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Archives for October 2009

It's FMQs, stupid

Brian Taylor | 14:46 UK time, Thursday, 29 October 2009


"The economy, stupid".

Thus the phrase hung in Bill Clinton's Little Rock campaign HQ by James Carville in 1992.

It was designed to focus the team upon the voters' concern with the dollar in their pocket. It worked inasmuch as Clinton won.

Iain Gray borrowed the phrase today for first minister's questions. However, Mr Gray appeared keen to focus on the word "stupid". Rather than the word "economy."

For this was a sharp personal attack upon Alex Salmond, based upon sundry criticisms from business organisations that the Scottish government might be more helpful - and less inclined to promote other "anti-business" policies such as minimum pricing for alcohol.

Mr Gray said the FM was "a banker who got it wrong on the banks, an economist who is getting it wrong on the economy, and a Scottish first minister who is getting it wrong for Scotland."

If Mr Salmond was rattled, he contrived to conceal it exceptionally well. He reminded Mr Gray that, having reshuffled his front bench team, he had now appointed most of the Labour group to office.

Smart move, reckoned the FM, getting potential critics on the payroll vote. (Not that they get paid extra - but you get the concept.)

The two then barracked each other about help for small business.

Then they traded insults based on quotes from, respectively, the Daily Mail and the Mail on Sunday.

And that was that.

Remembering Michael Shea

Brian Taylor | 11:00 UK time, Tuesday, 27 October 2009


I am sure you will forgive me if I depart from partisan politics for a moment. Today I am attending Michael Shea's funeral in Edinburgh.

Michael was renowned for many things. A former senior diplomat, he served as press secretary to the Queen for a decade which included the wedding of Prince Charles and Diana Spencer.

A native Scot, he returned to live in Edinburgh where he played an active and enthusiastic role in many Scottish institutions such as the Royal Lyceum Theatre.

His was an inclusive character, inclined to look favourably where he could and to disavow cynicism.

Personable, amicable and charismatic, he had friends and associates ranging from business to the arts, from politics to diplomacy.

This much is known. Let me add a single tale.

'Never retire'

Michael was a prolific writer. His work spread from thrillers to constitutional analysis.

I recall, in particular, one more. Just three years ago, he published The Freedom Years.

I chaired the session at the Edinburgh Book Festival in which Michael expounded upon the content of his book.

With his familiar energy and drive, he explained his thesis that older folk should never "retire". They should banish the word. They should disdain the slump into slipperdom which retirement implied.

Instead, they should adopt new challenges, they should find new activities. They should be busier and more productive than ever, regardless of their revised employment status.

It is simply tragic that aggressive illness and death has prevented Michael Shea from putting his thesis into prolonged, personal practice.

Memento mori.

Still, while he could, he remained active, eager and alert. Scotland is the better for it. He will be missed.

Striking a balance

Brian Taylor | 11:55 UK time, Monday, 26 October 2009


Voters frequently yearn for the "pure and simple truth".

Understandably, they want politicians to be straightforward with them, to tell it as it is.

Then the wicked media pile in - and demand "straight answers to straight questions"

Result? Politicians seek sanctuary in platitudes, saying nothing in particular but saying it awfully well.

Of course, truth in absolute is rarely pure and never simple. Political decisions can be complex, often hideously so.

They will seldom present straight choices. Rather they are an amalgam of competing pressures.

Such is the case with the current controversy over alcohol in Scotland.

Alcohol problems

The Scottish government is about to introduce a Bill to set minimum prices for drinks, calculated by volume of alcohol.

The measure is supported by health professionals who say it will force up the price for certain drinks commonly associated with alcohol problems.

This, they say, will have discernible benefits for Scotland's health.
Critics say the measure may be illegal or ineffective or insufficient - or a blend of all three.

Then there is a further aspect.

The Scotch whisky trade is seriously concerned that such a move would have drastic, unintended consequences for their business.

Their argument is that they have fought a prolonged battle over many years to prevent foreign countries from imposing discriminatory duty on Scotch in order to prop up home-grown products.

They say there are countries which will use the precedent set by minimum pricing in Scotland to impose punitive duties on whisky. This is disputed by Scottish ministers.

Legal questions

How about that illegality point? Critics point to a ruling by the European Court's Advocate General to the effect that minimum pricing with regard to tobacco violated competition law.

No, say Ministers. That applied in the particular circumstances of an individual case. They cite a wider statement by the EU Commissioner, Gunther Verheugen, responsible for enterprise and industry.

Replying to Labour MEP Catherine Stihler, the Commissioner said that member states were not prohibited from using minimum pricing to pursue health directives, provided the measure fell within other aspects of Community law such as the free movement of goods.

One might quibble whether that ruling applies to devolved sub-divisions of EU member states - but ministers interpret this as meaning that minimum pricing is legal, provided a balance is struck.

They intend to strike that balance.

Which brings us, as ever at Holyrood, back to arithmetic. Can ministers assemble a coalition of support for this measure - which forms part of a much wider attempt to transform Scotland's attitude to alcohol?

Right now, looks difficult. The Liberal Democrats are against minimum pricing, preferring other measures.

'More evidence'

The Tories are also agin, opting for targeted duty increases on "problem drinks". It will be noted that this would involve action at a UK level, not in Scotland.

The Scottish Parliament has no control over duty.

Which leaves Labour. Over the weekend, they again demanded sight of the legal advice upon which ministers base their insistence that their initiative doesn't breach the law.

Further, they want more evidence that the measure would be effective.

Failing these, they say they remain unconvinced by the measure.

They back other initiatives - such as the Challenge 21 programme under which licence holders would be obliged to seek ID from anyone seeking to buy drink who appears to be under the age of 21.

Eighteen would remain the legal age for alcohol purchase.

Diluting proposals

Ministers say they are more than open to considering other ideas. They point out that their bill involves much more than minimum pricing.

There will be new constraints on the display and marketing of alcohol in off-sales premises. There will be curbs on heavy discount promotions.

Police forces will be able to request consideration of increasing the off-sales legal age to 21 in areas where there are substantial alcohol problems.

That is a diluted version of the original plan: proof, say ministers, that they are open to discussion.

But minimum pricing remains the big controversy - and will feature in the bill when it is published in mid-November.

Following that, the debate will intensify. Rarely pure, never simple.

The word on the street

Brian Taylor | 10:23 UK time, Thursday, 22 October 2009


Let me share with you two sources of economic analysis which have come my way. One from the Scottish Chambers of Commerce. The other from shoppers in Springburn.

The first is a regular members' survey. It discerned that manufacturers are becoming more optimistic and that the tourist trade had a relatively good summer.

In all, there are signs that recovery is under way, while remaining fragile.

As noted, my second source of information comes from chatting to Glaswegians who are currently being pursued by politicians in search of votes - the Glasgow North East by-election.

Firstly, two votes of thanks from me.

To the posse of young kids in Dennistoun who adopted me and kept the pavement clear while I havered to a camera. Nice one, guys.

Thanks too to the folk who took the time to voice their concerns to me about issues which they felt should be prominent in the by-election.

Folk like the mum who was persuaded to speak by her young sons - then proceeded to offer an excellent analysis of what is going right in her patch. And what is going wrong.

To the other woman who paused on her way to the dentist, hope the treatment worked.
And the issues raised? Predominantly, two - or, rather, one issue, conjoined.

The economy, poverty, the lack of jobs - allied to the attendant crime and disorder.

I say "disorder" deliberately. Several folk I spoke to stressed that they weren't predominantly talking about major crime. Most were well aware of efforts to tackle crime locally.

Rather, they were talking about petty, loutish crime - vandalism, disruptive behaviour, lack of respect.

A sense, as one put it, that the area had lost its way a bit. Plus, of course, the ever present drugs.

Virtually everyone I spoke to made the link between crime and a lack of economic opportunity - although several also felt there were members of the community who didn't make enough effort to sort themselves out.

To be clear, this wasn't an unfocused, collective whinge. Very, very far from it.

These people were very well aware of efforts by politicians - Westminster, Holyrood and local authority - to improve things.

They knew about training schemes, they knew about area rehabilitation, they knew about leisure facilities, they knew about efforts to counter crime. They appreciated the public spending.

But they felt it wasn't sufficient. They felt it wasn't properly directed, offering me local examples.

They felt the core was preventing another generation from dwindling into workless malcontent.

Lingering virus

Brian Taylor | 12:41 UK time, Wednesday, 21 October 2009


Some stories rise up the news agenda then fall, all in a single day.

Some linger longer.

Others hover persistently in the background, occasionally breaking through.

Swine flu falls into the latter category.

When first detected, it was dominant.

Remember the fuss when the first confirmed cases arrived back in Scotland?

The grim expectation must be that it is about to become dominant as a news issue again.

We must all simply hope that the vaccination programme is as successful as possible in limiting the impact.

On this issue, as Health Secretary in Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon has proved capable, steady and focused.

She has offered the right balance of blunt warnings tempered by sensible reassurance.

She has worked co-operatively with counterparts in London.

Due praise too for health officials in Scotland who have responded efficiently to date.

Again, we must simply hope that this effort is sustained in the notably challenging period ahead.

The strategic significance of Salmond's speech

Brian Taylor | 17:59 UK time, Saturday, 17 October 2009


It wasn't, perhaps, Alex Salmond's finest conference speech - although there were passages of passion and moments of dry humour such as his confession that he may have caused some of the internal party turbulence which the former leader Gordon Wilson charts in his new book.

Mr Wilson, sitting in the hall, smiled knowingly.

For all that, it may prove to be one of his most significant orations. For two reasons. Both concerned with forward looking strategy.

Firstly, as billed, Mr Salmond set out the details of the method by which he hopes to prise concessions from a future UK government in the event of a hung parliament at Westminster after the next General Election.

In essence, it boils down to budgetary concessions.

The SNP would seek to extract gains for Scotland in return for voting through the clauses of a Budget to be introduced by the next government at Westminster.

Why just the budget? Because the SNP doesn't usually vote on legislation which affects England only - and would generally pursue that tactic in the next Westminster Parliament.

For another, because Mr Salmond has indicated that big-ticket programmes such as Trident might be a demand too far, resulting in zero flexibility.

For a third, because the economy is all at the moment.

There are, of course, a number of obstacles in Mr Salmond's path.

The SNP is only in play at all if there is a hung or exceptionally tight Parliament, if they have enough MPs to make a difference and if other parties, such as the Liberal Democrats, don't cut a deal first.

However, that would be for the future.

This is primarily about tactics now, about ensuring that the SNP is not squeezed entirely out of a contest where the prime focus for the voters is choosing the British Prime Minister.

The second element which intrigued me in Alex Salmond's speech was the section on the economy more generally.

He declared that the creation of wealth - and its distribution - were important when times are good and imperative when times are tough.

He went on to argue that the way to address the problems confronting the public finances was to grow the economy.

To me, this sounded rather close to the previous Gordon Brown argument when the PM sought to contrast what he called Labour investment with Tory cuts.

It sounded as if he was suggesting that the SNP could obviate spending cuts.

However, SNP strategists insist that the party isn't disavowing the need for spending constraint.

They point to the cancellation of the Glasgow Airport Rail Link as evidence of the readiness to make tough choices.

Sun and sandwiches

Brian Taylor | 16:50 UK time, Friday, 16 October 2009


Plenty happening here at the Eden Court for the SNP conference.

The sun shone and the sandwiches held out longer than on the opening day - no doubt contributing to an air of general bonhomie among the delegates.

There was a comradely dispute as to whether an independent Scotland would require a referendum before opting to join the Euro.

Alyn Smith MEP was among those arguing that a referendum would be a conditional step too far. Better to get on and join.

But most delegates sided with John Swinney who said: join but only when the economic conditions are right and there's been a referendum.

In a webcast interview with me, Alex Salmond argued the case for an independence referendum - but demurred at the suggestion that there should be a popular poll on whether to maintain the monarchy, post independence.

Her Majesty, it seems, would stay.

Looking for money

Mr Salmond also offered a few more pointers as to the concessions he would seek to prize from Westminster in the event of a hung Parliament after the UK General Election.

He'd be looking, in essence, for money: protecting public spending and capital investment in Scotland.

I asked him whether he'd seek to oblige his UK counterparts to abandon Trident. Mr Salmond thought not.

This, it seems, would be a demand too far - likely to deter positive gains for Scotland rather than promote them.

To be quite clear, the SNP leader also reiterated his complete opposition to Trident and to the cost of upgrading it.

In his keynote speech, John Swinney argued the case for fiscal autonomy.

I was most intrigued by his efforts to contrast that position with the reforms advanced by the Calman Commission.

You'll remember that Calman advocated devolving a proportion of income tax to Scotland, with concomitant varying powers.

But Mr Swinney argued that "would expose the Scottish budget to a significant degree of volatility and vulnerability without giving us the levers of economic control to counter these effects."

The Salmond strategy

Brian Taylor | 17:21 UK time, Thursday, 15 October 2009


It is a given in Labour demonology that it was the SNP who brought down Jim Callaghan's government in the 1970s.

Like most givens, it is somewhat remote from the facts.

Yes, it was the votes of the 11 SNP MPs which, added to the others, defeated Team Callaghan in a Commons vote of confidence.

But defeat at the polls - and the subsequent election of Margaret Thatcher - were, of course, dependent on the votes of millions of people. Not the SNP 11.

Still, it can be a position of some influence to hold the balance of power in a hung or tight parliament.

That is the argument being advanced by Alex Salmond at the SNP conference in Inverness.

He says that his party could wield power at Westminster if it obtains its target of securing 20 MPs.

Hung parliament

To reminisce a little more (c'mon, I've been covering politics for a wee while, give a guy a break), I recall when David Steel enthused his Liberals by sending them home to their constituencies . . . to prepare for government. (The built-in pause was part of the effect.)

The Salmond message is a little different. Go home to your constituences . . . and prepare for a hung parliament.

Might be said to lack a little punch. I dissent. I believe that it is a sensible strategy from an SNP perspective.

Like most such strategies, it is born of necessity.

Nationalists are facing two taunts from their opponents in advance of the coming UK General election.

Taunt one: that they would favour the election of a Conservative government - because said Tories would be likely to have only a handful of MPs from Scotland at most, thus highlighting a claimed democratic deficit and assisting the cause of independence.

Taunt two: that SNP votes are irrelevant at a Westminster General Election because the Nationalists are in no position to form a UK government.

Serious players

Of the two, the second is more potent.

Privately, Nationalists know they have to prevent such a thought from gaining salience in the voters' minds particularly in an election where the two largest parties, Labour and Tory, will be keen to stress that they, and only they, are serious players.

The Salmond strategy addresses both taunts, simultaneously.

Firstly, the offer is potentially there for whichever party forms the next UK government.

Whomsoever the Queen invites, the Nationalists would seek to influence, should they have the clout.

That will be Mr Salmond's answer to the "Tory taunt". He will say that his stated preference is for a hung parliament.

The Nationalists, incidentally, point to polling evidence which suggests that people favour such a curb on power, particularly in the light of experience at Holyrood.

At the same time, challenged as to relevance, Mr Salmond will say - and is saying - that the Nationalists could be in a position to lever gains for Scotland at Westminster, if given the chance by the voters.

Budget measures

What is the SNP offering? No coalition: they wouldn't offer, the UK parties wouldn't countenance.

Rather case by case support: in particular, on the budget measures which are certain to follow the next UK election.

What would they want? Again case by case but, most immediately, action to ameliorate spending issues in Scotland.

For example, the release of money held in Whitehall from the fossil fuel levy.

They would also press for a role for the Scottish government in future international events: a role presently denied in, for example, the forthcoming Copenhagen climate summit.

Would they go further and demand, for example, the cancellation of Trident? My information is that would be seen as pushing it somewhat, overplaying the hand.

Would the big UK parties play? They would do almost anything rather than be dependent on the votes of the SNP.

Further, they will argue volubly that the SNP remains irrelevant to the future governance of the UK.

But, Mr Salmond will counter, the electoral arithmetic might dictate otherwise.

As in the 1970s, the outcome will rest with the voters. Not with the calculations and stratagems of politicians, however skilled.

The plebiscite to end all plebiscites

Brian Taylor | 16:36 UK time, Thursday, 8 October 2009


There is a story told about the previous Labour/LibDem coalition.

Labour Ministers were getting increasingly frustrated at what they saw as a lack of discipline on the part of their coalition chums.

In the interests of open politics, Jim Wallace, the former Liberal Democrat leader, invited a Labour cabinet colleague to attend a LibDem group meeting.

On thus witnessing the customary blend of hard politics and quasi-anarchy, the Labour colleague opined: "Well, Jim, you must be one hard b . . . d to lead that lot!"

The leadership of the LibDems may have changed, twice, since then. But the customary, cheery blend is still to the fore.

At the Bournemouth conference, before and since, Tavish Scott has found it simply impossible to persuade some in his party to shut up about the issue of an independence referendum.

Mr Scott it was who took a notably hard line against the referendum when the LibDems considered the prospect of a coalition with the SNP after the 2007 Holyrood elections.


Mr Scott it is who remains resolutely opposed to such a plebiscite.

He says that he is not inclined to assist with implementing the policy of a rival party, particularly when it is designed to lead to an outcome, independence, which the LibDems condemn.

But there remain LibDems - both in the Holyrood group and across Scotland as a whole - who believe in a referendum: either because they support the concept of popular decision-making or because, tactically, an early referendum could close the issue down.

Today's announcement by the LibDems that they are to review their policy on a referendum should be seen in light of the above.

The leadership wants to curtail this debate, internally - not precipitate a U-turn.
Ross Finnie has been asked to instigate a review.

That will go to a private debate at the party's autumn conference at the end of this month.

It is Tavish Scott's hope that this will allow those who oppose his strategy to have their say in the full and frank exchange which a private debate will permit.

Cul de sac

He hopes that, defeated, they then turn their attention to other matters.

This reminds me to some extent of the debate held by the SNP on whether to back a Yes/Yes vote in the 1997 devolution referendum.

Then, there were voices arguing that devolution was a con, a cul de sac.

Key difference. The SNP held that debate in public at, as I recall, a National Council meeting in Perth.

The leadership policy of backing the Yes campaign was overwhelmingly supported.

But there's more. Ross Finnie insists that he is instigating a wide-ranging review.

This will encompass attitudes to the existing referendum proposal, alternative strategies - plus a look at what might happen should another party row in behind the idea of a plebiscite.

Private meeting

That wider discussion could involve a look at preparing the ground for the terms upon which the LibDems might, in future, countenance a referendum.

Do I think the LibDems will back a referendum now? No, they will back Mr Scott.

I feel sure that outcome will be relayed to us from the private meeting.

Do I think there will eventually be a referendum? Yes.

'OK pal, outside, now'

Brian Taylor | 13:00 UK time, Thursday, 8 October 2009


Iain Gray was granted a fifth question at Holyrood today by a benevolent presiding officer.

Bet Mr Gray wishes now that he'd stuck at four.

In response to that bonus inquisition, Mr Salmond noted drolly that he had faced three Labour leaders in the chamber and, given today's performance, might be on course to cope with a fourth.

The extra question had been added because PO ALex Fergusson felt the first minister was posing challenges to his Labour opponent - instead of the other way round.

In classic fashion, Mr Salmond deployed the extra exchange to launch the sharpest attack of all.

Mr Gray's questions concerned the issue of the FM paying council tax upon Bute House, his official residence in Edinburgh.

It started well with the Labour leader reminding the chamber of a previous SNP attack upon erstwhile FMs for failing to stump up council tax on the Adam-designed mansion, conveyed to the National Trust by the Marquess of Bute.

Public debate

Why hadn't the SNP kept its promise? Alex Salmond then read out a substantial list of reasons laid down by officials - and noted the Scottish government paid 10 times more in business rates.

Mr Gray then diverted into other issues: London expenses for the FM and a repeated challenge to a public debate.

During the latter exchange, Mr Gray gestured with his arms in a fashion which seemed to say: "Come and have a go if you think you're hard enough."

Or, in demotic parlance, "OK, pal, ootside".

It was vigorous stuff - but Mr Salmond seemed notably unflustered. Quite the reverse, in fact.

Then came that fifth question.

The big freeze

Brian Taylor | 14:08 UK time, Tuesday, 6 October 2009


Austerity election, anyone? Customarily, a party manifesto contains a list of promises.

The next batch will feature a range of warnings. Stand by for competitive gloom.

The big new idea at the Conservative conference in Manchester was a pay freeze in the public sector.

Or it would have been new if Labour hadn't announced something comparable the night before.

There are differences. Chancellor Alistair Darling announced a freeze for senior staff with very low rises for others.

It wouldn't affect members of the armed forces or those on multiple-year deals. His shadow, George Osborne, signalled a freeze for all in 2011 - except those earning less than £18,000 and military personnel serving in Afghanistan.

Still, the Tories thought it was a bit sneaky of the UK government to make a significant announcement during their conference.

Trust funds

Might it not have shown more courage, they added, to hand out the tough news during Labour's own gig?

But there was more from Mr Osborne: sharp cuts in Whitehall back office spending, cuts at Westminster, moves to limit child trust funds to the poorest - plus an accelerated rise in the pension age to 66, trailed in advance.

Impact on Scotland? Absolutely. Pensions, tax and pay intentions affect Scotland directly.

The potential cuts in Whitehall spending translate indirectly via Barnett.

Given the level of borrowing and the state of the public finances, whoever wins the 2010 UK election will be obliged to impose restraint or hike taxes or both, not least to placate watchful global markets.

Via Barnett, that filters down to spending restraint in Scotland. The Barnett formula, of course, works both ways.

Scotland gets a fixed percentage of annual increases in comparable Whitehall departmental budgets: those which cover devolved functions.

In exactly the same way, Scotland takes a proportionate share of cuts. Which means that the 2011 Holyrood elections will be fought against a background of shrinking public spending.

The Goldie conundrum

Brian Taylor | 13:34 UK time, Monday, 5 October 2009


Herewith a Monday conundrum for you.

At the Conservative conference in Manchester, they liked Annabel Goldie's speech.

They chuckled from time to time. They applauded still more frequently.

But the bits they liked most were the attack lines - whereas the most significant, lasting message was one of conciliation.

Policy announcements, there were - protection for whistleblowers in the NHS, support for business start-ups.

Those received decent support from the hall, commensurate perhaps with an acknowledgement of the Tories' relatively modest strength in the Scottish Parliament.

Again, though, the lines that got them going were more fundamental, more gutsy. They applauded enthusiastically when Miss Goldie declared: "We believe in Britain, not narrow nationalism."

'No way'

Miss Goldie received warmer applause still when she condemned the notion of "wrenching Scotland out of a successful and strong relationship with the rest of Britain."

The mustered representatives cheered as the Scottish Tory leader added, for emphasis: "Absolutely not. No way." (To get the effect, try reading that line aloud in Annabel's distinctive tones. Go on, nobody's watching.)

So we've got it. Alex Salmond's a perfect pest. A beast who wants to wreck Britain. Annabel Goldie will "fight tooth and nail" against Mr Salmond's vision.

Indeed, she appealed to him to abandon his "obsession" with independence.

I expect that, duly chastened, Mr Salmond is already preparing to shelve the essential objective which his party has sought since its foundation seventy five years ago.

But back to that conundrum. Alongside this rhetoric, Miss Goldie stated: "If he is elected, David Cameron has pledged a relationship of mutual respect between our British and Scottish Governments."

What's that? Respect for the wrecker, for the would-be destroyer of Britain? Respect for a Scottish government run by a party whose views on the constitution are "extreme" and "narrow"?

'All right?'

Yes, absolutely. And here's why. Miss Goldie boldly declared that she will return more Tory MPs from Scotland at the next UK General Election.

Given that the current tally is one - count him, one - that may not seem like a particularly challenging target.

But, of course, it is. Here in Manchester, the Tories can barely restrain themselves from doing a Kinnock, Sheffield vintage, and yelling: "Are you all right?!!!"

They expect, firmly, to win. They had to be reminded by William Hague that they need a substantial swing in their favour - and that the voting system or, more accurately, the distribution of seats favours their opponents.

Chill, he said. Calm down. No complacency. A task which, in Scotland, is considerably easier not least because there are relatively few seats which look like going their way, not least because the existing Labour vote has other places to go or may hold up.

So, if David Cameron is chosen as First Lord of the Treasury in Her Majesty's United Kingdom, then he may well find that he still has very limited support in Scotland, perhaps a handful of MPs at best.

Mr Cameron is alert to that challenge - and has signalled that he would seek a compact with the first minister.

Reserved matters

In Manchester, I'm hearing one or two grumbles that Team Cameron isn't fully alert to the extent of the problem. Not sure about that: for me, he is at the very least addressing the issue with seriousness and diligence.

The basis of the compact would be that D. Cameron, prime minister, would keep out of Scottish devolved, domestic politics while inviting A.Salmond, first minister, to reciprocate with regard to reserved UK matters.

That is why Miss Goldie talked of "mutual respect". It would be a two-way deal.

So here's the rub? Would Alex Salmond co-operate? My sense is that he would pursue his present broad strategy while using the opportunities which the emergency of a Tory government might present.

To recall, the present strategy is to govern sensibly and modestly within the limits of devolution while concomitantly inviting the voters to infer how much better things could be with the full powers of independence.

With occasional, excitable exceptions, I believe Mr Salmond has stuck to that strategy.

Rivals, of course, may dispute the policy choices made: Miss Goldie objected today to universally free prescriptions.

Sceptical public

But, mostly, SNP ministers have worked within the ambit of devolution rather than mounting a sustained, permanent protest about the limitations of power.

Not from lack of ambition or fear but from calculation: they believe this is the best way to convince a sceptical Scottish public to grant the SNP their longer-term objective of independence.

I do not believe that would change fundamentally under a Conservative UK government.

Yes, there would be a campaigning opportunity for Mr Salmond to object that the Tories would be governing Scotland with perhaps only a few seats north of the Border.

But that would be a political debating point, not a pointer to the nature of governance. I do not believe that SNP ministers would, for example, refuse to work with a Tory administration.

That, if you like, would be "picking endless fights with London", the accusation which customarily comes Mr Salmond's way.

Rather, I think that the essential, underlying strategy would remain in place.

Spending cuts

However, there might well be more opportunity for political point-scoring. That might particularly prove to be the case if or rather when the cuts in public expenditure start to emerge.

Arguably, though, that would be the case whichever party holds power at Westminster.

John Swinney is scarcely holding back now from issuing complaints about the settlement forthcoming from the Labour-run Treasury.

As to choosing between other parties, I believe that Mr Salmond primarily views his rivals in terms of their adherence to the Union rather than their tilt to right or left.

That may exasperate his opponents - but the clue is in the title of his party. He is a Nationalist.

Still, might the prospect of a Tory government open up further such opportunities for the SNP?

Is Alex Salmond thereby salivating at the prospect of a Tory victory, as his Labour rivals suggest?

'Settled will'

Perhaps, to some extent. But think. Does that seriously mean that devolution only works if Labour are in power at the UK level? Does that mean that the "settled will" of the Scottish people, as expressed in the Scotland Act 1998, contains within it the seeds of the inevitable destruction of the UK?

Think again. There is no back-door route to independence. Alex Salmond may well seek to exploit, to some extent, the emergence of a UK Conservative government allied to the spending restraint which looks inevitable.

But, ultimately, he and others know that independence will only happen if and when the people of Scotland palpably and demonstrably vote for it.

I believe, in conclusion, that Alex Salmond would seek to sustain his underlying, relatively cautious strategy in the event of a Conservative victory - while, at the same time, condemning the Tories and all their works.

That is what happens when partisan politics and the exigencies of governance collide.

That is his version of the Goldie conundrum.

Trusting the trust

Brian Taylor | 13:23 UK time, Thursday, 1 October 2009


We know the key personnel. Sir Angus Grossart has been reappointed as chairman of the Scottish Futures Trust.

The existing four non-exec directors also stay in post.

However, opposition parties remain resolutely sceptical about the role to be enacted by the SFT.

Labour's Johann Lamont is strong on scepticism. When she is challenging the SNP, her face, her voice, her entire demeanour suggest that she regards her rivals as intrinsically untrustworthy.

In response, the deputy first minister, Nicola Sturgeon can be equally direct. Her tactic is to retaliate early and often, pre-empting attacks where possible.

The two faced each other at Holyrood today, deputising for Alex Salmond and Iain Gray who were both attending the funeral of Bill Speirs.

The topic? School building and the role of the SFT. As expected, the exchanges were robust and the debate sharp.

Few schools

Indeed, in BBC Scotland's live coverage, Alan Cochrane of the Telegraph was moved to comment that the substitutes had, collectively, performed better than the regulars.

Ms Lamont attacked, accusing SNP ministers of sanctioning relatively few new schools.

Ms Sturgeon countered, arguing that the SNP administration had been lumbered with umpteen schools in dreadful condition and was making substantial progress.

At one point, Alex Fergusson in the chair once more showed his renewed determination to keep FMQs participants in check.

He gently reminded Ms Sturgeon that she had not answered one direct point from Ms Lamont - on the subject of the futures trust.

And so back to that. Ms Sturgeon said the trust was closely involved in schools and other projects, ensuring best practice and value.

It would seem, however, the role has altered somewhat from the original ambitions which talked of the trust as, ultimately, a funding source via bonds and other devices.

On track

To be fair, the business plan for the SFT also envisaged an agency role, co-ordinating efforts across the public sector to drive down costs and find innovative methods of financing projects.

Its second envisaged role was to take part in governance arrangements: basically, keeping projects on track.

Role three was more direct participation in funding, potentially as an asset owner or finance conduit.

At this stage, it would seem that the emphasis is presently more on roles one and two, less on role three.

In short, though, as the business plan noted, "the SFT's success will be measured against the value for money benefits it achieves."


PS: May I record, once more, my sympathy and respect to the family of Bill Speirs?

I knew him and covered him in sundry roles: STUC leader, poverty campaigner, Home Rule activist especially via the Convention and Scotland United.

At all points, his contribution was substantial and serious, delivered with a useful leavening of mischievous humour. He will be much missed.

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