BBC BLOGS - Blether with Brian

Archives for May 2009

Bird's-eye view of jail break

Brian Taylor | 14:00 UK time, Thursday, 28 May 2009



Oh, dearie, dearie, me. This is getting to be a habit.

Even as the first minister and his justice secretary were rebutting attacks about prisoners absconding, guess what?

Got it in one. Another inmate has gone AWOL.

This time, it's 57-year-old John Brown who was first convicted of murder in 1976. He had been in Castle Huntly open prison.

Well, these things happen. Prisoners abscond. In lower numbers than previously, as Alex Salmond stressed earlier.

But timing matters in politics. Entirely understandably, there were angry interventions towards the close of play at Holyrood today.

Labour's Iain Gray and others wanted to know why Mr Brown's walkabout had not been disclosed by Kenny MacAskill yesterday or by Alex Salmond today - when the issue of absconding was live and under discussion.

Mr Brown, it appears, failed to return from home leave yesterday. Ministers were tipped off last night.

But Mr Salmond insists it is an operational matter for Tayside Police as to when to disclose that the unscheduled absence of an inmate counts as an official abscond.

It would be breaking procedure, ministers argue, to intervene in that operational responsibility.

Which is fair enough as far as it goes. But opposition leaders detect government weakness - and they're going for it.

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

Sitting in the dock, Justice Secretary Kenny Macaskill gave just the hint of a nervous smile. All around him clustered his accusers - who want to give him early release for bad behaviour. Early release from the Cabinet, that is.

His crime? A "glitch" (his word) in prison records which allowed Brian "the Hawk" Martin to be in an open prison from which he absconded. Those records apparently didn't include the material fact that the Hawk had previously fled the coop.

Ultimately, the Hawk re-roosted all by himself. But angry opposition MSPs said he had a history of violence. They said further that Kenny "the Stork" Macaskill had been standing around with his head under his wing while the Hawk flew out of the nick.

'Wrong tree'

It was all looking pretty bad for the Stork. Shades of the prison house began to close upon the growing boy. Luckily for him, his defence counsel was Alex Salmond. (Choose your own avian comparator, I'm all done.)

Prosecuting, Iain Gray (ditto) said Mr Macaskill's approach "reeked of complacency". He said further that defence counsel, Mr Salmond, was "barking...(long pause)...up the wrong tree".

Annabel Goldie (I wouldn't dare) piled in as junior counsel. She wins, comfortably, this blog's award for the most cliches in a single sentence. Apparently, the buck stops at Bute House and Mr Salmond required to show bottle, find some mettle and grasp the thistle. All at once.

Opposition's record

Mr Salmond arose, repeatedly - and deployed the classic approach of counsel on the defensive. He counter-attacked by bringing up the record of his opponents. Absconding from the open estate had been five times worse under Labour and eight times worse under the Tories.

On that noble programme, Good Morning Scotland, Mr Gray had been confronted with his party's record - and, said Mr Salmond, had been unable to remember the details. Uproar in the court. His Honour Alex Fergusson, presiding, appealed for calm. After order was restored, Mr Salmond grinned - as only he can.And, to conclude, it was the Tories who introduced the open prison estate in the first place.

And the Stork was looking much happier by now. Seemed like the slammer was off the agenda. Hey, prison's a "skoosh" anyway, isn't it? A "tough" community sentence, then?
No, full pardon.

Expect an appeal any day from his accusers. In fact, probably every day until the next election.

PS: Welcome your comments as ever. Would remind you, gently, that it is one of the house rules that responses should not stray from the particular topic on offer.

This is designed to ensure that, in the interests of all readers, there can be focused, substantive debate.

Over a prolonged period, it means that the broadest possible range of topics can be aired.

Favouring reform

Brian Taylor | 13:40 UK time, Tuesday, 26 May 2009


Aren't those intriguing little suggestions re parliamentary reform?

I refer to the thoughts of both the Conservative leader and a Labour cabinet minister.

Firstly, David Cameron has chosen the Guardian in which to advance his reform agenda.

He favours more free votes for MPs and will look at fixed term parliaments which means the date of General Elections would no longer be chosen by the incumbent government.

Mr Cameron describes his package as a "massive, sweeping, radical redistribution of power".

Must say it sounds a rather more modest set of proposals to me - with a dual purpose.

Firstly, he genuinely favours reform. He is a moderniser, at least partly disdaining the permanent adherence to established tradition which has customarily characterised his party.

Expenses 'brouhaha'

Secondly, though, he wants to paint the prime minister as the problem - and himself as the solution.

At all points during the brouhaha over expenses, Mr Cameron has sought to suggest this is a problem caused or presided over or neglected by the government, as distinct from parliament.

He has rather cleverly contrived to give this impression - despite the fact that his own MPs are at least as closely involved in the controversy.

The latest suggestion attempts to elide the gap between dodgy expense sheets and wider parliamentary reform.

In simple terms, fixed term parliaments and curbed whips offices would do nothing of themselves to stop MPs claiming money illegitimately.

They are different issues. However, Mr Cameron - again cleverly - blends the two together: suggesting only a General Election and subsequent reform can tackle the present abuses.

Logically, that is not the case. Westminster could and should act now, regardless of whether an election and a new government is merited.

Intriguing thoughts

But Mr Cameron is again giving the impression, entirely understandably from his point of view, that what is required to effect change and placate the voters is the ejection of G. Brown and the election of D. Cameron.

Secondly, the intriguing thoughts of Mr Brown's cabinet colleague, Alan Johnson.

Mr Johnson favours a referendum on PR voting for Westminster, to be held on the same day as the next UK General Election.

Is that a runner? For now, no.

But is it possible that Westminster, having adopted the Holyrood expenses system, might be about to adopt the Scottish Parliament's approach to voting too?

Not, I think, the particular Holyrood method. The list system, with top-up MSPs derived from regional party lists, has even fewer friends these days than it did when it was insisted upon by Labour in the Convention talks.

But Mr Johnson is certainly talking PR. Why? Presumably because he supports it, intellectually.

However, also, as with Mr Cameron, it depicts himself as the engine of reform, by contrast with the stasis of the present set-up.

Holding out

It is perhaps not, therefore, a direct pitch for the Labour leadership. But, just as with the previously voiced thoughts of David Miliband, it will scarcely be welcome in Number Ten.

Mr Brown wants and needs support from his colleagues. Not novel - or novice - thinking.

By contrast, it would appear yet again that his cohorts are envisaging life outwith the boundaries of a Brown government.

Further, though, is Mr Johnson holding out the prospect of a tentative future deal with the Liberal Democrats? My guess is yes.

For the Lib Dems, PR is the standing objective, stated in all cross-party talks. They secured it for the Scottish Parliament.

Paddy Ashdown was regularly tempted by Tony Blair into thinking it might be a runner for Westminster.

It was always ruled out previously by Labour self-interest and the intrinsic resistance to reform in substantial sections of the party.

Could that be about to change, perhaps because Labour's interests in a future hung parliament may point in a different direction?

PS: Welcome your comments as ever. Would remind you, gently, that it is one of the house rules that responses should not stray from the particular topic on offer.

This is designed to ensure that, in the interests of all readers, there can be focused, substantive debate.

Over a prolonged period, it means that the broadest possible range of topics can be aired.

Letter from Texas

Brian Taylor | 16:53 UK time, Sunday, 24 May 2009


briansblogpic.jpgDistractions everywhere as I write this in Dallas Fort Worth airport.

Firstly, the racket from the coffee shop next door: trad jazz music mingling with a genteel customer/server dispute over prices.

Then there is the utterly depressing news from home that United have, once more, failed to secure a European place.

To lose out is bad. To lose out on goal difference is doubly grim. No excuses, though. It's hard to thrive when you get thumped 3-0 in successive weeks.

But why Dallas? Why was I not suffering at Tannadice along with my fellow Arabs?

All part of the prolonged preparation of a documentary to mark 10 years of devolution.

It's due to go out on Sunday June 28 - which leaves me many more plugging days.

'National identity'

We were keen to exemplify the constitutional choice that confronts Scotland: which is to continue expressing our national identity within a wider state or to conclude that that identity can only be properly secured by independence.

Norway offered our example of the latter: a nation which took the independence route after being governed, to varying degrees, from Denmark and then Sweden.

I have alluded to that already on these pages.

Texas provided the alternative scenario. Herewith a quotation: "Texas is a state of mind. Texas is an obsession. Above all, Texas is a nation in every sense of the word."

That's John Steinbeck, writing in Travels with Charley, Charley being his large, enthusiastic dog.

But the nation that is Texas has chosen since 1845 to share sovereignty with the United States of America.

Everyone I met stressed, ever so politely, the element of choice.

Deliberate tease

Texas was not subservient. Texas was not subsumed. Texas could choose to secede from the US. Texas chooses not to do so.

Texans cheerfully confess that their assertion of a distinct identity frequently exasperates their fellow US citizens from less fiercely defined states.

It is, they insist, part of their charm - and, frequently, a deliberate tease.

As one put it to me, Texans like to poke their fellow Americans in the ribs from time to time, if only to stress that the States may be United but they are far from uniform.

PS: Welcome your comments as ever. Would remind you, gently, that it is one of the house rules that responses should not stray from the particular topic on offer.

This is designed to ensure that, in the interests of all readers, there can be focused, substantive debate.

Over a prolonged period, it means that the broadest possible range of topics can be aired.

Regaining order in the Commons

Brian Taylor | 06:36 UK time, Wednesday, 20 May 2009


And so he's gone. Michael Martin has resigned as Speaker. He had to go: his handling of the expenses affair had been poor, weighted far too heavily towards secrecy and resistance to change.

But ask yourself this. Do you think the views of the voting public will have altered one jot as a consequence? Will they now regard MPs with trust rather than disdain?

Thought that might be your answer. There are bigger issues here than Speaker Martin. He is the fall guy, not the answer.

This evening the prime minister said, following cross-party talks, that there would now be collective efforts to clean up politics at Westminster, including an end to the practice of MPs determining their own pay package.

That might help, I suppose, if it is carried through, if it is delivered. However, I suspect it will take a long, long time before trust is regained to any significant extent.

That is because trust was already in short supply. The expenses abuse tends to confirm rather than counter the established views of the voters.

So what now? A by-election? Doesn't have to be one: Mr Martin could remain as an MP for his Glasgow constituency until the general election. Indeed, there was some speculation that he might pursue that route - but the firm expectation as of now is that a by-election there will be.

In July? Well, that worked really well for Labour when they appealed to the voters of Glasgow East in a swiftly held by-election last summer. Result: SNP gain.

Autumn? Perhaps, perhaps.

But then remember it's not entirely in Labour's gift to decide. This is not a Labour seat, it was won by Michael Martin as Speaker.

However, if and when it is held, the by-election will feel and operate like a Labour defence.

Not, all in all, the best time for the party of UK Government to be defending its record.

Speaking with confidence

Brian Taylor | 10:28 UK time, Tuesday, 19 May 2009


Just back from Norway where they have been rejoicing in their National Day and their Eurovision victory in roughly equal measure.

Filming for documentary going out at end of June. (That's plug number two.)

In the bygoing, I have of course been keeping up to date with events at the Palace of Westminster.

The Speaker, Michael Martin, is convening talks with party leaders while a motion of no confidence hangs over his somewhat bowed head.

From his performance in the chamber yesterday, when he repeatedly had to consult his clerks before ruling, it would seem that he has relatively little confidence in himself.

Self-evidently, he has not acquitted himself well over the piece.

He resisted publication of expenses details. He derided Commons critics who were honestly reflecting public opinion. He has failed to give a lead.

However, I cannot help but feel that there is misplaced sentiment behind some of the campaign to oust him.

Some MPs appear to feel that by kicking out the Speaker they solve the issue. With one bound, they shall be free.

Some are winding themselves up into one of the Commons periodic bouts of self-engendered constitutional crisis.

No, Sir Patrick Cormack, this is not like Neville Chamberlain. The issue here is snouts in the trough, not Europe on the verge.

Let us be clear.

Michael Martin was not a counter-signatory when one MP claimed for a mortgage that no longer exists.

He was not egging on those who claimed for upgrades to their country estates, complete with moat.

They did this all on their sweet lonesome - or sometimes, it would appear, in tandem with spouses or chums.

It may be, rightly, argued that the Speaker contributed, by neglect, to the pervasive culture in the Commons which has allowed such abuses to persist.

It may be, even more rightly, argued that he should have acted swiftly to persuade his Parliamentary colleagues to reform.

But think.

The Speaker is a servant of the House, not directly of the people. He is expected to represent the views of the House to external bodies, notably the Crown.

That is what the term "Speaker" means. He speaks. For the Commons.

When he spoke out against early publication of expenses details, he was arguably reflecting the majority mood of the House at the time, as later evidenced in a Commons vote against reform.
He thought he was reflecting the opinion of his fellow MPs. I believe he called it wrong.

I believe, firmly, that he should have cajoled the Commons down a different path. It would appear that he is belatedly trying to do so.

However, it is a little hypocritical of the Commons now to turn against their officer who was only, he believed, reflecting their collective will.

If he called it wrong, so did they.

Back to the future

Brian Taylor | 19:17 UK time, Thursday, 14 May 2009


It's back to the future at the Conservative conference in Perth.

There's a fair old degree of optimism. They can detect the stench emanating from Westminster.

But, within that, the Tories can scent victory too.

However, to borrow Annabel Goldie's phrase, there are "echoes of the past" too.

Forgive me if I focus upon those echoes - or rather upon Miss Goldie's efforts to quench them.

Future Tory prospects rest entirely with the voters who can make up their own minds when the UK general election is called.

So just what did Bella mean?

What did she mean when she said that "for many people, voting Conservative in Scotland is a big ask"? When she urged voters to ignore those echoes and consider the contemporary Tory Party.

I think she meant that the Conservatives had contrived, down the years, to make themselves seem like an alien force in Scotland: not necessarily anti-Scotland, although some felt that, but perhaps "other than" Scottish.

And when did this sentiment manifest itself, when did it grow? When Margaret Thatcher was in power. Rightly or wrongly, many Scots took against her.

She was seen here in Scotland, according to Malcolm Rifkind, as a "bossy, English woman".

Sir Malcolm reckons the Scots could have tolerated one or maybe two of those characteristics. Not all three.

But of course talk like this, especially from Tories, is seen by some other Tories as tantamount to treason.

They don't appreciate delphic utterances about setting aside the past from their leader.

Those who adhere to that perspective would have been attracted by the fringe meeting here in Perth called to commemorate Margaret Thatcher's legacy. Couldn't attend myself owing to pressure of work - but bet it was fun.

The keynote speaker at the fringe was Murdo Fraser, Miss Goldie's deputy.

In search of innocent merriment, I asked Mr Fraser whether his attendance was inclined - or even designed - to stir up the "echoes of the past" disowned by his boss.

Not at all, he assured me with a grin which, I think, recognised exactly what I was up to.

To each of my mischievous inquiries, he said that he was concerned to draw comparisons between the 1970s and today when, according to Murdo, a strong Tory leader had had to replace a failing and discredited Labour government, while rescuing a wrecked economy.

Enough, Brian, enough. Back to the future. Back to considering the Tory pitch for the next UK election and, subsequently, for Holyrood.

But still it can be entertaining to reflect upon varying views of history too.

Away with the Honourable Member

Brian Taylor | 11:35 UK time, Monday, 11 May 2009


Do you remember Kenny Everett? The wireless DJ who generated a distinct brand of humour when he was translated to telly?

Remember one character in particular? The bearded bawd who was wont to declare that it was "all in the best possible taste"? Won't use the name for fear of transposing letters.

Well, I think s/he may have a modern rival. The plaintive MP who declares that their allowance claims were "all within the rules as laid down by the House".

Delivered with an ironic sneer, that's well on the way to becoming a contemporary catch-phrase.

Over the past few weeks, as this story has grown, I've been regularly asked to offer punditry on network programmes as to how Holyrood deals with this issue so much better than Westminster.

On each occasion, I have prefaced my comments by stressing that Holyrood only attained its present state of relative grace via a protracted period of atonement.

No intrinsic virtue

In the Scottish Parliament, all claims are receipt-based.

There are strict rules governing what can be claimed.

Every detail of every claim - however minute - is published, quarterly.

The second home support system is also being scrapped.

But twas not ever thus. It was George Reid, as presiding officer, who concluded - after endless adverse publicity - that maximum disclosure was the best policy.

So there is no intrinsic virtue at Holyrood. The reforms had to be argued, imposed - and implemented.

Basically rogues

I believe, however, that there is one fundamental difference between the two Parliaments which is highly relevant to this deeply damaging affair.

The concept of the "Honourable Member" is absent from the Scottish Parliament.

That is not to say that they are essentially dishonourable, that they are basically rogues.

Rather, it is to say that the core element of collective self-regard which is an inbuilt feature at Westminster is diminished at Holyrood.

MPs are all honourable. If members of the Privy Council, they are Right Honourable.

If QCs, they are Learned. If officers in the armed forces, they are Gallant. If members of the clergy, they are Reverend.

Even for free thinkers, even for iconoclasts, even for radicals, there can be an insidious, subtle appeal at Westminster.

It goes with the territory, with the essential feudalism of the place.

Atmospheric change

You're an Honourable Member. You're better than the rest. You're special. What right have people to question your domestic affairs? What's it to do with them?

There has been much talk that politics has to change fundamentally as a consequence of this affair.

I suspect that, in the long term, the change will be atmospheric rather than structural.

We will, I guess, still elect MPs. They will still sit in party ranks. The biggest party will still form the government.

They will be entitled to claim out-of-pocket expenses.

But, although the nomenclature may persist, it will be away with the Honourable Member.

It will be away with the sense that they are an elite, remote from any regulation other than the self-imposed variety.

Never glad over-confident morning again.

Fiona Hyslop

Brian Taylor | 13:48 UK time, Friday, 8 May 2009


Ever feel the world is out to get you? No, of course not.

There is a distinct dearth of conspiracy theorists among contributors to this site.

However, perhaps the Education Secretary Fiona Hyslop might be forgiven a slight sense of paranoia. That is, if she pays overmuch attention to the views of her political opponents.

For they are quite definitely out to get her.

The pack has decided that Ms Hyslop is the weak point in Alex Salmond's team - and is moving in.

For the Liberal Democrats, Margaret Smith says that the Education Secretary has provided "more evidence that she is out of her depth" over the issue of class sizes.

For the Tories, Margaret Mitchell, speaking in a Holyrood debate, blamed Ms Hyslop for indiscipline in Scottish schools.

And what of Labour? Emulating Gordon Brown - whose appearance on YouTube was such a notable success - Iain Gray has chosen the avenue of a video diary to pile in.

A former teacher, Mr Gray assesses the mid-term performance of the Cabinet, awarding lamentable marks all round. However, he reserves his sharpest criticism for Fiona Hyslop.

She gets a zero, a lunchtime detention and a visit to the Headie.

Now it takes courage for a Labour leader to use the device of marks out of ten, given that Wendy Alexander was widely derided for awarding herself a maximum score. (Note to respondents: the word "courage" is used here in its ironic "Yes Minister" sense. As it was the last time I used it.)

But Mr Gray thinks he has found a target. He even blames Ms Hyslop for the decline in the number of those studying French and German. Is he suggesting these be made compulsory?

That aside, Ms Hyslop may feel she is able to withstand an assault from the two Margarets and Mr Gray.

However, education policy is perhaps proving particularly fraught for the Scottish Government. The policy of lower class sizes in early years is meeting resistance - and questions as to its efficacy.

Opponents are challenging the extent of the school building programme. Universities and colleges are voicing concern over funding. Students are grumbling about financial support.

Twas ever thus, I suppose.

But Opposition parties plainly reckon that Ministers can be successfully targeted over a perceived lack of response in the field of education.

Partly, I guess, the concerted attack on Fiona Hyslop reflects the relative strengh of her Cabinet colleagues.

For example, opponents consistently fail to trip up the likes of Nicola Sturgeon and John Swinney.

As for Alex Salmond, it would appear that they are reduced to throwing paper clips at him.

A remarkable decade

Brian Taylor | 22:23 UK time, Tuesday, 5 May 2009


Is it really 10 years? A decade since the devolved Scottish Parliament was first elected or - to borrow Winnie Ewing's decidedly deft phrase - reconvened.

Do you remember the coalition negotiations between Labour and the Liberal Democrats?

My recollection is that I spent roughly a year doorstepping the talks, standing outside that hideous building on the Lawnmarket, since demolished, which provided a temporary home for MSPs.

In fact, the coalition deal was signed on the 14th of May, only just a week after the election.

Do you remember the early row over the choice of Holyrood as the permanent home?

That went on for months, right? No, it was pre-empted by Donald Dewar's decision as Secretary of State.

MSPs voted to endorse Holyrood on June the 17th. The row, of course, continued.
Do you remember the campaign which led up to the election?

Remember these moments?

• March 12, John Swinney confirms a "Penny for Scotland", a plan to use the "Tartan Tax" to reverse a UK cut in the standard rate of income tax

• March 21, David McLetchie says the Tories would, in the last analysis, vote with Labour to thwart the SNP

• March 29, Alex Salmond calls the bombing of Kosovo "unpardonable folly"

• April 22, Alex Salmond cancels news conferences in favour of street campaigning. Says he wants to "get our jaickets off and get stuck in"

• April 30, Tony Blair in Glasgow; William Hague in Edinburgh; SNP publish economic strategy for independence

• May 4, Jim Wallace says the public have made the abolition of tuition fees "non-negotiable"

• May 5, rumours of rift between Donald Dewar and Gordon Brown over strategy

• May 6, pouring rain across Scotland after days of warm weather

A remarkable campaign, a remarkable election - and the prelude to 10 remarkable years.

PS: Watch out for more BBC Scotland coverage on Wednesday of the anniversary of the elections.

Plus - an early plug - watch out for my telly documentary on June 30, the eve of the anniversary of the Royal Opening.

    PPS: Welcome your comments as ever. Would remind you, gently, that it is one of the house rules that responses should not stray from the particular topic on offer.
    This is designed to ensure that, in the interests of all readers, there can be focused, substantive debate.
    Over a prolonged period, it means that the broadest possible range of topics can be aired.

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