BBC BLOGS - Blether with Brian

Archives for December 2008

Christmas cheer in the chamber

Brian Taylor | 14:41 UK time, Thursday, 18 December 2008


Startling developments at Holyrood. Labour's Iain Gray seemed to this concerned onlooker to be suggesting there was no Santa Claus.

First Minister Alex Salmond took an entirely different tack. He appeared to think he WAS S. Claus.

Mr Salmond revealed the Christmas gift wishes of his rivals, as published in the Big Issue, then proceeded to indicate that he, personally, was in a position to meet these requests.

Mr Gray apparently had expressed a desire for new-style Ray-Ban sunglasses, as worn by Barack Obama. (OK, OK, let's get the gags about blinkered vision out of the way now.)

Done, said Santa Salmond. Lack of time no doubt prevented the FM from disclosing that his own despatch to the North Pole features a desire for a year's supply of Lucozade.

No, I don't know why either.

Most of the chat afterwards in the Garden Lobby focused on the relative rigidity, even sterility, that is now afflicting this weekly question session.


Labour MSPs and others blame the FM. They say he has given up any pretence of attempting to address, let alone answer, the questions.

Nationalists say the FM is entitled to answer attacks in his own way. They say it is scarcely his fault if his opponents cannot lay a glove on him.

By contrast, they say the questions from the opposition leaders are turning into long-winded statements.

One Government insider even questioned the choice of questions. The topics were: Labour, Scottish Futures Trust; Tory, policing fraud; LibDem, the quango state.

Their call, of course, but my puzzled interlocutor wondered why nothing on sentencing policy or student funding. Maybe next year.

As to timing, I think the patience of backbenchers is wearing decidedly thin.

By the time the three front benches pose their sundry questions, 20 valuable minutes have elapsed. Backbenchers have very little chance to get in.

New goalie

Perhaps the answer lies in the chair enforcing tighter questions - then inviting the first minister to respond in due measure with taut, focused replies.

On the day, Iain Gray pursued his chosen topic with vigour, asserting that the SFT is effectively dead and should be afforded a swift burial.

At one point, he delivered a notably withering glare to some shrill heckling.

Annabel Goldie was magisterial, declaring one reply from the FM to be "absolute drivel". (You have to say it in the Bella accent to get the full effect.)

Tavish Scott was witty and pointed, inviting ministers to set the pace in public spending restraint - by taking a voluntary pay cut of 10%.

Mr Salmond demurred, noting that he had appointed fewer ministers and that they saved money by cutting travel.

And that was that: the final FMQs on the final parliamentary day of 2008.

Hope Santa (the real one) is good to you all. Me, I'll settle for a new goalie to replace our current star who, it seems, is being lured west.

Talking Iraq

Brian Taylor | 13:23 UK time, Wednesday, 17 December 2008


The topic today? Let's talk Iraq.

Let's talk the issue which previously dominated politics in Scotland, throughout these islands and elsewhere. Let's talk the confirmed end of UK military involvement.

Gordon Brown has announced that the UK's mission there will end by 31 May - with the troops coming home within two months from that date.

All of which makes Mr Brown the prime minister who will end the Iraqi episode - while prompting a succession of further questions, not least opposition demands that the delayed inquiry into the causes of the conflict should now begin.

At the very least, these opposition leaders and others will presumably point out that the mission which will now end on that prescribed date differs somewhat from the original search for weapons of mass destruction.

'Noble cause'

Take a glance elsewhere on the BBC website. There is a grimly efficient interactive graphic which charts by place of birth the British troop fatalities in Iraq.

For Scotland, the figure is 19 dead; that is listed as 11% of the total.

Of course, Scotland is not alone. The south-west of England has contributed 12% of the war dead, the south-east 11%.

A closing note. I recall the former Defence Secretary Des Browne referring in speeches to the conflict with the Taliban in Afghanistan as the "noble cause" of this era.

I do not recall him attaching that label to Iraq.

Waiting game

Brian Taylor | 14:59 UK time, Tuesday, 16 December 2008


How to pay for Scotland's schools and hospitals? Not to run them - but to build them in the first place.

The issue, rather topical at the moment, arises again from a report by Holyrood's finance committee.

To varying degree, there is something for everyone in the report - although majority opinion, reflecting parliamentary numbers, tends towards criticism of the Scottish Government's approach.

Ministers, however, can live relatively comfortably with a report which, rather than excoriating a single approach, picks faults with each of the capital spending options on offer.

Most attention has focused on criticism of the Scottish Futures Trust - although, in practice, all that is said is that the SFT remains "unproven".

The committee advises that no project should be delayed while Scotland waits . . . and waits for the SFT to swing into what passes for action.

Myself, I was more intrigued by two other findings. One re statistics (sorry, but I'm like that; I was hideously keen on sums as a youth.)

Exceptional constraints

The other re borrowing powers.

On stats, the committee gripes, entirely understandably, that it is extremely difficult to compare the lifelong cost of various funding methods, owing to the lack of consistency in data.

That is a point regularly made by Audit Scotland.

On borrowing, the committee notes the quite exceptional constraints upon the Scottish Government, even by comparison with local authorities.

That is something being examined within the ambit of the Calman Commission.

More immediately, it is a source of frustration to the Scottish Government, both ministers and senior civil servants.

Democracy or bureaucracy?

Brian Taylor | 11:24 UK time, Monday, 15 December 2008


Are there any circumstances in which democracy is a bad idea?

I freely confess that question is posed in a deliberately provocative form to stir you out of your Festive shopping torpor.

Try again. Is it possible, credibly, to argue against the introduction of direct elections to an organisation which spends public money and provides a public service?

Sundry Scottish politicians are about to try. Holyrood's Health Committee has published its report on plans to introduce an element of direct elections to health boards.

The response? A discernibly grudging maybe. For why? How can elected Parliamentary politicians quibble at the extension of democracy to the NHS?

The formal answer is that, while there is a need to improve health board accountability, the evidence gathered does not presently point to direct elections as the solution.

The informal answer from some? That direct elections could provide a further blockage in a service already beset by bureaucracy as Nimbies with zero expertise but a finely honed sense of grievance pursue their own agendas.

(For the avoidance of doubt, that last sentence is also deliberately provocative - summarising the trenchantly held views of others.)

But how to argue against democracy? With delicious irony, the Liberal Democrats - who carry their elective principles in their title - have a shot.

They say broad accountability might better be enhanced by involving local authorities more closely in health boards.

At the very least, say they, let us have full and thorough evaluation of pilots before full implementation.

Such is the conclusion of the committee who urge Ministers to make clear that they will proceed cautiously, if at all.

More generally, we need to determine the purpose of health boards first.

Are they expert bodies challenged by central government to provide health care to a common template but building upon local circumstances?

If they are, then local direct democracy may not be merited. Think of it this way. Would you want decisions about your surgical treatment taken by clinicians - or by single transferable vote?

Then translate that answer into the generality of health provision.

Alternatively, are health boards channels for the practical expression of public opinion into hospitals and NHS services.

In which case, direct elections are entirely valid.

In short, should health boards lead or follow.
As ever, there are arguments to be advanced on both sides.

It strikes me, however, that we are somewhat blurring the core debate by focusing purely or primarily on the method of choosing health board members.

First, Scotland needs to decide what function health boards serve.

I'd welcome your views. Based, I would plead, upon your experience and observation - not your party allegiances.

Going out with a whimper

Brian Taylor | 14:07 UK time, Friday, 12 December 2008


Is that it then? No more a bank, just a whimper.

Three hundred years of Scottish financial history brought to a stammering close in a Birmingham convention centre.

That is indeed one way of looking at developments. More prosaically, one might say that the Bank of Scotland vanished as a distinct entity when it chose to merge with the erstwhile building society from Halifax.

More bluntly still, one might say that the centuries-old solidity that was the Bank has not been seen these many years amid the new era adventurism that has now so dismally failed.

Instead of striding the waves, the buccaneers of finance are lying, limp and plaintive, on the rocks.

To the point, Scotland has lost a headquarters organisation, albeit one whose sense of Scottish control had already been diluted. That is to be regretted; the full impact yet to be witnessed.

However, perhaps we might take a lead from the first minister who, while arguing for a level playing field with regard to HBOS, has repeatedly stressed the honourable intent and history of Lloyds TSB.

Perhaps we might take comfort from the announcement that the Bank of Scotland brand is to be retained; a shell, perhaps, but still an outward sign.

Perhaps it might now be feasible to mount a renewed case for the retention of some headquarters-style functions in Edinburgh.

Perhaps. Perhaps this was all inevitable. Perhaps there was, literally, no alternative. Perhaps the merged bank will, ultimately, thrive.

One can but hope.

What's in a nickname?

Brian Taylor | 13:51 UK time, Thursday, 11 December 2008


Grudgingly, I would concede that the presiding officer is probably right. In banning the use of nicknames in the Holyrood chamber.

Still, it might have livened up a notably dull session of questions to the first minister.

As part of the customary badinage, the FM had labelled a Labour MSP "Seven Minute McNulty".

I think it was a cheeky gag about the duration of a speech by Des McN, the member for Clydebank and Milngavie. Or maybe not. By then, I was losing the will to live.

Frowning frostily, as only he can, the PO said he discouraged nicknames in the chamber.

So Eck, Grayman, Bella and Scotty had to struggle along in a fog of formality.

As I say, the PO is undoubtedly right - but oh how one longed for something, anything to disturb the torpor.

Minimal illumination

The exchanges between Iain Gray MSP B.Sc BPB* and the Rt Hon Alex Salmond MP MSP M.A. were, I suppose, worthy.

They concerned the serious topic of employment opportunities for newly qualified teachers. However, the battle swiftly descended into a statistical squabble with minimal illumination.

For the Tories, Annabel Goldie pursued the issue of the money spent advertising the new seller home reports - which the Tories dislike intensely.

To this numbed observer, she made little headway. She sought to engender a scandal, noting that the expenditure on home reports outpaced that on alcohol or drugs.

Here, she claimed, were ministerial priorities writ large. No, said the FM. More was needed right now on promoting the scheme - because it was new and nobody had heard of it.

It said nothing about long-term priorities. And that, mostly, was that.

Tavish Scott was perhaps on sounder territory challenging the transport capital investment programme.

Long day

Was it right, he said, that only the new Forth crossing had absolute priority - while the other 28 items in the plan were equal (that is, equally important or unimportant)?

The answer, incidentally, is yes. But the first minister offered a rather more substantive reply, saying nothing in particular but saying it awfully well.

And so the long day wore on.

*Blue Peter Badge

Bridging the gap

Brian Taylor | 15:48 UK time, Wednesday, 10 December 2008


When listening to a ministerial statement, pay attention to what is said. And still more attention to what is not said.

At Holyrood, Transport Minister Stewart Stevenson explained that he had approached the Treasury about rescheduling capital investment in order to fund the replacement Forth crossing.

But he did not say whether the Treasury had responded, positively or otherwise. Further inquiries elicit the fact that they have yet to reply.

In essence, the plan is to accelerate capital investment up to 2016 to enable the crossing to be funded - with a consequent cut in capital spending thereafter.

It is that restructuring which requires Treasury sanction.

Ministers envisage a conventional design and build contract for the new crossing - which will cost much less because it won't require a public transport lane. (Public transport will continue over the existing bridge.)

No tolls

So no PFI. No tolls. No shadow tolls. (Three cheers from the government benches.)

But no innovative funding scheme either. No bond issue. No role, it would appear, for the Scottish Futures Trust in this particular project.

To be fair, Mr Stevenson said the trust would play a role in enhancing value for money across capital expenditure generally.

To be fair, further, this is a substantive and substantial document which attempts to address Scotland's transport needs while, simultaneously, cutting carbon emissions.

However, it is detail in implementation which will matter. Ministers will be judged by that.

I put it to you . . .

Brian Taylor | 11:33 UK time, Tuesday, 9 December 2008


Day Two of the hearing in the HBOS competition appeal. And how's it going?

The Merger Action Group, who're contesting the deal with Lloyds TSB, reckon they're getting at the very least a serious, substantive hearing from the bench at the Competition Appeal Tribunal.

HBOS says it is confident the appeal will be dismissed, describing the legal move as "an unhelpful and unnecessary distraction."

On Friday, we are due to learn whether HBOS shareholders back the merger with Lloyds TSB.

That means timing is crucial. If the appeal is granted, it means that the Tribunal is saying Lord Mandelson was wrong to set aside competition concerns raised by the Office of Fair Trading with regard to the potential merger.

In that case, I would anticipate that the UK Government would appeal. That would be heard by the Court of Session in Edinburgh - because the tribunal case is being conducted according to Scots Law, despite sitting in London.

The government - and the boards of the two banks - would be keen to expedite that issue before the Friday vote.

Court proceedings

On the other side, it's claimed that Friday's HBOS vote could become "meaningless", depending on the outcome of the court case.

Their logic is this. A swift, uncontested merger needed the UK Government to ignore competition concerns.

That was a fundamental part of the deal from the outset.

If, following court proceedings, competition concerns are now reactivated, then the initial logic behind merger fades or vanishes.

PS: May I draw the attention of the court (aka this blog) to the case of MacCormick and Another v The Lord Advocate (1953 SC 396)?

No, I haven't finally flipped in excitement at United's elevated league position. Hear me out.

You'll remember the stushie at the weekend when it was suggested that the UK Government might pursue costs against the Merger Action Group, should MAG lose the tribunal case.

Facing costs

Some interpreted this as a threat or unwarranted pressure. HMG said it was nothing of the sort. It was a sensible offer to save money.

And the 1953 case? That was when John MacCormick contested the right of the Queen to bill herself as Elizabeth II in Scotland.

Ian Hamilton QC, who was involved in the case, has now contacted the Merger Action Group, arguing that there should be no question of facing costs should their case fail.

He says that, after the MacCormick case failed, costs were moved for - but were refused.

Mr Hamilton (whose fascinating book on the Stone of Destiny I have recently finished re-reading) says that "the court is reluctant to award costs" in Scotland where people act in the public interest, even if unsuccessfully.

Medical dilemma of suicide law

Brian Taylor | 13:16 UK time, Monday, 8 December 2008


I have the greatest possible respect and admiration for Margo MacDonald. I like her. Conversation with her always pays a dividend, either in terms of gossipy chat or, more commonly, serious political analysis.

By now, I feel sure you can hear the caveat coming. Here it is. Personally, I think she is wrong with regard to her bill to enable assisted suicide.

Margo argues this is about autonomy; allowing an individual, not a clinician, to decide when to instigate such a process.

However, is that not to overlook the fact that it would potentially place a new responsibility on our clinicians - and one that runs counter to their core life-preserving principle?

In other words, enhanced autonomy for the individual might mean an unwarranted constraint on the medical profession.

For myself, I would prefer to think that our clinicians were striving endlessly to keep us in this world - not, occasionally, to despatch us from it.

Would it not open the door to unscrupulous relatives to place pressure on the elderly? Would it not, of itself, exert emotional pressure on the elderly to consider whether they are a "nuisance"?

I feel certain Margo will have answers to offer to these. I think I can guarantee that she will collar me at the very earliest opportunity in the Garden Lobby to put me right. I look forward to it.

In addition, I look forward to all your views on this site. Margo, too, if she feels like it.

Pick and mix not on the Bill

Brian Taylor | 14:25 UK time, Friday, 5 December 2008


It's a feather in the breeze, open to influence from the subsequent political climate.

But as of today Local Income Tax just looks a little less likely in Scotland.

Did you clock Thursday night's vote at Holyrood?

Broadly, Parliament instructed Ministers to present a range of options for council revenue raising rather than simply the Local Income Tax favoured by the SNP.

I freely confess I am at a loss to understand precisely how that can be done within the terms of the motion.

That is because it talked of a Bill featuring such a range of proposals. In all honesty, you cannot have single transferable legislation.

You cannot prescribe the law by pick and mix.

However, I suppose the actual import is to confirm, once more, that there is not a Parliamentary majority for either the Council Tax or the alternative Local Income Tax.

The Greens are key to this - even though they are but two in the present Parliament. The SNP and LibDems favour sundry forms of LIT, although negotiation could bring them closer.

Labour and the Tories favour Council Tax, with varying reforms. In the middle, the Greens want Land Value Taxation.

By chance, I happened to be attending the Green Energy awards in Edinburgh last night and took the opportunity to chat to sundry folk of a Green Party persuasion who were in attendance.

To a person, they said they disliked Local Income Tax - and, if anything, had been confirmed in their view by the scrutiny which the current controversy has occasioned.

Doesn't tell us their party's final position, of course. Formally, they are seeking a compromise which might incorporate elements of their own policy.

Bit of a pointer, though, isn't it? Behind the scenes, of course, there is alternative political manoeuvring under way.

Privately, the SNP would rather like it if LIT were thwarted - if and only if they could then blame either Labour in the Scottish Parliament or Labour at Westminster for withholding council tax benefit should Scotland change tax systems.

Labour tacticians think that LIT won them votes in Glenrothes - and they believe they can make it more unpopular still by targeting aspirational families.

At that point, they believe, they would be seen as rescuing Scotland by blocking it at Holyrood.

Isn't politics wonderful?

'You've all done very well'

Brian Taylor | 14:38 UK time, Thursday, 4 December 2008


Can't help feeling a little like Young Mr Grace today?

You remember, the elderly chap in the sitcom who tottered onto the shop floor to mumble: "You've all done very well."

Now, just stop right there - before you take the comparison too far. I meant that I am with Mr G in distributing general praise.

For they did indeed all do rather well, our MSPs. In questioning the first minister, that is.

Substantive topics, diligently pursued. Plus, of course, substantive replies from the FM. And a toothsome dose of partisan politics too.

Labour's Iain Gray set out after the FM over the decision to extend Scotrail's franchise - or, more accurately, the procedure followed (or absence thereof.)

He was on secure ground given that question marks have been raised in an Audit Scotland report.

Due proceedure

Mr Salmond fought back, noting that the prospect of an extension had been set out six years ago - by one Iain Gray.

Nothing daunted, Mr Gray replied that he had followed due procedure at the time, consulting widely.

It was a sharp exchange, well argued on both sides with Mr Salmond pointing out the advantages for passengers.

If anything, I thought Mr Gray was a fraction weaker in attempting to broaden his attack to suggest that the Salmond administration had a general disregard for the rules.

I get the concept: it's a point Labour has tried to advance previously.

Didn't really work, then. And didn't really work today. But persistence is a political virtue.

Constant endeavour

For the Tories, Annabel Goldie interrogated the FM over hospital acquired infections - and drew a hit with the suggestion that a scheme being piloted in Aberdeen may be deployed more generally.

Tavish Scott was back with HBOS - a topic he has made his own by constant endeavour.

Again, there was real substance here: a disclosure that the Scottish Government has written to the Competition Appeal Tribunal on the matter detailing Ministerial and Holyrood views.

Then a discussion about Herald job losses (to whom, sympathy), about education, about the use of DNA in criminal investigations. All substantive, all valid. I say again: well done.

The Speaker speaks

Brian Taylor | 15:55 UK time, Wednesday, 3 December 2008


There was evident and widespread sympathy for Michael Martin in the Commons when he outlined his role, a minimal one, in the police raid on the offices of the Tory MP Damian Green.

Speaker Martin, the MP for Glasgow North East, noted in a faintly barbed aside that he had held his tongue until he had an opportunity to inform the reconvened House regarding the affair.

He had not, like others, had the "luxury" of going on television to offer his views.

As to substance, he said that, in future, a warrant would always be required for searches in the Commons: the police did not have one on this occasion, relying solely upon a written consent from the Serjeant-at-Arms.

Mr Martin signalled there would be a full debate in the Commons on Monday.

And he is setting up a committee of seven senior Parliamentarians to investigate the matter.

Not sure, though, that he entirely cleared up the issue.

He said he was alerted to a possible arrest - but was not explicitly asked for his consent.

MPs are unable, under procedure, to question the Speaker.

So nobody could ask him whether he had insisted upon being consulted, whether he felt he had been let down by the Serjeant and/or the police.

For me, Sir Menzies Campbell got rather swiftly to the nub of the matter.

While others noted, rightly, that MPs are not above the law, Sir Ming noted that this proviso must include the police too.

Gracious speech

Brian Taylor | 13:44 UK time, Wednesday, 3 December 2008


Did you catch that line in the Queen's Speech?

"My government will continue to work closely with the devolved administrations in the interests of all the people of the United Kingdom".

Which simply means, I suppose, that Her Majesty's United Kingdom Government will seek to sustain a working relationship with those ministers elsewhere who have also sworn an oath of fealty to the Crown.

However, look at the detail. This is substantive. In the speech itself, a succession of proposed Bills will require legislative consent from Holyrood if they are to apply, even in limited form, in Scotland.

These include measures on coroners and justice; equality; local democracy; the marine environment; policing and crime.

That is because these Bills include elements which cover devolved powers.

Further, the UK Government will seek co-operation from Scottish ministers on key objectives such as reducing child poverty, improving skills training and permitting Border Agency officers to implement outstanding warrants in Scotland.


To be clear, much of the Queen's Speech applies across the whole of the UK - especially the keynote measures on banking regulation, political parties and immigration.

But much more will require a deal between Westminster and Holyrood. Scottish ministers say they will consider the requests for co-operation on a case-by-case basis - but my guess is they will be "mature", as one put it, rather than resorting to gestures.

That does not mean, however, that the SNP Scottish Government is impressed by the gracious speech.

As one said: "It's so thin it makes the Calman report look impressive by comparison."

However, UK ministers take a different tack.

The Scottish secretary, Jim Murphy, hailed the widespread relevance of the speech for Scotland - through the headline Bills and, to a varying degree, the other proposals.

PS: Quite liked Dennis Skinner's gag when Black Rod entered the Commons. "Any Tory moles at the Palace". Better one would have been: "Have you got a warrant?"

PPS: Excellent news that Craig Levein has extended his contract with the mighty United.

Now let's get on with the business of securing Lukasz Zaluska. Lukasz, the Arabs salute you!


Bruce Crawford, the Holyrood Minister for Parliamentary Business, has confirmed his intention to assist the UK Government in legislating in devolved matters.

He said the Scottish Government would "work constructively" on issues that benefit the people of Scotland.

At the same time, he took a sideswipe at spending cuts coming down the line which, he said, would damage Scotland.

Incidentally, in response to the first poster, perhaps I should have clarified the nature of the legislative consent. For example, re the Coroners and Justice Bill.

I am well aware, Ministers on both sides of the Border are well aware, that there are no coroners in Scotland.

However, it's the Justice bit that applies to Scotland within the wider bill.

There will be measures re driving bans that apply to Scotland directly. And Holyrood consent will be sought with regard to criminal memoirs.

Hope that's clear now.

In the long term

Brian Taylor | 12:51 UK time, Tuesday, 2 December 2008


To be clear, there are - quite deliberately - no conclusions in the interim Calman Report.

However, it is arguably possible to detect tone. That tone is notably Unionist.

Given that the remit was to secure Scotland within the Union, that is no surprise whatsoever.

However, we can, I think, go a little beyond that.

If we consider attitudes towards devolution within the Union, we can perhaps consider a spectrum ranging from maximum Scottish autonomy to cautious entrenchment based broadly upon the current powers.

I believe that, within that spectrum, it is presently possible to place the first Calman report towards the cautious end.

The identified scope for devolution of further powers is notably limited. It is at the margins - by which I do not mean it is sidelined but rather that it straddles the points where devolved and reserved powers interact.

Who is happy?

If you doubt my assessment as to the inherently cautious nature of the report, just ask yourself about the reaction of the various political parties who set up the review.

In particular, ask yourself: who is happiest today, the Conservatives or the Liberal Democrats?

The Tory response notes with approval the willingness of Team Calman to rule out changes which would be incompatible with the Union, while also seeking further measures to stress the value of that Union.

The Lib Dems? A notably terse response from Tavish Scott saying that Calman is "where Scotland is now".

He then goes on to advocate a strengthened Scottish Parliament, what he calls "a real Home Rule settlement".

For myself, I find the report intriguing. Frankly, I had not expected anything different in terms of firm decisions at this stage.

Firstly, because they said they would wait until next year. Secondly, because the Scotland Act 1998 was carefully drawn.

Intellectual definition

Within the ambit of devolution - note that caveat, please - it was always likely, if not guaranteed, that the scope for reform would be limited in a body set up by Labour and featuring the Conservatives.

No, the intriguing bit lies in the effort to generate an intellectual definition of the Union - and to analyse the impact of that upon devolved policy.

Calman starts from the standpoint of backing the economic union, the defence union, the monetary union and the diplomatic union.

Of greater interest are the views upon a socially integrated Union.

The report asks whether social provision - pensions, welfare, health, education - should be broadly identical from Cornwall to Caithness.

If yes, then that would constrain the potential for further devolution. Essentially, Calman is asking: at what point does social policy autonomy start to place strain upon the Union, thus defined? With free prescriptions in Scotland? With health charges in England? With welfare autonomy?

Again, at this point, he does not provide an answer - but invites further evidence.

Economic growth

However, one can see the emergence of an effort to provide a common perspective on social provision which would, arguably, limit further devolution.

And money? Calman endorses the view of the earlier submission by Professor Anton Muscatelli's team that it is critical to decide what form of devolution one wants then to design a funding system to suit.

My guess? They will go for some assignment of revenues in order to incentivise economic growth in Scotland and allow politicians to tell England that the extent of block grant north of the Border has been trimmed.

However, added to that, there will still be substantial grant equalisation - because it is only with such a system that one can maintain social equity.

And that means? A needs assessment and, quite possibly, a reduction in Scottish spending levels in the long, perhaps very long, term.

Core issues

Brian Taylor | 10:42 UK time, Monday, 1 December 2008


Michael Martin, it would seem, is in a spot of bother.

There is a view abroad that, as speaker, he should have done more to prevent the police from entering the Commons to search the office of the Conservative front bencher Damian Green.

For those with an historical perspective, the controversy will be intriguing.

There has been conflict for centuries, both intellectual and physical, as to whether the speaker primarily serves the state or the members of parliament.

This dates back before the Act of Union - but persisted thereafter and is still salient today.

In 1629, Speaker Finch told the Commons: "I am not less the king's servant for being yours."

By contrast, in 1642, Speaker Lenthall declared: "I have neither eyes to see nor tongue to speak in this place but as the house is pleased to direct me."

'Beyond the pale'

How do you imagine the house would have directed Speaker Martin in this case?

According to one unnamed MP, Mr Martin, the MP for Glasgow North East, should have deployed his tongue and told the police to "b . . . r off".

Others say his eyes should have seen that this was beyond the pale.

Britain does not become a police state overnight because officers are enabled to search the office of an MP - and arrest said MP - in connection with an inquiry into the leak of supposedly sensitive Home Office papers.

However, it is scarcely a blow for liberty. It is the job of Her Majesty's opposition to find out what is happening in government.

It is the job of Her Majesty's opposition to ventilate issues in the interests of the people.

Just ask Gordon Brown. It was his daily delight, while in opposition, to publish leaked Government papers, with a helpful commentary from himself.

Classic dilema

Yes, there must be secrets - although governments and State authorities often find it difficult to distinguish between secrecy which protects the interests of the UK and that which protects the interests of ministers.

It does not seem to me that it is the job of the police to set out on fishing expeditions in the elected House of Commons.

Nor to arrest an MP when his only apparent "crime" is carrying out his job as a front bench spokesperson.

As to Speaker Martin, he faced the classic dilemma. The police are officers of the state, of the crown.

Does he serve the crown? Should he therefore permit them to go about their declared business?

But he is an officer of parliament. He is speaker (or spokesman) FOR the Commons - TO the crown.

His primary role is to represent the opinion of the elected members to those in authority. This is not an arcane issue. It goes to the very core of his role.

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