BBC BLOGS - Blether with Brian

Archives for September 2007

Judging the matter

Brian Taylor | 15:31 UK time, Thursday, 27 September 2007

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Judge. The clue lies in the title. Deciding on matters of law in a court is a question of judgement.

As was previously said in respect of fingerprints, it is not an exact science.

There is no algebraic formula which tells a judge that (x + y)2 = “the accused walks free”. It is a question of judgement.

Does that mean, then, that the prosecution, the Crown, is entitled to question the judgement reached by the bench if that forestalls a case from being put before a jury?

That is the essence of the controversy underlying the criticism delivered by the Lord Justice General, Lord Hamilton.

He has complained about the statement made to MSPs by the Lord Advocate, Elish Angiolini, with regard to the collapse of the World’s End murder trial.

To recap very briefly, Angus Sinclair was charged with the murders of two young women, 30 years ago.

The case was prosecuted by Alan Mackay, advocate depute.

The judge, Lord Clarke, dismissed the case on the basis of insufficient evidence – with the effect, of course, that the issue was not presented to the jury.

We are in novel territory here. The Lord Justice General’s statement was issued with an advisory note conceding that it was “an unusual step” for Scotland’s most senior judge.

A fortnight ago, in making her statement to MSPs, the Lord Advocate had acknowledged that she would “not normally think it appropriate as Lord Advocate to comment” following a judgement from the bench.

In truth, she may be wishing now that she had pursued her customary course.

As I have said before, I was not in court for the trial and do not feel qualified to join the legion of “armchair commentators”, criticised by Ms Angiolini for offering views on the conduct of the prosecution.

However, I was in the gallery at Holyrood to hear the Lord Advocate’s statement.
I must confess to feeling a little uneasy: both at the exceptionally detailed statement itself and at the subsequent Q&A session with MSPs which seemed, to me, to come very close on occasion to rerunning the trial.

Did she criticise the judge? No, not directly. Indeed, she took pains to stress that the judge was perfectly entitled to act as he did. The decision was, properly, his and his alone.
Did she criticise the judgement?

Yes, at least implicitly. The key section is where she said: “I am of the clear opinion that the evidence made available to the court was sufficient to be put before the jury, to allow them the opportunity to decide on the case against Angus Sinclair.”

The only interpretation which can be placed upon that statement is that the Lord Advocate felt the judge was wrong to halt the trial and wrong to forestall the jury from casting their verdict.

The Lord Justice General says that the Lord Advocate’s overall statement “does not afford the requisite respect” to judges.

To the contrary, he argues, it may tend to undermine the necessary confidence in the judicial system.

At Holyrood today, the First Minister Alex Salmond defended the Lord Advocate’s statement, insisting that it was justifiable, indeed vital, in a system of Parliamentary accountability.

But, if that is true, then who speaks in Parliament for the defence? Who speaks for the judge? Are we only to hear the Crown view of cases which have caused public and political controversy?

I am far from offering a fixed view on this. The atmosphere surrounding these hideous murders perhaps called for comment. The Lord Advocate was undoubtedly responding to pressure from MSPs.

But might that not be said, in future, of other cases? Might it not be better, on balance, if prosecution, defence and judgement were conducted solely in court?

Might it not be better, again on balance, if MSPs confined themselves to setting the parameters for our judicial system including, if warranted, a Crown right to appeal against such judgements?

In short, might it not be better if our politicians stuck to making the law rather than prosecuting it?

No laughing matter

Brian Taylor | 16:03 UK time, Wednesday, 26 September 2007

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Could somebody, anybody, supply the prime minister with a few new gags?

This afternoon, in a Q&A session at the Bournemouth conference, he resorted yet again to the old standards, the single transferable jokes.

Not that they’re bad gags. And he tells them with verve.

But we’ve heard them before.

Many times.

We’ve heard the one about President Nixon meeting folk in Africa, clasping them by the hand and inquiring “how does it feel to be free”, only for the guy at the end of the line to reply “how should I know, I come from Alabama.”

Speaking purely personally, if I hear that story again, I fully intend to scream.

Ditto the one about Reagan being told that a Scandinavian leader was an “anti-Communist” and retorting: “I don’t care what kind of Communist he is...”

Ditto the comparison between himself arriving as a youngster at Edinburgh University and Mark Twain setting off into the world (although I’m inclined to stretch a point for that one: anything about the author of Huck Finn bears repetition).

Find some new material. Trawl the archives. Recruit the Chuckle Brothers. Translate a few funnies from Aristophanes. Anything.

Mind you, maybe Team Brown feel they should leave well alone.

Maybe they feel their man wouldn’t wash as a species of stand-up comedian.

Conflicting opinions

Brian Taylor | 16:42 UK time, Tuesday, 25 September 2007

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Do you remember a maudlin old satirical song which contained the lines: “As soon as this pub closes, the revolution starts”?

A cynic would have found echoes of it in this afternoon’s debate on world affairs at Labour’s Bournemouth conference.

Virtually every contribution from the floor ended with demands for “action, not words” - action on everything from Burma to Darfur to Colombia to the Middle East.

As such conflicts generally attract the description “seemingly intractable”, it would be all too easy to depict today’s debate as futile.

Certainly, those few speakers today who demanded the cancellation of Britain’s nuclear deterrent are unlikely to see this wish granted.

But, having listened to the entire debate seated in the hall, I am disinclined towards cynicism.

I tend more towards those speakers who argue that open discussion, the active ventilation of disgust at injustice, can, eventually, have an impact, particularly when it spurs governments and international organisations to act.

In addition, I was intrigued by contributions to the debate from two Scots in the Cabinet, Des Browne and Douglas Alexander.

Mr Browne, the defence secretary, spent much of his speech lauding the efforts of Britain’s armed forces and promising to improve their lot, both in the field and back home.

But I was more struck by the clear distinction he drew between the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq.

He described Afghanistan as “the noble cause of the 21st century".

I am sure it is not remotely accidental that, in the immediately preceding section, he avoided applying such a tag to events in Iraq.

His tone, indeed, was one of mitigating what he described as “a complex and difficult situation,” while stressing that the UK would fulfil obligations “to the Government and people of Iraq.”

Markedly, too, he noted at another point in the speech that the Commons will have the right to vote in future on Britain’s involvement in war.

As Secretary of State for International Development, Douglas Alexander announced further global aid, including £1bn over eight years to help tackle malaria, TB and HIV/Aids.

But, again, I was most drawn to the philosophical underpinning in his speech when he said that the distinction between foreign and domestic affairs had become eroded.

He said: “There’s no over there and over here any more.” In context, he was principally referring to the need for international co-operation to tackle poverty and disease.

But, interpreted otherwise, such a philosophical approach could easily elide into an argument for more frequent intervention to address conflict.

Which is the issue underlying the bitterly divisive arguments, within Labour and more generally, over Iraq.


Nothing flash from Gordon

Brian Taylor | 17:30 UK time, Monday, 24 September 2007

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It was only a passing reference, scarcely worthy of note in the wider conference address.

But my ears twittered a little when I heard Gordon Brown say: “We will in our manifesto commit to introduce the principle of elections for the second chamber.”

So why the twittering, other than the aftermath of a weekend in which Dundee United lost to Gretna (Gretna!) and Scotland failed to turn up against the All Blacks?

Because the Prime Minister’s no doubt careful choice of wording prompted an instant further question:

“Which manifesto would this be? For which election? A UK General Election that doesn’t need to be called until 2010?”

Note the wording again. Our manifesto. Not our next manifesto. Or our manifesto for the next election. But our manifesto.

For a presumably proximate contest, relatively speaking.

Intriguing contrast of attitudes, here in Bournemouth.

Wendy Alexander’s speech opens with an apology for an election just past, the Holyrood election in which Labour lost power. If her speech were a book or a film, it would be “Atonement”.

By contrast, Gordon Brown’s would be “Passport to Pimlico” or some equally uplifting comedy about British pluck.

That’s because delegates here who live south of Hadrian’s Wall (and those whose focus is primarily Westminster) are eagerly discussing an election to come. October? May next year?

As one MP commented to me: “That was a manifesto speech. If I were one of the fifty or so MPs in marginal seats, I’d be telling Gordon to call the election now.”

Could the (relatively) doleful condition of Scottish Labour impact upon the PM’s decision, arguing for deferral?

Perhaps – although there’s data evidence which suggests that Scots are intuitively less inclined to vote for the SNP in elections to Westminster.

But back to Gordon Brown’s speech. Serious, purposeful, primarily domestic – with the exception of a brief reference to the EU constitution and a substantial section on global poverty and conflict.

It was mercifully joke free. Gordon generally doesn’t do funnies – or, rather, he recycles the same jokes.

The single transferable gag, if you like. Not because he is personally dour - you need a keen sense of humour to support Raith Rovers – but because his instincts and reputation are founded on serious politics.

People wouldn’t understand him, wouldn’t believe him if he started cracking jokes like a music hall (or, in Bournemouth, pier-end) comic.

Secondly, for a new leader setting his party a new challenge, the tone was in some ways remarkably old-fashioned – or, perhaps more accurately, an attempt to reinterpret standing values for contemporary society.

He evoked his own upbringing, his childhood in the manse. He referred to his young family. He spoke in Churchillian (or at least Attlee-esque) tones about his pride in being British.

Quite deliberately, he played upon Britain’s most familiar collective myth: that of a small nation, confronted but unbowed, standing proudly together against external forces.

It could have been another conviction politician talking, one who governed from 1979 to 1990.

(For the avoidance of doubt, I am using the word “myth” in its precise sense of a shared and instantly recognisable narrative. I am NOT implying that the PM was voicing an untruth.)

There wasn’t a dry eye in the one and nines as he praised citizens mopping up after floods, contesting foot and mouth and fighting terror (including Glasgow Airport hero John Smeaton who was in the hall.)
Mr Brown even turned to matron for advice. Matrons, he said, would be empowered to order cleaning contractors to improve their efforts in the wards.

In passing, of course, one might note that he is not in a position to implement such a reform for his own constituency of Kirkcaldy, domestic politics being largely devolved to Holyrood.

What, though, of the underlying message? He did set out to evoke a new approach, a “moral compass” of mutual help and rights blended with responsibilities.

He placed this in the context of an “aspirational” Britain where folk expected the chance to make the most of their talents.

His prime argument was that, in the global economy, Britain must compete with higher skills, more widely spread.

There is, in truth, little radical or innovative about this. That combination of “aspiration and community” is fairly familiar. Then again, that’s the pitch. No gimmicks, no gags. Nothing flash from Gordon.


Sorry, sorry, sorry

Brian Taylor | 13:37 UK time, Monday, 24 September 2007

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Sorry, the song tells us, seems to be the hardest word. By contrast, it tripped fairly easily from the tongue of Wendy Alexander when she addressed the Labour Conference in Bournemouth today.

She told delegates that she felt constrained to offer an apology for Labour’s performance at the Holyrood elections when, in case it had escaped your notice, they ceded power to the SNP.

In essence, it was an apology from Scottish Labour to colleagues in England and at Westminster.

There may have been one or two in the hall who perhaps felt that any apology should have gone the other way.

That perhaps Labour’s performance in Scotland was undermined by Iraq and leadership tension, emanating from London.

However, Ms Alexander resolutely declines to shuffle blame elsewhere. She argues – and an academic survey of opinion appears to confirm – that Scottish Labour had lost the trust of the voters.

Which must have stirred a few intriguing thoughts in the mind of Jack McConnell, listening in the hall.

Understandably, Mr McConnell inclines towards the view that his efforts to promote the Scottish Labour message were undermined by friendly fire.

Either way, Wendy Alexander’s speech went down well in the hall.

She was given a big build-up – by contrast with past efforts when it has sometimes seemed that the Scottish Labour leader has been smuggled on to the platform in a brief interval between the financial appeal and the debate on refuse collection.

They liked what she said – and she avoided saying anything that might upset them.

In particular, they liked it when she attempted to link the SNP and the Tories in a grand design to “break up Britain”.

The argument went thus: the SNP want to end the Union and the Tories keep going on about Gordon Brown being Scottish.

As presented in summary form like that, it didn’t bear all that much examination – although it could be argued that the Tories are occasionally tempted into rhetoric which can appear anti-Scottish in the wrong light.

And the bit they didn’t hear? Wisely, Wendy decided not to labour her argument that the party in Scotland needs greater autonomy, needs a clear division of powers with colleagues in Westminster, to match devolution.

Conference audiences, particularly on Monday mornings, generally like simple certainties.
The limited tartanisation of Scottish Labour might have been a little tricky to digest.

On the attack

Brian Taylor | 15:38 UK time, Thursday, 20 September 2007

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Today at Holyrood, Alex Salmond faced a neatly-worded and carefully pursued attack from an Opposition party leader.

She combined wit, invective and politics to target the First Minister. She was not Wendy Alexander.

Not that Wendy did badly. She looked, understandably, a little nervous. But she spoke at measured speed and she pursued an important policy question (the issue of fuel poverty among pensioners.)

On the day, however, she was fairly comfortably dealt with by Alex Salmond – and outgunned by Annabel Goldie.

Ms Goldie attacked the SNP policy of replacing council tax with a local income tax, neatly linking that to the shares income of SNP Minister Stewart Stevenson, as reported by The Scotsman.

The Tory leader pointed out that income from dividends wouldn’t be caught by LIT.

Some, she said, would regard that with equanimity. Not Ms Goldie. She said: “I think it stinks.”

Mr Salmond replied by defending the overall equity of LIT. It wasn’t a bad answer – but the Tory leader had made her point. And made it well.

Other than that, though, Alex Salmond was in total control. He swatted his opponents aside.

For example, Robert Brown of the LibDems complained about uncosted SNP promises – moments after the FM had cited research indicating that the LibDems had three times as many such pledges in their manifesto.

The SNP benches, understandably, chortled – while the LibDems looked rather glum.
Mr Salmond offered comparable treatment to Andy Kerr of Labour.

In passing, however, we might note that these counter-attacks relied, in part, on ridiculing the previous administration’s efforts.

By definition, that is a wasting asset with the passage of time.

Waiting times in virtual Scotland

Brian Taylor | 16:03 UK time, Wednesday, 19 September 2007

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In our (erstwhile) eyes, we were “the best small country in the world”. Through some American eyes, we are Groundskeeper Willie from The Simpsons.

In our (contemporary) eyes, we are a powerhouse of modern technology and a beacon for reformed democracy. Through some American eyes, we lack the Internet but are strong on sheep and submaritime monsters.

Those are the depressing, if predictable, findings from a survey of “how ithers see us”. Decidedly ill-informed ithers.

I must confess my mind wandered for a moment to this clash between reality and perception as I listened to this afternoon’s Holyrood statement on hospital waiting.

As I heard the Health Secretary Nicola Sturgeon outline her plans to abolish hidden waiting lists, I couldn’t help thinking that she was, at least in part, describing a virtual Scotland.

In virtual Scotland, the hospital admin system works slickly - and patients respond promptly to requests to attend for treatment. In real Scotland, the bureaucracy stumbles forward and patients are frequently too confused, stressed or lazy to respond.

In virtual Scotland, the new system obliges hospitals to give you reasonable credit if you can’t keep an appointment for good reasons.

You don’t go straight to the back of the queue. In real Scotland, I fear that a stuttering system will find new excuses to trim lists.

To be absolutely fair, Nicola Sturgeon recognised this openly and frankly. She said that you don’t abolish hidden waiting lists simply by reforming the system, however well intentioned those reforms are.

Without transparency and scrutiny, any system remains open to abuse by pressurised officials.

Here’s how it works. You’re given a guarantee of treatment within 18 weeks from referral by a GP. Under the old set-up, you could lose that guarantee if your case was low-priority or too complex to be handled routinely.

You could lose it if you failed to keep an appointment. You could be put on back-up lists, variously and bewilderingly described down the years.

Under the new set-up, there’s a single waiting list. If you’re unavailable for treatment - for social, work or health reasons - then that period is added to your waiting time guarantee.

The clock stops ticking while you’re out of the game. But you don’t lose your rights altogether.

Secondly, if you can’t make a particular appointment, you’re given another chance - and another. You’re given two chances to rearrange appointments. After that, you may be off the waiting list - and sent back to your GP.

Sounds sensible. And, indeed, Labour claimed it was a system borrowed from them - which led to a fairly futile spat between front benches.

Snag is that earlier attempts to sort out hospital waiting may also have sounded pretty sensible at the time: only to founder against the slippery rock of human frailty and indecision.

To be fair (again) to Ms Sturgeon, she said she would scrap hidden waiting lists. She has now set out precisely how she plans to do it.

For the sake of patients, let’s hope it works.

Are you with us?

Brian Taylor | 17:32 UK time, Tuesday, 18 September 2007

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Just popped downstairs here at Holyrood to witness the mustering of Labour’s new front bench team. They were gathered in the Garden Lobby to endure trial by camera: the obligatory photocall.

Just one more, Wendy. This way, please, this way. The inevitable strained smiles. No such problem, of course, for those who have been subbed – including Hugh Henry who didn’t fancy a change of remit.

However, there could be a comparable strain on facial muscles tomorrow when Opposition leaders meet at Holyrood to discuss their alternative to Alex Salmond’s national conversation on the constitution.

The opposition parties have already met – once. Without Ms Alexander: she wasn’t in post then. So why the stress? What’s the problem? Labour and the Tories are irked at what they see as an attempt by the Liberal Democrats to bounce them into a particular strategy.

One close observer said it was time “to put Nicol Stephen back in his box". Mr Stephen had suggested, fairly firmly, that he envisaged a Scottish Parliamentary committee taking forward the scrutiny of possible further powers for Holyrood. He had also offered ideas as to what those enhanced powers might entail.

Labour and the Tories say: hang on. This isn’t just a Holyrood gig. We need Westminster – and the voters – involved. Specifically, it would be down to MPs to legislate for any further powers. So, say Labour, they must be on board from the start.

Equally, though, Labour and the Tories both say that they’re ready, willing and eager to discuss tactics, privately, with Mr Stephen. With the emphasis on “private” and “discuss”. They’re ready, they say, to give him space provided he responds.

Mr Stephen’s aides point out that his party’s federal conference is under way at Brighton right now. It would have been passing strange, they argue, had he not set out his views at that conference.

Yes, say the Tories and Labour, but you have to decide whether you’re joining opposition efforts to enhance the Union – or taking part in Mr Salmond’s initiative which envisages the prospect of independence, among other options.

To quote one close observer – a different one this time: “The Libs need to decide if they’re in with us – or joining Alex’s Big Blether.”

Given all this, it’s not immediately clear what will emerge from tomorrow’s talks, if anything. To be fair, the opposition leaders face a tricky task.

They have to decide a mechanism for promulgating their project, they have to settle upon an agenda and they have to embark upon a course which has a reasonable prospect of progress.

Plus they don’t have the same perspective. No surprise there: they are distinct parties, after all. But the differences in emphasis are quite marked. The LibDems have a plan in place, drawn up by the Steel Commission, which would involve further fiscal powers for Holyrood.

The Tories say they’re open to that option, provided the Union is strengthened, not weakened. They remain to be convinced either way.

Labour is disinclined to speculate about specific powers at this stage, alert to the anxiety already present in their Westminster group about Holyrood’s status. More substantively, for Labour, this isn’t like the Convention. Then, they were in opposition.

Now they are in Government at Westminster: in the Parliament which would have to legislate if the Scotland Act is to be changed. They cannot write blank constitutional cheques.

And what of the First Minister and the SNP? They can afford to look on. Their line, broadly, will be that they know what they want: independence.

It is up to the opposition parties to sort out their precise preference for Scotland’s constitutional future. Then, perhaps, those options could be put before the voters in a multi-option referendum.

In essence, Alex Salmond’s line will be: get back to me when you know what you want.

Shaking it all about

Brian Taylor | 18:08 UK time, Monday, 17 September 2007

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Who’s in, who’s out and who’s shaking it all about? I’m talking about Wendy Alexander’s new front bench team at Holyrood.

Definitely on the way up are Iain Gray and Pauline McNeill. Mr Gray - who spent a sabbatical away from Holyrood at the invitation of the voters - will shadow a fair chunk of John Swinney’s finance brief.

Labour sources say his spell working as a special adviser in the UK Government gives him valuable experience.

As John Swinney has already emerged as perhaps the most influential member of the cabinet (apart, of course, from you know who), then Iain Gray is set fair to wield serious clout in the Labour team.

The Swinney brief is so enormous that Wendy Alexander has opted to split it, asking Andy Kerr to shadow public services.

Strictly, John Swinney’s remit in this regard is public service “delivery” because, of course, education and health have their own cabinet secretaries.

Presumably, therefore, Mr Kerr’s brief will be to allege non-delivery, to build upon Labour’s tactic of challenging SNP ministers to turn their manifesto promises into reality.

Most observers, I believe, would think that the promotion for Pauline McNeill to the key post of shadowing the justice secretary is well-merited and somewhat overdue. She handled justice issues well as committee convener in that sector.

Ms McNeill is a close colleague and chum of Ms Alexander. Indeed, had Wendy chosen to stand against Jack McConnell six years ago, then Pauline McNeill would have been at the head of her campaign team.

Perhaps, on reflection, her absence from cabinet/shadow cabinet in the intervening period isn’t all that surprising.

Who’s out? Hugh Henry (like Ms Alexander, a Paisley buddy).

He leaves the shadow cabinet - but he’ll become convener of the Scottish Parliament's Audit Committee, subjecting SNP spending plans to close scrutiny. Out too goes Patricia Ferguson.

Who’s shaking it all about? Well, Wendy Alexander, obviously.

But look a little closer at the list. Look at the key role for Jackie Baillie, sacked by Mr McConnell in his “Jack the Knife” purge - but back now in the leader’s own team, working on parliamentary business and the constitution. Big remit.

Look too at Dave Whitton - a new MSP but a former journalist and highly experienced spin doctor, who worked for Donald Dewar. He’s listed as parliamentary aide to the leader.

Look finally at Tom McCabe. He’ll sit on the Holyrood corporate body, the organisation which handles pay and rations in the Scottish Parliament - and, incidentally, the building.

But he’s also Labour’s campaign director - and he’ll sit in on the Holyrood shadow team, where appropriate. The makings of a kitchen cabinet right there, perhaps.

PS: Where’s Alex Salmond while all this is going on? He’s at Balmoral. With the Queen. As first minister.

The waiting's finally over

Brian Taylor | 15:30 UK time, Friday, 14 September 2007

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And so finally, after weeks of waiting, Wendy Alexander has been confirmed as the new leader of Scottish Labour.

Why the wait? Because, although she was sole nominee, her election had to be confirmed by an electoral college comprising Labour MSPs and the party’s executive in Scotland.

Today it was announced that she had received 100% support from those voting.

“Better than Stalin”, one party aide was heard to mutter, the comment somewhat stifled by the presence of tongue in cheek.

And better than Donald Dewar. In similar circumstances, he only got 99.8% of the vote.

On investigation, it turned out that one union had rashly declined to offer support. Plainly, discipline has improved.

Wendy Alexander wants organisation to improve too.

The new leader wants root and branch reform - extending the party’s campaign reach across the whole of Scotland.

When Harold Wilson became Labour leader in 1963, he compared the party’s organisation to a “penny farthing”, quite unsuited to winning power in contemporary politics.

Wendy Alexander plainly feels the same now about Scottish Labour.

Stand by for policy movement too. She plans a virtual think-tank, tapping into ideas from a wider base.

Stand by for a new team of advisers - and for her shadow cabinet, due to be unveiled on Monday.

But perhaps she faces a more fundamental question.

What, precisely, does she lead? Strictly, it is Labour in the Scottish Parliament.

Her focus upon party organisation would suggest that she definitely envisages a wider role.

But how will that square with the role and influence of MPs - including one Gordon Brown?

Wendy Alexander wants more autonomy for the Scottish party on policy. She says the Scottish party should lead on devolved issues while the UK party leads on reserved matters.

It will be intriguing to see how it all shakes down.


On a serious note

Brian Taylor | 17:22 UK time, Thursday, 13 September 2007

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I’ve heard Holyrood raucous. I’ve witnessed it dull. Today I watched from the media gallery as the chamber’s mood was sombre, serious and reflective. With good reason.

MSPs listened in utter silence as the Lord Advocate Elish Angiolini set out in great and gruesome detail the background to the collapse of the World’s End double murder trial.

In sum, she supported Advocate Depute Alan MacKay

She explained the inevitably circumstantial nature of the evidence. She said that any evidence withheld was excluded on the basis of a “reasoned decision” by the advocate depute, based on the relative weight of that evidence and the overall conduct of the case.

She argued finally that independent Crown counsel must be free to pursue cases without fear of public vilification if those cases fail to result in conviction.

She added: “Armchair commentators, however eminent, are just that.”

It was a potent defence of the Crown, well delivered and commendably thorough. I offer no comment on the case either way. Not my role - and I wasn’t in court.

But I was intrigued by Elish Angiolini’s broader analysis, in response to questions from opposition MSPs, notably Labour’s Margaret Curran.

The Lord Advocate was asked about whether there might be a right of appeal for the Crown in such cases.

She said she had supported such a concept in advice to Scotland’s justice ministry - while stressing that action on this would be a matter for parliament, not her as the head of the prosecution service.

She also stressed this advice had been delivered “some weeks ago” - that is, it was not explicitly linked to the World’s End trial.

Mind you, she did indicate that - hypothetically - she might well have invoked such a right to appeal in the collapsed trial, had it existed.

Earlier, the first minister had suggested in response to Annabel Goldie that an enhanced Crown right of appeal might be an avenue to consider, perhaps instead of abolishing the “double jeopardy” rule which, in Scotland, prevents a retrial where there has been an acquittal.

It would seem, in short, that there is a Criminal Justice Bill in the making - to add to the eleven in last week’s programme for government.

PS: Labour are a little miffed - I stress, only a little in the wider scheme of things - that the answer from Alex Salmond on double jeopardy was delivered to Annabel Goldie.

Labour sources say the first minister had blanked Cathy Jamieson on precisely the same topic when she posed the question minutes before the Tory leader got to her feet.

Spending - the counter argument

Brian Taylor | 17:18 UK time, Wednesday, 12 September 2007

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More on spending. Here’s the perspective from inside the UK Ministerial tent. They counter the concern being voiced as to the impact on the devolved territories: Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

By coincidence, the Northern Ireland Finance Minister Peter Robinson is in London today for talks with the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, Andy Burnham. It’s part of a series of bilateral negotiations.

The line from Whitehall is that absolutely nothing is being done which unfairly works against Scotland (or the other devolved administrations.)

It’s said that Scotland argued that their spending increase should be based upon a particular base line - while the Treasury insisted, as in the past, upon a lower base line, excluding exceptional items.

It’s said further that some departments of the UK Government in Whitehall will get no increase. Others - particularly health - may get a significant increase.

Scotland, as in the past, will receive the standard Barnett consequentials - that is, a proportion based on population of the increase or decrease in comparable Whitehall departments. Broadly, those English departments which match the powers devolved to Scotland.

The line is that Scottish Ministers are basing their claims of a potential shortfall upon their own inflated calculation of what Scotland gets now, of the existing spending baseline.

In other words, Scotland is starting from a different - and erroneous - point to that used by the Treasury.

One UK Government source said that to suggest Scotland would suffer disproportionately was “a mis-statement - what others might call a lie.”

Presumably, we will all be able to judge, dispassionately, once the figures from the Comprehensive Spending Review are published.

Spending constraints

Brian Taylor | 14:36 UK time, Wednesday, 12 September 2007

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Here’s a little steer for you from inside the tent. I understand Ministers at Holyrood are fighting a battle against attempts by the Treasury to apply extra tough spending constraints in Scotland.

Stop, Brian, I hear you yell (or yawn). Old news. We’ve heard all this before. We know that the Treasury will announce the details of its Comprehensive Spending Review (CSR) next month - and that it’s going to be tighter than in the past.

Ah, but did you know that it’s presently scheduled to be extra tight in the devolved territories of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland?

In the March Budget, Gordon Brown - then Chancellor - indicated what he had in mind for public spending for the three years from 2008: the period covered by the CSR.

He intended 3% “value for money” savings from existing budgets - together with 2% growth in public spending allocations.

In addition, he announced extra cash for education and security. But the core message was that the new spending round would add up to inflation plus 2% over the three years. Tighter than in the past.

However, I understand that the devolved territories - including Scotland - have now been told to expect that their budgets will rise by inflation plus 1%, rather than 2%. Tighter than elsewhere.

The Barnett formula - which computes annual variations in the budget, comparable to England - remains untouched.

Rather, the Treasury is proposing to reconfigure the base upon which Barnett is calculated.

Which means? In relative terms, less for Scotland. Less to spend on public services.

Stand by for substantial protest from Scotland - in consort with Northern Ireland and Wales. Indeed, it’s already under way.

Taxing questions

Brian Taylor | 15:22 UK time, Tuesday, 11 September 2007

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Hands up those of you who voted for devolution ten years ago today? Hands down.

Now, hands up those of you who also voted for the devolved Parliament to have limited tax powers? Hands down.

Finally, hands up those of you who think those limited tax powers will ever be used?

That second question on tax powers caused quite inordinate fuss a decade ago.

It caused uproar, particularly within the Scottish Labour Party, when it was proposed – alongside the general controversy about the entire project.

To the last day of the campaign, Donald Dewar remained sporadically and gloomily convinced that Question Two would fall.

He thought it counter-intuitive to expect people to vote explicitly for the possibility of higher taxes - without any precise indication as to what those taxes might fund.

In the event, of course, the concept of devolution was backed three to one and the tax power – the so-called Tartan Tax - was backed by nearly two to one.

Ten years after (rather a good band, once saw them at the Caird Hall), the concept of devolution is entrenched.

The tax power is all but forgotten. Nobody seriously expects any party to make use of it, either now or in the foreseeable future.

Why? Because it would cause too much political grief and would cost too much to implement – by comparison, that is, with the demonstrable gains.

The Question Two power, remember, was to vary the standard rate of income tax up or down by a maximum of 3p in the pound. Nothing on upper rates of tax. Nothing on the new lower band. No capacity to target.

From time to time, sundry Tories have toyed with the notion of offering a tax cut – only to disavow it as futile, impractical politics.

More recently, the LibDems also looked at whether they might offer a distinctive message with a cut in the Tartan Tax.

They polled discreetly and concluded that it was a non-starter - folk didn’t trust the offer, couldn’t conceive of it happening.

On the Left, we’ve occasionally heard talk of a tax hike in Scotland to fund public services.

Donald Dewar ruled it out for the first Parliament – and nothing’s been heard of it since from Labour.

The SNP, of course, previously offered to spend a penny for Scotland (author - J. Swinney) in reversing a cut in the standard rate implemented by the Treasury (author - G. Brown.)

They’ve long since concluded that they could well do without such courageous politics.

Their emphasis now is upon cutting business taxation to boost the economy.

So why rake all this up again? Because, ten years on, there’s a debate/conversation under way about possibly enhanced powers for Holyrood.

And the really big, serious power that counts would be fiscal.

Should Holyrood have real clout over taxation – or borrowing? Would that increase political responsibility? Might it encourage political diversity – with some parties able to offer credible tax cuts while others float higher funded expenditure?

Or would it be an unacceptable intrusion into reserved powers and broad Treasury control of the economy? Would it damage Scotland’s economy?

Good questions all. One thing, though. We said yes to the Tartan Tax ten years ago. But, right now, it isn’t in itself an answer to anything.

Credit where credit's due

Brian Taylor | 15:11 UK time, Monday, 10 September 2007

Comments

Aren’t those figures on the presumed impact of the smoking ban amazing?

Incidentally, I say “presumed” purely from professional pedantry: we are assuming, rather than proving, a causal link. For the avoidance of doubt, I believe it is an entirely reasonable assumption.

Just look at the stats in the report published today. A 17% year-on-year drop in heart attack admissions since the ban (on smoking in public places) was introduced. Exposure to second hand smoke down by 40%.

Admittedly, the trend was already downwards. But it would appear that the smoking ban has accelerated that trend dramatically. It would appear, in short, that it has worked.

So who gets the credit? Principally Jack McConnell and his health minister Andy Kerr who enacted the reform.

But it will be reasonably pointed out that this measure began as an SNP Member’s Bill - while the Liberal Democrats say they were the first party to endorse the measure as formal policy.

Myself, I would credit the people of Scotland. I freely admit that I was simply stunned by the extent to which the ban was obeyed. Quite simply, I thought it might be widely ignored.

(En passant, it was utterly ignored in the rather gruesome gents conveniences at half time at Hampden on Saturday - but perhaps one might allow a little latitude at a moment of national triumph.)

I believe the general public acceptance of this ban is due to two factors. Firstly, the measure was thoroughly discussed - and thoroughly explained. Opponents of the ban were given ample opportunity to state their case.

Secondly, it was plain that the people of Scotland accepted the legitimacy of their devolved democracy.

They accepted, implicitly and explicitly, Holyrood’s remit. They accepted the right of MSPs, having consulted, to interfere in their lives for the common good. A remarkable event, then, on several grounds.

It's Green Energy Day!

Brian Taylor | 15:45 UK time, Friday, 7 September 2007

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Bet you didn’t know this was Green Energy Day?

Actually, take that back. Given the (mostly) erudite tone of the contributions to this blog, I expect you already knew it fine and well.

Anyway, Green Energy Day marks the point at which Scotland has, for the first time, the installed capacity to produce more energy from renewables than from nuclear.

The capacity, mark you. The potential. The calculation only really applies if all Scotland’s wind farms etc are operating at 100 %.

Anyway, Alex Salmond marked GED by visiting Crystal Rig windfarm near Dunbar. He said he was aginst new nuclear - and in favour of renewable energy. Wind, wave, tidal, biomass and the rest.

The response from Labour was markedly acerbic - and in line with their evident determination to depict Mr S as all mouth and no trousers.

Iain Gray, the comeback kid, accused the SNP of thwarting wind farm developments on the ground (or rather in the skies above the ground, but you know what I mean.)

Mr Gray said: “Scotland cannot be powered by Alex Salmond’s bluster alone. It is time for him to get real on renewables.”

Potent stuff - backed up, say Labour, by evidence from around Scotland. Although I imagine that the first minister might reflect upon the UK Labour Government’s support for new nuclear - and permit himself a wry smile.

Still and all, the former first minister, Jack McConnell, was of the view that new nuclear would not be needed in Scotland, that the Scottish contribution to UK energy needs would be a big push for renewables.

His then Lib Dem partners were firmly against new nuclear. Which could have made for fun coalition talks - except that I believe they could comfortably have finessed the issue, given J. McConnell’s stand.

In the event, of course, that particular “problem” didn’t survive the election. But the issue of Scotland’s energy choice certainly did.

As Iain Gray’s remarks usefully remind us, the renewables choice is far from the soft option. As Alex Salmond’s remarks helpfully stress, the nuclear choice can have long-term consequences.

Perhaps, in there somewhere, there is the prospect of a mature debate - once the unalloyed thrill of Green Energy Day fades.

Awkward moments

Brian Taylor | 13:31 UK time, Thursday, 6 September 2007

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He emerged smiling – but this wasn’t the most comfortable of Parliamentary occasions for Alex Salmond. I’m talking about today’s session of questions to the First Minister.

He faced detailed questions on policy implementation, most notably from Cathy Jamieson and Nicol Stephen. No doubt comparably detailed answers will emerge in due course, post consultation.

But they didn’t emerge on the day. Cue opposition guffaws – and mild discomfort for the FM.

Cathy Jamieson was leading for Labour – because the Labour leader (provisional) has yet to be formally endorsed by the party’s electoral college. Wendy Alexander won’t step up to the plate until September 14.

Ms Jamieson was rather effective. Her prologue was a little discursive – but her core challenge was potent.

Ok, Mr Salmond, so you can’t get all your primary legislation through – but what about issues that don’t require changing the law?

Specifically, what about support for housing, ending PPP, freezing the council tax and reducing class sizes. More specifically still, what about the SNP manifesto promise of £2,000 to help first time home buyers?

The First Minister offered an autumn action plan on housing – but opposition parties clearly felt that fell short of incisive, manifesto-style precision. They chortled, knowingly.

Nicol Stephen was sharp too. The LibDem leader has faced murmurs of discontent. If he can sustain today’s showing, those will subside.

He pursued the FM over waiting time pledges to patients. Would those be legally binding? Would there be a lawyer at every hospital bedside? (Mr Stephen is a qualified lawyer.)

Alex Salmond advised him that he intended to follow the Norwegian model of patient guarantees which, apparently, works well – rather than the US-style blizzard of litigation envisaged by Mr Stephen.

Again, though, little detail. That’s entirely understandable. It’s very early in the life cycle of the Salmond administration. However, it doesn’t make for an easy time in the chamber. Opposition MSPs chortled knowingly once more. Those chortles said: “Welcome to government”.

PS: More name games. The Presiding Officer Mr Alex Fergusson Esq wants a bit of decorum in the chamber. No more calling other MSPs by their first names. And sit up straight, Salmond Minor.

If you were being wicked, you could blame his predecessor (but one).

In the chair, The Rt Hon Baron Steel of Aikwood advised members: “Just call me Sir David”. Once standards slip……..

Name game two. The Scotland Office indicates that it will continue to call Team Salmond the “Executive”, despite their wish to be known as “the Scottish Government”.

I still reckon that the alternative title, the White Heather Club, merits consideration.


Setting the agenda

Brian Taylor | 17:39 UK time, Wednesday, 5 September 2007

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Pragmatic politics or a timid climb-down? What do you reckon to the Scottish Government’s legislative programme?

With a light smile, Alex Salmond openly acknowledged that his programme wasn’t exactly as billed. But then, as he also acknowledged, he doesn’t have a majority at Holyrood.

It is, to be frank, a little cheeky for the opposition parties to condemn Mr Salmond for “legislation light” - when it is the presence of those self-same opposition parties, in substantial numbers, that prevent the SNP from implementing the whole of their manifesto.

However, I thought that the opposition front benches pounced fairly effectively on the detail, smartly detecting the absence of barking from certain dogs.

For example, Cathy Jamieson for Labour noted that a promise of more Bobbies on the beat had become an initiative to work with police forces to “increase capacity by the equivalent of 1,000 officers and seek to place them in our communities”.

On that issue, the problem may, ultimately, be cash. The next spending round is likely to be tight. It could also be that ministers cannot direct chief constables how to deploy front-line resources. Hence, the promise to “seek” community effort.

Others queried what had happened to plans to freeze the council tax in preparation for its replacement by a local income tax.

Nothing, said Mr Salmond, the ambition was there - and the action would follow.

For the Tories, Annabel Goldie said the package was “less a Queen’s speech and more the musings of a man who would be King”. Rather neat, that.

Nicol Stephen of the Liberal Democrats said it was “all gong and no dinner”. Not bad, either.

But it was a good performance by the first minister, too. Judge us, he said, on what we achieve over four years. Not on our 11 Bills now.

Team Salmond say the aim is to demonstrate that they will govern sensibly, dealing with what needs to be done - and also what can be done, given the parliamentary arithmetic.

They point out that they could easily have introduced a series of Bills that were guaranteed to be blocked, thinking of six impossible things before breakfast, Lewis Carroll style. Alex in Wonderland, if you like.

Instead, they believe they will steadily inculcate an image in the public mind that they are stable, steady ministers, governing in the public interest.

Then, having banked that support, they can proceed further and better.

Which, translated, could mean: OK, it was a bit dull today - but just watch us when we really get going.

Promotion of drink

Brian Taylor | 11:50 UK time, Wednesday, 5 September 2007

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When I was a young lad in the great and noble city of Dundee, there was a street song which counselled: “Vote, vote, vote for Neddy Scrymgeour, he’s the man tae gie ye ham an’ eggs.” We sang it loudly, cheerfully ignorant of the identity of the subject but keen on the concept of grub.

Later, when I came to man’s estate, I learned that the said Neddy (or Edwin) was a prohibitionist who helped oust Winston Churchill as MP for Dundee in 1922 (There were two city seats collectively up for grabs. Labour’s Edmund Morel won the other). Churchill left the city in a fury, vowing never to return.

Historically, the political class has had an ambivalent attitude towards alcohol.

On the one hand, the Temperance movement, espoused by Mr Scrymgeour, was a substantial factor in the earliest days of Socialism, reflecting, I suppose, a belief that the proletariat had to set aside the factors which held them down.

However, the splendid political folk song entitled “The Man who Waters the Workers’ beer” reflects an alternative verdict: that there is a special circle of hell reserved for those who interfere with the pleasures of the populace.

Without in any way espousing the Scrymgeour doctrine, Scotland’s Justice Secretary has today taken steps which, he believes, might help constrain Scotland’s damaging love affair with the bottle. Kenny MacAskill wants to ban cheap promotions of drink by supermarkets and off-sales shops.

Mr MacAskill says such offers simply “encourage youngsters to get drunk cheaply in the house or on the street”.

The trade has responded by arguing that the measure – banning three for two offers, for example – will simply oblige shops to discount prices of individual sales below cost.

Not an easy call, this one. Are special deals the problem? Or should the Treasury act to increase the price of drink overall? If they did, what would that mean for jobs in Scotland’s drinks industry?

To be fair, the minister made clear that he sees today’s initiative as simply one element in a longer term campaign to change Scotland’s drink culture. Worth a wider debate, I think.

The great oil debate

Brian Taylor | 13:58 UK time, Tuesday, 4 September 2007

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Roughly a thousand years ago, when I worked on the Press and Journal, the Offshore Europe conference loomed large in my professional life.

As a trainee, I spent a happy spell on the paper’s business desk, ruled then by the ebullient Dick Mutch.

Today, my attention was drawn to Offshore Europe once more. David Cairns, Scotland Office Minister, is addressing the conference with the message that North Sea oil will remain in Westminster control.

To nobody’s surprise, Mr Cairns rejects the argument of the SNP that control should be devolved to Holyrood.

The Cairns argument is that transferring political control would introduce uncertainty to the detriment of the industry and, consequently, Scotland.

He says: “We must ensure, beyond all doubt, that we are in a position to take full advantage of our remaining reserves in the UK.”

The Minister’s case is cogent and carefully stated. Perhaps, very carefully stated. In the text before me, he speaks in opposition to the devolution of powers.

However, the SNP demand – as set out in the party’s “100 days” document – was for the devolution of control over powers and revenues: “near £1 billion a month”, according to the Nationalists.

In response to the revenues issue, Labour Ministers customarily argue that it would be futile and unwise for Scotland to base an economy upon a declining and economically volatile asset.

Few, I suspect, would argue straightforwardly that Scotland could not have made productive use of past revenues.
To be fair, that falls within the wider argument concerning the finances of independence: the SNP’s opponents say that Scotland would suffer, economically, from breaking the union and that oil is an intrinsic part of the common UK package. That Scotland cannot pick and choose.

Mr Cairns essentially deploys that argument in Aberdeen today when he says: “The interests of both Scotland and the UK are best served through continued economic union and the benefits which accompany a UK-wide approach.”

An intriguing debate.

What's in a name?

Brian Taylor | 11:58 UK time, Monday, 3 September 2007

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In the early days of Holyrood, we members of the wicked media mostly divided our time between two tasks - highlighting the savage cost of the building and trying to gain access to the Parliamentary boozer.

Said hostelry was originally open to MSPs only. But wisdom prevailed and, after a lengthy campaign, the media were admitted.

(By “wisdom”, I mean the realisation that the bar’s takings would be enhanced substantially by letting in the hacks.)

Anyway, the bar is now unofficially called The White Heather Club. Not, sadly, in tribute to the magnificent TV series of that name. Rather, the billing commemorates a previous occasion when political nomenclature was salient.

You’ll recall that Henry McLeish’s administration floated the notion of being described as “the Scottish Government" - rather than “the Scottish Executive”.

Asked to comment, one unnamed MP told a newspaper: “They can call themselves the White Heather Club if they want but they will never be the Scottish Government.”

Rather good, isn’t it? Neatly insulting, containing the implicit suggestion that Holyrood is somehow parochial. (Of course, the speaker could be a huge fan of the WHC and the remark could be the highest praise. No, I don’t think so either.)

Which brings us to today. Alex Salmond, apparently, now heads the “Scottish Government”, not the executive. The name is to be changed on headed notepaper and public buildings.

And for why? According to research, conducted for the executive/government/White Heather Club, folk were generally unable to “differentiate the work of the Scottish Executive from other UK and Scottish governmental bodies (including Scottish Parliament, Whitehall, Westminster and local government”.

Was that perhaps because they saw all these bodies as an amorphous, lumpen “them”, ruining their lives and pinching their money in taxation?

Only a thought - but not one that commended itself to A.Salmond. He concluded that the term "executive" must be replaced.

Mr Salmond also cites Henry McLeish’s autobiography in which HM disclosed that Tony Blair was “not in the least bothered” by the phrase “Scottish Government”.

Again, that might have simply meant that Mr Blair was at his sunniest when he wasn’t bothered by Scotland in the least. But no matter.

So what’s this all about? Well, partly it’s grandstanding by Mr Salmond, upping the status of his administration. Partly, it’s a bone thrown to his own party. We can’t give you independence, for now, but we can call ourselves a government.

Mostly, though, it’s common sense. Alex Salmond heads a government. For most purposes, Scotland’s devolved, domestic government.

People grasp the concept. You can moan about a government, you can kick it out of power. “Executive” doesn’t do it, doesn’t stir the blood.

Legally, under the Scotland Act, the title is still “Scottish Executive”. That phrase won’t vanish at the stroke of the first minister’s pen.

What matters is not what they are called, but what they do. They can call themselves the . . . no, let’s not go there.

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