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Archives for September 2008

A time of crisis

Brian Taylor | 12:18 UK time, Tuesday, 30 September 2008


Weren't those scenes in the US House of Representatives simply extraordinary?

The Speaker reluctant to bring down the gavel on the rejection of the £700bn "rescue" package, somewhat like a judge who cannot believe the verdict just delivered by the jury but must pronounce sentence nonetheless.

The vote was, of course, driven by partisan concerns - the fear among Republicans and Democrats that the people would not tolerate a bail-out for profligate banks.

By contrast, the response in the UK has been a strictly temporary and limited suspension of hostilities. This is a direct and explicit rebuttal of the tendencies on show in Congress. Not here, not now.

Where I am, at the Tory conference in Birmingham, there is an understandably subdued atmosphere. Indeed, David Cameron was obliged to note in passing that the conference would continue, despite events.

Mr Cameron offered to assist the UK Government in tackling the crisis. Partly, of course, this is fighting for a place in the developing narrative. But it is also authentic. He offered, for example, to drop detailed objections to legislation permitting the Bank of England to assist failing financial institutions.

The Prime Minister earlier took the initiative by contacting opposition leaders.

In Scotland, the First Minister Alex Salmond is taking a comparably co-operative line. He has already discussed the situation with Des Browne, the Secretary of State for Scotland.

Further talks, also involving the Treasury, are planned.

Like other political leaders here, Mr Salmond believes that a new version of the US rescue package must be swiftly introduced and carried in order to return stability to the markets.

Down to earth

Brian Taylor | 13:59 UK time, Monday, 29 September 2008


By their very nature, party conferences are somewhat surreal affairs.

Here in Birmingham for the Conservative gig, the impression is heightened by the venue which is set amidst a corporate theme park carved into the centre of the city.

By that, I do not mean to be rude. As a family man, I have immersed myself eagerly in sundry theme parks in the past.

The Birmingham version is notably attractive, blending studied modernity with reconstituted canals and brand name restaurants. And the sense of mild displacement continued within.

Here was a Conservative finance spokesman lambasting the City - or, more precisely, elements therein.

Here too was an offer to freeze council tax. What was this? Had I suddenly been time-shifted to the SNP conference?

Was matter transportation the white knuckle thrill ride of the day?

'Flawed' system

But no. This was a notably down-to-earth speech from George Osborne, the Shadow Chancellor. It had to be.

The circumstances demanded it - and the challenge had been laid down by the prime minister in Manchester last week.

In essence, Gordon Brown's argument was that the financial system is flawed - and that it requires a politician of experience to address that. The name? G. Brown.

(Or, at least, that is the summary version in political circles. Except, inclining more towards the demotic, they tend not to say "flawed". )

Mr Osborne, similarly, discerns flaws in the financial system. Too polite to use the demotic from the platform, he was nevertheless rather blunter than Mr Brown.

The party, Mr Osborne suggested, was over. Brown's boom was at an end - and Britain was bust.

However, he opened by acknowledging that folk wanted to know whether the Tories were up to it - and whether they would make a difference.

Big bucks

Hence the attack on aspects of the City, the declaration that those who make big bucks must suffer big bangs on the head when it goes wrong.

Mr Osborne knows his party is potentially vulnerable to Labour suggestions that they would do nothing to curb banking excess.

Hence the plan for an office of budget responsibility - a form of Bank of England for spending plans with independent power to monitor government.

Hence too the offer on council tax - a freeze for two years where councils come up with savings.

This exactly parallels the SNP logic which is that hard-working families have suffered enough and require fiscal relief.

In Mr Osborne's case, it sets out something precise at a point where he stresses he is unable to offer much on income tax, given the state of the economy.

Nuclear exchange

Brian Taylor | 13:50 UK time, Thursday, 25 September 2008


Stands Scottish Labour where it did on nuclear power? I ask because of some intriguing exchanges at first minister's questions.

Well, I found them intriguing. To be frank, the previous position of Scottish Labour was pretty opaque on the atomic question.

Formally, it hadn't closed the door on new nuclear generation. But Labour ministers said they wouldn't sanction new plants unless and until they were convinced that the resultant waste could be handled.

Up to the point of demitting office, they were not sufficiently convinced.

Plus the Lib Dem component of the coalition was resolutely against nuclear. Plus Jack McConnell, personally, seemed notably keener on renewables - while, of course, advancing the formal line.

As a reminder, energy policy is reserved to Westminster - but the deployment of individual nuclear stations would fall to Holyrood under devolved powers.

The issue arose today because Labour's Iain Gray was questioning the first minister about the take over of the nuclear company British Energy by the French firm EDF.

'SNP dogma'

Mr Gray is the MSP for East Lothian, home to Torness.

British Energy's HQ is in East Kilbride. Mr Gray suggested Alex Salmond was being either "ironic" or "hypocritical" or "bonkers" in seeking to retain those Scottish jobs - while simultaneously rejecting new nuclear generation.

To be precise, Mr Gray was quoting newspaper commentators in chucking those epithets in the direction of the FM. These were not, you understand, to be taken as the direct opinions of Scottish Labour.

Perhaps just as well. Because, in response, Mr Salmond was able to quote Sarah Boyack - Mr Gray's spokeswoman on the environment - as saying that she felt the case for new nuclear in Scotland had not been made.

Then arose Andy Kerr, Labour frontbencher and MSP for East Kilbride, to accuse Mr Salmond of displaying a closed mind on the issue. He said the FM was "offering the cold shoulder of SNP dogma".

Not much opaque about that, is there? But consider. If the SNP stance on new nuclear is a bad thing, if it is to be condemned by all right-thinking people, then what - precisely - is Labour's stand?

Are they still opposed to new nuclear, pending resolution of the waste issue? Are they still unconvinced?

Alternatively, are they more inclined to endorse new nuclear in Scotland in keeping with the view, for example, of key figures in the trades union movement?

I believe it to be the latter. I believe Scottish Labour's core leadership would now be, intuitively and politically, more sympathetic to the case for new nuclear.

Merely intriguing

I believe they are heeding the view that the waste issue is less germane with the new generation of reactors. I believe that, liberated if you like from their LibDem colleagues, they are more attuned to the nuclear case.

To be fair, the door was never actually closed on new nuclear by Scottish Labour. I believe, however, that it is now more open than previously.

Doesn't mean there is a majority at Holyrood for new nuclear. SNP plus LibDem plus Green adds up to majority opposition to such a prospect.

Doesn't mean either that Labour's altered stance is either intrinsically wrong or right. Or indeed, at this stage, finally and absolutely clear. Merely intriguing.

'The real Gordon'

Brian Taylor | 17:01 UK time, Tuesday, 23 September 2008


There has been a slightly surreal atmosphere here at the Labour conference in Manchester.

Indeed, one delegate suggested to me that perhaps the Large Hadron Collider had actually obliterated the planet, tipping the party had into a parallel universe - one in which the economy was fine and Labour was reviving in the polls.

Gordon Brown's speech returned them to earth. This was a serious, sober-minded assessment of the party's problems and challenges.

I sought a response from Scots MPs and MSPs afterwards. All praised the performance warmly. Some seemed relieved.

One called it "the real Gordon". One said the dissenters should now "shut up". One sounded surprised that the conference had passed without more trouble.

One suggested, wryly, that the PM might now care to repeat the message, personally, on the streets of Glenrothes.

From Scottish Labour, formally, an intriguing message: again, I feel sure, a portent of more to come.

Government 'failings'

In a minor blizzard of news releases, sundry Labour MSPs suggested that the SNP might care to match, for Scotland, the PM's announcements in devolved areas for England: including crime, nursery care and the rest.

I suppose the SNP might now respond that the PM should, for example, go further than he did in his speech and offer the objective of entirely free prescriptions.

To be frank, I am not sure this is an entirely productive line of argument. It is reasonable for Labour to point out what they believe to be failings in the Scottish Government's programme.

But demanding the implementation of each and every announcement that affects England rather vitiates the concept of devolved power.

The lipstick strategy

Brian Taylor | 13:47 UK time, Monday, 22 September 2008


A standard political wheeze is to imply that your opponents embody the characteristics of others or are in some way masking their true thoughts.

Here in Manchester at the Labour conference we may be witnessing a new - or, rather, renewed - version of the tactic.

The basic format is familiar. As witness Dave Anderson, the MP for Blaydon, who asked delegates to name the difference between David Cameron and Margaret Thatcher.

The answer? Lipstick.

But Scottish Labour frontbenchers are now adapting the strategy. The SNP, they suggest, resemble the Tories.

Indeed, Sarah Boyack professed to find the similarities "startling".

And those were? "They both say anything to anyone to get elected, but neither can be trusted to actually do what needs to be done."

Not, you might think, characteristics which are confined to the pair of parties in question. However, Iain Gray went further.

Cap dusting

He told delegates that the SNP was advancing cuts in public services which mirrored those he said were intended by the Tories at Westminster.

Further still. He suggested the Nationalists were aching for a Conservative victory in the next UK General Election.

He depicted them as the servile heralds of the Tories, "dusting off their doorman's cap" to usher David Cameron into Downing Street.

We have, of course, heard this before. Indeed, Mr Gray revisited the argument that, by voting against Labour in a confidence motion in 1979, the SNP introduced Margaret Thatcher to power.

Alex Salmond offered fuel for the flames by suggesting in an interview that Scotland had not minded Mrs T's economic approach - so much as the social impact.

But it would appear that, with an eye on Glenrothes and other contests ahead, Labour is reviving the strategy.

Unity sustained

Brian Taylor | 11:12 UK time, Thursday, 18 September 2008


As it turned out, unity was sustained. All parties in the Holyrood chamber condemned the circumstances surrounding the HBOS take-over - and urged efforts to minimise the jobs impact upon Scotland.

Prompted by opposition leaders, Alex Salmond disclosed that he has already had discussions with the prime minister, the chairman of Lloyds TSB, the trades unions and others.

Politicians will, as Mr Salmond said, "strain every sinew".

Iain Gray, making his first appearance as leader, offered full backing. As did Annabel Goldie and Tavish Scott.

In reality, what can now be done? Few expect, seriously, that the HQ of the new combined bank will be based in Scotland.

Scotland can ask - and, indeed, should press for the maximum. But Scotland may not get.

The best may be the retention of some head office function, in both retail and corporate.

The key is to hold on to senior decision-makers, not just executive managers.

Jobs? Perhaps not as many will go from High Street retail in Scotland as feared, given the relatively limited overlap here.

The big losses could be in back office functions. Perhaps 3-400 in total?

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It is, according to the deal document, "a compelling business combination".

Intriguing word, that. Could mean "attractive" or "externally driven". I veer towards the latter.

The same document, charting the take-over of HBOS by Lloyds TSB, promises to use The Mound in Edinburgh as the "Scottish headquarters", to hold the AGM in Scotland, to print Scottish bank notes and to focus on keeping jobs in Scotland.

All comforting, to some extent. Against that, the deal foreshadows inevitable efficiencies of scale, eliminating duplication.

That means branches. That means jobs. My sympathy to those facing uncertainty.

Plus headquarters functions will transfer to London. That will be a source of political debate at Westminster and here at Holyrood as politicians scramble to pick up the pieces.

Among the first up in that regard will be Iain Gray. Labour's newly elected leader at Holyrood is due to pose questions to the first minister today for the first time.

Intriguing approach

His topic? Guess. Labour has already proposed a "banking summit", indicating that they favour a cross-partisan approach.

Alex Salmond stressed yesterday that he is not opposed to the merger per se. He is, however, angry with what he told me were the "spivs and speculators" who had targeted HBOS and enforced these developments.

It will be intriguing to see whether a multi-party approach can be sustained.

Sentiment and history

Brian Taylor | 12:41 UK time, Wednesday, 17 September 2008


Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold. Confronted with tales of financial apocalypse - and political bickering - I find myself meandering towards Yeats.

At Holyrood, we are, mostly, mere observers: a status we share with the vast bulk of the populace. I expect the first minister may make a comment this afternoon on the condition of HBOS.

But most are frankly stunned - and only too aware that partisan politics can seem piffling by contrast.

Both the bank itself and expert commentators have taken pains to stress that HBOS is fundamentally sound, that it has been the victim of its perceived exposure to the housing market and, more, to short-selling by traders.

Sentiment and history play no part, I know, in the calculations which are under way as I write.

But remember what we are dealing with here. The Bank of Scotland (the BOS bit which merged with the Halifax) was founded in 1695 by an Act of the pre-Union Scots Parliament.

Disastrous expeditions

Its foundation coincided with the ultimately disastrous Darien expeditions, with efforts to expand Scottish trade in Europe, with famine and strain, with the pre-discussions which led eventually to Union.

In 1696, it became the first bank in Europe to issue paper currency. These distinctive notes were later to be defended by no less a figure than Sir Walter Scott as he fought off efforts to constrain the bank's right to produce paper bills.

Sir Walter's image is still on Bank of Scotland notes.

It has had a long and turbulent but successful history. Now it appears it is about to enter a new phase, beset by necessity, global turmoil and the onslaught of individual acquisitiveness.

Cassius strikes

Brian Taylor | 15:00 UK time, Tuesday, 16 September 2008


And so, virtually by the time I posted the previous blog, he'd quit.

David Cairns that is. (Apologies, incidentally, for being so dilatory earlier: I was otherwise engaged.)

In normal circumstances, the resignation of a junior minister (of two) from a sub-department of state whose reason for existence is frequently questioned would not cause much of a stir.

These are not normal circumstances. The prime minister is in deep trouble. Who now remembers the sundry parliamentary aides whose resignation forced Tony Blair to name a date for his own departure from office?

It is possible that, similarly, there will now be serial resignations in the run-up to the party conference. Gordon Brown may now find used against him the very tactic he deployed - or witnessed being deployed on his behalf.

Against all this, Team Brown has key arguments. Who would be better? Who would be better, particularly at a time of international financial crisis?

Most directly, they may point out that a second new leader within a single parliament would surely demand a General Election? Is Labour ready for that?

Not, I grant you, the cream of intellectual persuasion. But Mr Brown no longer has time for such luxuries.

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David Cairns, the Scotland Office minister, we are familiar with. David Cairns, the sometime combatant with SNP Ministers? David Cairns, the former priest?

This much we know, this much we understand.

But David Cairns as Cassius? OK, maybe not, no lean and hungry look. Brutus, then?

A co-conspirator against the dark, brooding Caesar who resides at Downing Street, 10.

It is said that a minister has been speaking, privately so far, of his disquiet with the Prime Minister and of his reluctance to serve further. It is said that Minister is David Cairns. Mr Cairns has said nothing. As yet.

Mr Cairns is a buddy of Siobhain McDonagh, the (now ex) whip who started the current round of speculation about the prime minister's prospects. He worked as her research assistant.

Further, Mr Cairns experienced the pain of the voters directly when he led the Labour campaign in the Glasgow East by-election.

Financial dissaray

He now has three options. He can declare undying loyalty to the PM. He can wield the knife by resigning from the Government.

Or he can attempt to dismiss speculation as unwarranted froth when global financial markets are in disarray.

Either way, don't think he'll be in charge of the Labour campaign in Glenrothes. Remember Philippi. And where's Mark Anthony when you need him?

Tavish's tactical tax tester

Brian Taylor | 10:21 UK time, Monday, 15 September 2008


Isn't that just an intriguing tactical move by Tavish Scott over tax? The Scottish Liberal Democrat leader wants to match his colleagues' enthusiasm for tax cutting with a distinctive initiative in Scotland.

He wants to cut the Tartan Tax by 2p in the pound. Oh, come on, of course you remember the Tartan Tax.

Question Two in the referendum? Dominated debate in Scotland for years? The power to vary the standard rate of tax, up or down, by a maximum of 3%? Never used? Yes, that one.

Anyway, Mr Scott wants to cut income tax in Scotland in an effort to redress concern among the citizenry about the general state of the economy.

Incidentally, when I say "enthusiasm" among his colleagues, I am referring to the party leadership. There may be a more mixed response from the membership, as perhaps will be evidenced in Monday's discussions at the Bournemouth conference.

But back to Mr Scott. This is a new venture from a new leader. But it is my understanding that the LibDems have considered this option previously. I believe that Nicol Stephen and Tavish Scott looked at offering a cut in the Tartan Tax in the 2007 Holyrood general election.

They dropped the plan, I understand, after it was tested on the electorate via focus groups. Folk, it seemed, didn't truly trust the offer. They simply weren't in a mood to believe politicians over tax. It wasn't a runner - or, more accurately, it wouldn't bring in enough votes to justify the tough questions which would ensue over public spending.

So why now? Three reasons.

Firstly, it is a classic "hit the ground running" initiative by a new leader. As fourth party at Holyrood, the LibDems know they need to make an impact. This does.

Secondly, Mr Scott genuinely believes in smaller government and energising the economy through reducing the burden of taxation. For his pains, he was called "Tavish the Tory" yesterday.

I expect he might prefer to plead guilty to Gladstonian Liberal.

Thirdly, this is of course as much, if not more, about strategy rather than policy. Mr Scott is challenging other Holyrood leaders to match his offer - in the expectation that they will not.

Duly thwarted, he will go to the electorate with a sad story of obduracy and obstruction among his rivals.

This is becoming a familiar pattern at Holyrood. If only, a leader will intone sonorously, my opponents would see sense. If only they would tear up their manifesto and adopt mine.

I suppose it is a factor of minority party politics - up with which we must put.

Fine words, noble sentiments

Brian Taylor | 14:20 UK time, Saturday, 13 September 2008


In the end, then, a clear victory. As expected, Iain Gray sustained a comfortable lead in the elected members section: MPs, MSPs and MEPs.

But, crucially, he also defeated Cathy Jamieson by a decent margin in the section of the ballot reserved for grassroots party members.

As billed, here and elsewhere, Ms Jamieson came top in the union and affiliates sector - but only just.

He has an evident mandate - as does Johann Lamont who defeated Bill Butler in the contest for deputy leadership.

Both spoke well. Johann Lamont contrived to sound both droll and indignantly determined over Labour's current travails.

Iain Gray said he was out to put things right, promising policy initiatives in areas like knife crime, housing, skills training and devolution where he backed the Calman process.

George Foulkes was moved to suggest that the election of Mr Gray reminded him of Tony Blair's victory: with, he forecast, similar prospects for a transformation of the party north of the Border.

Blair putsch

But, outside Labour Party HQ, the atmosphere suddenly seemed somewhat chillier.

Precisely as folk were queuing up to offer congratulations to the new Scottish boss, news was emerging from London of further MPs suggesting that Gordon Brown should face a leadership challenge.

It's all inchoate, imprecise: so far, those querying Mr Brown insist they don't have a particular challenger in mind.

But it's eerily reminiscent of the "putsch" against Tony Blair when junior ministers voiced their disquiet - with the exception that, to date, the names this time are rather more junior.

How does Iain Gray cope with that? How to posit a brave new future for Scottish Labour - when the party at Westminster, the Government at Westminster, is facing internal squalls?

The only way, one MSP suggested to me quietly, is for the party in Scotland to focus upon its own fight - the fight against the SNP - and to detach itself to some degree from the conflict at Westminster.

Certainly, Iain Gray favours new departures. In a key section, he said the 2007 manifesto should be set aside - with the focus being upon preparing new policies for the next Holyrood elections. Translation: we lost, get over it.

Secure ground

He also said the by-election defeat in Glasgow East should be absorbed - and the lessons turned into progressive advance for the party in keeping with the authentic interests of the people.

Fine words, noble sentiments: hard to deliver.

Personally, I thought he was on less secure ground with a section which particularly delighted the Labour audience.

That was when he attacked Alex Salmond personally.

To be more precise, he sought to contrast himself with Mr Salmond, suggesting the first minister had pursued an elitist path - St Andrews, economics, the Scottish Office, the Royal Bank, Westminster - while he, Iain Gray, had been a teacher and worked to combat poverty overseas.

Labour liked that section because they loathe Mr Salmond - and nurture the hope that he's personally vulnerable to attack on the grounds of arrogance.

Snag for that theory is that Mr Salmond is also hugely popular - and markedly better known than any of his Labour rivals.

Plus he scarcely fits the elitist badge Mr Gray was trying, by implication, to pin upon him.
Still, this could be intriguing.

Not on top form

Brian Taylor | 14:35 UK time, Thursday, 11 September 2008


Nobody, truly, knows who will win the contest for leader of the Scottish Labour Party. (Or....fill in alternative title for yourselves.)

With thousands of postal votes to be counted from elected, party, union and affiliate members, it is impossible to say.

But herewith the gossip at Holyrood. It should be Iain Gray, given his relative strength in the nominations and his performance on the hustings.

But Cathy Jamieson may be coming up strongly on the rails. It is not forecast that Andy Kerr will win.

This is not utterly ill-informed chat. (Only partly.) It is based upon timing and impact.

When folk were filling in their ballot papers, Cathy Jamieson was prominent as acting leader.

Plus she was pursuing, vigorously, the case for an enhanced pay deal for public sector workers. That may not have delighted one or two entitled to vote in this contest.

Sympathetic comment

One thinks of Comrades G. Brown and A. Darling.

However, it may have gone down well with union members, particularly the substantial number who work in the public sector. Which was, of course, the purpose.

To be fair, both Iain Gray and Andy Kerr commented sympathetically on the dispute, stressing, for example, the merit in a single year deal.

But Ms Jamieson perhaps gave the issue greatest prominence.

Of course, even if she wins the union vote, that only contributes towards one third of the total.

Cathy Jamieson was on show again today, questioning the first minister. It is perhaps as well for her that the leadership contest is a postal ballot - and that the votes are in.

To be frank, she was not on top form.

She was pursuing the topic of the Glasgow SNP councillor, Jahangir Hanif. You'll recall the disclosure that, three years ago, he showed his children how to fire a Kalashnikov rifle during a visit to what was described as a "military-style" camp in the Pakistani border area.

Dismissive dealings

Councillor Hanif was suspended by the SNP.

Today's Evening Times reports comments on the issue from John Mason MP, who won the Glasgow East by-election for the SNP. Mr Mason avers that criticism of Mr Hanif contains "thinly disguised racism".

Ms Jamieson sought to pursue Mr Salmond over the issue. But she dissipated her attack by raising too many disparate elements of the controversy.

Perhaps, further, she was put off by two interventions from the presiding officer, Alex Fergusson.

To be fair to the PO, he was - rightly - reminding Ms Jamieson that her questions must address Mr Salmond solely in his role as first minister.

In any event, Ms Jamieson could have found a way round that dilemma. She could, for example, have reminded the first minister that he regularly adopts the role of speaking for Scotland - before inviting him to speak for the nation on this topic, as FM.

Mr Salmond was able to deal dismissively with what might, otherwise, have been uncomfortable for him. He described Mr Hanif's behaviour as unwise, he argued that suspension from the party was a substantial sanction.

Then he was enabled to broaden his reply into condemning racism, generally. Not Ms Jamieson's best day.

Wonder if Saturday will be any better for her?

Who ya gonna call? Sir Angus

Brian Taylor | 17:35 UK time, Wednesday, 10 September 2008


Something troubling you? Bit of a disturbance in the political firmament? Who ya gonna call? The answer, it would seem, is Sir Angus Grossart.

Finance Secretary John Swinney is confident Sir Angus is the man to put steel into his Scottish Futures Trust, as the chair of the new organisation.

The trust will be tasked with finding and implementing alternative methods of funding capital projects like schools and hospitals.

Certainly, Sir Angus brings a few credentials to the table. He is an eminent Scottish business leader, perhaps offering reassurance to the private sector.

He is a prime mover in business circles. Put another way, he is a quintessential fixer, one who gets things done.

In addition, he has long evinced a public service ethos, working in particular with charities and arts organisations.

While working globally, he is proudly Scottish and was a notable business supporter of devolution.

He is a big name - with a big record. He likes a challenge and has been quoted as saying he would prefer to die of exhaustion rather than boredom.

So, from the perspective of ministers, a very good call indeed. And, at Holyrood, the oposition parties agreed this was a substantial appointment.

But what, precisely, is Sir Angus going to chair? his is no merchant bank, like the one he co-founded. his is not one of the conglomerates or firms he has served.

It's an intriguing, although by no means unprecedented, blend: a registered company, wholly owned by Scottish ministers; an entity serving the public interest which will operate at arms length from government.

Questions aplenty. What, says Labour, will the new trust do that is not already being done by civil servants in government tasked with co-ordinating investment effort across Scotland?

It will have no assets of its own, no direct borrowing powers. It is, says Labour, a costly quango.

What, say the Tories, will be the operating model? When can we expect evidential proof of the claimed gains? How, say the Liberal Democrats, will the trust fill the "black hole" which they claim has been dug in council finances?

Unison thought it a touch ironic that, in order to turn round costly PFI projects, one apparently required . . . a merchant banker.

Cosla's response was notably chilly. Representing councils, they said they had a "duty to consider" options that might benefit Scotland.

But they found the package "light on detail".

Patience, says Mr Swinney. And, indeed, Sir Angus who declared that, although he was keen to "get cracking", it wasn't a race.

The minister reckons the trust will provide "value for money" guidance on infrastructure projects; will roll out the non-profit distributing model (NPD) which caps profits; will develop plans for municipal bond issues (the Government has no borrowing powers of its own); and will act as a central catalyst to speed up projects and cut their cost.

Take five

Brian Taylor | 11:26 UK time, Tuesday, 9 September 2008


By the end of this week, Scottish Labour will have a new leader. Or a new leader for Labour in the Scottish Parliament. (See sundry previous blogs.)

Thousands of Labour members will have cast their votes. Many of them several times over.

I expect that, if you thought about it at all, you were presuming that the new leader was to be elected by the fabled OMOV: One Member One Vote. Well, up to a point, Lord Copper.

In this ballot, votes are allocated across three sections: elected members, party members, unions and affiliates.

By a process of weighting, each section adds up to one third of the final vote.

If you are seeking a source of innocent merriment, ask your Labour MSPs how many votes they have in this contest. The top total I've discerned so far is five.

Huge influence

Here's how that breaks down. Labour MSP - one vote. Co-op MSP - one vote. Union member - one vote. Party member - one vote. Affiliated society, such as the Fabians - or the Socialist Health Association - one vote. Five in total.

Co-op? That is the Co-operative Party which works in partnership with Labour. It is supporting Cathy Jamieson and Bill Butler in this election. There are nine Labour/Co-op MSPs.

To be clear, the Co-op votes are not counted in the MSP section. If they were, that would give huge influence to the Co-op vote as the choice of elected members counts, proportionately, for more than other sections.

That is because the votes of the relatively few elected members are weighted to represent one third of the final total.

Co-op MSP votes are reallocated to the affiliated societies section. That gives them a lower weight, comparable to that of union members.

Talking of the union vote, bear in mind that those who take part in this ballot need not be members of the Labour Party. They must simply have paid the political levy.

Substantial compromise

Indeed, Alex Salmond has indicated that three Nationalist MSPs are entitled to take part in the Labour vote because they are suitably paid-up members of affiliated unions.

He said, drolly, that he would guide them to vote for one each of the three contenders. However, to do so, they would have to participate in a rather more substantial compromise.

To take part in the union section vote, they would have to tick a box declaring that they share the aims and ambitions of the Labour Party. Ballot papers lacking that tick go in the bin.

I have discussed the complexity of this election with a number of Labour figures. Mostly, they stress the voting method reflects Labour's origins: growing up from the unions and Socialist societies.

It would be wrong, they argue, to deprive the wider movement of a vote.

But is it really necessary to have a situation where an MSP receives five ballot papers? Fills five envelopes?

Bear in mind this doesn't just apply to MSPs. Multiple voting will affect those who, for example, are both party and union members: a rather common combination.

Vote early, vote often.

And now, time for the news

Brian Taylor | 16:49 UK time, Monday, 8 September 2008


As with the best of popular telly, there is something for everyone. In the report of the Scottish Broadcasting Commission, that is.

For Alex Salmond, who set up the commission, there is the call for a new distinctive digital channel which could mean more production in Scotland and, hence, more jobs.

For UK Ministers, there is the assertion that Scotland has "undoubtedly benefited from being part of the overall broadcasting ecology of the UK."

The report goes on to argue that Scotland has tended to be marginalised within that structure. Nonetheless, David Cairns of the Scotland Office could be permitted a smile at this nod to the UK role.

No Scottish Six, at this stage. Instead, there would be domestic and international news from a Scottish standpoint on the new channel.

To be clear, Alex Salmond did not lay particular stress on the Scottish Six when he launched the commission. That was done for him by certain media reports.

Hard perspective

Rather Mr Salmond said the aim should be more production in Scotland, more broadcasting levers here. The report delivers that.

No devolution of broadcasting, either. The report suggests a bigger role for Holyrood - plus a series of scrutiny mechanisms which would tend to shift the focus from London.

But broadcasting, as an overall issue, would remain reserved.

A setback for Mr Salmond? To some extent, yes. It would definitely have been handier from his perspective if the report had said: put Scotland in charge. It doesn't.

It would appear that the commissioners, led by Blair Jenkins, preferred to focus on broadcasting - on audience needs - rather than adjudicating in a core partisan dispute.

They have opted, in short, for productive content rather than seismic politics. While the new channel (or network - it would have substantial Online content) is the big idea, there's much more.

A challenge to the BBC to speed up network investment in Scotland, a challenge to Channel Four to do likewise, an analysis of ITV finances and the potential consequences for Scotland, an examination of possible funding streams for the proposed new channel.

The report is a thorough, focused body of work which merits attention.

Politics as football

Brian Taylor | 10:45 UK time, Friday, 5 September 2008


He's said it before, I know: this stuff about Scottish fiscal powers, not least in an interview I conducted with the Prime Minister back in February.

I recall that interview, in Kirkcaldy, for a couple of other reasons. Mr Brown, understandably keen to bolster his colleague, forecast then that Wendy Alexander would be a "great" leader of Scottish Labour.

And, immediately after talking to me, the PM headed for Starks Park hoping to join the football fans singing and dancing in the streets of Raith. The mighty Rovers, GB's boyhood delight, were thumped.

So nothing is fixed in politics or football. Nonetheless, the Prime Minister is pursuing an intriguing theme when he talks about the Scottish Parliament gaining responsibility for raising money as well as spending it.

When Donald Dewar took Labour into the Constitutional Convention, he said that his party was going to have to "live dangerously" for a while.

Mr Dewar, like Mr Brown, was intuitively averse to risk.

Yet it would appear that Mr Brown now, like Mr Dewar then, is prepared to consider what would previously have been regarded as unthinkable.

Popular mood

Is he "caving in" to the SNP? To some degree, yes. His comments reflect the political reality that people in Scotland seem to like the concept of decisions honed in Scotland, reflecting Scottish wishes and driven, solely, by a Scottish mandate.

In response to the SNP pressure for independence, he is still firmly saying no.

Now, however, it is "no, but . . . " This resembles the instigation of devolution itself.

Labour is responding, directly, to the popular mood which is, to some extent, represented by the SNP.

However, the origin of this initiative should not concern us exclusively. Personally, I am much more interested in the details of the project and its next phase. If you like, let's look at Leviticus and Exodus, taking Genesis for read.

What is Gordon Brown proposing? Strictly, nothing precise at this stage, given that he anticipates the Calman Commission will guide on this matter.

Since he and others directed Calman's remit, that is a reasonable presumption.

What, then, might we expect?vI believe that Gordon Brown is talking about assigned or devolved revenues.

Declining economy

Assignation means that the product of a tax raised in Scotland, say income tax, stays in Scotland. Devolution means the Scottish Parliament would have full or partial control over varying that tax.

Which taxes might be assigned or devolved? Holyrood already has the power to vary the standard rate of income tax. But the tax isn't assigned - in that Scotland simply gets a block grant.

Under assignation or devolution of tax, the Scottish Government and parliament would have a direct incentive to grow the economy: because they would get the extra tax cash that thus accrues.

Equally, they would have to live with the consequences of a declining economy.

VAT? Could be assigned, difficulty perhaps with devolution because of EU consistency rules.

Corporation tax? Could be assigned - but probably not devolved in order to avoid the problem of companies shifting their HQ plates within the UK to skip tax.

That's one reason why such a move has been resisted for Northern Ireland.

Other taxes like stamp duty seem clear candidates for assignation or devolution. Oil? That will be the SNP's greatest demand - but assignation/devolution would be strongly resisted by the Treasury.

Borrowing power

There are other issues. The Treasury would dislike any substantial assignation or devolution if it weakened their control over the UK's overall finances.

That might suggest there would be a requirement for rules governing such matters.

Further, the Scottish Government - both ministers and officials - are exceptionally keen on gaining borrowing powers. They point out that local authorities can borrow - but they can't.

Assignation of tax might well be accompanied by borrowing powers.

Bear in mind that, for the PM, this is not solely about Scotland.

In his speech last night, the line about Scottish economic flexibility was followed immediately by a statement stressing that this was all about "preserving the unity of the United Kingdom".

Under assigned taxation, there would still be an equalisation system to top up for Scotland the revenue that isn't transferred, such as oil, and to deal with differential need, however assessed.

There would, in my view, be a full-sacle needs assessment review.

English disquiet

But, by definition, any cash lump sum paid annually to Scotland would be much lower than the present Barnett Formula level. That is because Scotland would retain, primarily, the product of one or more taxes.

The equalisation payment would be a top-up rather than the sole sum.

So Gordon Brown could, arguably, tell the good and sensible people of England that he had cut the grant to Scotland.

Depending on the equalisation formula which replaced Barnett, it might also be the case that the overall funding available to Scotland would indeed be cut.

It is scarcely likely to be increased, given disquiet in England.

Good advice to all politicians: be careful what you wish for.

Not a great day

Brian Taylor | 11:44 UK time, Thursday, 4 September 2008


Winners and losers. There will be one of each when MSPs vote tonight on whether to suspend Wendy Alexander for one day for failing to declare, timeously, donations to her leadership campaign.

The winner will be Ms Alexander. It looks as though MSPs will vote, by a majority, to release her from the sanction recommended by the standards committee.

I doubt if this victory will delight her over much, given that she has already resigned from the leadership of her party.

The loser? Parliament itself. The debate this morning was ill-tempered, occasionally ill-mannered. The speeches were, frequently, ill-considered. Several were read.

They were read badly. It would have served the nation better had they not been read at all.

In advance of the debate, as MSPs were gathering, there was nervous mumbling. One wag wondered aloud whether the presiding officer would don a black cap at the end of proceedings.

Another suggested to the few watching journalists that we resembled tricoteuses.

Partisan nature

The atmosphere seemed to afflict Keith Brown, the convener of the committee - although he was also somewhat breathless owing, he said, to congestion on the Forth Bridge delaying his arrival.

To be fair, Mr Brown read the charge sheet as dispassionately as possible. He set out the case in some detail.

Matters subsequently deteriorated. I exempt Patrick Harvie and Margo Macdonald. Both lamented the partisan nature of the debate and the manner of reaching the conclusions.

Each urged revision of the parliament's systems to clarify what, precisely, merited registration. Their speeches were good and commendably brief.

On reflection, I wonder whether Christina McKelvie and Dave Thompson will feel entirely satisfied with their contributions.

Ms McKelvie delivered her criticisms in a relentless monotone, without even acknowledging, let alone accepting interventions.

Mr Thompson, by contrast, allowed himself to become hugely exercised, with little palpable cause, scattering accusations against other members. He did himself no favours. I suspect he knows that.

Too shrill?

It is perhaps no accident that the more measured contributions came from those who have served in parliament for some time: Brian Adam, Robert Brown.

Then we come to the Labour contributions. Those were mostly, with notable exceptions, cogent and concise. However, I wonder if, on reflection, they will ponder two things.

Did they allow themselves to become rather too shrill in seeking to intervene on rivals, in posing points of order? Might there not also have been a note of contrition regarding other aspects of this whole affair?

For there lies the core. Strictly, MSPs are voting tonight on whether Ms Alexander should have listed donations to her campaign team - on the register of members' interests.

No more, no less. Nothing to do with the donations themselves, their substance or origin.

Some will acknowledge Ms Alexander was advised by parliamentary clerks that she did not need to register these donations.

But some will be influenced by a feeling that the wider affair is less than salutory: that the voting public just don't like the feel of it.

Blunt address

Hugh O'Donnell, who is about to depart the standards committee, said as much, bluntly, in his summation address. He said folk didn't like the notion of donations which were deliberately pitched at a certain level to avoid disclosure.

That, to stress again, is not the issue before MSPs tonight. But it will be tangentially influential - and that is perhaps understandable.

There are other issues. Should parliament bolster its own standards committee by endorsing its findings?

That line, I feel, will influence many who will feel that serving on that committtee is tough enough without second guessing its deliberations.

Against that, others - mostly Labour, but also Jamie McGrigor - argued that the committee had, uniquely, divided on its findings, that those findings were flawed and partisan, that they must be overturned.

That, I guess, will happen. Labour will vote to support Ms Alexander. Most Nationalists will vote with the committee, for suspension - although Christine Grahame declared in the debate she would abstain.

I believe the preponderance of Tories and, probably, LibDems will vote against suspension or abstain.

Not a great day for parliament. Still, perhaps future leadership campaigns will think thrice before soliciting donations.

Perhaps too they will check their provenance a little more thoroughly.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

A quick update for you - MSPs have voted against the proposed sanction by 70 to 49. There were two abstentions.

Bills, bills, bills

Brian Taylor | 11:16 UK time, Wednesday, 3 September 2008


It was a confident performance by the first minister. I know, I know, such a statement is tautologous. But worth pointing out nonetheless.

Ranged against him, the opposition leaders. All three hopefuls for the Labour post sat on their party's front bench, an eager and aspirational triumvirate.

It fell to Cathy Jamieson, the current acting boss, to speak. And she spoke rather well: pointed and precise.

The new Liberal Democrat leader, Tavish Scott, offered the opinion that the programme for government was light on measures to address the economy. A substantive point, well delivered.

However, it allowed the first minister to point out, gently, that he had dealt with the economy as his very first point, that he was doing what he could within limited powers - and that he would welcome support from Mr Scott for extending those powers.

I doubt he will be as gentle again.

The Conservatives, breaking with custom elsewhere, fielded the same leader as they had had on show before the recess.

Surviving summer

Annabel Goldie duly lambasted the government's proposal to ban off-sales for those aged under 21 as daft - and was equally excoriating about the move to ban the council tax.

Mr Salmond voiced his relief that at least one opposition leader had survived the summer. It encouraged him, he said, in the thought that there was durability still in political life.

To the substance, then. It is often difficult, in truth, to discern a theme from such legislative packages.

They are disparate, blending politically engendered proposals with reform measures which may have been waiting in the wings for some time.

However, if one were seeking a theme, one might look towards lifestyle. Building perhaps on the ban on smoking in public places, introduced by the previous coalition team, there is proposed action on tobacco advertising at point of sale and, controversially, plans to place constraints on alcohol off sales.

Kenny Macaskill and Nicola Sturgeon are notably evangelistic about this latter effort. But I believe they will also blend this with pragmatism.

This will face huge opposition: from the trade, from political rivals - and from groups like students who don't fancy being prevented from buying drink in an off licence before they're 21.

Party challenge

I wouldn't be entirely surprised if some elements of this package fall from the picture, either at the present consultation stage or at the later legislative stage.

But, for now, they're in. This is the Governmental intention.

Same might be said of the plan to scrap the council tax and replace it with a local income tax - although there the intent is firmer still.

In essence, Alex Salmond and his ministers are saying: these are our plans. Don't like them? So what have you got as an alternative?

To the Treasury, who say LIT would mean Scotland losing £400m in council tax benefit, the SNP is issuing a comparable challenge.

It's the genteel political equivalent of "come and have a go if you think you're hard enough".

The Tories oppose LIT. So do Labour - although, under pressure, the leadership contenders have been obliged to go further than their 2007 manifesto, acknowledging wider flaws in the council tax.

The LibDems ostensibly support LIT - but don't like the SNP's plan for a fixed 3p rate across Scotland.

Modern lifestyle

It may be income tax, say they, but it sure ain't local.

Will LIT get through, precisely as Mr Salmond proposes? Doubt it. However, it seems likely that a reformed system of local government finance will emerge, somehow.

Other stuff. The Creative Scotland Bill, bumped by MSPs for lacking financial detail, is back in a new guise. Bit like one of those telly shows, repackaged in a new format to win audience support.

This time round, it's contained with a wider public services reform bill. That should obviate the need for a six month delay before the measure is reintroduced. But there may yet be further oppositionm party objections.

Lots on the environment: marine conservation, climate change etc. See that modern lifestyle theme.

Lots on criminal justice: reforming the sentencing procedure and the system of justice itself.

In fact, lots.

Pounding the corridors

Brian Taylor | 15:14 UK time, Tuesday, 2 September 2008


On your behalf, I have spent a fair chunk of today patrolling the corridors at Holyrood, discussing and analysing contemporary political developments.

OK, catching up on the gossip.

So what are they talking about, our MSPs, now that they are back at the last? (at THE last, note, not "at last" - no cheap gags from me about interminable holidays.)

The condition of the economy, of course, in the light of today's announcements on Stamp Duty etc.

The allied condition of the UK Government. Alistair Darling's sundry pronouncements, firstly in The Guardian then in a telly interview with me.

Glenrothes, of course. Labour thinks it can pelt the SNP over its council record in Fife: building on local concern over proclaimed cuts in social provision.

Nationalists insist they can defend that record rather better than G. Brown can defend his at Westminster.


The upcoming programme for government: Holyrood's flummery-free Queen's Speech. Fifteen bills. More on that tomorrow.

Then there's Wendy. Parliament is due to vote on Thursday on whether to uphold the proposed one-day suspension of Ms Alexander, the erstwhile Labour leader.

You'll recall she was chided by Holyrood's Standards Committee for not declaring leadership donations timeously on the MSP's register.

Her defence was that she had been advised in writing that such a declaration was not required.

Gossip here at Holyrood is that she may well be reprieved. Labour will back her, the Nationalists are likely to vote for suspension, while the word is that the Libdems and the Tories will have a free vote.

The thinking in some quarters is that this is now a bygone controversy, given that she resigned as leader shortly after the committee verdict.

Genuine decision

Further, there are those who take the line advanced by Tory MSP Jamie McGrigor on the committee that sanctions were inappropriate, given Ms Alexander's defence.

There are those who dissent. LibDem MSP Hugh O'Donnell indicated he might quit the standards committee if its proposed verdict wasn't upheld.

But he's no longer scheduled to serve on the committee following the reshuffle advanced by Tavish Scott. No coincidence, I suspect.

Further, there are those who fret that the episode indicates that the entire standards mechanism has become too partisan.

For example the former first minister, Jack McConnell, is arguing that every party should sanction a free vote on such matters: that it should be a genuine Parliamentary decision, not a party vote.

To be clear, such concerns are not confined to Ms Alexander's party. There are those with broader views who know that what affects one party one day may well come round to bite another party on another occasion.

Leave it all with you.

Sooner or later

Brian Taylor | 12:40 UK time, Monday, 1 September 2008


Imagine Gordon Brown's dilemma. He has to decide when to call the by-election in Glenrothes.

A wicked onlooker might sum up the problem thus: "Is it better to go early and lose - or to go late and lose?"

Of course, Labour might win.

Indeed, should that happen in this constituency which neighbours Mr Brown's own, then the PM's problems would be markedly reduced.

Not removed entirely, but reduced.

If he could be confident of that victory, however, the by-election contest might well be already under way.

As the Scottish play notes, "if it were done when 'tis done, then 'twere well it were done quickly".

Not a particularly fizzy quotation, I concede, but germane.

However, a swiftly convened conflict was not notably successful in Glasgow East. Or indeed in Crewe. Or indeed in the case of Macbeth.

Tonight Labour will select its candidate for the forthcoming contest.

The shortlist comprises Colin Davidson, a teacher at Bell Baxter; Kezia Dugdale, a Parliamentary researcher; and Lindsay Roy, the rector of Kirkcaldy High.

The favourite? Lindsay Roy - although it is of course up to the local party in Glenrothes to decide.

Should Mr Roy be chosen, expect Labour to dig up comments about him made by the SNP leadership of Fife Council.

Mr Roy was brought in to address problems at Kirkcaldy High identified by HMIE Inspectors.

The council declared their confidence that Gordon Brown's old school would "continue to progress" under the new leadership of Lindsay Roy. They thought him, in short, a good thing. As a rector.

The downside for Labour? Pretty obvious, really. They might well lose. Indeed, most observers reckon they are odds on to get thumped.

Why? Because the swing required for the second placed SNP is less than the party achieved to win Glasgow East. And it's less than the LibDems contrived in their Dunfermline victory.

Plus the SNP took the comparable constituency, Central Fife, at the Holyrood elections last year.

Plus the Nationalists control the council in partnership with the LibDems.

The SNP has selected council leader Peter Grant to contest the seat.

The LibDems are fielding Harry Wills; the Tories Maurice Golden; the SSP Morag Balfour while UKIP go with Dr Kris Seunarine.

The opinion polls, both Scottish and UK, would suggest that Labour is less than popular.

Plus it remains unclear whether the PM will stay away from the by-election, citing (occasionally breached) convention; or lead from the front; or participate visibly in Fife events in his own constituency next door.

Against that? This is a by-election caused by death, not resignation.

Voters tend to be a little less grumpy when the contest is completely inevitable.

Further, Labour is determined to avoid the utter guddle which surrounded their Glasgow East selection.

Still and all, not a set-up designed to delight the PM.

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