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Archives for May 2007

And the winner is...

Brian Taylor | 17:08 UK time, Thursday, 31 May 2007


Just witnessed the best speech, by far, of the new parliament. John Swinney, winding up the debate on transport policy. One by one, he wiped the floor with opponents who had spoken in the debate - with a ferocious blend of rant, rhetoric and rumbustious counter-attack. Terrific stuff.

Comic master

Brian Taylor | 15:04 UK time, Thursday, 31 May 2007


So how was he? Alex Salmond, that is, at his first outing facing questions in Holyrood. Me, I think he was rather splendid emollient, controlled and, above all, genuinely funny.

He rose to a feed line from Annabel Goldie like a comic master. You'll recall that Tony Blair hasn't yet got round to contacting the new FM to offer congratulations on his election. (Unless, that is, he tried to place a reverse charges call from Libya, Sierra Leone or South Africa - and the executive wouldn't pay.)

A stock question at FMQs is to ask when the first minister is due to meet the PM. That gives the questioner the chance to follow up with a vicious supplementary about pretty much anything they like, given that the original question was so open.

When Ms Goldie rose to deliver that stock opener concerning the PM, she was struggling to keep a grin off her face. (Actually, she didn't struggle all that much: she knew the hinterland.) When, she giggled, would the FM meet the PM?

Alex rose mock-wearily. "He never writes, he never phones", he bemoaned, struggling not one whit to suppress a broad grin. I know, I know, it looks pedestrian in print. But it was a good gag, exceptionally well delivered.

So how did the rest do? Bella was notably good - but then she's had plenty practice in the role. Jack McConnell wasn't at all bad, especially given the hideous challenge of shifting from FM to opposition. He laid deliberate, ironic stress on the words "first minister" as he rose to ask his opening question. And he pinned the FM pretty well on the issue of whether the executive would continue to fund the Edinburgh trams and airport link.

And Nicol Stephen? To be frank, it wasn't his finest parliamentary moment. Perhaps it's because he came, inevitably, third in a queue of three opposition leaders. But his chosen issue appeared to waver between the A9 and schools without offering a convincing challenge on either. (He was trying to make the point that an executive that had, allegedly, vacillated on transport might be equally unreliable on education. Arguable syllogism - but didn't work as a Holyrood hit.)

This was Alex Salmond's day.

A taxing time

Brian Taylor | 15:19 UK time, Wednesday, 30 May 2007


The SNP plan to replace the council tax with a local income tax looks like it's in trouble.

Their sums don't add up. Not in the way that Labour and the Tories alleged during the election campaign.

This is more elementary arithmetic. As things stand, they don't have the votes to get the scheme through parliament.

John Swinney sounded suitably bold in Holyrood this afternoon when he confirmed that the executive would introduce a bill to scrap the council tax.

It was in the SNP manifesto, he said. It would happen.

Herewith the snags.

The Liberal Democrats are in favour of a Local Income Tax - but not the SNP scheme.

That's because the SNP proposes a fixed 3p levy on income tax - for all councils.

No local variation.

The Lib Dems say that runs counter to local democracy - and they won't vote for it.

Privately, I also suspect that more than a few senior Lib Dems harbour deeper doubts about LIT.

I think they wonder whether it's politically smart for them to be hammering middle class, aspirational multi-income families.

I think they fret over the fact that it doesn't cover unearned income.

The Greens are also against the SNP plan.

They say it replaces an unfair property tax with an unfair tax on income.

They'll vote against, urging Land Value Taxation instead.

Labour and the Tories want to retain the council tax, albeit with various reforms aimed at helping the elderly.

Do the sums.

As things stand, the SNP bill will go down.

They'll talk to the Lib Dems - but ministers remain presently thirled to their 3p fixed rate, arguing that the Lib Dem alternative introduces minor local variations at major administrative cost.

But, even if the government can get the LibDems on board, the other parties can outvote them.

Things might change - but, right now, I wouldn't bank on the council tax being scrapped any time soon.

Bringing to book

Brian Taylor | 07:11 UK time, Tuesday, 29 May 2007


I was never a big fan of The Hungry Caterpillar. Always struck me as too formulaic, a little too anodyne. For subtlety and truth, try Bears go Shopping or the seminal Big Dog, Little Dog.

But still, what remains of my senses buzzed on hearing a reference to this stock work of children's literature in the Holyrood chamber. An MSP quoting from a book? What next? Joseph Conrad cited in the debate on fisheries? Quotes from Kelman in a discussion about youth disenchantment?

My excitement swifly dissipated. To be frank, it hadn’t been all that pated in the first place. It was merely Wendy Alexander deploying a device from her twins' nursery to lampoon John "Thirty Eight Jobs" Swinney.

Mr Swinney, it seemed, had been a greedy little Minister - and had to be told.

It was all a little pedestrian - although nothing like as bad as painted by some commentators. It was, however, a reminder that it may not be entirely easy to replace McConnell, J. as the leader of Labour's Holyrood group.
Labour MSPs are meeting today to pick over the election. Here's the agenda.

Item One: we didn't really lose.
Item Two: anyway, if we did, we didn't lose by much.
Item Three: OK, so we lost, but it wasn't Jack's fault.
Item Four: what on earth do we do now?
Item Five: AOCB

Jack McConnell - the angry caterpillar - shows no sign of going anywhere fast.

He's devised a new strategy for Labour in opposition which involves operating as a standing alternative government, advancing legislation and demanding a stake in determining the budget.

He's not exactly universally revered in the Labour group - but there seems little sign yet of a concrete challenge to oust him.

Labour's underlying problem in Scotland? It needs to try a little in-house devolution. It remains the one party that doesn't have a truly autonomous Scottish division.

The SNP? Obvious. The LibDems? Separate party, federated to the GB set-up. The Tories? Distinctive Scottish party, distinctive Scottish leader, distinctive Scottish control.

Labour? Holyrood policy is devolved - to the miscomprehension of some in the GB party. But Jack McConnell is NOT fully the leader of Scottish Labour, unlike his counterparts. He is the leader of Labour in the Scottish Parliament. You doubt me? Consider this. Do Scottish Labour MPs consider Jack McConnell to be in any way their leader? They do not.

Yet, for example, Michael Moore and even Ming Campbell accept that Nicol Stephen is in charge of matters Scottish in the LibDems.

Tory survival tactics

Brian Taylor | 18:25 UK time, Monday, 28 May 2007


By George, they've got it! The Tories, that is. They have utterly absorbed the concept of minority government - and how to work the system.

For evidence, see their proposed crackdown on sex offenders. It involves closer monitoring of such individuals. Nothing exceptional about that: it featured prominently in their election manifesto.

The neat touch, however, is to sell the policy as a potential deal with the new SNP Scottish Executive. That prospect was cleverly spun over the weekend. (Nice one, Ramsay.)

The SNP executive has shown interest in pursuing this issue. Smart move on their part. Their very survival depends on such negotiated deals. More to the point, if they want to do anything with power - and they do - then such accommodations will become part of the landscape.

Alex Salmond's calculation will be: deliver a concession to an opposition party (as long as it doesn't cause you political pain) - and trust that they're equally pliant when SNP ministers want to do something in the future.

So why are the Tories to the smiling fore in this regard by contrast with the grim faces on the Labour and Liberal Democrats? Several reasons.

Firstly, the Tories haven't lost power - and had no expectation of gaining power. Their only contribution has been and is to work the system from the opposition benches. Secondly, the Tories' long term strategy is to rebuild acceptance as a mainstream party in the Scottish body politic.

Remember their 50 year decline from the peak of 1955. Remember that they had a (relatively) poor election, slipping back a seat in net terms. They need to be seen as players, not observers.

Thirdly, the other parties still harbour hopes of bringing down the SNP executive. They're not yet in a place, mentally, where they can work consistently with Alex and his gang.

PS: There's another structural element. The (very) long term logic of the Conservative position is to argue for maximum devolution to Scotland - or even quasi-independence.

That is because the Tory proposition will only truly thrive when they have the scope to offer tax cuts and a vibrant free-market approach. For that, they need fiscal autonomy or something close to it. Smart Tories know that. For now - and for the immediate future - such an approach clashes with their Unionist credentials.

Maybe someone else will have to do it for them. Remember that they survived as a party because of devolution - which they reviled - and proportional voting, which they opposed.

Curing the NHS

Brian Taylor | 12:25 UK time, Friday, 25 May 2007


I have vague memories of an advertising slogan which ran something like: “We’d rather sell ‘em than count ‘em."

It was a plug for one of those semi-permanent sales which seem such a salient feature in contemporary commerce. However, it came to mind when I glanced at the Howat Report into Executive spending priorities.

You know, the report “suppressed” by the previous administration but published under the glad new dawn that is John Swinney.

I say “glanced” advisedly. I freely confess I have yet to study the report in detail - although I will. It may be a character flaw but I am always happier ploughing through financial papers than absorbing the stilted, over-blown prose that characterises most political speeches.

Anyway, Howat drew an initial glance - and I was struck, once again, by the inability of bean-counters to cope with the Leviathan that is the NHS.

Howat agrees with Audit Scotland that “it remains difficult to assess whether the NHS in Scotland is delivering value for money”. Is it perhaps beyond difficult? Is it philosophically impossible?

Further, is it possible that improving the audit capacity may actually hinder or distort the small matter of catering for patients? Has this already happened through the obsession with targets? Did this oblige clinicians to pursue objectives which departed from medical decisions they would otherwise have taken?

More, how do you measure “success” in such a value-laden sector as health care? Yes, you can count how many enter hospital - and how many live or die. But how do you assess the quality of care received, the experience which contributed to well-being - or left them feeling worse, psychologically, than when they entered? In particular, how do you do this in such a vast organisation?

Should we perhaps abandon the search for a perfect audit experience - and, instead, rely on less precise but perhaps more valuable measurement tools such as surveys of patient opinion?

As the clinician might say, we’d rather cure ‘em than count ‘em.

By Royal appointment

Brian Taylor | 17:13 UK time, Thursday, 24 May 2007


“Pussy cat, pussy cat, where have you been?

I’ve been up to London to look at the Queen.”

Only this time, it was the Queen who made the journey to look at - or, more accurately, grant an audience to - Scotland’s new first minister, Alex Salmond.

Her Majesty is in Holyrood (Palace not Parliament) this evening for the event.

Mr Salmond popped down the hill from St Andrews House.

The British regal State has had to absorb a few shocks down the centuries.

Think of this one: The Queen is meeting a head of (devolved) government who is committed to ending the Union between Scotland and England.

The political Union, mind. It is the 1707 Treaty that would be repealed.

Alex Salmond has taken considerable pains to stress that the SNP would sustain the regal Union of 1603 - when King James VI of Scotland ascended the English throne.

Still, Scottish self-government and monarchy have had their tense moments.

In 1977, during her Silver Jubilee, the Queen stressed the benefits of Union.

Remember this was in the run-up to proposed devolution in Scotland and Wales.

Acknowledging her Scots, Welsh and English antecedents, Her Majesty continued: “I cannot forget that I was crowned Queen of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland."

That was interpreted, rightly, as a sentiment of disquiet with devolution.

Much later, after the Scottish Parliament had finally arrived, Her Majesty was to speak with approval of the “unity based on diversity” which devolution represented.

That’s called adapting to circumstance.

Still, though, it was in the context of “strengthening the bonds” within the UK.

Alex Salmond brings a new dimension. He wants, he says, to sustain and strengthen the “social union” between Scotland and England.

He defends the regal union. But he wants, ultimately, to end the political union, to repeal the Act of Union.

Addressing the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland last week, the Duke of York, the Queen’s second son, said that the election of an SNP government had “rattled the timbers” of the Union.

Mr Salmond said these were “good natured remarks.”

Maybe so - but you can bet that events in Scotland are being assessed extremely carefully in terms of their impact on both the political and the regal union.

PS: A newspaper diary suggested that Alex Salmond had demonstrated a rebellious streak by merely nodding - instead of speaking - when the Loyal Oath was adminstered in the Court of Session as he became FM.

Sorry and all that - but the participants in such Court ceremonies only ever nod.

They have done so down the decades.

Alex Salmond wasn’t rebelling: He was complying.

Your questions, my answers

Brian Taylor | 10:48 UK time, Thursday, 24 May 2007


Many, many thanks to those of you who wrote to welcome the arrival of my new blog. You posed a pile of questions. Thought I’d try, unusually, to answer a few.

Re poetry, I cannot compete with Vogon verse, I’m afraid. It is well attested as the third worst in the Galaxy. In my younger days, I gave readings. People came (not, admittedly, in large numbers). They stayed.

Re Bloomsday, I am indeed a committed Joycean, regarding him as the second finest novelist of all time. (Sir Walter Scott takes the lead.)

Re local councils, I expect the relationship with the Executive to be tense – as it should be. Tension might be added by John Swinney’s search for savings. Expect a big role for officials as coalition councils try to deal with a hung Parliament.

Re Dens Park, it’s always struck me as having wonderful potential – as a car park for a certain adjacent stadium.

Re identity, I think a growing, amorphous sense of Scottish identity created the drive for self-government – not the other way round. Think though that Scotland is becoming more relaxed about identity. We’re Scots – but it’s no big deal.

Re Brown v Salmond, think it’ll be a stand-off. Each too astute to pick a direct fight – unless in very exceptional circumstances.

Re personal touch, it will always intrude – but within reason. Not because of BBC guidelines but owing to my own innate caution.

Re West Lothian question, it must be addressed sooner or later. (Wrote at length on this in a couple of books. If I started to answer now, I’d match their duration.)

Re seeing the Queen, A. Salmond is off to Holyrood (Palace not Parliament) this afternoon. FMs are always invited to see HM.

Re galluses, I wear them to hold up my breeks. Personal favourites feature characters from Looney Tunes. Bugs Bunny is, for me, the quintessential political philosopher. “What’s up, doc?” Says it all, really.

Re the diaspora, a very warm welcome.

Re Scots weather presenters, not a clue.

Re governance of England, see response to West Lothian (and, hence, my books.)

Re numpties and bampots, every Parliament has its share. There are some MSPs who could hold down key jobs in the professions or business. There are some I wouldn’t send for a message. Perhaps the numpty count could be lessened somewhat.

Re Wendy Alexander, yes she could become next Labour leader. If and when there is a vacancy.

Re coalition, Nats and Libs won’t enter coalition because they don’t, currently, agree. A referendum on independence is rather a big deal. Not everything can be solved by a group hug and a common rendition of Kumbaya. But, yes, I think the Libs need to find a new narrative: a more convincing way of saying no.

Re how I vote. Behave yourself!


Brian Taylor | 10:40 UK time, Thursday, 24 May 2007


Eilish Angiolini is to continue as Lord Advocate. What do you mean, you don’t care? This is an intriguing development. She was LA under the Labour/LibDem Executive. She’s still LA under the SNP. This is new model consensual government in practice.

But then you guys were ready for this development – because you read it here first. (C’mon, I’m allowed a little trumpet-blowing.)

The bold Angiolini was in Holyrood this morning to be endorsed by MSPs, her ears burning as she was praised on all sides. Incidentally, I’ve found her occasional Holyrood speaking roles amusing: she sometimes sounds as if she’s in court. “I’m obliged, m’Lord.”

But she’s ferociously bright – and determined. She’s challenged established presumptions with vigour and diplomacy. She’s also widely liked and respected – indeed, she’s in danger of becoming the new Lord James.

For the future, she won’t sit in Cabinet (unlike under Labour/LibDem). Alex Salmond explained that it was important to draw a line between the political and the legal sectors of governance.

However, consensus goes only too far. The Solicitor General, John Beckett, will be replaced by Frank Mulholland QC. Mr Mulholland – who was also warmly praised at Holyrood on all sides – is perhaps best known for prosecuting Transco over the Larkhall gas explosion.

Politics of the possible

Brian Taylor | 18:34 UK time, Wednesday, 23 May 2007


As so often, our attention is drawn to the dog that didn’t bark.

(Forgive me for this unaccustomed Sherlock Holmes reference: I was watching The Hound of the Baskervilles last night - the Peter Cushing version. Great stuff.)

In the case of Alex Salmond’s first statement to Holyrood as first minister, there were a pair of silent mutts on display. Or not, if you get my drift.

A. Salmond was responsible for one.

The other could be laid at the door of events.

Firstly, events. Mr Salmond spent a fair chunk of his statement talking about a new approach to energy: no new nuclear, innovative renewable science instead.

He even referred obliquely to a project in his own north east of Scotland, “backed by some of the largest companies on the planet.”

Barely had he sat down when BP, one of the companies concerned, announced it was pulling out of that proposed carbon capture scheme for Peterhead.

BP say they’re sick of waiting for the go-ahead from the UK Government. Today’s Commons statement on energy strategy, they say, simply created more delay.

The wheeze had been to split natural gas into productive hydrogen for energy generation and waste CO2, burying the CO2 segment deep underground in the Miller Field.

BP say they’ve already spent $50m preparing for the plan - and can’t afford to keep the Miller Field ticking over for an undefined further time while they await progress.

Mr Salmond will be furious - and will attempt to turn his anger upon the UK Government.

BP, who are far from politically naïve, say that the SNP leader has been “very positive” towards the plan - while the response of the UK Government has been “disappointing”.

Secondly, matters under Mr Salmond’s control.

In his statement, no mention whatsoever of a White Paper or a bill on an independence referendum. Why not? Because said legislation stands no chance of success, given the make-up at Holyrood.

This was the politics of the possible, a limited outline of priorities for the next few weeks and months - such as scrapping tolls on the Tay and Forth.

Gone are the days of four year plans.

Welcome to new Scotland.

Battles looming

Brian Taylor | 18:15 UK time, Tuesday, 22 May 2007


And another thing. Where might the really big conflict arise between Holyrood and Westminster? Follow the money - and Europe.

If the new executive team is serious about recouping the money retained by Whitehall in attendance allowance when free personal care was introduced in Scotland, that could be a battle.

If the new executive can get Local Income Tax past Holyrood, replacing Council Tax - then Whitehall will undoubtedly seek to retain Council Tax benefit on the (arguably not unreasonable) grounds that a benefit cannot be paid to compensate for a tax which no longer exists. That will be a battle.

I can’t instantly see either cause being particularly easy for the executive to pursue - but fight it would.

However I think, and have always thought, that the big battle ground will be over Europe - because the issue of relations with the European Union was quite deliberately muddied in the original Scotland White Paper.

In the Scotland Act, external relations - including with Europe - are reserved.

But the White Paper provided that the UK Government would consult with the devolved territories over forming, and pursuing, a common UK position.

I have always regarded this as a convenient fiction - just about sustainable with good will and a lot of blind eye turning on all sides.

Say the good will goes.

Say the SNP executive wants, for example, to lead in EU talks over fisheries, pursuing primarily the interests of the Scottish fleet.

Say there is simply no common UK position available.

Say the UK Government then asserts, entirely legitimately, its power under the Scotland Act to conduct negotiations on behalf of the entire UK.

Now that would be a real fight.

Not going nuclear

Brian Taylor | 10:44 UK time, Tuesday, 22 May 2007


It is now received wisdom that the first big clash between Holyrood and Westminster will centre upon nuclear power. As so often, the received wisdom is wrong.

Firstly, there is already something approaching a deal on the table – or, more accurately, lurking beneath it.
This was struck - if one can use such a vigorous word for such a nebulous concept - between Jack McConnell and the UK government.

The deal was this. Holyrood wouldn’t rule out nuclear power as a quintessentially bad thing - but in practice Scotland’s contribution to the new energy map would be a vast increase in renewable supply. Not new nuclear.

That handed goodies to both sides. For the UK government, there was no awkward statement of ideological opposition to new nuclear; for Holyrood, there was an understanding that, in reality, new nuclear is not going to happen in Scotland.

It is now said that Wednesday's Commons statement by Alistair Darling will prompt conflict with the resolutely anti-nuclear SNP administration in Holyrood. Again, I think not.

Firstly, the nuclear companies are not necessarily going to want to build in Scotland. Too far from their big customer base. Too difficult politically. Why not just lodge planning applications in the south-east of England - where there are customers and compliant politicians? The Scottish issue may not arise at all.

Secondly, conflict only genuinely occurs - and lasts - where there is a dispute over powers. In this case, there is no dispute.

True, Westminster has reserved control over energy strategy. But Holyrood has control over individual projects under planning legislation and the Electricity Act. Westminster can say: “Britain must have new nuclear power stations.” Holyrood can say: “Fine. Build them where you fancy – but not in Scotland. We say no.” That is where the “conflict” ends.

Think seriously for a moment. If Holyrood says no - and it will - how is a nuclear station to be built in Scotland? By the army? The UK government knows this fine and well. It knew it fine and well when Jack McConnell was in power and “unconvinced” by the case for new nuclear. That is why I believe the McConnell “deal” will persist.

New nuclear will not be proposed for Scotland in practice - whatever the interim rhetoric. Scotland’s contribution to the UK’s future energy needs will be a massive increase in renewable provision.

You think that’s a cop-out? You think that’s a soft option? Windfarms, anyone? Beauly-Denny?

PS: Apologies for the brief interruption in bloggery. The above meanderings were scripted at home where I am recovering from a bout of dysentery (well, it felt like that.) Come the revolution, we shall abolish digestive systems.

About Brian Taylor

Brian Taylor | 13:00 UK time, Friday, 18 May 2007


Having reported Scottish politics since Braveheart was a boy, I find it particularly splendid to be able to share my meanderings via the relatively new realm of blogging.

Hope you’ll join me – and hope you’ll keep up the flood of invective, praise and comment.

As to me, I’m married with two sons. I’m a proud Dundonian – and a fanatical supporter of Dundee United Football Club. I give you fair warning that I will plug United at every opportunity.

At St Andrews University, I studied literature and wrote intense poetry. The woman who is now my wife suggested mildly that the market for intense poetry was slim, indeed negligible. So I turned to writing for the student paper instead. The first grown-up newspaper rash enough to employ me upon graduation was the Press and Journal in Aberdeen. While there, I covered the first Scottish devolution referendum in 1979. (Told you I’d been at this game a while.)

There followed six years as a lobby correspondent at Westminster – then aeons at the BBC.

I’ve lectured on politics and identity across Europe and the USA. I’ve written two books – and co-written a handful of others. (My first tome was snappily titled The Scottish Parliament. Took me weeks to dream up that title.) And, you know, maybe I’ll have another stab at the intense poetry one of these days.

PS: You can read my blog from the 2007 Election campaign by clicking here.

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