BBC BLOGS - Blether with Brian

Archives for June 2008

Local focus

Brian Taylor | 17:37 UK time, Monday, 30 June 2008

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Court news. David Marshall has been appointed to the post of steward and bailiff of the Manor of Northstead.

Which matters why? Because that counts as a (nominal) office of profit under the Crown. Even nominal beneficiaries cannot, simultaneously, be Members of Parliament.

In short, Labour's David Marshall has quit his seat in the Commons via the circumnavigation customary in the Palace of Westminster.

Which matters why? (Other than, of course, to Mr Marshall.) Because it creates a by-election: exactly the last thing Labour needs right now.

I knew and rather liked David Marshall when he was first elected in 1979 - and for a goodly number of years thereafter. That was in the days when I plied my trade in Westminster.

Never flash, he was nonetheless a diligent member, usually pursuing issues of poverty, homelessness and the like. He once brandished a blade in the Commons to make a point about knife crime in his area.

I must confess I have followed his career less assiduously of late. But I am sorry to hear he is unwell.

Labour decline

His departure, however, poses Gordon Brown a considerable problem. One would normally describe this seat as "solid Labour".

Mr Marshall had a majority of 13,507 at the General election. He took more than 60% of the votes cast.

Since then, however, Labour has declined. And the Scottish National Party, second placed in Glasgow East, has prospered: not least through gaining power in the Scottish Parliament last May.

Plus Labour has lost a leader. Not THE leader: that's Gordon Brown. Mr Brown's writ extends, fully, to Scotland: Labour is relatively minimally devolved.

But Wendy Alexander, Labour's leader at Holyrood, has gone.

So, just as the party should be focusing on a tough Westminster by-election, it will also be thinking about future leadership and strategy, in Scotland.

Labour, we hear, will fight Glasgow East as a local campaign on local issues. The candidate, they intend, will be a solid local citizen. One name repeatedly mentioned is Councillor George Ryan.

Why the local focus? Well, would you fight on UK or even Scottish issues - when your party has lost ground at Westminster and is leaderless at Holyrood?

Scottish average

By contrast, expect the SNP - who will select on Thursday - to fight on Labour's record.

The 10p tax rate, the price of fuel, the price of food, changes to the rules on benefits.
Those issues may well get a hearing from constituents in Glasgow East.

For example, the 2001 census indicated that Glasgow Shettleston (the old name for this seat) listed around one third of its citizens as having a "limiting long term illness". That is considerably above the Scottish average.

Despite efforts at regeneration, this area remains deprived. The mammoth Easterhouse estate lies within the constituency boundaries.

This is one of the schemes memorably described by Billy Connolly as "deserts wi' windaes". (Translation: arid, glazed zones.)

Mr Connolly is an occasional visitor to another Glasgow East icon: Celtic Park, the home of the current Scottish footballing championsgue Champions.

Can Labour win? They can: victory for the SNP requires a 22% swing, notably substantial.

Different question

A comparable swing was achieved in Hamilton South in 1999 - yet the SNP fell short.

Good example, says Labour. Proves that the SNP can be withheld. Plus that was a tougher contest because it was "unnecessary". (George Robertson stood down to take the top job at NATO.)

Poor example, says the SNP. Labour was flying high, relatively speaking, in 1999. It's slumped since.

So will Labour win? Different question.

Wendy resigns

Brian Taylor | 16:58 UK time, Saturday, 28 June 2008

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And so she's gone. Why now?

Why does Wendy Alexander resign over a minor slap on the wrist from a Parliamentary committee - when she was prepared to tough it out over what one of her team admitted was a breach of the law?

The cumulative effect, of course. But, more, it reflects the varying psychological response from Ms Alexander.

When it was disclosed that her campaign had received an illegal donation from a Jersey businessman, her first reaction was dismay.

She thought, seriously, she had to quit.

Then dismay turned to anger as she felt she had to fight back against her accusers.

Dismay to anger

This time round, she has gone in reverse: from anger to dismay.

She watched on Thursday as Holyrood's Standards Committee voted to suspend her for a single day because she had failed to declare campaign donations timeously on her register as an MSP.

She watched in mounting fury. She thought it a politically inspired stitch-up. Her aides were similarly angry.

David Whitton MSP strode down to the Garden Lobby at Holyrood to deliver an irate rebuttal. He was visibly tense.

Anger to dismay

She felt she had to go, she felt it was never ebbing away as an issue, she felt she had let down her party. Inadvertently, she believes. She resisted pressure from the PM to stay.

And so she's gone, blaming an unyielding pursuit by relentless SNP rivals. Does that quite work for you as an explanation?

I must confess it doesn't do it for me.

Politics is a rough trade: it is customary to expose weakness. It is part of the adversarial nature of party debate.

Did Labour hold back when John Major was under relentless pursuit? OK, so that was bigger league.

Did Labour cry foul, then, when David McLetchie, the Scottish Conservative leader, was facing criticism over taxi bills?

Wendy Alexander's campaign team sought donations from the business sector to fund her efforts to become leader.

Quite unnecessarily, as it turned out, because she was uncontested.

Was it, perhaps, superfluous in any case? Were the members of Team Alexander perhaps seduced by the thought of entering the Premier Division of politics, with premier division funding to match?

Couldn't they have got by with a series of hustings around Scotland?

After all, the Scottish Labour Party is, these days, relatively small.

She wasn't fighting a general election, simply an internal party contest.

Were members of the inner circle trying to show the extent of their clout: look at me, I can bring in big (OK, medium) bucks from serious business players.

Did the SNP pursue this relentlessly? Yes.

However, one of those donations, from a Jersey businessman, was illegal.

Full stop.

One can talk about mitigation, one can talk about who knew what and when.

One can point to the MSP, Charlie Gordon, who solicited the donation. But, as Tom McCabe conceded, the law was broken.

Separately, the issue of registration. There it is possible to evince more sympathy for Ms Alexander.

She was advised, in writing, by Parliamentary officials that she did not need to register the donations in her capacity as an MSP.

She followed the code. She followed procedure. With one rather crucial exception. By the time she sought advice, the deadline for registration had already passed with respect to at least some of the donations.

Then the issue of the ruling by the Standards Commissioner. He disagreed with the advice from the clerks. He said the donations should have been registered. They were tantamount to gifts.

Again, couple of points. Ms Alexander could have forestalled all of this had she over-complied: had she registered the donations, regardless of the advice.

Further, it seems to me that the system is slipshod and open to confusion.

It is not sufficient, I would submit, to determine such a relatively important matter as the registration of campaign donations on the basis of a few lines in a casual e-mail from a clerk, albeit on the basis of legal advice.

If such guidance is to be robust, it should be seriously scrutinised and delivered in a style that suggests it can withstand alternative interpretations.

In short, such guidance needs to show the arguments deployed, needs to show the working.

Further, the Standards committee at Holyrood looked, to me, uncomfortable in dealing with this issue.

Perhaps it was the partisan pressures involved, perhaps it was the political reputations at stake.

But they looked and sounded unhappy and unsure.

If this was a breach of Parliamentary rules by a party leader, should it not have merited more than one day's suspension? If it wasn't such a breach, because of mitigation, should it not have been dismissed?

Finally, the Labour Party. Not good for them, not good at all.

Doubt if they'll be reprising the old ditty "things can only get better" any time soon.

Wendy Alexander's leadership failed. She failed to counter Alex Salmond in the chamber. But will others do better?

She failed, fully, to persuade the party, especially the Prime Minister, to endorse her strategy of countering Mr Salmond with an early referendum on independence.

However, more than many others, she got the concept of the challenge facing Labour in Scotland.

Before the rest, she acknowledged that Labour lost - and deserved to lose - to the SNP.

It wasn't a fluke, it wasn't a swizz, it wasn't a temporary blip. It was a defeat at the hands of the voters.

Before the rest, she argued that Labour required to stand up ineluctably for Scotland - even if that meant standing against London, including the PM.

She recognised that Scottish Labour had to back David, not Goliath.

As of today, the slingshot has come her way.

What a difference a day makes

Brian Taylor | 19:02 UK time, Thursday, 26 June 2008

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Bit late with the blog today. As you may have discerned, things have been a little hectic here at Holyrood.

Parliament going on fire didn't help. (Small conflagration, no damage, no injuries.)

Fire aside, the fuss was caused by the verdict upon Wendy Alexander. Holyrood's standards committee reckons she should be suspended - for one day - as a rebuke for breaking the rules re the register of interests.

You'll find the substance elsewhere on this site. But, in essence, the committee decided she should have declared donations to her leadership campaign.

I suspect you'll have your own views on this. I suspect, further, that you won't be slow in declaring said views.

But herewith a few points. Counsel for the defence would say that Ms Alexander sought and obtained written guidance from parliamentary clerks to the effect that she didn't require to declare the donations as they weren't personal gifts.

Counsel for the prosecution would say that she should have over-complied. She should have declared the donations, regardless.

Wide open

Further - and importantly - by the time she sought advice, she was already in breach because she had exceeded the time limit.

Counsel for the defence says this is a politically motivated smear campaign. Counsel for the prosecution says Wendy Alexander left herself wide open to attack because of slipshod organisation and law-breaking (the Jersey donation.)

Counsel for the defence says the Parliamentary clerks took legal advice before guiding Ms Alexander.

Counsel for the prosecution says that is trumped by the ruling from the standards commissioner, Dr Jim Dyer. He said the donations should have been declared because they would be viewed as tantamount to gifts.

Keith Brown, the standards committee convener, professed himself torn between these competing views.

He said there was a definite breach. But there were "mitigating circumstances" in that Ms Alexander had sought advice from the clerks. In his view, the timing issue was key.

Committee balance

The committee divided on party lines. The SNP, the Tories and the LibDems backed the verdict. On the suggested sentence, the SNP and the LibDems backed suspension.

The Tories abstained, arguing that sanctions were in appropriate.

It now goes to the full parliament - in September, because Holyrood had risen for the summer recess by the time the committee ruled. They could overturn the recommendation.

But, if the chamber matches the committee balance, if the Tories abstain, then the suspension would go through.

Deferred for reports

Brian Taylor | 14:55 UK time, Wednesday, 25 June 2008

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And he's back in the room. Great visit to Germany, thanks for asking.

Lectures in Bonn and Dusseldorf. Intriguing to find that my brief post on Monday, simply signalling my absence, nevertheless prompted a flurry of responses.

What are you guys like?

Two little thoughts from Germany before I move on. One, that the people I met - admittedly a self-selected group - were fascinated by developments in Scotland.

I won't pretend they were up on the latest from the subordinate legislation committee. But they get the concept that there is an intriguing debate under way here; one that may have an impact upon state/substate politics elsewhere in the EU.

And, a bit more tangentially, upon the EU itself.

Two, the sight of German flags attached to cars everywhere - plus a few Turkish banners - in anticipation of tonight's European Championship match.

Brave politics

So what, you say? So this. I am assured this outburst of emblematic display would not have been so widespread only a few years ago.

Young Germans in particular, it would appear, are more comfortable with their own patriotism.

So back to Scotland. Have I returned to brave new politics? Scarcely.

Today's developments include Phase 53 of the Wendy Alexander story. The Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments Committee at Holyrood has found that Ms Alexander did, indeed, break the rules in failing to register, timeously, donations to her campaign to become leader.

They voted by five to two to endorse the finding of the Standards Commissioner that these donations, although accepted by the campaign and not Ms Alexander personally, should count as gifts and should thus have been declared to Parliament in her role as an MSP.

The two dissenters, one might reasonably surmise, would be the two Labour members of the committee.

Ms Alexander's defence, read out by the convener Keith Brown, was that she had taken every step to discern whether these donations should be registered with Holyrood.

Any sanctions?

She had written to the relevant parliamentary clerks who had consulted Holyrood lawyers and declared, in writing, that such donations did not require to be registered.

On learning the standards commissioner, Dr Jim Dyer, took a different view, Ms Alexander registered the donations.

The committee will meet again on Thursday to consider what sanctions, if any, should be applied.

If this were a court, we would probably say that they were seeking a social inquiry report before pronouncing sentence.

Blog blockage

Brian Taylor | 12:15 UK time, Monday, 23 June 2008

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Bit of a blog blockage over the next day or so. I'm in Germany delivering a couple of lectures on Politics and Identity.

I'm speaking as a guest of the Deutsch Britifche Gesellschaft. It used to be known as the Deustche Englische Gesellschaft. How things change.

Working through the figures

Brian Taylor | 13:13 UK time, Friday, 20 June 2008

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Much talk of games from politicians today. In truth, however, there is little that is light or leisurely in the Government Expenditure and Revenue Scotland statistics for 2006/07.

Nationalists said the figures added up to "game, set and match" for the economics of independence.

Labour declined to play "statistical ping pong" with the SNP, while asserting once more that Scotland gains from the UK.

So, why is the SNP so delighted with a statistical exercise which, in the past, they have derided as a dodgy dossier? Why is Labour so haughty?

Because the document suggests that Scotland's finances were in better shape than those of the UK as a whole for 2006/07.

For 16 years since GERS was instigated by the Conservatives, the annual exercise has put Scotland firmly in the red.

But the stats have now been subject to a rigorous review - by officials, not ministers. This review was first prompted in January 2007 - before the Holyrood election - at the instigation of the Scottish Parliament's Finance Committee.

After prolonged negotiations with the Treasury, it has been concluded that Scotland's share of spending has been consistently overstated - and Scottish revenues underestimated.

For the first time, the document calculates the current balance and separate figures, including capital investment. This is, apparently, in line with international accounting practice.

A few figures for 06/07. Without oil, Scotland's current account was in deficit to the tune of £6.7bn. Including oil by geography, that is an 83 per cent share of the North Sea, Scotland had an £800m surplus.

The fiscal balance - that is including capital spending - indicated a £10.2bn deficit, without oil. And a £2.7bn deficit with a geographical share of oil.

Officials stress that economies frequently carry a deficit when longer-term capital investment is included.
Couple of points. This is scarcely wealth beyond the dreams of avarice. Tories say the Nationalists are, once again, basing claims of a surplus upon what they call the "volatile and diminishing" supply of oil.

However, it would appear that Scotland's picture was rosier than for the UK as a whole.
Remember that the figures for Scotland only include 83 per cent of oil at best.

The figures for the UK include 100 per cent of oil. Yet, in the same year, the UK had a fiscal deficit of £30.1bn. That was 2.3 per cent of GDP, worse than the Scottish figure which was 2.1 per cent of GDP.

Further, the reforms to the system may partly have been prompted by complaints from SNP politicians and economists in the past.

But they have been instigated by civil servants - without any reference to Ministers. The officials involved stress that they neither consulted Ministers - nor showed them the outcome until after the document was sent to the printers.

I know it's dry. I know it's statistically dense. But we have heard much of GERS in the past. Expect to hear rather a lot more in the future.

Answer the question

Brian Taylor | 15:05 UK time, Thursday, 19 June 2008

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There are several ways of answering a question. Bombast, bluster, frankness, evasion, desperation, a smile, a glare, even a simpering wheedle.

Equally, there are one or two ways of avoiding a question. Alex Salmond was able, with some assistance, to deploy two of those at Holyrood today.

Wendy Alexander chose to interrogate Mr Salmond about free bus travel for pensioners.

This is part of a pattern: Labour is equating a review of said scheme with the prospect of cuts. The SNP says that is scare-mongering.

Ms Alexander asked the first minister to provide a guarantee about continued provision. The FM replied by stressing that the criteria for eligibility would remain unchanged.

That is not quite the same thing as saying that the scheme will remain unchanged in its entirety. A pensioner may remain eligible - but the benefit itself may change.

For example, the scope of the scheme may alter in terms of the times the concession applies or the number of journeys that may be made.

Easy menu

The first minister, however, was able to stress that the review of the scheme was presaged some two years ago - by the previous administration.

Secondly, Mr Salmond was assisted by Ms Alexander's decision to include a range of other topics in her question. She asked about the impact on pensioners of, among other things, energy prices and local taxation.

Ask a politician a single question and you may - may - get an answer. Ask a politican four questions at once - and said politician will, understandably, choose the most convenient topic and answer that one.

To be fair, Mr Salmond did attempt to address the menu of questions placed before him. But it made things rather easier for the FM. He was not obliged to address any one topic in any great detail.

Perhaps, on the day, a single question on the detail of bus travel provision would have been more pointed.

Ms Alexander's fellow opposition leaders chose to pursue the issue of the C. diff outbreak at the Vale of Leven hospital.

We learned relatively little from these particular exchanges - except that MSPs do not seem inclined to let this issue go. Quite right too.

Outbreak control

Brian Taylor | 12:49 UK time, Wednesday, 18 June 2008

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Challenge ahead for Nicola Sturgeon as she prepares to update MSPs this afternoon on the multiple deaths from Clostridium Difficile at the Vale of Leven hospital.

The health secretary has to address and rebut suggestions that she knew about the problem earlier than has been suggested. It seems certain she will announce an independent inquiry.

Tricky one for opposition MSPs too. It is entirely legitimate to question ministers very closely and persistently about their knowledge and role with respect to this outbreak.

Such scrutiny is one of the core roles of any parliament alongside legislation and debate. A governing executive must be held to account - and that is a job for elected politicians.

Partisan consequences

However, MSPs must be careful to avoid sounding as if the pursuit of a political rival takes priority over rooting out the essential facts. They must be careful not to stray over the line.

Where people have died, it does not do to sound over-eager about the potential partisan consequences.

I feel certain MSPs on the governing and opposition sides will rise to that varied challenge.

'Smoking ban' moment

Brian Taylor | 14:59 UK time, Tuesday, 17 June 2008

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Health Secretary Nicola Sturgeon had plainly done her research before launching the package of proposed measures to tackle alcohol abuse and misuse.

She noted in passing she was aware that "courageous" decisions in politics could frequently unravel.

This was, of course, based upon an extensive study of the core work in political science: the box set of Yes Minister.

Whichever way up, this package is bold/courageous/radical. As Sir Humphrey would remind you, that does not make it intrinsically wise/sensible/practical.

Nor, of course, for the avoidance of doubt, does it make it a bad idea. It is open to objective scrutiny.

The main points in summary. Ministers want to increase the offsales age from 18 to 21, to set a minimum price for drink based on alcohol content, to end discount offers, to introduce alcohol-only checkouts at big shops, to levy a social responsibility fee on some retailers and to boost spending to address alcohol problems.

Big idea

Partly, I suspect, this is the SNP's "smoking ban" moment. Indeed, Ms Sturgeon set the measures in the context of a continuum of public health policy - including the ban on smoking in public places.

It is, in short, a Big Idea. A big idea which is now out for consultation. So why not start the debate here? Here are a few thoughts to get you going:

Ministers say we can't wait any longer to tackle the underlying culture, we have to amend policy.

The big levers on alcohol, they say, are price and availability - but are they right to target alcohol by volume, which shoves up the price of drinks like white cider while leaving malt and blended whisky alone?

Would the new plans clash with competition law? Ministers say no.

Can Holyrood tackle prices when they don't control duties? Ministers say yes, it's like the old-style RRP (recommended retail price.)

Is it right to bar under-21s from off licences? What about students? Shouldn't we enforce existing laws rather than introducing more?

Over to you.

Sobering thoughts

Brian Taylor | 11:41 UK time, Monday, 16 June 2008

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I suspect we may be in danger of leaping a little too readily to particular conclusions in respect of today's analysis of Scotland's suicide rate.

In advance, a couple of caveats. I have not yet read the full report prepared by a team at Manchester University: it is not available until later. However, I have studied the summary issued by the university.

This declares that "alcohol and drug misuse mean Scots are almost twice as likely to kill or take their own life compared with people in England and Wales".

These horrific figures deserve serious scrutiny, by politicians and public alike. I am not sure, however, that we would be entirely wise to follow the conclusion of today's report which is that support services should be refocused to prioritise action on dependence rather than the present spotlight upon mental health.

To be fair, the report suggests a number of other reforms to clinical care. The author, Professor Louis Appleby, set out his case sensibly and moderately on BBC Radio Scotland this morning.

But is there not, at root, a logical fallacy here? Are we perhaps at risk of confusing cause and coterminosity?

The researchers scrutinised cases of suicide and homicide. They discerned that, in a substantial proportion of cases, there was an antecedent history of alcohol and/or drug misuse.

Doubts increase

From this, they surmise that the alcohol and drug dependence is the cause of the subsequent homicide or suicide.

Logically, however, might not the two factors point to another pre-existing cause? Might not the same individual, perhaps under stress from poverty or personal inadequacy, turn first to drink and then to violence or self-harm?

Alcohol and violence may indeed both be present in the same case. But can we truly assume that one causes the other?

My doubts increase when I consider the statistics in more depth. Scotland has a higher suicide rate than in England. But Scotland's rate has declined sharply.

How does that square with evidence that alcohol misuse is increasing - if alcohol is to named as the causal influence on suicide?

How can the causal problem increase - while the claimed result declines, albeit still remaining above the level in England?

Money, money, money

Brian Taylor | 14:59 UK time, Thursday, 12 June 2008

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It wasn't, in truth, the most elevating or entertaining debate I have witnessed in the Scottish Parliament. However, it wasn't as hideous as some had feared.

MSPs were discussing their own money: not their salaries but the allowances which assist them to carry out their job by, for example, employing support staff.

It was, mercifully, brief: just a little more than half an hour. But it still scarcely adds to the dignity of Parliament to have MSPs bickering in public about their own funding.

The debate followed an investigation by Sir Alan Langlands, the Principal of Dundee University.

He called for an end to the system of helping with mortgage payments for those MSPs from far-flung constituences who buy a property in Edinburgh. In future, if they want help, they'll have to rent or stay in an hotel.

That's supported on all sides. But there is division over staff allowances.

Basically, Labour favours paying constituency MSPs more in allowances than regional list members. The SNP, the Tories and the Greens want parity between constituency and list.

Two classes

These positions, of course, are entirely based upon logic, evidence and principle. They are not remotely connected with the fact that Labour members mostly occupy constituency seats while the others rely heavily on the list.

The LibDems are allowing their members a free vote. This is, of course, because of their commitment to open parliamentary democracy and not at all because they couldn't agree a common position.

Seems to me there is merit on both sides of this dispute. Citing equity, one might argue that there should not be two classes of MSP: they should receive the same support.

However, citing fairness, one might argue that constituency MSPs are likely to have a greater caseload - and, hence, require more staff. On balance, Langlands advanced that case.

The debate itself was relatively constrained: perhaps there was a folk memory of Parliament's earliest days in 1999 when a rammy over allowances soured the start of devolution.

Michael McMahon quoted LBJ as he accused Labour's rivals of orchestrating a fix. Some nodded in agreement.

Others smiled gently at this onslaught on political machination from a scion of Lanarkshire Labour.

'Offensive' move

Cathie Craigie, Labour MSP for Cumbernauld and Kilsyth, voiced disquiet with elements of the list system. She appeared to be accusing Nationalist list members of cherry-picking issues in her constituency - while her own work-load was immense.

Shortage of time prevented Ms Craigie from reminding the chamber which party was responsible for introducing the top-up list system.

That would be Labour. The best contribution came from Ross Finnie of the Liberal Democrats.

After summarising the competing cases, he closed by arguing passionately that members should be treated equally. Anything else was "offensive" and contrary to Holyrood's founding principles.

They vote tonight at five. Catch the outcome here.

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Update: equity rules. MSPs have voted to give the same allowances to constituency and list members..

Not ticking boxes

Brian Taylor | 12:59 UK time, Wednesday, 11 June 2008

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Sometimes this blog offers analysis. Sometimes, the inside track on a story.

Frequently, the perspective of a detached observer on political events. (For the avoidance of doubt, I am that detached observer.)

Today, for a change, I intend, mostly, to stand back and let the comments emerge entirely from you, the readers.

The topic? My own dear employer, the BBC. Specifically, the report suggesting that the Corporation should respond more consistently to post-devolution political life in the UK.

In passing, I would commend you to read the excellent insight offered by Professor Anthony King who has scrutinised output for the BBC Trust.

His report is trenchant, thorough and, above all, firmly grounded in practice rather than theory.

Depth and value

He finds much to commend: impartiality at the core of the BBC; a definite desire to represent the citizens of the UK to each other.

However, he finds much that falls short: too many instances where stories that affect England, primarily or solely, are offered to a UK audienc without sufficient qualification.

As a participant, I particularly like his assertion that reform should not be a box-ticking exercise, a response to political correctness.

Rather, stories can gain greater depth and value from reflecting the varied circumstances of the nations within the United Kingdom.

More on that later in the programme, but first, your views . . .

Fighting for survival

Brian Taylor | 14:45 UK time, Tuesday, 10 June 2008

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There is an opinion poll in this morning's Times which suggests that Gordon Brown's personal leadership standing now matches that of Iain Duncan Smith.

That's right: IDS, the quiet man himself, the scourge of the EU, the visiting friend of Easterhouse.

Lest you have forgotten those troubled times in the Tory party, it is not notably good news for GB to be compared with IDS.

It is against that background that one must judge the PM's problems over the issue of pre-charge detention - and the comments from Scotland's Lord Advocate, Eilish Angiolini.

Ms Angiolini's comments are widely reported in the papers this morning but were first carried by Newsnight Scotland last night (BBC Scotland first with the news, as ever).

She says, in a customarily cautious letter to an MP, that the case for extending pre-charge detention from 28 days to 42 is "not supported by prosecution experience to date."

In essence, that is a "not proven" verdict. It is, however, a judgement which may have considerable impact, especially as Ms Angiolini is echoing doubts already voiced by the director of public prosecutions in England, Sir Ken MacDonald.

Two worlds are colliding here. For Gordon Brown, this is now quite simply a matter of political survival. To be clear, the division in the Commons this week is not tantamount to a confidence vote in the PM.

But it will scarcely shore up confidence in his prospects, should he lose.

Mr Brown is in a curious position. Lose the vote and his leadership is further undermined.

Win the vote - and then what? Do you imagine that on the streets of, say, Crewe, their votes hinge on whether terrorism suspects are held in the slammer for four weeks or six?

All of which is, of course, purely a political calculation. By contrast, law officers are institutionally and intellectually obliged to consider the permanent legal framework of Scotland and the UK.

They have to judge what is right in the longer term for the judicial system, mostly disregarding the interests of a "here today, gone tomorrow" minister, to pinch Robin Day's splendid phrase.

In short, they have to consider future trials, not the current tribulations of a political leader, however senior.

Sometimes there can be cross-over. Witness the pressure upon the former Attorney General Lord Goldsmith in judging the legality or otherwise of the Iraq war.

On this occasion, albeit in cautiously framed language, Ms Angiolini feels she has to reflect the concerns of the legal and judicial system.

It must help, of course, that her loyalty is to the Crown - while she attends Alex Salmond's Cabinet, not Gordon Brown's.

Think the unthinkable

Brian Taylor | 15:08 UK time, Monday, 9 June 2008

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Herewith an opinion tendered by Holyrood's Presiding Officer, Alex Fergusson.

He writes: "Whatever your views and opinions of alcohol and drugs are, there is a good chance that 10 other people will disagree with you."

My only dissent would be numerical. I suspect the dispute factor might be somewhat higher - as responses to this blog may, in due course, indicate.

Mr Fergusson was previewing today's report from the Scottish Futures Forum, set up by Holyrood to think the unthinkable. (The "unthinkable" being defined as whatever an elected politican dare not advance.)

On this occasion, the Forum's report deals with drugs, part of a wider-ranging review of Scotland's nexus with addiction.

Among sundry bold statements, today's report advocates "consumption rooms" for addicts, the controlled and regulated sale of cannabis and the prescription of heroin instead of methadone.

Mr Fergusson did not have to wait long for disagreement to emerge.

His own erstwhile colleague, Annabel Goldie, said the Forum was effectively calling for "shooting galleries".

She implied that the authors were living in the past.

Ms Goldie, of course, was instrumental in encouraging SNP Ministers to develop a new drugs strategy which emphasises efforts to get users off drugs, rather than simply containing their habit.

Given that, it is perhaps understandable that she should seek to bolster the emerging new strategy, rather than pay heed to this alternative perspective.

However, I am not at all sure that it is helpful to be so instantly dismissive.

For example, here is a quotation: "Treatment interventions and recovery networks make one of the significant contributions to reducing alcohol and drug harm and should be strengthened over the short and medium term."

That could be a quote from Ms Goldie or from Fergus Ewing, the minister who announced the new strategy.

It is, in fact, a key recommendation from today's report.

Yes, the authors are advocating deliberately radical solutions. But they are trying, from a different standpoint, to bring about "successful and sustained recovery from drug and alcohol problems."

And the authors of the report? A team headed by a former Director of Education and a former Deputy Chief Constable. Scarcely anti-establishment. Why, they even contrive to quote Proust without laughing.

Do I think their report will be instantly adopted? No. Do I think it worthy of scrutiny and debate? Yes.

Answering the critics

Brian Taylor | 15:59 UK time, Friday, 6 June 2008

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Isn't that an intriguing range of political responses to today's vote by the EIS for potential - to stress, potential - industrial action in schools?

The EIS is concerned at the potential - again, that word - impact of financial constraint upon education.

Both Labour and the Liberal Democrats pursued the classic tactic in such circumstances of demanding statements from ministers.

Labour reckons SNP education ministers have been "cowardly" on the issue.

The Lib Dems reckon the same ministers are demonstrating "fudge and obfuscation".

To be fair, the two parties are explicitly complaining about the absence of an immediate response from a minister (as I write, there has been a statement from the government).

To be fair for a second time, they are reflecting concern voiced by the union that such reforms as there are in education, notably on class sizes, may be patchy at best across Scotland.

However, the first minister was questioned on this very issue by Wendy Alexander yesterday. Opposition critics may not have liked his answers - but it scarcely amounts to government silence.

Perhaps they expect a different reply from Education Secretary Fiona Hyslop or her colleague Maureen Watt.

Or perhaps they want to say something without either supporting or condemning the prospect of industrial action.

In any event, there has been a voluble response from the teachers' local authorities employers.

Pat Watters, the Cosla president and Labour councillor, said: "I cannot understand where the EIS are coming from on this."

According to Mr Watters, there has been substantial investment over "the last few years" - that is, including under the previous executive - and yet "without a word of discussion, we now have this call for strike action".

And the Conservative response? While criticising ministers for a "cack-handed" approach to the issue of class sizes, they condemn the union for holding Scottish school pupils to ransom.

As I say, intriguing.


Rough business

Brian Taylor | 13:14 UK time, Thursday, 5 June 2008

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Don't you just love that written answer from the Scottish Government to a question from Annabel Goldie?

I quote, in full: "Blah". End quote. And the Tory response? "D'oh!" Perfect.

Ministers insist it was simply a slip, an incorrect draft delivered only to the media. The formal version was somewhat more detailed.

Two thoughts. Firstly, the default political response to most journalistic inquiries is, in effect, blah. That may be why the media version was so admirably concise.

Secondly, far from apologising, the Scottish Government should extend this approach. Most written questions could be covered by "blah", "tosh" or "go away", followed by a link to the website where the information can be obtained.

In Holyrood today, the Presiding Officer Alex Fergusson appeared to think there was a little too much blah.

As is his habit, Alex Salmond closed his responses to Wendy Alexander by throwing a question back to the Labour leader.

Zero sympathy

Mr Fergusson has faced occasional mutterings from the Labour benches that he should be tougher on the first minister, that he should somehow demand answers that MSPs are apparently unable to prise out of the government.

On this occasion, the PO had had enough. He gently reminded Mr Salmond that the event was billed as questions to the first minister - not to opposition leaders.

Then he allowed Ms Alexander another intervention. I think he was right to do so.

However, I have minimal, indeed zero, sympathy with calls for the PO to intervene more generally. Politics is a rough business. It's up to MSPs to put their points in a fashion which exposes the claimed vacuity of their opponents.

As long as a minister is in order - that is, sticking to Holyrood rules - the PO can't and shouldn't intervene. Mr Fergusson is right to resist such suggestions.

Turning to substance, Ms Alexander pursued the issue of "education cuts", making some reasonable points.

In particular, she cited a motion to be discussed by the teaching union, the EIS, tomorrow which includes the option of possible industrial action in protest at local authority decisions which the union believes will have a "deleterious effect on education services".

Silent killer

The impact of Ms Alexander's attack was somewhat deflated when the FM pointed out that there had been similar motions for possible industrial action during the years when Labour led the Executive.

Mr Salmond also successfully deflected the attack by pointing to efforts to cut class sizes, in line with his manifesto promise, in several local authorities, including one led by Labour.

For the Tories, Annabel Goldie, as she frequently does, chose to pursue an issue where she is seeking consensual progress rather than partisan gain.

She sought action on Scotland's poor record in dealing with the "silent killer" of thrombosis. It was a well pitched plea, prompting a sympathetic response.

As so often, the sharpest, most straightforward attack came from Nicol Stephen of the Liberal Democrats.

He cited a progressive decline in the budget of the Glasgow Science Centre, noting that this scarcely squared with the Scottish Government hailing a "bright future" for the venue.

Mr Salmond's response was a rather longer version of the written reply given to the Tories. For which, see above.

Reserve strength

Brian Taylor | 16:41 UK time, Wednesday, 4 June 2008

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Each August, I like to chair the occasional gig at the Edinburgh Book Festival.

It's a return to my literary roots and a chance to escape from politics. Plus the ice cream on offer in Charlotte Square is excellent.

I recall chairing Alexander McCall Smith who had just published his latest detective tales from Botswana.

A notably eager publicist was urging him to plug his new book at every opportunity. She even suggested he might brandish a copy at strategic moments.

The estimable professor, a thoroughly charming chap, ignored her entirely. No doubt accidentally, he placed a newspaper over the copy of his book.

Quite deliberately, he never mentioned the work once, dealing with an eclectic mix of topics from Nietzsche to orchestral music to Scottish history.

Worthy task

Habitually, I take the McCall Smith line with regard to publicity: less is more. However, I will break that habit with regard to a documentary on the telly tonight, prepared by my esteemed colleague Hayley Millar.

It concerns North Sea oil. When first commissioned, the purpose was to subject the history of the black, black oil to investigative scrutiny. In itself, a worthy task.

When broadcast, the programme coincides with the re-emergence of oil prices as a predominant political issue: an issue of enormous and lasting salience.

Hayley's key finding concerns the extent of available reserves. She has been told by experts that between 25 and 30 billion barrels could still be recovered over the next 40 years.

Rising prices and new technology can bring more difficult and distant finds into play.

Rising prices

Which brings us back to core questions confronting Scottish and UK politicians?

Is Alex Salmond justified in demanding a "share" of the increased take from the North Sea prompted by rising prices?

Or is it bogus to spotlight a single tax when high oil prices may depress other sectors of the economy and hence revenue?

Does Scotland have a structural financial deficit, as suggested by official UK Government figures in the past, even taking oil into account?

Or is that over-estimating the downside - and under-estimating oil?

Would Scotland thrive with control of the oil revenues? Or would much more be lost in the by-going?

What will Scotland do when the oil runs out? Under sustained devolution? Under independence?

Obeying the law?

Brian Taylor | 11:53 UK time, Tuesday, 3 June 2008

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A few questions. Have you ever left your car in a disabled parking bay? Did you have the authority to do that in the shape of a blue badge?

No? Do you think you should have been fined for that? Do you think, in short, that there should be a power to enforce the proper use of disabled bays?

Jackie Baillie MSP does and today, backed by councillors and a raft of voluntary organisations, she formally introduced her Member's Bill to do just that.

If the Bill becomes law, you'd pay a fine in future for abusing disabled bays - £30 if you pay within 14 days, £60 after that.

A few more questions. Have you witnessed abuse of the disabled badge system? Have you seen seemingly fit thirty somethings jump out of a car which is displaying a badge and is parked in a reserved bay?

Would you be more inclined to tolerate the new fines if you also saw a crack down on that form of abuse?

At today's launch, Councillor Alistair Watson - a transport expert who chairs SPT - backed the Bill. But he also said there was an "epidemic" of abuse of the badge system itself.

One survey in Glasgow had disclosed 60 to 70 per cent abuse - that's where cars were being parked by a named driver but without the disabled badge holder present.

In Edinburgh, they found cases where the badges were retained by a family after the holder had died.

Shouldn't that be tackled in tandem with the new Bill? Jackie Baillie says yes - but it's up to the Scottish Government to enforce this issue, using existing powers under fraud legislation.

She says legislation, especially Members' Bills, has to be kept simple to succeed.

At present, some 85 per cent of disabled bays in Scotland can't be enforced by the police or wardens.
Her Bill would mean they were all capable of being enforced, either directly because they are in local authority hands or through negotiated agreements with private operators such as supermarkets.

Here's a thought. Is it possible that there might be a serious clampdown on badge abuse as a by-product of the new law on abuse of bays?

If wardens and police gain powers over abuse of disabled bays by those without badges, might they also take the chance to tackle those who are misusing the badges?

Laws are there to be enforced. But, in the longer term, legislation requires public consent and tolerance. In that regard, equity helps.

Making the case

Brian Taylor | 12:03 UK time, Monday, 2 June 2008

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Thus far, Alex Salmond has, mostly, sustained his declared strategy of avoiding unwarranted conflict with Westminster and Whitehall.

Some of you, I feel sure, will dispute that statement. You will point to instances where the First Minister has disagreed sharply with the line emerging from London. However, consider. Mostly, these have been in the nature of responses to events or to UK Government decisions.

The treatment of agriculture or fisheries, the Libyan prisoner transfer, the allocation of extra funds to the prison system in England.

Bogus dispute

In the past, such issues would also have provoked disputes with the administration in Scotland. However, these disputes were generally kept quiet - to the occasional regret of the devolved team. Now, these arguments are aired in public.

Alex Salmond calculates that Scottish voters are weary of artificial political argument.

They dislike point-scoring. They can spot a bogus, contrived dispute from the other end of Princes/Sauchiehall/Reform/Union or.....supply your own neighbourhood main street.

Hence, he has, mostly, steered clear of directly engendering conflict. However, oil is different. Perhaps understandably, he has been unable to resist the temptation of picking a fight over oil.

Mr Salmond wants the UK Treasury to hand over a "share of the tax revenue generated in Scottish waters, beginning with a share of the £4-5bn windfally revenue generated this year by the surging oil price".

He wants an initial 10%.

Politically and philosophically, this differs from the strategy to date. For example, with regard to the Comprehensive Spending Review, Mr Salmond pointed to the relatively small increase in Scotland. He suggested how much better things would be under independence.

He argued, politically, that the Treasury were mistreating Scotland. He did not, formally, argue that the UK system of finance should be altered structurally at present, within the devolved rules. He accepted, grudgingly, the settlement.

This is different. He is arguing that Scotland should be afforded distinctive treatment, within the Union, in regard to one element of the UK budget and one element only. He is straddling devolution and independence.

View as a whole

Mr Salmond's case is that the oil revenue is sourced in Scottish waters. If Scotland were independent, Scotland could expect a substantial return.

The FM is asking, in effect, for a modest form of quasi-independent status to be deployed in calculating Scotland's finances - while Scotland remains a devolved part of the UK.

To be clear, this does not, of itself, make the claim valid or invalid. Merely different.

The Chancellor, Alistair Darling, responds by arguing that one must view the UK financial system as a whole, not select a single part. High oil prices mean higher North Sea revenue. However, by depressing the economy, they may well mean lower tax takes in other sectors.

If one accepts the continued existence of the UK as the overall macro-economic structure, then the Chancellor's argument is coherent and consistent.

If one does not, then one might argue, as Alex Salmond does, that Scotland is getting the downside of high oil prices without getting her full "share of the tax revenue", to quote again his letter to the PM.

Consequently, your verdict on this financial question will be influenced, perhaps, determined by your views on the constitutional future.

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