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Archives for April 2008

Innocent merriment

Brian Taylor | 14:42 UK time, Wednesday, 30 April 2008

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Here's an amusing little conundrum. Who has just begun a review of devolved powers?

Answer: the commission chaired by Sir Kenneth Calman and set up by the three opposition parties at Holyrood.

Who has already looked with an expert eye and in detail at options for the possible devolution of further powers?

Answer: the civil servants in the Scottish Government who drew up the document, "choosing Scotland's future", which forms the basis of Alex Salmond's national conversation.

Is it possible the two could coincide? Not directly, no. The commission is served by a combination of UK Government officials and Holyrood Parliamentary clerking expertise.

Officials in the Scottish Government work to the first minister, who has declared his preference is plain: independence.

It is up to the other parties to examine options within devolution. It is not a task for his government.

Independence preference

However, there are, already extant, around a dozen possible candidates for further devolution of powers.

The Calman commission doesn't need to scratch around for these. They can read the text for themselves.

Remember the national conversation, quite deliberately, extends beyond the SNP preference of independence.

As one insider observed to me, the document isn't written in woad with a foreword by Mel Gibson.

Again deliberately, it canvasses specific options for extensions to devolution. Just cast an eye at chapter two of the document.

Options include further tax powers; financial regulation; action on the environment; firearms law; health and safety at work; some aspects of social security; enhanced relations with the EU; broadcasting; and governance of the civil service.

Another favourite I hear mentioned is a direct power for the Scottish Government to borrow for capital spending.

Wouldn't it be a source of innocent merriment if the list which eventually emerges from the Calman commission runs pretty close to the contents of that chapter in the SNP Government's paper?

Public fury and street protest

Brian Taylor | 14:54 UK time, Tuesday, 29 April 2008

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What on earth is going on in Aberdeen? More precisely, what on earth is going on at Aberdeen City Council?

I lived in the Granite City in the late 1970s while working on the esteemed P&J.

My flat overlooked the harbour and memories from the time include the vessels in port sounding their horns at midnight on Hogmanay.

Such reminiscences occasionally still intrude on my contemporary central belt existence.

Consequently, I still retain a fondness for the city of the Northern Lights and an interest in its future.

Hence, again, the question. Can anyone enlighten me as to what on earth is going on at the city council?

The underlying issues. For some months now at Holyrood, knowing my North-east connections, sundry MSPs, notably of a Labour persuasion, have been regaling me with gossip of problems in the local authority.

Public concern

Glance at the city council's own website. There you will learn that authorities in the North-east have been co-operating to deal with the impact of the Grangemouth strike.

You will learn that Doonies Farm has just 60 days to prove its worth. Use it or lose it would appear to be the message.

No doubt shortage of space prevented the site from mentioning that the city council has been criticised by Audit Scotland over the sale of property assets.

Labour MSP Lewis Macdonald calls the disclosure "shocking". SNP MSP Brian Adam calls it a "matter of considerable concern" while noting that it all happened some time back.

Separately, the Accounts Commission is due to hold two days of hearings in Aberdeen in May following concern over the handling of the city's budget.

For concern, read public fury and street protest.

Fuelling talks

Brian Taylor | 11:24 UK time, Monday, 28 April 2008

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Grangemouth may be Scotland's sole oil refinery but we appear to be experiencing the impact of competition in one respect with regard to the refinery dispute.

Holyrood and Westminster ministers are tripping over each other to offer the most poignant and, they hope, effective appeals for a return to work.

To be fair, sundry ministers are all stressing the need for the two administrations to co-operate in dealing with the practical consequences of the strike. That appears to be happening in practice.

Nonetheless, it seems to this observer that there is a fair degree of healthy competition to show evidence to the public of political concern by UK Labour and Holyrood SNP ministers. They wouldn't be human otherwise.

So what do they, respectively, bring to the table? The UK Government has the statutory responsibility for securing overall energy supplies, including back-up emergency powers should those prove necessary.

The devolved Scottish Government has proximity to the dispute plus a further key factor. Civil service officials in Scotland are, mostly, employed by the Scottish Government. Their political boss is Alex Salmond.

Let me stress again. I am not, repeat not, repeat not, saying that the existence of two rival ministerial teams is causing problems with this dispute.

Quite the contrary.

Rather, political competition is likely to sharpen their edge. Adam Smith would understand.

In the public interest

Brian Taylor | 12:59 UK time, Thursday, 24 April 2008

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I am sufficiently realistic and world-weary to be aware that much of what passes for news in today's media leaves folk less than intrigued.

For example, I do not imagine that families crowd round the wireless, calling Granpa in from the shed, to hear my latest meanderings upon the relative state of Scotland's political parties.

However, there are exceptions. There are certain stories which interest the public - as well as being in the public interest.

The dispute at Grangemouth is one. Folk want to know what's going on.

They want to know if they can continue to get petrol and diesel. They want to know if major public services will be affected. They want the latest news.

They also want their political leaders to act in their interests, to intervene where possible to improve matters.

They will be particularly impatient with grandstanding. Holyrood, I would suggest, mostly rose to the occasion today.

The questions were, mostly, concerned with the public interest. In response, the first minister gave considered replies, appealing for calm.

Labour's Wendy Alexander chose to pursue Mr Salmond with accusations he led a "special access government". He denied the charge.

Public mood

On another day, this might have been a useful exchange on the nature of political power.

Today, with the break-down in the Grangemouth talks to the fore, it was the wrong call.

Annabel Goldie, Nicol Stephen and a succession of backbenchers questioned the FM about the implications of the Grangemouth dispute. That, I believe, matched the public mood.

After all, MSPs are elected to hold the administration to account - on behalf of the people.

Mr Salmond faced competing demands. Ms Goldie wanted him to support ending the strike pending further negotiations over the issue of future pension provision.

Labour's Cathie Peattie wanted him to "support the workers".

The FM trod a careful, cautious path - although I would suggest he was notably warmer towards the approach adopted by Ms Goldie without in any way denigrating the demands of the workforce.

He called for calm, for an end to conflict by soundbite, for focused negotiations. Pretty much, I would guess, what the voting, driving public wanted to hear.

Happy St George's Day!

Brian Taylor | 13:42 UK time, Wednesday, 23 April 2008

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Happy St George's Day. How has it been for you? Are you in commemoration mode?

Celebrating Shakespeare's birthday, perhaps? Or lamenting the tragic lack of contemporary dragons to slay?

I must confess I hadn't noticed the significance of the date at all until I caught up with Commons questions to the Secretary of State for Scotland.

Such neglect, I suspect, I share with most Scots and, according to surveys, most people in England too where the pugnacious saint's national day is little known or noted.

Des Browne, it seems, feels this should be redressed. Having wished compliments of the day to fellow MPs, he pondered aloud why the good and sensible people of England didn't make more of Shakespeare's birthday.

One reason could be that the Bard of Avon is also reckoned to have died on the 23rd of April.

Perhaps, like T.S. Eliot, in very different circumstances, they have seen both birth and death but had thought they should be different.

Over-exercised

Perhaps, more probably, there remains confusion in England about English/British nationality which transmits itself to the National Day.

Of course, the SNP piled in. Angus MacNeil, MP for Na h-Eileanan an Iar, wished the chamber a "Happy St George's Day".

His colleague, Angus Robertson, the party's Commons leader, made the matter more explicit still. Marking the day, he looked forward, he said, to England's independence.

Maybe it's me but I can't get over-exercised about saintly days, including Andrew despite my fondness for the town and university to which he lends his name.

Burns' Night, yes. Never happier than when consuming haggis or memorialising, immortally.

And I yield to those nations, such as Ireland, which happily mark their sanctified day. Just not sure you can extrapolate that easily.

Looking to Scotland

Brian Taylor | 16:17 UK time, Monday, 21 April 2008

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Here's an intriguing little aside. (Well, I think it's intriguing, you can judge for yourselves.)

You'll recall that the recent Italian elections produced a victory for Silvio Berlusconi and obliteration for the Communists and a string of minor parties.

Berlusconi's governing coalition includes the Lega Nord, a regional party seeking greater autonomy, especially financial, for the north of the country.

I'm told that Scotland within the UK may well provide one of the role models for efforts to reshape Italian governance in response to that impetus.

Now the Lega Nord, an anti-immigration party of the right, may have little in common with the principal parties in Scotland, including the governing SNP.

But, more generally, informed observers think that Italy will look for a European example of assymetrical devolution - that is, a quasi-federal solution where powers are conceded to one geographical area of the state. Step forward Scotland.

PS: The first act of Berlusconi's new administration is ... to scrap Italy's local authority property tax.

Trumpets and raspberries

Brian Taylor | 14:52 UK time, Sunday, 20 April 2008

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In advance, Annabel Goldie had forecast that the SNP conference would be a love-in.

Not sure what they all got up to last night: I headed off to the Lyceum to see a splendidly anarchic Dario Fo production.

But collective romancing has certainly been to the fore in the conference hall: a hall bulging with delegates, including to my world-weary eye a fair smattering of new faces.

The Dario Fo play is called "Trumpets and Raspberries". At the SNP conference, the trumpets have been sounding loudly - for themselves.

The target for raspberries? Guess.

Love-in

So, Bella, you called it right. A political love-in, indeed.

Remarkably, much more overtly jolly than even the autumn annual conference, the SNP's first since Holyrood victory.

Then, there was still a tentative touch, a sense of unreality, a feeling of staying relatively quiet for fear of upsetting the atmosphere.

This time, it has been universally upbeat. They believe, they really believe, that they are making serious progress towards their objective of independence.

Now, one must be pragmatic, one must be cautious.

One must point out that the SNP is in minority government at Holyrood, that it is outvoted by parties which support the Union, that a referendum on independence has yet to be tabled, let alone debated, let alone settled.

But one must also report, fully and fairly, that the Nationalists here in conference in Edinburgh are remarkably optimistic, remarkably confident.

A cunning plan

Brian Taylor | 14:02 UK time, Saturday, 19 April 2008

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Alex Salmond has a cunning plan.

Not content with Holyrood power, he's now setting his sights on Westminster.

So what else is new, I hear you sigh. After all, Mr Salmond is presently an MP as well as an MSP as well as FM. All those initials, so confusing.

But this is rather different. The SNP leader is working out an alternative approach for his party to adopt at the next UK general election.

Like all parties, the SNP is constitutionally obliged to pretend that it's set to win every seat, in every election.

Next time round at Westminster, expect to hear Mr Salmond deliberately setting the bar rather lower.

Little obstacles

He'll argue a substantial cohort of Nationalist MPs could hold the balance of power in a hung parliament, potentially extracting concessions from the UK Government (including the Treasury) in the by-going.

By "substantial", Mr Salmond means 20.

The concessions he envisages would address such issues as the current disputes between Holyrood and Westminster over funding.

There's more. Treating Westminster as a source of leverage finally narrows down the party's self-declared route to independence.

No longer would they be forecasting that they could secure independence by winning a majority of Scottish seats in the Commons.

Rather, they would confine that objective to securing a positive vote in a referendum in Scotland, almost certainly called via Holyrood.

Seek solutions

There are, of course, one or two little obstacles in the path of this cunning plan. Firstly, the SNP has never obtained anything like 20 Westminster seats in its history.

The best to date was the football squad of eleven in the 1970s.

Secondly, it is at least arguable that, with the SNP in Scottish devolved power, the voters may look to alternatives when casting their Westminster vote.

Evidence suggests that the SNP polls better at Holyrood although the current travails of the UK Labour Government may help rival causes.

Thirdly, a UK Government, even in a hung Parliament, may be inclined to seek solutions other than a deal with the Nationalists.

Fourthly, the SNP's rivals at Holyrood are currently opposed to the notion of a Scottish referendum, either on independence alone or on a broader range of options.
Still and all, thought you should know what's in the mind of the FM/MP/MSP.

Stay zipped

Brian Taylor | 13:53 UK time, Thursday, 17 April 2008

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By accident, I believe we may have discovered a new form of parliamentary discourse.

Wendy Alexander rose, stared at the first minister and declared: "I have no further questions." Majestic.

I won't say I felt like some watcher of the skies. But one or two on the Labour backbenches were certainly glancing at each other with a wild surmise as they contemplated their leader, silent, by choice, upon a peak in Darien.

This could be hot. Want to avoid a new outbreak of ministerial waffle? Here's the answer. Don't ask any questions. Maintain radio silence. Persist in a policy of glorious inactivity. Stay zipped.

Now there will be a few Luddites who insist upon the old ways. At Holyrood today, both Annabel Goldie and Nicol Stephen showed a lamentable determination to deploy their full interrogation quota.

Apparently, they felt MSPs would be the better for hearing their views on such minor matters as taxation and government efficiency savings.

Quiet chortling

Reactionaries, both. Don't they know about the "new politics"? Not Socialism, not even social democracy - but the sound of silence.

Of course, on the day, the new approach took one or two by surprise. Alex Fergusson in the chair appeared a mite discomfited but quickly rallied.

As the first minister rose to respond to the supplementary non-question from Ms Alexander, Mr Fergusson intervened.

Nothing, he said, had been asked. Therefore nothing was required in reply. Alex Salmond resumed his seat, chortling quietly.

When you think about it, this was a commendably radical approach by the presiding officer. After all, if he ruled out every intervention which contained zero content, then Holyrood could get through its monthly business in a morning.

And what of Ms Alexander herself? She had started with great gusto, challenging Mr Salmond about newspaper reports suggesting that extra compulsory PE in school was to be abandoned.

Rejoicing all round among the youthful occupants of the nation's couches? Alas, no. The reports, said Mr Salmond, were "completely unfounded".

'I'm havering'

Ms Alexander deftly changed tack, asserting a swift U-turn by the FM. (No doubt that is one of the new manoeuvres to be carried out during obligatory gym.)

But then, perhaps exhausted by all this compulsory exercise, Ms Alexander drew to a halt and offered "no further questions" content, she said, with the concessions she had drawn from the FM.

Not an entirely new gag, of course. In court, a QC might purr "no further questions".

Perhaps when the haggard interlocutor in the dock has owned up to everything, including original sin.

And, as First Minister, Jack McConnell once uttered the immortal line: "I'm havering, so I'll sit down." If only others would follow that advice.

But this was definitely a novel application of the technique. I look forward to its widespread use.

A tighter weave

Brian Taylor | 15:48 UK time, Wednesday, 16 April 2008

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On the face of it, an utterly unexceptional meeting. Routine. Standard. Apart, that is, from the fact that the participants have radically different aims and agendas.

The participants? First Minister Alex Salmond and Secretary of State for Wales, Paul Murphy. The topic? Reviving the joint ministerial committee structure which was designed to tackle blockages in devolution.

And those different agendas? Mr Murphy has been tasked by the PM with reviving the JMC in response, substantially, to the SNP’s election victory.

This is an effort to ensure that the UK dimension of politics is not neglected in Scotland.

Alex Salmond's aim? He wants formal recognition for his administration and, perhaps, to create a model of cross-border diplomacy which might survive independence. Council of the Isles, anyone?

Now, of course, there is hard, practical governance here too. The JMC was designed to create formal links between Whitehall and the devolved territories: Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland.

Tighter weave

It fell into abeyance largely because busy ministers and civil servants by-passed it, working directly across administrations on a daily basis without the need for posh “summit” meetings.

That will still happen. That is still happening. But there are now Nationalists in power in Scotland and (partly) in Wales. There is a revived devolution structure in Northern Ireland.

It’s felt, on both sides, that this panoply of political colour requires a slightly tighter weave.

So the JMC, if and when revived, will be a forum for resolving disputes between administrations: for example, where it’s felt London has intervened in Edinburgh’s affairs or vice versa.

As with the exploratory talks in Edinburgh, it will have more than its share of mundane moments.

Below par

But still those varying agendas persist. Just look at the separate billing for today’s discussions. The Wales Office in the UK Government reckons Paul Murphy “met with First Minister Alex Salmond”.

By contrast, the Scottish Government says that “First Minister Alex Salmond has today hosted a bilateral meeting with Secretary of State for Wales Paul Murphy”.

“Bilaterals” are customarily held between two states: for example, member states of the EU. In politics, language is seldom accidental.

PS: Did you miss me? A couple of weeks leave followed by a couple of days blighted by man-flu. Actually, I’m still notably below par. Sympathy, I suppose, would be too much to expect.

PPS: Finally saw a production of Black Watch. Magnificent, simply magnificent: contriving to portray the soldiers’ innate pride in their regiment blended with their shame at the particular Iraqi conflict.

Everybody needs a rest

Brian Taylor | 10:57 UK time, Wednesday, 2 April 2008

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Brian is taking a short break from blogging, but will return after the Scottish Parliament holiday, which ends on 13 April.

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