time round to vote SNP, safe in the knowledge that the SNP won't be able to deliver a referendum alone.

Ah, the law of unintended consequences. Dontcha' just love it?

Thursday, August 26, 2010

J'accuse - Iain MacWhirter

How did this ever come about? How did Edinburgh become the biggest welfare state in history? By what divine right did it gain access to unlimited sources of public funds just at the moment when Britain is on the verge of national bankruptcy through excessive public spending?

The wailing sound above which comes from atop a columnular high horse in today's Herald is that of Iain MacWhirter. As he goes on to disparage the city I called home for almost 30 years and an industry in which I worked for 6, I think a riposte of some kind is in order. But first, if you haven't already, go and take in the flavour and fact of his epistle. I'll stick the kettle on while you do...

Finished? Then we can get down to business of taking his argument to bits. First of all, he's just plain wrong to contend that Edinburgh is sustained by public cash to anything like the extent that he does. The House of Commons Library helpfully provide some stats on this front for Westminster seats on mainland Britain and although they're from 2008, the proportions will still hold up pretty well.

While Edinburgh South is top of the GB pile having 67% of workers in the public sector, that compares to a city-wide average of just over 30%. Edinburgh South, of course, contains nearly all of the jobs at Edinburgh University. Therefore, if you base your observations of Edinburgh's economy on what you'd see during a bus journey from, say, the King's Buildings to Potterrow passing the National Library and Historic Scotland on the way, then you're unlikely to get a very representative view of things.

For the purposes of comparison, Glasgow and Aberdeen are both at around 30%, with Dundee on 37%. Overall, the Scottish total from these figures is 30.3%, which isn't too out of step with the Scottish Government's figure, which is calculated on a different basis, of 27%. For what its worth, up here in Gordon, which takes in some of the northern suburbs of Aberdeen, the figure is 12%.

So if his argument about the size of Edinburgh's public sector is as overdone as a steak burned to charcoal, what about his substantive point regarding the banking bailout and the financial sector?

The fact that RBS was based in Edinburgh is incidental, as was the fact that most of its problems would have instead been Barclays had they won the battle to take over ABN Ambro. If the bailout hadn’t happened, to avoid a worldwide contagion there would have needed to have been a bailout from other UK or overseas investors. The alternative was a firesale of assets – i.e. people’s mortgages and businesses all over the UK being flogged off to the first bidder to try and avoid meltdown. As such, the bailout propped up a great deal more than just banking jobs, be they in Edinburgh or anywhere else for that matter.

Unaccountably, he goes on to place part of the blame for Edinburgh's supposed dependence on the public purse to the Scottish Parliament, pleading bizarrely “mea culpa along with the rest of us who argued for devolution. Naively, we thought this might benefit Scotland as a whole, but we forgot the lesson that when you follow the money it invariably resides where politicians lie.” On that front, you can include me out, Iain. Bringing St Andrew's house under proper democratic control while providing a forum for national debate and lawmaking has been an unqualified good.

Let's leave aside the fact that Edinburgh was an administrative capital long before devolution, and that Holyrood had no power over the banking crisis, either in terms of the response or the failed regulation beforehand. His argument seems to be that since most of Edinburgh's top 10 largest employers are public sector and that 'some brewing' takes place, it’s therefore public cash that keeps the private sector going. Frankly, that argument is nonsense on stilts.

As a wee aside, thanks to the brewing reference, I'm willing to lay a pound to a penny that his source for this was Wikipedia:

There's no reason to doubt the figures – only his conclusion. The public sector has some big employers in Edinburgh, which provide jobs for plenty of people who live outside and travel to work in the city. What his use of these figures ignores is the less obvious private sector activity going on in smaller entities, which collectively dwarfs the public sector. As you can see from the earlier spreadsheet, where Edinburgh is concerned, there's around 93,000 public sector jobs and 211,000 in the private sector. Notwithstanding the fact that some of those public sector jobs are national rather than local, you still need some heroic multiplier effects to argue that 93,000 sustains 211,000 rather than the other way about.

Just think on the few acres down at Westfield, near Gorgie, where you'll find Wolfson Microelectronics, which makes chips for every iPhone in the world, alongside a large distillery, a kitchen manufacturer and chemicals firm Macfarlane Smith. Go down Calder Road into Wester Hailes and you'll see Burton's biscuit factory. In the north, you'll find BAE Systems. Around Lothian Road, you'll find Standard Life (Edinburgh's 6th biggest employer), Scottish Widows (9th) and Baillie Gifford – significant parts of the financial sector that have stayed profitable, even if it doesn't suit Mr MacWhirter to acknowledge it.

There's too many other enterprises to mention, but we can go right down in size to our SMEs and all the mom and pop enterprises like the butcher, the baker, the candlestick maker, and the white vans of the self-employed parked on the streets of comfortable but unpretentious parts of town other than Barnton or the Grange. It's that which makes the Edinburgh economy go round just as it does everywhere else – with people borrowing, investing and getting on with providing goods and services to make a living, whatever life throws at them.

Generally, I find much to admire in Iain Macwhirter's writing and often find him a rare voice of sanity. Here, though, he's barking up the wrong tree entirely. Cut the service sector some slack Iain and reflect on the fact that despite the tales of gloom Edinburgh, and Scotland, continue to have a robust economy thanks to interdependent private - and public - sectors.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Fail, Caledonia!

Six weeks without posting. Has it really been that long? Anyway, as a pot-boiler, here's my latest epistle for the SI.

Despite being a proud son of the city, I’ve never been much of an Edinburgh Festival person. If pressed why, I’d put it down to my own days as a musician, where after playing solidly with my band most of the week during summer, I was more inclined to want to spend a Saturday night in the pub with friends, in preference to trawling around the city in search of a bit of culture.

With that said, I love the atmosphere of the city during festival time. It really is impossible to be immune to the cacophony of creativity which emerges from the capital each August. While I only went to one Fringe show this year, one of the productions in the official Festival which I regretted not being able to see was ‘Caledonia’, a play by Alistair Beaton performed by the National Theatre of Scotland.

It's based on the story of the Darien scheme, or as the blurb puts it - Scotland's “failed foray into colonialism”. It is a story of “greed, euphoria and mass delusion”… of a “small, poor country mistaking itself for a big, rich country - an ancient story for modern times”. Even if the marketing weren’t so unsubtle and self-flagelatory, the parallels with the present financial crisis would be blindingly obvious.

Darien is widely held to be a failure, a cause of shame - the final, conclusive proof that collectively, Scots just weren’t up to it. However, what’s forgotten is the initial Dutch and English backing for the project. The very existence today of the Panama Canal stands as testimony to the wisdom of using Panama as a trade route to Asia. Yet if the concept was sound, the execution was not. In the end, despite the malaria and the unpreparedness of the settlers for their conditions, it was the eventual opposition of the English and Spanish colonial powers to a palpable threat to their dominance which finally did for the adventure.

There’s no doubt the crushing blow which the aftermath of Darien had on Scotland and it’s a tale worth telling, just as it is worth pondering the path it set Scotland on to union with England just a few years later. It's also worth pondering how, with a shared monarch, Scottish interests were subordinated to those of England and how in the free market now offered by the EU, the rationale for a narrow British Parliamentary union has all but disappeared. However, what’s been puzzling me is the split personalities which some seem to adopt when discussing the production, as evidenced in a recent feature on Radio Scotland.

Scottish colonialism as an independent country was exploitative and bad, we were invited to conclude, as if that, as much as Darien's eventual demise rendered our forbears as collectively unworthy. However, fast forward a few years and as part of the United Kingdom, Scotland was one of the most successful colonial powers in the world – an enterprise which the reporter appeared to suggest was somehow worthy. I’m really not sure there are enough hours which could be spent on the psychiatrists couch trying to get to the bottom of that contradiction.

And in fairness, that's not the impression that the writer or the director have given in interviews of how they see the play and its context. In fact, it's what they have to say when speculating about the impact that Darien may have had on the national psyche, insofar as it exists, which is arguably of greatest interest.

As director Anthony Neilson said in a recent interview with The Scotsman's Chitra Ramaswamy: "Scots aren't seen as being the most optimistic of people". "The sense of humour is fatalistic. But it's interesting that there was a moment when we weren't like that. A moment when we came together and had this spirit of fervour... and then it went wrong. What part did that play in the psychology of the nation?"

What part indeed? We Scots often seem to have a strangely ambivalent attitude towards success. However, it's our attitude towards anything which is not successful which is particularly lacerating, especially when it comes to the personalities of those involved. Sometimes, it seems that the greatest shortcoming any Scot can have in the eyes of some of their compatriots is not to fail, but to inspire in others a hope which fails to come to fruition.

It's an extraordinary mindset when it manifests itself. The overwhelming desire not to be taken for a mug; the near certainty that things can't be done or that new ways simply won't work; which leads us to be excessively sceptical of opportunity where it may exist or the possibility of success. The wisdom of crowds can be scant at the best of times – the cynicism of crowds sadly less so.

All human achievement and discovery has resulted from failure as a learning, iterative process, coupled to the determination to try again. We need our dreamers, our visionaries and those who can think big thoughts. Rather than castigate or ridicule those who face setbacks, whether in sport or business, when they encounter a lack of success, we should be mature and reflective enough to let them try better next time, and whether they manage it or not, to benefit collectively from their experience.

There is seldom anything to regret in failure, only in not having tried. If we were looking for a motto which would serve Scotland better in the modern age than the truculent and spiky Nemo Me Impune Lacessit, it would surely be to Fail Often, Fail Better, and Succeed Finally.

Thursday, July 08, 2010

What's Left Worth Conserving?

No apologies for the light blogging - it's summertime, after all, and I'm on my first proper break from work in about 3 years. Now that the election is well and truly over, job hunting is once again at the forefront of my mind right now, as unemployment beckons at the end of August.

In the meantime, here's my latest column for the Scots Independent, written last week, which picks over the Westminster electoral carcass of the Scots Tories. It's a subject which has attracted the wailing and gnashing of teeth in recent days of journalistic personages no less prominent than Iain Martin and Alan Cochrane, although neither managed to be as thoughtful as Harry Reid in his piece for the Herald yesterday.

Scotland needs centre right representation, but does it need the Conservatives? And for so long as the party has supporters like 'ShetlandTory' (see comments in Iain Martin's piece) babbling from the hospital bed that "the electorate of the nation that produced Adam Smith wants it to be the North Korea of the North Sea", you have to wonder whether there really is anything there worth saving.

My good public reputation was tarnished irreparably a couple of weeks ago by a newspaper, which made an unwarranted and vile slander against me. Frankly, I don't know if I'll ever be able to hold my head up in polite company again. If I had any money at all I'd see them in court.

What was this vile calumny perpetrated against me? I'm outraged to say that in a recent report on a talk I'd given to a community group in Oldmeldrum, the Press and Journal described me not as a former SNP candidate, but as a former Conservative candidate. Since then, my world has collapsed.

I now get stared at in shops. Neighbours cross the street to avoid me, and already the hate mail has started to arrive, some of it recognisably from my own family. Even my cat has taken to shunning me, except, of course, when there's the prospect of food on offer.

Joking aside, there's no doubt that even if the label 'Conservative' is no longer as politically toxic as it was in the 1980's and 90's, the party is still going nowhere in Scotland. Even when on course to win South of the Border at the recent General Election and with the resulting positive media coverage, Cameron's Caledonian brethren struggled to make it above 17% in the polls, and were lucky to hang on to their single Scottish seat.

There's no doubt that a relentlessly negative campaign by the Labour Party entrenched Scottish voters into a 'Stop the Tories' mindset, despite the fact that not even a clean sweep in Scotland for Labour would have kept Cameron from Downing St, given Labour's refusal to work with any other parties in Government. As such, we have a Tory Prime Minister elected on the back of English votes, and with it, some uncomfortable questions for the Scottish Tories from their southern colleagues about their effectiveness.

Already, the recriminations have started. An independent commission has been set up to examine the party in Scotland. At least one key staff member has been shown the door. There are whispers of a purge of the candidate list; that Annabel Goldie's days are numbered as leader; that the party may be given new autonomy from London, and that it might even change its name in a bid to find new appeal amongst Scottish voters.

All well and good. But who, might we ask, is the individual being tasked with dragging the Scottish Tories kicking and screaming into the 21st century? Why, none other than septuagenarian peer Lord Russell Sanderson - a Scottish Office Minister at the height of Margaret Thatcher's unpopularity. There's nothing like having the right man in place for a job like this, and let's face it, he's nothing like the right man for a job like this.

From an outsider's perspective, a cleansing of the MSP stables and a change of leader might be no bad thing, provided, of course, that what they plan to replace them with represents an improvement. Similarly, a name change might help dull antagonistic associations with the party, although you also have to be changing something more fundamental than the name if it's to be credible. Without a change of substance, renaming the 'Scottish Conservatives' as 'Scottish Reform' or whatever seems little better than rebranding Windscale as Sellafield.

While the bit about greater party autonomy has got people interested, no-one seems to have harked back to a report which was compiled by Lord Strathclyde for the party back in 1997, following the Tory wipeout earlier that year. As a consequence of that report, the Scottish Tories became the most internally devolved of all the unionist parties in Scotland. Since then, the party has, constitutionally at least, enjoyed almost complete policy freedom. The point is that it has failed to use it.

Why? Simply, the problem, ironically for a party which used to hector others about the need to stand on their own two feet, is that it suffers from a complete intellectual and financial dependence on its London HQ. Lord Strathclyde threw open the door to the cage over a decade ago. Since then, the Scottish Party has cowered away at the back, lacking the confidence to embark on a route which might not come pre-approved from London.

Ultimately, the problem isn't structures, or finances, or what the Tories call themselves. Their problem is institutional, being too dull to say anything of interest to eachother, let alone the wider public. Financially and organisationally wedded to London, the idea that a Scotland could exist which paid its own way and set its own priorities, represents a conceptual leap well beyond all but perhaps a couple of their current MSP group.

I have a friend who is fond of pointing out that the opposite of love, in his view, is not hate but indifference. I think that captures a large part of the Tories' problem - it's not that people particularly dislike them any more, its just that they are largely irrelevant, and in consequence, people are now indifferent. They have little of interest to say, and don't look or sound like they represent modern Scotland.

Maybe an organisational revamp, a clearout of high heidyins too long in situ and a requirement to live within its means based on Scottish donations might provide the bracing does of reality needed to bring the Tories back to life. Losing the kneejerk unionism by fully embracing fiscal autonomy and an Independence referendum, even if not independence itself, would also show a confidence in Scotland which might just encourage Scots to show some confidence once again in the Tories. It would certainly throw down the gauntlet to a Labour Party which in Scotland, is even less able to stand on its own two feet than the Tories in their current state.

Make yourselves relevant and stop giving people reasons not to vote for you is a decent rule of thumb for any party. It's something Scotland's Tories would be well advised to remember, regardless as to what this commission may or more likely, may not come up with. Frankly, right now, it would no more occur to most Scots to vote Tory than it would for them to start walking around on their hands in public with a sparkler placed unconventionally.

Monday, May 24, 2010

A Mandate To Oppose

Over the past few weeks, I've found myself at odds with an argument being put forward by some folk with whom I usually agree. It concerns the 'mandate', or lack of one, which the LibCon coalition has in Scotland, and whether or not pointing out their lack of majority support constitutes a 'grudge and grievance' agenda better suited to the 1980's.

Wherever you stood politically the 80's was an eventful time, with the sense of great issues of principle being tussled over at home and abroad. For those able to adapt to the dramatic social change, the personal possibilities seemed limitless as old orthodoxies, for better or worse, were torn down. With the ending of the Cold War and the redrawing of the European map, it seemed that a new age of self-determination, liberated from the stifling power politics of the post-war period, was set to be ushered in.

Culturally, Scotland flowered in opposition to the Tories. Denied devolution in 1979 by the unwillingness of a weak Labour government to take on its backbenchers, the home rule cause was galvanised and emboldened, with the sense of there being a different Scottish polity taking hold across the unionist/nationalist divide. With the argument being advanced, even by staunch unionists that the Scottish people were sovereign, the idea of the Tories, by then reduced to 11 seats out of 72 holding no mandate to govern Scotland, took hold in the popular imagination.

To say that the present situation in Scotland is not like the 1980's, as Gerry Hassan has done several times since the election, is certainly accurate, if a bit of a straw man. Circumstances for the moment are quite different – for one, Scotland now has her parliament and seems increasingly at ease with herself, in contrast to the brittle assertions of difference once used as a common currency by Scotland's social democratic left.

The second difference is that the current Prime Minister gives the impression of being a far more emollient character than Margaret Thatcher, who managed systematically to irritate and ultimately alienate white collar 'middle Scotland'. Thirdly, and crucially if you are to believe those disparaging the no mandate argument in its newly resurrected form, the Tories are in coalition with the Lib Dems, who following the election have a combined total of Westminster seats and votes double that of the SNP.

This is true, although why the SNP should be chosen here as the yardstick by which legitimacy is measured is beyond me. However, whether in votes or seats, the Lib/Con coalition falls well short of a majority on both counts. Leaving aside the discomfort which a number of Lib Dem voters must be feeling at their party's shotgun marriage with the Tories, the parties combined still have only one more MP than did Margaret Thatcher at the height of her crisis of legitimacy in Scotland, following the 1987 'Doomsday' election.

Another reason why this argument is bunk is that while the SNP was allowed by parliament to form a Government, if it wants to legislate, it still has to gain the support of a majority of parliamentarians elected within Scotland under a proportional system. Compare and contrast with the LibCons, who have gained their ability to govern Scotland solely through the combined strength of their First-Past-The-Post performance in England.

There is also a fourth dissimilarity which is not being spoken about, but which makes all the difference right now. Simply, the new LibCon government hasn't yet had a chance to do anything unpopular, and most people will for the moment be inclined to give them benefit of the doubt. It's only when the effects of controversial decisions – such as the impending and well-trailed spending cuts – begin to manifest themselves that people will start to question the wisdom of the government, and the level of support it has for its agenda.

If the new LibCon government is shrewd, it will live up to the rhetoric of its self-proclaimed 'respect' agenda by behaving consensually and recognising the limitations of its Scottish mandate. In what are being trailed as some early 'wins' for this approach, it is being hinted that progress might be made on releasing the £180m from the Fossil Fuels levy to Scotland, and on granting borrowing powers to Holyrood. Evidently, a nationalist 'grudge and grievance' agenda can become an agenda of 'respect' when carried out by a unionist!

So, the mandate issue, just like the funding issue, is one which is very much alive and lurking away in the undergrowth, however much some might like to assert otherwise. However, where they are on to something is in identifying that an obsession over the matter right now would look premature, and runs the risk of making anyone who uses the argument too forcibly look peevish and out of touch.

There is a further risk, which is in fairness nailed very effectively by Hassan. Throughout the 80's and indeed the 90's, home-rulers of all stripes seemed far better at defining themselves by what they were against policy-wise rather than in terms of what they were for - something which arguably left us with a hangover of unrealistic expectation when we finally got our parliament. If we approach the new Westminster government solely in terms of the comfortable slogans of yesteryear, we run the very real risk of repeating that mistake, and slowing the progress to independence in consequence.

With that said, the mandate argument still deserves to be made and heard as a corrective to aspects of the of the Lib Con administration's agenda, and could very well prove to be a useful restraint on the untrammeled power of a Westminster Government. That’s something which Scots of all persuasions might become grateful for in the not too distant future – whether they voted for the coalition parties or not.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Peering In From Outside

Oh, goody. From The Times:
Coalition creates 100 peers with Lords deal

David Cameron and Nick Clegg will create more than 100 peers to ensure that controversial legislation gets through Parliament.

The coalition government has agreed to reshape the House of Lords, which is currently dominated by Labour, to be “reflective of the vote” at the general election. That saw the Tories and the Liberal Democrats together get 59 per cent.

None of Labour’s 211 existing peers can be removed, so the coalition must appoint dozens of its own to rebalance the upper chamber. Lib Dem estimates suggest that the number of Tory peers would need to rise from 186 to 263 and Lib Dem peers from 72 to 167.

Here's a better idea, guys. Instead of more jobs for the boys and snouts in troughs, how about scrapping the Lords entirely, or if you really must keep it, making the place elected instead? So like, y'know, voters get to decide who we want in a 2nd chamber, rather than having it stuffed full of other people's cronies?

The Lib Dems would be likely to reach into local government for some appointments. Party donors could be rewarded, although the Lib Dems have ruled out putting any with non-dom tax status in the second chamber.

That's a shame. Lord Brown of Absentia has a certain ring to it, don't you think?

Friday, May 14, 2010

What A Difference 2 Years Makes

Not that there's anything wrong with pragmatism and being able to sink your differences, but this makes me chuckle:

At the Lib Dems' 2008 spring conference, Nick Clegg said: "The day before I was elected leader, Mr Cameron suggested we join them. He talked about a 'progressive alliance'. This talk of alliances comes up a lot, doesn't it? Everyone wants to be in our gang. So I want to make something very clear today. Will I ever join a Conservative government? No." Nick Clegg is now deputy to Prime Minister David Cameron.

H/T: The First Post

Thursday, May 13, 2010

One Week On

This time last week, I was contemplating a shower and a change of shirt before heading out to the Gordon Constituency count at the AECC. Not by that stage in the expectation of winning, since I'd been feeling for a couple of weeks that despite our formidable local campaign and the strong support we were getting, things had just swung too far away from us nationally for us to be able to pull it off.

The TV debates and their total domination of the news agenda for 3 weeks saw admirably to that, as did the unfathomable determination of the media to puff up the Lib Dems, and in Scotland, a tendency approaching the pathological to portray the SNP as little more than marginal grievance-mongers. In the event, the Lib Dems fell back, and the best you can say for their campaign is that they more or less held onto the ground they won in 2005. Meanwhile, in spite of the obstacles put in front of us, the SNP held what it had won in 2005, and regained second place in the national share of the vote.

Only winners and outgoing MP's were due to make post-declaration speeches at the Aberdeen count. As soon as the first few ballot boxes had confirmed my suspicions as to how things were going to turn out, I sought an opportunity to congratulate Malcolm Bruce in person before the declaration. When the opportunity presented itself it wasn't a difficult thing to do, as I have always had a certain regard for him as a politician, and on the many occasions where our paths crossed during this long, long campaign, we've always got on very well. I even had occasion to write a press release for him a few months ago, but that's perhaps a tale best kept for another time!

In the event, while we didn't win in Gordon, we recorded a strong result. Despite not taking the support we'd hoped from the Conservative and Labour candidates, both of whose support held static, the chunk we took out of the Lib Dem vote saw us jump from fourth to second place. In the event, it was the highest ever vote for the SNP in the seat for Westminster, both in total and in the percentage share of the vote. It was the 2nd largest anti-Lib Dem swing in Scotland – 7.6% in favour of the SNP. It also saw Malcolm Bruce re-elected with 36% - his lowest ever share of the vote in the seat – taking his majority from 11,026 over Labour to 6,748 over the SNP.

And so, when the result finally came in at just before 5 in the morning, the curtain came down on what has been, for me at any rate, a life changing couple of years or so. The curtain has also come down on Gordon Brown, who in the event, left office with great dignity. His departure was inevitable, even if his party's departure from government was entirely its own doing, leaving us with a coalition which few in Scotland would have countenanced before, far less wanted afterwards.

Despite the Conservatives sub-contracting Scotland out to their new Lib Dem partners, this coalition has only one more seat than had Margaret Thatcher after the 1987 'Doomsday' election. And before anyone starts throwing Gerry Hassan's latest nugget of wisdom at me about this not being the 1980's, the point is intended to be illustrative.

We are not – yet – embarked on a course of cuts which are 'deeper and tougher' than anything managed by Margaret Thatcher. While we're not going to see the negligent and vandalistic industrial devastation of the 1980s being bankrolled by our own resources, there is an enormous risk that in their mutual desire for cuts in capital spending and to continue with wasteful items such as a replacement for Trident, our shiny new Con Dem nation will see recovery snuffed out and opportunities for future growth squandered. There really is no sense of recognition from either party that Britain's inexorable post-Empire decline has left it an over-centralised and hyper-indebted mid-ranking European power with creaking infrastructure, which suffers from a dangerous overreliance on the City of London, and labouring under an exaggerated sense of its own significance in the world, which it is no longer capable of underwriting, whether economically, militarily or diplomatically.

Despite promises of respect for Scotland and further powers for Holyrood, the new coalition will be judged in deed and not word. In that spirit, it would do well to recognise the limitations of its 'mandate', and seek to govern in its areas of responsibility with the same spirit of consensus-building as has marked the past 3 years of minority SNP Government in Edinburgh.

No party, least of all Labour and certainly not the SNP, has a monopoly on good ideas and legitimacy to govern. With that said, while wishing the new government no harm, I can't help but wonder how the election might have gone in Scotland had people known that Labour would fail their voters by refusing point blank to work with other parties, and that the Lib Dems were prepared not just to support the Tories, but to join them in Government.

Perhaps more to the point, how will this play at the next Holyrood elections? We've less than a year to go to find out...

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

“We Will Not Soil Our Hands”

The more observant amongst you may have noticed by now that I’m not a Labour voter. There’s a number of reasons why this is the case, only some of which relate to a tendency since childhood to be suspicious of anything purporting to represent a majority view.

In common with most Labour members, I’m no socialist and never have been, although I’m certainly happy to be described in most respects as a social democrat. There are many individuals in the Labour party whom I admire. In fact, despite my suspicion for him as an individual, I found much to support in what Tony Blair’s Labour government did in its early years.

I was also firmly on the gradualist wing of my party when such distinctions still mattered. All things being equal, then, I could probably have found myself sitting fairly comfortably in the Labour Party, making steady progress on home rule, if only I’d been prepared to ignore that troublesome itch for independence. But then, all things aren’t equal here, and never have been.

From my perspective, there’s a deeply unattractive insularity about the party, which comes from being entrenched in swathes of governance over many years and being able to distribute patronage, thanks to an unrepresentative voting system. With binary simplicity, there are 2 core electoral messages and two only – Vote Labour to get the Tories out, or vote Labour to keep the Tories out. Sophisticated or inspiring it most certainly is not.

This tribalism reached a particularly low point in the late 1970’s, when a young rising Labour star by the name of Helen Liddell, in her capacity as Scottish General Secretary, declared that Labour ‘would not soil our hands’ by working with the nationalists in trying to deliver a ‘Yes’ vote in the 1979 devolution referendum. While Liddell is long departed from the shores of Scottish politics and not much missed, I’m sure I wasn’t alone in hearing more than a faint echo of her words in the statement made this morning by Douglas Alexander, putting paid to the notion of a ‘progressive’ alliance involving the SNP at Westminster.

"I can assure you”, yipped Alexander to the BBC, “I have had no contact with the SNP, nor has the chancellor, the Scottish Secretary or the Prime Minister because there are fundamental differences between the Labour Party and the Scottish National Party. Personally, I can't envisage circumstances in which we would enter into agreement with the Scottish National Party."

Alexander aside, the writing looks to be on the wall for a progressive alliance anyway, not least because of the reluctance of Labour MPs to sit down with the Lib Dems or concede any more than the Tories on electoral reform. However, for a party which still bangs on about the manner of their losing power in 1979, the hypocrisy is astounding. Everyone else can be criticised for working with the hated Tories, but now Labour itself refuses to work with anyone else, ensuring a Tory government by default.

In consequence, the Lib Dems seem set to roll out the welcome carpet in Downing Street for David Cameron, which will be reddened in ample time for his arrival by the blood from the PLPs bout of mass hari-kari. While the Lib Dems will have a rough time explaining that pact to their Scottish members, should it transpire, Labour should reflect whether it really dislikes the SNP so much that it is prepared to surrender Scotland and power to the Tories without so much as a whimper.

Friday, April 30, 2010

But My Dad Voted Labour, And So Did His Dad...

Too busy for proper blogging right now, so here's a nice little picture for you all instead...

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Paxo Stuffed

I once sat next to Dr Eurfyl ap Gwilym at dinner, and can confirm that he probably is the sharpest knife in the drawer. *Big* mistake, then, for Paxman to try to sneer, condecend and assert without foundation his way through this interview with the man who is Plaid Cymru's economics adviser.

Paxman clearly didn't know who Dr ap Gwilym was before last night. Bet he'll remember in future!

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Lib Dem Fudge and Fall-Out

We had the first proper hustings of the Gordon campaign last night in Ellon Academy, organised by the community council. A good couple of hundred people turned out to hear a wide ranging debate on subjects ranging from the current economic situation to how the various parties would approach a parliament where no party had an overall majority.

However, one issue dominated, whether the subject was defence or the economy, and that was the future of Britain's nuclear 'deterrent'. As you'd expect, both myself and the Green were against a £100bn Trident replacement, while Labour and the Conservatives were in favour. The curiosity was the Lib Dem position, which claims to be against a 'like for like' replacement.

It smacks of a classic Lib Dem attempt to be all things to all people, allowing them to hear exactly what they want. To those who support nuclear weapons, it gives the impression that the Lib Dems are in favour of a British nuclear weapons system – just not Trident. Meanwhile, to those who support doing away with British nuclear weapons, it can give the impression that just like you, the Lib Dems also support disarmament.

The fact is that it is the first of those statements which represents their real position - the Lib Dems support British possession of Weapons of Mass Destruction. Which begs the question – if not Trident, then what delivery system would they have in its place?

It's worth taking a short walk through the history of British nuclear weapons at this point, and why we arrived at having a submarine based system. Initially, British weapons were freefall bombs, deployed by the RAF using V-class bombers. However, bombers are vulnerable to counter measures, whether by opposing fighters or surface to air missiles. For that reason, a number of missile-based systems were considered instead.

The trouble with both bombers and land based missiles in the UK, however, is that both are highly vulnerable to a first strike from Europe, Asia, Africa and the Middle East. This made submarines, which can remain mobile, undetected, launch their missiles while underwater and survive a nuclear attack on the UK, the obvious method of delivery. Although the UK retained a stockpile of 'tactical' freefall nuclear bombs well into the 1990's, so it was that first Polaris, then Trident, became the main means of delivery.

But back to the Lib Dems. If the UK were to have a nuclear weapons system which was not Trident or similar, it would need to involve a new fleet of bombers or land based missiles, both of which would retain exactly the same vulnerabilities which led to the adoption of Polaris. With international treaties prohibiting the use of either outer space or the sea bed for the deployment of nuclear weapons, a submarine based system remains the only practical option.

A cruise-missile based system could be adopted, although the range of cruise is considerably shorter at 3,000 miles than the present Trident system at 7,000 miles. Cruise is also limited in the size of warhead it can deploy. A ballistic-based missile system therefore continues to provide the greatest flexibility.

If a ballistic system is chosen, then that clearly requires a class of submarine capable of launching the missiles. If the deterrent is to be operative 24/7/365, then four vessels, as are available presently, will also be needed. It's a brutal, grim logic, but given the infrastructure already in place, a variation on the present Trident system will be far and away the cheapest and most effective option if you wish to retain a British nuclear weapons system with the current capability of being able to ride out attack, and also be able to attack or retaliate anywhere in the world.

From a personal point of view, I believe that replacing Trident risks leaving us both financially and morally bankrupt, while offering us little or nothing in the way of tangible security benefits. No matter how many anti-nuclear votes the Lib Dems might think they can harvest on the sly, or what they might like us to believe regarding the chimera of cheaper alternatives, there really is no clever-clever alternative out there waiting to be discovered by Menzies Campbell and his 'review' which has been hitherto overlooked by lesser mortals.

Ultimately, the decision about whether or not to possess WMD is a matter of principle and not tactics. Maybe that's why the Lib Dems are having such difficulty wrestling with it.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Gordon Fuel Campaign

Regular readers of the local press in Gordon (or even those who tuned into Alex Salmond's SNP Conference Speech) will know that I've managed to make a few waves recently over the differences in the price of fuel between Aberdeen City and the Shire, notably between the supermarkets. It's a real bone of contention locally, where people can see little justification for the often 3-4p per litre price diference which there is over a distance of less than 20 miles.

However, the biggest contributory factor in high fuel prices is the tax that's levied by the government. A flat rate of duty, with VAT on top, means that almost three-quarters of the price we pay when we fill up goes straight to the treasury. And with prices now at £1.20 per litre or more (over £5.50 a gallon, or $7 per US gallon for my American readers) - something which impacts upon the cost of everything transported by road - it's rapidly becoming one of the defining issues of this election.

And so it was that yesterday, I was out on the stump in Huntly with a certain local MSP and some of our activists, highlighting the impact of high fuel prices on motorists:

[Pic credit: Alan Milligan]

Worryingly, the Lib Dems are swerving all over the road when it comes to their own tax policies. In a recent Politics Show interview, party leader Nick Clegg argued that the 3p duty rise planned for 1 April should go ahead, only to be flatly contradicted by his 'Chief of Staff' 15 minutes later in the Scottish segment of the programme - a shambles which was repeated a couple of days ago when Clegg and economic spokesman Vince Cable contradicted eachother over VAT increases [follow the link - it's a lovely picture!].

However, their confusion over fuel duty kind of pales into insignificance when compared with the policy that they really want to introduce - road pricing, with charges of up to 13p per mile for using a car.

It probably looked great over a breakfast table in, say, Twickenham, where you are spoiled for choice when it comes to public transport. However, in large parts of Scotland, not to say the Gordon constituency, a car is a necessity, whether for getting to work, for doing the shopping, or simply for meeting family obligations.

To give an example of what policy would mean for local families, think of someone who uses their car to commute the 30 mile round trip from Ellon, Oldmeldrum or Inverurie into Aberdeen. That would mean a bill of nearly £1,000 per year, just for getting to work. If you travel down the A96 each day from Huntly, that bill would be £2,300 every year. It's a policy which sits in complete defiance of the way life is lived in the North East, and indeed across swathes of Scotland where the Lib Dems currently have Westminster representation.

We're having a great campaign here in Gordon. In addition to continuing to fight for fair play on fuel, I look forward to contrasting my party's policy with that of the Lib Dems - who will simply end up pricing off the road the least well-off motorists, who also have the fewest practical alternatives to the car.