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Archives for March 2009

Here we go again

Brian Taylor | 12:26 UK time, Tuesday, 31 March 2009


Here we go again.

Once more, the first minister seeks to respond positively, seeks to salvage what he and others can from the takeover of a Scottish financial institution.

Once more, he is also left questioning whether that deal might have been engineered differently, whether an alternative approach might have maintained HQ functions in Scotland.

If you recall, that was exactly the dual approach pursued by Alex Salmond at the time of the Lloyds takeover of HBOS.

Now it is happening all over again as the Dunfermline Building Society is digested by the Nationwide. Team Salmond is left asking: which nation?

Aides to the first minister stress they do not believe there was a deliberate Treasury attempt to "do down Scotland", to rule out the prospect of a Scottish deal purely on the grounds that it was Scottish.

Rather, they say the choice of the particular rescue mechanism was driven by "rigidity" at the core of the machine.

'Scottish' dimension

They adopted, in short, a takeover model which had previously been used to absorb the Cheshire and Derbyshire building societies.

From the point of view of UK Treasury and FSA officials, the Dunfermline case was entirely comparable.

From that standpoint, the "Scottish" dimension would not compute.

The concern would be to preserve consistency, to bolster the UK's financial structure as far as possible and to forestall the creation of a precedent which might lead others to demand distinctive treatment.

Equally, Mr Salmond's aides are not saying that there was definitely a specific Scottish deal on the table which might have preserved the Dunfermline as an autonomous entity.

However, they believe potential Scottish bargains - such as the one disclosed by BBC Scotland today - were not examined sufficiently closely.

The first minister has asked to see the value for money assessment upon which the Dunfermline takeover was based.

Dual approach

I would not be at all surprised if those various points were to surface in a ministerial statement at Holyrood tomorrow, should MSPs agree.

Again, expect the dual approach: questioning the basis of the deal but pledging to work closely with the Nationwide.

Responding to concerns raised, the prime minister and the chancellor are adamant: that the Dunfermline brought the problems upon themselves and that the Nationwide deal is by far the best for jobs, savers and borrowers.

As ever, dear friends, my only concern is to place the facts and analysis before you in, one hopes, a cogent form.

All the facts. All the analysis.

Nationalists need new narrative

Brian Taylor | 11:07 UK time, Monday, 30 March 2009


Narrative matters in politics.

Political parties seeking success will stress facts and issues which bolster their world view, thus inviting the voters to conclude that they alone offer solutions.

Sometimes those facts and issues will present themselves readily.

Sometimes they will have to be assembled. Sometimes they will run stubbornly counter to the party's vision, despite every effort. In those latter circumstances, the party will inevitably fail.

In the early 1980s, the SDP in alliance with the Liberals drove a narrative which said that Labour was too extreme to present a credible alternative to the Tories.

In the 1983 election, they came close to overtaking Labour as a consequence.

At the present time on the UK stage, the Tories have been telling a story of "broken Britain", a picture of economic but more commonly social fragmentation.

This narrative is designed to depict them as, uniquely, offering cohesion.

In Scotland, one can currently see the development of another narrative, used by Labour but also by those other parties which espouse the Union.

Scotland, it is said, is unable on her own to cope with the local impact of global recession.

That, it is said, was true with regard to the banks and is now true of the Dunfermline building society.

For example, Iain Gray, Labour's leader at Holyrood, has welcomed the sale of the positive elements of the Dunfermline society to the Nationwide.

He voices delight at the assistance this will afford to staff and savers.

Then he goes on to note: "The Treasury has taken on £1bn in toxic assets, something that the Scottish Government would not have been able to do."

Labour's narrative with regard to independence has shifted over the decades.

It was formerly easy to caricature them as arguing that Scotland was simply "too wee and too poor" to go it alone.

Understandably, that caricature prompted modification. It was too rude, too ugly.

Scotland, it was then said, could become independent - but should, on balance, choose not to do so.

Now the story has been refined once more in the light of the economic crisis.

Here, it is important to distinguish between the financial steps taken by the UK Government - and the political narrative built upon those steps.

There is continuing dispute over the fundamentals.

For example, there are those who argue that both HBOS and Dunfermline could have been maintained as Scottish institutions.

Against that, UK ministers insist they took the steps necessary to protect jobs, savers and investors.

They are adamant that the various problems were so deep-rooted that there was no alternative.

It is important to reflect that this matters less when it comes to the political narrative which is being assembled - and the challenge this presents to Alex Salmond.

One might argue that the narrative contains self-fulfilling claims: that Scotland's financial institutions failed because no credible rescue was mounted.

However, that is to disregard the impact of the narrative itself.

Labour ministers will repeatedly stress - from now to the UK election, from then to the Holyrood election - that Scotland's financial institutions had to be rescued by UK clout, that SNP ministers were peripheral.

You can argue that this is simple truth. You can argue that it ignores key elements. You can say it is a fact, you can say it is part fairy tale.

But, either way, it is a powerful story to tell.

As I have argued before, the SNP now requires to generate a new narrative of Nationalism, one that addresses the present economic conditions, one that relies less upon the previously proclaimed "arc of prosperity".

But then I suspect Alex Salmond already knows that.

Consensus is catching

Brian Taylor | 11:39 UK time, Thursday, 26 March 2009


They're talking about drink at Holyrood. And here's a novelty: they're talking calmly, quietly and with an eye towards agreement.

Notably striking is the cordial atmosphere of potential consensus between the SNP and Labour, between Nicola Sturgeon and Cathy Jamieson.

Their speeches were complementary - and complimentary.

They acknowledged there were differences between them - not least over the legality and practicality of minimum pricing where Labour is sceptical.

But the emphasis was overwhelmingly on the search for compromise. Indeed, in co-ordinated fashion, Labour will back the SNP amendment in today's debate, having tabled identical wording of their own.

Said amendment talks of tackling harmful drinking in a "workable and properly targeted" fashion while ensuring that the "responsible, sensible majority of moderate drinkers are not unnecessarily penalised."

So what's going on? Other than an authentic desire to tackle a substantial problem, I believe two factors are at play.

Sundry justice

Firstly, consensus is catching. The - eventual - search for a deal over the budget set a model for further bargaining between the two big parties, reflecting the arithmetic in the chamber where the SNP are the largest party but Labour are just a "bawhair" behind, as Kenny Gibson would undoubtedly say.

Secondly, this issue is now to be tackled by a Health Bill, rather than via sundry justice provisions.

The difference? The emphasis shifts imperceptibly towards helping people with a problem rather than penalising folk who cause problems.

The Health Committee which will scrutinise the bill may be swayed by their stakeholders, such as the medical profession.

It is important to note that this is a potential bargain between the SNP and Labour, between the Scottish Government and their principal opponents.

They have not involved the other parties: the Tories who are opposed in principle to minimum pricing and the Liberal Democrats who were teased in the chamber today about their seeming variety of views on the issue.

What might emerge? Entirely understandably, far from clear at this point. The Bill will undergo full Parliamentary scrutiny - involving full public and stakeholder consultation.

But ministers are just a little more confident than they were that substantial elements of their revised programme will make it to the statute book.

'Vigilante retribution'

Brian Taylor | 12:45 UK time, Wednesday, 25 March 2009


Regular readers of this slot will have discerned repeated criticism of Sir Fred Goodwin and his pension arrangements.

Those readers may also have stumbled across the argument that political attacks on Sir Fred were partly aimed at deflecting attention from failures elsewhere in regulation - and from the relative incapacity of the political system to provide early redress.

Now, though, this controversy has entered a new and worrying dimension with the vandalism at the Goodwin family home in Edinburgh.

On this occasion, I can do no better than quote in full the statement issued by the Edinburgh South MSP Mike Pringle.

He said: "It is right that we have a debate over the unjustified and unacceptable pension gifted to Sir Fred. It is, however, wrong that his home should be targeted for attack.

"He and his family have the right to live without the fear of violence. The police should treat this case as they would any other crime."

In a BBC Scotland interview, Mr Pringle argues "vigilante" retribution is never justice - but is, rather, socially destructive.


Doing the sums

Brian Taylor | 12:28 UK time, Tuesday, 24 March 2009


Let's do a few sums with regard to teacher numbers.

In case it escaped your notice, they're down in Scotland by 975 over the past year.

Labour's Rhona Brankin reckons that should add up to the sack for the Education Secretary Fiona Hyslop.

It will scarcely surprise you to learn that Ms Hyslop dissents. She wants to show us the working behind the raw calculation.

Pupil-teacher ratios and class sizes are in record good standing, she says. Still, she is making no effort today to suggest that this performance merits a gold star.

At the very least, it may make it still more difficult to achieve the SNP's manifesto promise to "reduce class sizes in Primary 1, 2 and 3 to eighteen pupils or less".

(Shouldn't that be "fewer"? Depends, I suppose, on whether it's linear or quantitative.)

Anyway, grammatical quibbles aside, that particular pledge is looking increasingly problematic, not least because sundry local councils have indicated they're less than thirled to the concept.

Figures 'mince'?

And therein, also, lies an element of today's controversy. Ms Hyslop points out several councils have increased teacher numbers and others have maintained their figures.

Just four, she notes, are responsible for more than half the decline.

Those four are Glasgow, North Lanarkshire, Renfewshire and Aberdeen. Politically diverse in terms of control - or, at least, about as diverse as Scotland gets.

Ms Hyslop offer soothing reassurance. With the ministerial "partners" at Cosla, efforts will now be made to help and assist those particular councils and others.

Under the concordat, councils have relative freedom - but they are bound to act towards agreed targets including, say ministers, the maintenance of teacher numbers.

As one might expect, teachers' unions are fretting. The EIS said they were "both disappointed and angry". They said promises were being broken.

And the line from Cosla? They note that the "figures may not be as robust as we would expect."

Translation? They could be mince.

Still, presumably, we can expect robust stats to be drawn up between now and the next Holyrood election. Judge us, say Ministers, at that point.

Crossing borders

Brian Taylor | 13:58 UK time, Monday, 23 March 2009


Isn't it splendid - truly splendid - to see examples of cross-border co-operation between Holyrood and Westminster?

Today, for example, following that approach, MPs will scrutinise legislation aimed at allowing fatal accident inquiries into the death of Scottish military personnel killed overseas to be held in Scotland, instead of solely in England by coroners.

Last week, we had the agreement between the UK and Scottish governments to amend the law in both parliaments in order to prevent backdated compensation claims by prisoners with regard to slopping out.

In both cases, plain common sense prevailed. For which, thanks to our esteemed tribunes of the people, wherever based.

However, the impression remains that the relationship between the Scottish Government and the Scotland Office, especially at political level, remains competitive rather than co-operative.

Is your business in trouble? Fret not. Alex Salmond and Jim Murphy will race each other to get to your door.

I exaggerate, of course. And both would stress - with justification - that their primary motivation is to help those struggling with the recession.

Two delegations

But, still, one hears the chat. The conversation with a senior Scottish Government Minister who describes the Scotland Office as "an obstacle" to good relations with Whitehall, implying that Ministers at Holyrood prefer the direct approach where possible.

The conversation with London-based folk who express their concern at the tone they discerned in particular discussions with Holyrood officials: somewhat dismissive towards the UK perspective.

Plus do we really need two business delegations to China, one featuring the Scottish secretary and another offering the first minister?

As the Politics Show disclosed, that has prompted concern at confusion.

Wouldn't their Chinese hosts prefer a single perspective? Say, for example, the Chinese raise with Mr Murphy the funding of higher education in Scotland: highly relevant to business.

Should he say that, in direct terms, it is nothing to do with him?

Alternatively, say the topic in Shanghai or Beijing turns to corporate tax rates, how should Mr Salmond reply? Give them the phone number of the Treasury?

Past contact has tended to be via the Scottish Government/Executive - presumably, in part at least, because Scottish Development International, with its global economic reach, is funded directly by Holyrood.

SDI has three offices in China.

Mr Murphy insists China will well understand that Scotland has "two governments" - the Westminster and Holyrood versions.

Both, he says, must be deployed in Scotland's interests.

Schools of thought

Brian Taylor | 09:16 UK time, Thursday, 19 March 2009


On your behalf, I have been adding to the workload of civil servants within the Scottish Government.

You'll remember a rumbling rammy over whether the school construction programme is vibrant or stalled.

In essence, Labour has accused the SNP of failing to commission a single school during its time in office.

In return, Alex Salmond says umpteen schools are under construction, nearing completion or already open to receive the happy, smiling offspring of voters.

Ah, says Labour, but those projects were started when we were in office. You've just benefited from our foresight. Have not. Have too.

Now, this is a complicated business. Does a school project start when:

• The heidie fancies a new building - and says so to the council
• A business plan is prepared
• Planning permission is granted
• Contracts are signed
• Funding is signed off
• Work begins

In search of clarity or, at best, a little less obfuscation, I asked the Scottish Government to provide examples of school projects where both the decision to proceed and construction had commenced under the present administration.

Civil servants laboured mightily, poring through their records and those of local authorities.

The Government returned to me with an initial - I stress, initial - list of five schools which met those criteria. They are as follows:

Dunning: decision to proceed, Oct 2007. Construction commenced, Nov 2007.

Kingspark: decision to proceed, Nov 2008. Construction commenced, Jan 2009.

Inveralmond: decision to proceed, Jan 2008. Construction commenced, May 2008.

James Young: decision to proceed, Jan 2008. Construction commenced, May 2008.

St Kentigern's: decision to proceed, Jan 2008. Construction commenced, Feb 2008.

In order, those schools are in Perthshire, Dundee, Livingston, Livingston and Blackburn.

Before publishing this list, I thought I would check this morning to see whether any more had emerged. More, indeed.

The Scottish Government has now broadened the definition somewhat to cover schools where the contract was signed under the present team. It includes the five above.

The new information this time features: South Lanarkshire, phase two of £850m project to replace 108 and refurbish 16 of 124 primary schools by 2016.

In other words, this is a continuing scheme, crossing the election. School contracts signed during the present administration are given as:

Our Lady & St Annes: contract date, June 2007
Craigbank: contract date, June 2007
St Blanes: contract date, June 2007
St Athanasius: contract date, June 2007
Loch: contract date, June 2007
St Ninian's: contract date, June 2007
Douglas: contract date, July 2007

In Glasgow, the list features those which form part of phase four of a pre-12 strategy involving 16 schools.

The list given to me features the last five of those 16, presumably on the basis that their contracts were signed or due post May 2007. Here they are:

Tinto: contract date, Feb 2008
Govan Riverside: contract date, July 2008
Ruchill: tbc
New Notre Dame: tbc
Hill's trust, Copeland and St Saviour's replacement campus: tbc

And herewith a few more. Firstly, in Dumfries and Galloway:

Cargenbridge: contract date, March 2008
Troqueer: contract date, March 2008
Lincluden: contract date, March 2008

And in Angus:

Seaview: contract date, Nov 2007.

So there you are. Responses welcome, as always.

Update at 1526 GMT:

Didn't have to wait long for Labour's response to the post re the school building programme.

Again, as you'll recall, this has frequently been the source of controversy between Alex Salmond and Iain Gray.

Labour notes, firstly, that the Scottish Government has signally failed thus far to make any use of the Scottish Futures Trust in the schools programme.

Ministers counsel patience.

Now to detail. With regard to the opening list of five schools, they note that these are "traditionally procured" - and thus commissioned by local authorities.

Further, they say that Dunning and the three West Lothian schools were approved by the relevant council before the SNP took office.

Second batch

Further still, they say that Seaview in Angus was approved by the local authority in November 2006, before the Holyrood elections.

Kingspark in Dundee, they concede, was commissioned in November 2008 - but they argue, again, that this was an endeavour by the local authority, not central government.

Other than that, they say that the second batch are PPP schools.

Given the SNP's intrinsice dislike of PPP, Labour argues that means these were "carry-over" projects from before the election: projects, they argue, which were too far advance for the Scottish Government to stop.

Quote: "They are Labour schools."

Again, I pass all this on purely in the interests of information - and without comment.

Goodwin's goodies

Brian Taylor | 11:43 UK time, Wednesday, 18 March 2009


Look, I'm as angry as anyone about the be-knighted Fred Goodwin. Having recently reviewed that stupendous, innovative financial product that is my endowment policy, I can top most folk on teeth-grinding fury.

But anyone else out there think that the continuing debate over Goodwin's pension is being used to deflect attention from the inutility of our wider efforts to counter recession?

It reminds me a little of The Crucible. A community unable to do anything much about its prevailing social and economic environment sets out on an increasingly frenzied search for a particularly burnable witch. (And, yes, before anyone points it out to me, I am fully aware that Miller's play is itself a parable of modern times.)

Right now, we have sundry politicians who are beginning to suspect that - in the short term, at least - they can do the square root of zip about the economic crisis.

Longer term, they can act - as witnessed by the PM's efforts at G20 and the FM's economic forum today.

But, more generally, there is a sense of short-term futility, a sharp whiff of fear. And suddenly, the most pressing objective becomes to deprive Fred of his moolah, to strip him of his title and, who knows, to tar and feather him at the Mercat Cross.

Yes, Lord Myners, the city minister, looked rather sheepish to say the least as he attempted to explain to sceptical MPs why he had not known the details of the Goodwin goodie bag.

Yes, the deal sanctioned by the previous RBS board is "outrageous", as his lordship declared. Yes, public anger is justified.

But the more it goes on, the more I'm inclined to think it is at least in part a substitute for action. With George Osborne leading the charge, politicians outbid each other to find more scandalised responses.

When they're not doing that, our politicians are blaming each other for sleeping on the job while the merry financial casino was roaring wildly.

We had the latest today with Labour's Andy Kerr branding Alex Salmond "king of the spivs", arguing that he favoured light regulation.

Not sure that is entirely a wise route for Mr Kerr to pursue - given that the UK (Labour) Government's Treasury had a somewhat more significant role in financial regulation. Mr Kerr might care to remind himself who the Chancellor of the Exchequer was during the relevant period.

Perhaps we might urge all our politicians to ease up on fighting the skirmishes of the past decade. It would help save their strength for the global financial war to come.

Still, at least the Financial Services Authority has announced that it is to impose tough new constraints upon the banking sector. Doesn't it give you a warm feeling inside?

What's that noise in the distance? It sounded eerily like a door slamming. But wasn't that also the derisive whinny of a departing horse?

Half and half

Brian Taylor | 11:57 UK time, Tuesday, 17 March 2009


Bumped into Maria Fyfe at the party conference. No, not the LibDem conference.

Don't think, on balance, she's likely to defect. My encounter was at the Labour conference in Dundee the week previously.

You must remember Maria Fyfe. She was MP for Glasgow Maryhill - in the days when that great city's seats were named after community locations instead of points on a compass.

I remember her in particular for her efforts to secure greater representation for women in the Scottish Parliament - which is why, of course, our chance meeting came back to me subsequently.

Maria was one of a Labour group including Johann Lamont, Margaret Curran and many others who advocated a 50/50 approach in the prelude to the establishment of the devolved Parliament.

By which they meant the members of the new Parliament should be gender balanced: half of them women, half of them men.

As I recall, the campaign attempted firstly to prescribe this by legislation. When that failed, they proceeded via internal party action, including a concordat between Labour and the Liberal Democrats that these two parties - signatories to the Convention - would seek as far as possible to achieve gender balance.

I recall interviewing Maria at the old BBC Scotland HQ in Queen Margaret Drive. I was giving her the customary hard time.

Wasn't this political manipulation? Shouldn't women get there on merit? Wasn't there a risk that women, thus favoured, would be seen as second rank MSPs?

Maria listened and answered politely, as was her wont. Then, displaying a moment's exasperation, she paused and sighed: "Look, Brian, this really matters. Have you got any better ideas?"

As I recorded in a book about the advent of devolution (second edition, still available from all....), the interview with the MP from Maryhill ended rather soon afterwards.

This brief encounter - and the one in Dundee - came back to me as I perused the stushie in Airdrie over the attempted imposition of an all-women shortlist in selecting an individual to replace John Reid MP as Labour candidate for Airdrie and Shotts (plus, of course, those all-important surrounding villages.)

One can readily understand the anger in Airdrie. White Lanarkshire males are so under-represented in Scottish Labour politics.

However, perhaps this is also about a power clash.

In Lanarkshire, it seems, they dislike the notion of politics being run by a potent, centralised clique. (Or, more accurately, by someone else's potent centralised clique; by London's PCC.)

Ach, I shouldn't mock. There are serious points to be made on both sides of the argument here.

I well recall the comparable disputes at the advent of devolution - and, as is often the case, they all had salience.

Justice was not solely in one corner.

There were those who said that women's representation was so pitifully low that it had to be boosted by artificial intervention.

They argued - further and with some force - that it was vital to attempt this task when there was a clean slate, before incumbency and inertia froze the females out.

There were those who disliked using party machinery, still less the law, for this purpose.

They argued that parliaments and parties must rather address why they were unable to recruit women in winnable seats.

There were those who said: leave well alone. Party machines play too big a role in the selection of candidates as it is. Leave it to local choice. Leave it, ultimately, to the voters.

This particular row, of course, is about a Westminster seat, not Holyrood. But the core elements of the argument can be set out exactly as above.

Enough, Brian, enough.

As Maria Fyfe will undoubtedly remind me when next we meet, this really matters.

Party warms to virulent Scott

Brian Taylor | 15:14 UK time, Sunday, 15 March 2009


Perhaps understandably, Tavish Scott started a little nervously.

It was, after all, his first speech to a full-blooded conference since assuming the leadership of the Scottish LibDems.

But he built it up strongly and finished with every evidence of a substantial conflagration in his innards.

They liked it, of course, and delegates were full of praise later.

However, it is now standard to describe leaders's speeches as featuring the finest oratory since Cato was a Senator.

So we may discount the more glowing reports.

Seriously, though, delegates here in Perth warmed to the address. They liked the funnies.

They liked the virulent - notably virulent - attacks on the party's rivals.

And they liked the sense of history - a theme at this conference.

Why, they even presented themselves with a cake to mark the 21st birthday of the Liberal Democrats.

Still in historical mood, I was intrigued by Mr Scott's references to "what we would do in government".

He used that phrase - or comparable formulations - at various points in his speech.

Primarily, I suppose, it was a reference to a possible hung Parliament at Westminster after the next UK General Election. I

Indeed, Mr Scott talked explicitly of Vince Cable entering Downing Street. Number 11, that is.

However, this theme could just as easily translate to the situation post the next Holyrood elections.

With Labour again? With the SNP?

There are, as noted earlier, one or two tiny obstacles in the path of that latter prospect.

Electoral arithmetic, party motivations, the small matter of an independence referendum - plus the fact that some key figures in the LibDems, notably at Westminster, would strive mightily to avoid any deal with the Nationalists, whatever the temptations.

PS: Is it not about time we had video replays to assist our referees in football?

I wasn't at Fir Park yesterday (I was here, in Perth) - but from all accounts United should have had a penalty.

In the resultant stramash (author, Arthur Montford), the Well ran up the park - or trudged through the mud - and scored a jammy winner.

I did manage to catch the rugby on the telly yesterday - and video refereeing was used to good effect. (Well, bad, actually in that it confirmed an Irish try - but you get the point.)

In football, one duff decision can determine a game, a league, an entire season.

Yet we leave it to a single guy - and force him to decide without any technological back-up whatsoever.

As ever, football is stuck in the previous century.

Faustian pacts and pompous asses

Brian Taylor | 13:02 UK time, Saturday, 14 March 2009


Substantive stuff from the Liberal Democrats in Perth today - after a faintly faltering start yesterday when the exhibitors in the foyer nearly outnumbered the audience in the hall.

The substance came in a thoughtful speech from Vince Cable, the party's finance spokesperson at Westminster.

In a quiet, understated way, he excoriated his rivals, suggesting that Labour had made a Faustian pact with the financial world and indicating that independence for Scotland would be a calamity.

With a sense of perspective, he had opened in historical mode, reflecting on the so-called People's Budget introduced by Lloyd George a century ago.

It had, he said, set out to erode the gap between rich and poor: a challenge, he said, which was still before us, as he witnessed when he revisited Glasgow's Maryhill district which he had represented as a youthful (Labour) councillor in the city while lecturing at the university.

But perhaps history too reminds us of the challenge currently facing the Liberal Democrats.

They have been unable, during that century past, to come anywhere near the political dominance demonstrated by the Liberal government elected in 1906.

However, Mr Cable speculated that political turmoil might lead to a disturbance in established political allegiances - from which the LibDems might benefit, if they offered a credible alternative to the voters in Scotland and throughout the UK.

Elsewhere, I had a chat with Tavish Scott in a webcast interview, putting a selection of your questions to him.

Have a glance yourselves - but he remains agin an independence referendum while not absolutely ruling it out in future.

Nor does he rule out, absolutely, a future coalition with the SNP.

We shouldn't get too excited, though. One or two obstacles in the way.

Would the numbers stack up? Just how would they get round that referendum issue?
Plus would the SNP want to deal?

Do they find minority government liberating - or are they, down the line, beginning to find that the lack of voting clout at Holyrood is becoming frustrating, leading them to shelve policies?

PS: Wasn't that a remarkably vituperative exchange of comments between Sir Menzies Campbell and Alex Salmond?

Ming started it. (Didn't. Did too.) He suggested in full patrician mode that Mr Salmond was a "novice" in global affairs and lampooned the FM's visit to Washington.

Team Salmond responded with statespersonlike disdain. Or rather not. In fact, they said Sir Ming had sounded like a "pompous ass".

Boys, boys.

Cash cuts

Brian Taylor | 14:12 UK time, Thursday, 12 March 2009


Let me start by offering my sympathy to those who are about to lose their jobs at the Cash - as NCR was known to Dundonians of my generation when it was a dominant manufacturing presence in the city.

We should, of course, welcome the fact that this will not be complete closure. Some 450 jobs will be retained, including valuable R&D.

But that will come as little compensation to those in Dundee who are about to become the latest casualties in the recession. Real jobs, real families, real pain.

Longer term, I adhere to the view that Dundee is about to experience a revitalisation.

The universities, the arts, city centre regeneration all offer sources of optimism.

Let us simply hope that the city and its people keep their nerve - as they have had to do in the face of so many comparable setbacks in the past.

Dundee is frequently misunderstood. It is occasionally depicted as if it were some tyro on the Scottish stage, as if it were relatively new to the scene, as if its entire history could be defined by jute or the other two Js.

Lower league

Utter nonsense. The city was granted its Royal Charter in 1191. My own school's origins date back to the 13th century.

The city's main church is medieval. Dundee is a proud old place. One reason why Dundee is so misrepresented is that so much of that ancient heritage was wilfully neglected and torn down by past generations.

The old Overgate, an Adam-designed Town House, the Royal Arch.

Apart from these self-inflicted wounds, Dundee has survived storm, famine, fire, invasion by Cromwellian troops - and United's temporary relegation to a lower league.

With political will and, more importantly, popular resilience, Dundee will survive this.

'Always trust the voters'

Brian Taylor | 12:16 UK time, Wednesday, 11 March 2009


Taxing matters once more, this time in re the Liberal Democrats.

They have, it would appear, shifted their focus from devolved to reserved taxation.

Let me explain.

You'll recall that the new leader, Tavish Scott, voiced support for using Holyrood's powers - aka the Tartan Tax - to cut the burden upon the Scottish people.

In September last year, he suggested that 2p might be lopped off the standard rate.

This, he argued, would liberate the people to spend and, hence, tackle the credit crunch.

But a glance at the agenda for this weekend's Scottish LibDem conference discloses that this proposal is absent from the discussions.

There is a lengthy - a very lengthy - policy motion on the economy which is to be advanced by the party's finance spokesman Jeremy Purvis.

tartan tax

The debate will be wound up by Alistair Carmichael MP.

In short, this is the real frontbench deal. Yet, in the 102 lines of the motion, nary a mention of the September Tartan Tax plan.

I pressed Mr Scott on this point and was advised that the 2p Scottish cut was "off the table" for now. It had failed, I was reminded, to win support during the budgetary process.

Which is true. Indeed, John Swinney declined even to talk to the Lib Dems while they pursued the Tartan Tax cut. So far, so fair.

However, read the motion for the Perth conference more closely. Lines 70 to 72 read as follows: "Conference further calls on the UK Government to: cut taxes for people on low and middle incomes, raising them for the richest so the tax cuts are affordable".

So the tax cuts are affordable? That means, in short and in explicit terms, that tax cuts for the lower-earners must be balanced by a hike in upper bands.

But think. Such an option is simply not available within the Scottish Parliament's present powers.

Balance of cuts

When Mr Scott urged a 2p cut in Scottish taxation in September, he was unable to suggest a counter-balancing increase for upper earners - because such a power does not exist.

It would seem to this observer therefore that there is a structural - and not just a political - objection to the September offer.

If we take the Perth motion as read, then the Lib Dems favour "affordable" taxation: a balance of cuts and increases.

By definition, the September offer did not feature that balance. It could not.

Mr Scott has an answer. To be fair, it is a substantive answer. This is to point out that his party favours radical reform to the tax system.

They want a significant transfer of tax powers to Holyrood.

Within that basket of new powers, they could argue credibly for tax reductions and, indeed, Mr Scott indicates that would indeed be his approach.

It is my understanding that, some years back, the Lib Dems tested the notion of a Tartan Tax cut with focus groups.

At that time, the voters didn't find the idea particularly attractive. They thought that, on its own, it lacked substance.

Always trust the voters, say I.

Yearning for tsardom

Brian Taylor | 11:47 UK time, Tuesday, 10 March 2009


Yes, but will it be a czar? Or should that be tsar?

Every sector of modern public life, it seems, yearns for tsardom. Will this meet the test?

We are talking here about the grimly serious topic of hospital hygiene. undry proposals for addressing this are floating in the political atmosphere.

The Scottish Government plans a Care Environment Inspectorate. But, on first sight, it was suspiciously short of tsardom. Or indeed stardom.

Now, though, we learn it is to be headed by a chief inspector. This individual, apparently, will be a "superbug supremo".

"Hello, nice to meet you - what do you do?"

"Actually, I'm a superbug supremo."

"Really. Fascinating. Got any holiday plans?"

Heavy storms

Labour had proposed a cmmissioner for this task. A tsar or tsarina, in other words.

I cannot help being reminded of earlier - much earlier - political exchanges.

There had been exceptionally heavy storms in Glasgow. City roofs had been ripped off. Kirks had been tirled.

The uproar spread to the Commons. Statements were demanded from ministers.

Apparently, one weary government office-holder replied: "We dinnae need statements. We need slaters."

In similar mode, I cannot help thinking that, in this case, we need ward cleaners - and local nursing or medical or administrative staff with the power to enforce same.

Is there not a danger that, by the time the supremo or commissioner or tsar has discovered a problem, the damage locally will have been done?

Low spirits

Alternatively, I suppose an inspectorate, with clout, keeps the local staff teams alert.

Further, I am assured hospital bugs, cunning brutes that they are, keep changing the threat they present. Hence the need to share advice across Scotland.

I am genuinely not sure about this one. Perhaps I am just a little low in spirit because United weren't playing at the weekend.

But I cannot prevent my heart from sinking whenever the scent of tsardom is in the air.

'A good day for Mr Gray'

Brian Taylor | 17:18 UK time, Saturday, 7 March 2009


Iain Gray is given to literary quotation.

In his conference speech, he cited, without naming, his favourite author, Ernest Hemingway.

In A Farewell to Arms, Hemingway noted: "The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong at the broken places."

Mr Gray offered this as an exhortation to resilience, to resistance against the economic crisis.

Equally, one might see it as featuring a note of resignation. After all, Hemingway goes on to say: "It kills the very good and the very gentle and the very brave impartially.

If you are none of these you can be sure it will kill you too but there will be no special hurry."

I confess that, to my shame, I did not immediately recognise the quotation, despite having read the book some years back.

However, I did recognise Iain Gray's wider strategy in the speech.

Without overt apology (such things are not commonly done), he was saying that Labour had got things wrong in Scotland.

Without criticising his predecessors (such things are still less common), he was saying that Labour had to work endlessly and re-engage in order to overcome the incumbent SNP at Holyrood - with the small matters of European Elections and a UK General Election in the by-going.

For a first conference speech as leader, this was a good performance, very warmly received in the hall.

There were apparently 35 ovations at sundry points. (Confession number two: I was not counting.)

To be blunt, some inside Labour had fretted more than a little about Mr Gray's delivery. Was he sufficiently animated? Would he come across as passionate?

They were content today. It was a thoughtful, well-presented, meticulous and personal speech.

Perhaps the speech patterns, as some commented, are still somewhat lacking in variety. But there was vigour, a sense of commitment and a couple of genuine funnies.

Is it enough, though? In itself, no. Labour in Scotland is still weak on policy detail.

For example, it is one thing to excoriate the SNP proposal (now deferred) for local income tax.

But what is Labour's alternative, how would they reform the council tax?

Team Gray insist that is a function of the electoral cycle, not vacillation. We are, they remind us, two years out from a Holyrood election.

They have a policy making process well under way, enhanced today by the recruitment of external advisers.

For another thing, though, there is the economic crisis. It does not look like getting radically better any time soon.

It is legitimate to pursue the SNP over policies at Holyrood. It is legitimate to argue that policies have been dropped - or have fallen short.

And it is legitimate for the SNP to offer rebuttals.

But I believe it will strike the voters as relatively misplaced to accuse the Scottish Government, as Iain Gray did, of adopting a "do nothing" attitude to the recession.

Alex Salmond would respond that he has done what he can - within the limits of devolution.

Plus, politically, is it not more likely that opprobrium over this issue of the economy will attack to the UK Government - and Labour?

Those are, of course, future verdicts for the voters. But, on balance, this was a good day for Iain Gray.

Brown in Dundee

Brian Taylor | 16:00 UK time, Friday, 6 March 2009


I doubt if many, even in Team Brown, recognised the allusion to one of Dundee's more famous MPS.

But, being a keen historian, I feel sure that Gordon Brown himself knew exactly what he was saying.

Mr Brown was addressing the Scottish Labour Party conference in Dundee's Caird Hall.

In passing, he told delegates that his government had acted on the global economic crisis - because "action this day" was their responsibility.

That phrase was used by one Winston Churchill, Liberal MP for Dundee from 1908 to 1922.

In those fourteen years, he occasionally addressed rallies in the selfsame Caird Hall.

Admittedly, the phrase borrowed by Mr Brown does not date from Churchill's Dundonian phase - but from a substantially more challenging time when he served as Prime Minister in World War II.

Those words were appended to a memo from Churchill demanding action to resolve difficulties at the Bletchley Park intelligence station.

I do not for a moment suggest that Mr Brown was translating himself into Churchillian mode.

For one thing, the rhetoric in this conference speech fell somewhat short: perhaps he was understandably tired, perhaps it was partly a deliberate effort to disown political knock-about and sustain the crafted image of serious, grave statespersonship.

But perhaps too, it was a subterranean echo, a reflection of the severity of the global economic crisis.

Perhaps that was why Mr Brown borrowed a phrase redolent of efforts by one of his predecessors to tackle a rather different crisis.

There was substance here: pledges to act at the G20 summit to tackle banking bonuses and tax havens while seeking agreement on a new global framework for international financial regulation.

There was a Scottish political section too - a prolonged attack upon the SNP and their policy of independence.

But still, to this observer, it appeared just a mite flat, just a little low-key.

Then again perhaps Mr Brown has calculated that people in these troubled times are not ready to accept soaring speechifying.

And, of course, Gordon Brown has not had his troubles to seek of late. He has had to be resilient.

As Churchill observed: "Politics is the ability to foretell what is going to happen tomorrow, next week, next month and next year.

"And to have the ability afterwards to explain why it didn't happen."

Inserting steel

Brian Taylor | 12:53 UK time, Thursday, 5 March 2009


More, much more, today on the constitution. In the longer term, less, much less, on the topic of independence, If opposition parties have their way.

So what's moving? As I disclosed this morning, the Liberal Democrats want far greater powers for the devolved parliament.

That includes control of issues like energy, drugs and firearms - plus a significant basket of new tax powers.

They're trying to insert a little steel into the Calman Commission (or should that be Steel, reflecting their own commission under their former leader which advocated substantial financial powers.)

More immediately, again as noted here, MSPs will vote tonight on a Lib Dem amendment which argues against an independence referendum during the current economic crisis.

Labour's justification for backing this? At FMQs, Iain Gray said Scotland needed a referendum now "like a hole in the head". Assuming that Mr Gray is averse to cranial cavities, that would be a no.

So what's happened to "bring it on"? According to Mr Gray, that was an offer for an early referendum, with wording rather different to that proposed by the Scottish Governemnt.

Conference date

The SNP, according to Mr Gray, had declined to take that chance.

Circumstances, particularly in the economy, had moved on - so a referendum was no longer warranted.

Might he change his mind again, as Alex Salmond wryly suggested? Team Gray say no.

That means no referendum during the present parliament - not opposition in principle and for all time. Broadly, that is the position advocated by the Lib Dems too.

PS: Will John Farquhar Munro be in the chamber to watch his LibDem colleagues vote against a referendum?

Will he pursue his own support for such a plebiscite? No. He is attending a conference, keeping a long-standing engagement. In Frankfurt.

Not the last word

Brian Taylor | 10:56 UK time, Wednesday, 4 March 2009


And so it would seem more than likely that the Scottish Parliament will vote on Thursday against a referendum on independence.

Instead of "bring it on", the cry will be "call it off". At least for now. There is, however, a fair degree of subtlety within these calculations.

The issue will arise tomorrow with a debate amendment from the Liberal Democrats.

The Lib Dems will argue that a referendum is unsupportable within the lifetime of the present Holyrood Parliament, given the need to focus solely upon the recession.

Labour are expected to reach broadly the same conclusion, depending upon the precise wording of the Lib Dem text.

Conservatives ditto, with the same proviso that they want to see the text.

The two parties, however, are in literal mood for different reasons. Labour is semi-permanently terrified of being seen as somehow "anti-Scottish" or anti populist if it stands out against a plebiscite.

Tougher image

Hence the guddle that followed Wendy Alexander's "bring it on" declaration. Hence the desire, even now, to be seen as pragmatically disinclined rather than utterly opposed in principle.

Tories, I suspect, would prefer to offer a tougher image as the party of the unalloyed Union.

At core, however, all three opposition parties know that standing out against giving the people a choice is not, customarily, a popular place to be.

For the Lib Dems, this is particularly difficult. Their membership is intrinsically inclined to give the people their say.

So they will not rule out a referendum for all time. Only for the present parliament. Who knows, it might even form an element in future coalition talks.

Which leaves the SNP where? Firstly, they know that Thursday's vote, if it goes as outlined above, is symbolic.

It is not the last word - but it is perhaps a further indication of what the last word might be when (and it is still when) Alex Salmond presents his Referendum Bill to parliament next year.

Economic duress

Forget any thought of him ditching it. This is not like local income tax.

He will present a bill - and challenge other parties to support or oppose it.

And if they continue to oppose? I suspect he will not be entirely disquieted. Not because he has gone cool on independence. Quite the contrary.

Rather, because he believes it might take longer to convince the sceptics within the Scottish population, particularly at a time of economic duress.

And think of it this way. Can't you just see Alex Salmond making that speech in future? In an election campaign?

The one that says: "We wanted to give you, the people, a choice - and they, my opponents, have combined to stop us."

I think he might just permit himself a quiet grin as he delivers that one.

Elementary arithmetic

Brian Taylor | 11:42 UK time, Tuesday, 3 March 2009


How are you this fine morning? Or at least it was bright and sunny as I drove through this am from Glasgow to Edinburgh.

Mayhap the forecast white hell will emerge later, probably in time to disrupt the kick-off tonight as United face the might of Falkirk following our slight set-back on Saturday against a team who scored on their only sojourn up the park.

(Such restraint, though, was understandable: they needed the rest of the 90 minutes to lie on the pitch, groaning and feigning injury. Bitter? Me?)

Anyway, I arrived at Holyrood in time to scan two alternative views re police numbers in Scotland. Let me share them with you.

According to a news release from the SNP, ministerial endeavour is "making Scotland safer with a record number of police officers on Scotland's streets".

According to a news release from Labour, issued a few minutes earlier, "the SNP's pledge to provide 1,000 extra police officers by 2011 is set to fail".

Both comments, of course, are based upon a single statistic: the number of coppers in Scotland.

Cause for celebration

They can't even agree on the elementary arithmetic. The SNP says there has been an increase of 441 "since the 2007 election" while Labour puts the figure at 410.

That discrepancy is perhaps explained by a glance at the Scottish Government website.

The increase of 441 does not date precisely to the election: it is based upon a comparison with the quarterly figure from March 2007.

Anyway, the SNP view the figures as a cause for celebration: let there be dancing in the streets and drinking in the parlours. OK, maybe not the drinking: unless it's responsible and high-price.

Labour see these same figures as a source of inestimable gloom. We are all doomed - especially, it seems, the SNP which delivered the pledge of one thousand extra bobbies.

Depends, I suppose, on how you look at things. Take another recent example.

Nationalists hailed Alex Salmond's visit to America as featuring the first talks between an FM and the US Secretary of State.

Carefully worded

Wicked observers said, yes, it was the first - but that may have been because predecessors had met the President.

All parties, at all times, are at the same game. Selective memory, carefully worded information - versus bombast and all out-attack.

Today for example the SNP statement talks of "real progress" and "delivering on our promise to put more police on Scotland's streets" - without repeating the 1,000 figure.

The Labour version says Kenny MacAskill "can bluster all he likes" - but now "needs to come clean": by which they mean they mean he should abandon his own thought process and adopt, wholesale, the Labour version.

The Scottish people, they aver, are "sick of his empty words".

If there is a nauseous reaction to politics, my guess is it is rather more widely sourced.

On the issue itself, it is right to offer judgement on the precise pledge - which was to increase numbers by one thousand via recruitment, retention and redeployment - when the four-year term is up.

Lifestyle choice

Brian Taylor | 15:18 UK time, Monday, 2 March 2009


A sheriff of my acquaintance once hosted a Christmas party for the sundry QCs, advocates and solicitors in his patch.

He served them all with the tonic wine which is made by the Benedictine monks of Buckfast.

When they queried his choice of tipple, he told them he was keen to put them in touch with their client base.

Perhaps Kenny MacAskill had something comparable in mind when he described Buckfast as a "designer drink". Its consumption, he suggested, was something of a lifestyle choice.

Mr MacAskill, the Scottish justice secretary, was answering questions from the wicked media in re his government's proposed clampdown on alcohol abuse.

Why, we wanted to know, would the measures not affect Buckfast when they would increase the price of discounted white cider, vodka and whisky?

The answer was that Buckfast was relatively expensive at the moment, as calculated via alcohol by volume or abv.

Raising sights

Still relatively, the minister was unconcerned. The general package would work.

This little vignette perhaps highlights the problems which have pursued ministers in their efforts to tackle Scotland's addiction to alcohol.

The wicked media and those in the trade spotlight individual anomalies.

Ministers, entirely understandably, urge us to raise our sights and consider the cost of booze, in both senses.

The relative (that word again) decline in the cost of drink, down some 69% compared to earnings over the past couple of decades.

The cost to Scotland, an estimated £2.25bn in lost work days and health care.

And so ministers plan to act, with price the primary lever.

Brutal arithmetic

Minimum prices for drink, an end to "two-for-one" deals, a curb on marketing, a social responsibility fee, perhaps levied on big retailers like superpubs.

Recognising parliamentary arithmetic, ministers have now shelved plans for a Scotland-wide ban on off sales to those aged under 21.

Instead, they'll encourage councils to try this locally, where there's demand or police pressure.

What's the logic there? Ministers still back raising the age for off sales to 21 - but know they could not get that past sceptical MSPs. Hence the new scheme.

But the concept of localisation also needs Holyrood approval - and that may not be forthcoming.

Retailers, especially small retailers, are unhappy. They say they're being expected to act as "social police" for the government, tackling a problem in shops which has wider roots.

Not true, say ministers. To be fair, their published document today goes to great lengths to stress everyone in Scotland must play their part.

It stresses the additional resources for education and prevention.

But, says the government, there is evidence available: cut the price of drink, increase the number of hospital admissions.

Given that brutal arithmetic, they say they must act in the manner outlined today.

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