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Archives for November 2009

Taking it to the max

Brian Taylor | 12:53 UK time, Monday, 30 November 2009


In the event, it felt more tactical than evangelical.

The launch of the Scottish government white paper on independence, that is.

Alex Salmond knows extremely well the constituency that is roused by stirring talk of freedom.

Mostly, they are already supporters of the party he leads.

He also knows full well that, to secure a referendum featuring independence, he has to persuade others, firstly at Holyrood, to endorse such a ballot.

Have a glance at the White Paper online - but it is a substantive government document, drawn up by broadly the same civil service team who produced the initial consultation paper published when Mr Salmond first took power.

It canvasses what Scotland does/might look like under four scenarios: the status quo, limited further devolution as per the Calman Commission, devolution max and independence.

World standing

Building upon already published Government papers, it tests these four options against issues such as the economy, energy, defence, foreign policy, benefits.

It will come as no great surprise to regular readers of this blog that the SNP government concludes that independence provides the best option for improving Scotland's economy and building her standing in the world.

The clue lies in the ambition which they have pursued since they were founded seventy plus years ago.

Back to that tactical element, though. Mr Salmond has delivered his share of rousing rhetoric on independence.

He knows the buttons to press. In government, however, he would rather make progress than speeches.

Hence the explicit pitch at the close of the White Paper to others who favour alternatives to indepence.

Intriguingly, as disclosed previously on this site, ministers don't think that Calman quite fits that template.

Enhanced devolution

They note, correctly, that those advocating Calman (or its variants) do not intend themselves to subject it to a referendum.

If we are, though, to have a multi-option referendum (independence versus enhanced devolution), then Mr Salmond suggested that Calman might work, if his rivals argued for it.

However, as forecast here, he appeared notably warmer towards the option of pitting independence against what he called devolution max.

For two fairly obvious reasons.

One, it would mean that the fallback position would feature more clout and thus would be more appealing to Nationalists.

Two, it might be conceivable that the Liberal Democrats might be tempted, in future, to subject their preference for devo max to such a multi-option plebiscite.

Not now. Certainly not now. Tavish Scott is resolutely opposed to such a ballot in 2010, arguing that it would be a costly waste of time in a recession.

Coalition deal?

Mr Salmond's tactical hope is that things could change after the next Holyrood elections in 2011.

What if, he imagines, the Lib Dems have posited devo max in their manifesto for those elections?

Could that form the basis for a coalition deal - or a compact to hold a plebiscite?

Maybe, maybe. Although Mr Scott sounds notably hostile, describing Mr Salmond as leading "a minority SNP with a majority ego".

Still, nothing stays the same forever. As of today, therein lies the SNP strategy.

Talking drink

Brian Taylor | 11:27 UK time, Thursday, 26 November 2009


"Twelve and a tanner a bottle That's what it's costin' today".

Thus, the late great Will Fyffe on the subject of alcohol pricing. Will is, of course, better known for trilling "I belong to Glasgow".

The star was actually born in Dundee. In his hit song, he assumed the character of a genial drunk he had met in a chance encounter outside Central Station in the Dear Green Place.

But back to the prize of booze. Will went further on the subject.

"Twelve and a tanner a bottle Man, it taks a' yer pleasure away "Afore ye can hae a wee drappie You have to spend a' that you've got."

There it is. Sung from the stage of a thousand music halls and theatres.

The close potential connection between price and consumption. The ditty apparently reflects, ruefully, upon a hike in the price of whisky.

At Holyrood, Labour has conceded that there is such a connection. Jackie Baillie said as much when the topic was debated in parliament.

Broader bill

Dr Richard Simpson writes as much in The Scotsman today.

Yet Labour has decided to vote against the Scottish government's proposal for a minimum unit price on alcohol in a bill to be published today.

They may well still vote for the broader bill in principle at stage one - but would then seek to delete the minimum pricing element at stage two, in committee.

For Dr Simpson, in particular, it has apparently been a journey of discovery. The MSP started out intuitively supportive of minimum pricing, based upon his hospital experience of the damage which excessive alcohol consumption can cause.

However, Labour, including Dr Simpson, has concluded that this particular plan wouldn't work: that it wouldn't provide sufficient deterrent to those with the greatest alcohol problems, that it is too broad a brush and that it may be illegal.

There is the Buckfast Question. Labour says that a moderate minimum price, as envisaged during the consultation, wouldn't increase the price of Buckfast, the tipple of choice for certain social streams in the west of Scotland.

Ministers say Buckfast represents less than one per cent of alcohol consumption.

Counter argument

Further, Labour argues that hiking drink prices would simply add to supermarket profits without providing revenue which could be used by Scottish authorities to fund action against alcohol abuse.

Logically, it is possible to pose a counter argument to that.

Ministers would say that the objective is quite the contrary: it is to drive sales down by increasing price.

They say minimum pricing would deter "loss leader" promotions by retailers.

Labour lodges further objections. They say that ministers have failed to produce the formal advice guaranteeing the legality of their plan, despite repeated prompting.

They say further that the government has yet to specify the minimum price which would be levied. That complaint strikes me as somewhat disingenuous.

It is common practice for a bill to provide the basic legal principle - with the numerical detail provided by subsequent order.

Unit price

That allows such numerical detail to be altered relatively expeditiously with the passage of time.

In any case, if that were Labour's objection, then presumably they would have waited for Ministers to pronounce the chosen minimum unit price (they have indicated they favour 40p) before making up their minds.

It is important to stress that the Tories and Liberal Democrats are also against the bill, on pragmatic grounds.

The Tories in particular stress a further factor.

They are concerned about the impact upon the Scotch whisky trade.

The fear is that other countries might seize upon the precedent of a hike in prices here to impose punitive duties upon the export of Scotch.

Given the jobs involved here in Scotland, that is, at the very least, an important concern to bear in mind.

Issue debated

Ministers complain that Labour has jumped too soon - without providing any alternative.

They say opposition parties should have listened to the evidence which will now be submitted to Holyrood committee hearings.

They have a point - but not, I feel, an overweening one.

This issue has already been debated and discussed in Scotland for around a year. MSPs have been besieged with information and ideas.

Among that barrage has been overwhelming support from the medical profession for minimum pricing.

Doctors, including the chief medical advisers to government, say the plan would force up the price of low-cost "problem" drinks - with discernible health gains.

Further, senior police officers are supporting the use of price deterrence as a mechanism.

Stephen House, the chief constable of Strathclyde Police, says his officers see "the devastation caused by cheap, strong alcohol each and every day".

More measures

SNP ministers point out, reasonably, that they lack the power to alter alcohol duty as that is reserved to Westminster.

They insist their plans are within the law - and would work. They challenge their critics to produce other ideas.

Of course, today's bill contains more than minimum pricing.

There's action to counter deeply discounted promotions and other measures including a proposal to enable the levying of social responsibility fees upon retailers in individual areas, in individual circumstances.

Labour has now set up a commission to examine options. If that endeavour is to be seen as valid, it will have to address the arguments put forward by the doctors and the police.

Party leaders say they have by no means ruled out using price-sensitive mechanisms - such as that responsibility fee or perhaps a local sales tax which might generate productive revenue.

Ministers say they will press ahead with their plans, hoping that the evidence produced at Holyrood will sweep objections aside.

Let's give Will Fyffe the last word.

"How can a fella be happy When happiness costs such a lot."

Getting on with it

Brian Taylor | 11:22 UK time, Wednesday, 25 November 2009


UPDATE: tax and timing.

On tax, the 10p plan gets the go-ahead from the UK government.

As billed here, they'd base it initially upon advance forecast tax revenues rather than actual revenues.

Controversial issue with the borrowing power. Calman said prudential capital borrowing should be permitted.

The Murphy statement says yes to that - but with the proviso that such borrowing should be funded by an increase in Scottish taxation.

The SNP say that's a "con": that such borrowing could, alternatively, be funded by paring costs from revenue expenditure.

They say it's a way of preventing implementation.

To be frank, there are voices here at Holyrood from other parties who are of a similar opinion. They wonder how workable such a scheme is.

Borrowing increase

From the Treasury perspective, this is a way of containing and constraining public borrowing overall.

The Treasury argues that any increase in borrowing must be matched by a palpable increase in revenue: not just by imprecise promises to vary existing spending.

On timing, the Calman Commission parties are now plainly diverging.

Labour says: act, but after the next election - when they may or may not be in power. The Liberal Democrats say: act now, produce a bill.

'Act now'

As for the Tories, it would appear - as forecast here earlier - that those who advocate sending a signal of early action on Calman have lost out.

David Cameron is backing the principle of devolving further taxation powers to Holyrood - but won't commit to early legislation.

The view of the leader and those around him is that there are other priorities.

Further, they won't commit to the white paper as set out today. They plan their own white paper which, self-evidently, opens the perspective of different decisions.

As for the Scottish government, they say: act now on the issues where there is agreement.

All up, this is largely turning into a dry run for the arguments which will be advanced at the forthcoming UK General election.

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So. This Calman business. What's occurring?

We're standing by for a Commons statement from the Scottish Secretary Jim Murphy - plus a slew of reaction.

But this much we know. Mr Murphy will publish a white paper endorsing most of the proposals drawn up by the Calman Commission on further powers for the Scottish Parliament.

On individual taxes, I expect him to support devolving stamp duty land tax, aggregates levy and landfill tax. Those taxes would fall under Holyrood control.

I expect him to oppose devolving air passenger duty. I expect him to support new powers for Holyrood to set the drink driving rules and the national speed limit. I expect him to back the devolution of control over air guns.

On income tax, I expect broad support for the Calman plan to oblige Holyrood to set a tax rate, varied according to MSPs spending wishes.

This scheme has been examined in close detail by the Treasury - and ultimately accepted.

Bock grant

Under the Calman plan, the Treasury would start by cutting the standard and upper rates of income tax in Scotland - and cutting the Scottish block grant accordingly.

MSPs would then decide. If they fix upon a 10p tax rate from Scotland, then the block grant would be restored in full.

If they levy less in tax, they get less from the Treasury. If they levy more upon Scottish taxpayers, then they have more to spend as a consequence.

They can't alter the gap between standard and upper rates.

Supporters say it increases the accountability of the Scottish Parliament, forcing MSPs to take decisions annually on tax.

I expect Nationalist critics to say that it would leave Scottish spending vulnerable to changes in, for example, tax allowances over which Holyrood would still have no control.

They'll advocate full fiscal autonomy.

Budget stability

To counter that, I wouldn't be at all surprised if today's announcement by Mr Murphy featured interim arrangements in order to ensure relative stability in the budget available to Scotland - especially in these recessionary times when tax receipts are likely to fluctuate.

I also expect Mr Murphy to endorse capital borrowing powers for the Scottish Government - although, once again, I wouldn't be surprised if there was a caveat in the shape of a control mechanism to ensure that the repayment of such borrowing is funded.

That could be controversial.

There will be more, much more: for example, on Calman's proposals for enhancing inter-Government and inter-parliamentary links.

Likely reaction? This will focus upon timing. Mike Russell, the SNP's constitutional affairs minister, will deride the decision by the UK government to defer any movement on Calman until after the General Election.

UK ministers say the election is due in the spring and it is unreasonable to expect the package to be implemented by then.

Mr Russell will say much of the content - such as parliamentary liaison and control over airguns - is uncontentious and could be enacted early.

Middle way

He will argue that, philosophically, Calman is now the status quo. Not, in short, worthy of submitting to the voters in a referendum.

The Liberal Democrats will say: get on with it. They will voice impatience at delay, arguing there should be a bill now, not solely a white paper.

And the Tories? They have been divided roughly in three: between those who want to signal early action as a sign of their commitment to Scotland, those who think it's a reasonable notion but not a priority after more than a decade in opposition at Westminster and those who think the entire plan is nonsense.

Expect the middle way. They'll say they back the concept of Calman - but would require to draft their own white paper.

In similar vein, they won't commit to a timetable.

More later.

Coming home

Brian Taylor | 12:06 UK time, Tuesday, 24 November 2009


Did you hear Philip Riddle on the wireless this morning?

Boy, did he do his job in emphasising the glories of Scotland, as witnessed by the Homecoming initiative.

The Gathering? Which lost money for private backers?

It was wonderful, glorious, a great success.

The final concert? Which has had to be scaled back? Great, superb, top of the range.

Mr Riddle is chief executive of VisitScotland, which presupposes a cheery, upbeat outlook.

But he now believes he has figures to back up his eager enthusiasm.

Funding problem

From a budget of £5.5m, it is estimated the Year of Homecoming will achieve its aim of raising £44m.

The figure so far - with roughly a quarter of the sums done - is £19.4m.

OK, so visitor numbers from North America are down by 20%. In the rest of the UK, they're down 24%. The Homecoming dividend?

Plus more folk are coming to Scotland from Europe and the remainder of the UK. The recession dividend?

Two things. It is entirely right to find out what happened to the funding of the Gathering.

It is entirely right, indeed essential, to ask awkward questions and expect answers.

But, looking forward, it is surely right to build upon the Homecoming spirit.

Disdain heritage

Nations should use their strengths. Scotland has a potential strength in history, heritage and our diaspora.

I have little patience with those who urge that we disdain heritage in favour of a more modern image.

Yes, by all means tell the world about biotechnology and computer games.

But never forget that umpteen other nations are in these fields too.

Heritage can give us an edge, a USP that can get us a responsive audience - who might then listen to our other attributes.

Under pressure

Brian Taylor | 13:47 UK time, Monday, 23 November 2009


Isn't that an intriguing development, those eight west of Scotland councils being urged to consider sharing resources and back-office provision?

Stand by for more, much more, of the same as the impact of inevitable cuts in public spending is felt.

This type of initiative has been under consideration for some time, most notably when the former Labour minister Tom McCabe was quietly pressing for such changes.

The impetus has increased with the advent of a new Scottish Government and increased pressure upon cash.

Should we go further and attempt local council reorganisation: boundary changes, perhaps?

Longer term, that might well save more money. Do we really need 32 directors of this and that, with attendant staff? Could we, for example, get by with fewer police forces?

Snag is that in the short to medium term such top-down change can tend to create problems, rather than solve them. It can create unhappy, rebellious, workforces.

'Magnificent goals'

It can generate a defensive attitude.

Can we, then, generate savings without, in the first instance, going down the road of overall structural change?

Can the existing public sector be conjoined to produce new, cheaper ways of doing things?

To repeat, the extent of the challenge is big - and about to get much, much bigger.

Just read that remarkable Audit Scotland report, warning of cuts in spending of 7-13% in real terms.

PS: What a result at Tannadice on Sunday!

What a football team! What magnificent goals! Craig, just say no to Hampden: you know it makes sense.

'Just say no'

Brian Taylor | 13:04 UK time, Thursday, 19 November 2009


Perhaps it was the presence of Willie Bain, smiling wanly in the public gallery, but today's Labour/SNP exchanges at first minister's questions seemed notably antagonistic.

Mr Bain, of course, is a living, grinning reminder that Labour thumped the SNP in the Glasgow North East by-election.

Today, like an invited Banquo, he hovered over the pre-lunch feast of oratory that is the weekly question session.

Labour's Holyrood leader Iain Gray has not perhaps been universally successful in upsetting First Minister Alex Salmond in these exchanges.

So he made the most of Banquo Bain.

Mr Salmond, apparently, was "losing it".

Losing touch with reality, losing the support of business and the unions - and, above all, losing it on the streets of Glasgow NE.

Dual mandate

At which point, he welcomed the bold Willie. Labour MSPs cheered. They yelled. They crowed.

Helen Eadie even waved, maternally, to the new MP.

Perhaps Mr Salmond was temporarily discomfited. Not sure he should have made a gag about Willie Bain seeking a "dual mandate" with his Holyrood visit.

A collective growl arose from the opposition benches: a bit like the racket when the orcs first appear, defiant and furious, in Lord of the Rings.

Said growl reminded us that the one with the dual mandate, pending the next Westminster election, is Alex Salmond MP MSP.

In fact, take that back. The FM definitely shouldn't have made a reference to dual mandates.

Still, Mr Salmond rallied splendidly. After batting economic stats back and forth with Mr Gray, he closed by addressing the "losing it" charge.

'Young and ambitious'

He suggested, deftly, that the problem for the Labour leader was a widespread public perception that "he never had it in the first place."

PS: En passant, Annabel Goldie referred obliquely to the vacant post of Scotland football manager.

Touchy subject for me as a lifelong Arab when United's Craig Levein is said to be the hot tip.

Craig, just say no. You're young and ambitious. Better to build your profile at Tannadice than jeopardise it at Hampden.

Devolution as evolution

Brian Taylor | 14:33 UK time, Wednesday, 18 November 2009


It must be frustrating to the purist and the partisan but changes to Scotland's constitution have tended to come about via circuitous routes.

The final choice, of course, pursues a relatively simple path: the people accede, either at an election or a referendum or both.

However, the preparation is frequently complex, reflecting competing priorities and demands.

Think of the present devolved Parliament. Scotland said Yes - just - in 1979 to a different form of devolution.

That was thwarted by an unprecedented and unrepeated constraint upon the voters.

The Constitutional Convention then laboured lengthily in the absence of the SNP who had - understandably, given their long-term perspective - declined to support a process which was designed to preclude the option of independence.

But then the SNP decided to campaign alongside the devolution parties for a Yes/Yes vote at the referendum: a plebiscite which, itself, had been hugely controversial when announced but is now widely viewed as an essential precursor to securing the necessary Westminster legislation and embedding the new devolved parliament.

Same side

That route may have seemed faintly tortuous and, on occasion, without end.

But it was arguably the only way by which parties espousing completely different views of Scotland's constitutional future could end up on the same side in a referendum.

The Scottish people liked what they saw and assented, overwhelmingly.

Now, 10 years on, we have similarly tortuous politics ahead. We have a Queen's Speech which promises to "take forward proposals in the final report of the Commission on Scottish devolution".

That is the Calman Commission.

However, "taking forward" does not mean enacting - at least not this side of the next UK General Election, expected in May.

It means publishing a white paper. Action on Calman may fall to Labour or to the Tories (also Calman members) or to a hung Parliament to consider further.

Referendum test

At Holyrood, we are shortly to have a white paper from the Scottish government on how an independent Scotland might shape up.

But opposition from rival parties - who say the recessionary time is not ripe - means that these proposals are highly unlikely to be put to the test in a referendum, at least before the next Scottish Parliament elections in 2011.

Frustration, then? Stasis? Deadlock? Not necessarily.

Once these white papers are published, Scots will have before them - with, one hopes, some degree of clarity - alternative visions of how their country might proceed in the field of self-governance.

There can then follow debate, discussion and, eventually, decision.

Remember, devolution resembles evolution. Just takes longer.

Wise warning

Brian Taylor | 11:01 UK time, Monday, 16 November 2009


It is a small, but thoroughly worthwhile, step for a man. Giant leaps may take a little longer to arrange.

I am talking, admittedly somewhat obliquely, of Alex Salmond's visit to Euro Finance week in Frankfurt.
There he will meet the president of the European Central Bank, Jean-Claude Trichet, plus other eminent financiers and politicians.

His visit, of course, comes in the aftermath of the tribulations visited upon Scotland's banks and financial sector.

I was particularly struck by the warning given to Holyrood by Jeremy Peat.

Mr Peat, formerly a senior economist with RBS, told Parliament's economy committee that he feared the "centre of gravity" in banking and finance would shift from Edinburgh to London.

Severe setbacks

A wise warning. We are social animals. We, mostly, perform best when we experience the counsel and the competition of those engaged in broadly the same activity.

Plus, of course, there are pragmatic matters such as the availability of diverse skills in a cluster. Reduce the cluster and you thin the skills.

Mr Salmond, of course, knows that only too well. He has also argued, repeatedly, that we should be wary of talking down the entire Scottish financial sector on the basis of admittedly severe setbacks in large-scale banking.

Let us remember, too, that other parts of the world have suffered substantially in the financial crisis.

We are not alone, not uniquely damaged. Collectively, let us strive to repair such damage as has been done.

All to play for?

Brian Taylor | 12:48 UK time, Friday, 13 November 2009


For Labour, an excellent result. A comprehensive victory over their most bitter rivals, the SNP.

Almost as thorough a gubbing as United inflicted on the Dark Blues in their "friendly" on Tuesday.

Is Gordon Brown, then, a shoe-in to return to Downing Street as PM rather than occasional dinner guest? Behave yourself.

Is it, then, "game on" for the General Election, as the new MP Willie Bain (to whom congratulations) suggested?

Understandable exuberance from the newly elected one - but an extrapolation too far.

It will give Labour hope that they can forestall Alex Salmond's aim of 20 Scottish seats.

But, more generally, Labour will not be facing the SNP in the English swing seats they need to win.

Further, there may be more residual sympathy and support for Gordon Brown in Scotland than south of the border.

So, if it doesn't predict the UK General Election, what does it tell us?

Firstly, it confirms that the previously buoyant SNP are vulnerable to tough campaigning. (Confirms? Remember Glenrothes.)

Labour fought this by-election in a relentlessly oppositional fashion.

They listed the iniquities supposedly visited upon Glasgow by the Scottish government.

Or, as they repeatedly called it, "the Edinburgh SNP government."

See Glasgow? See Edinburgh? That mantra plays to every intuitive grievance within the population of the Dear Green Place.

It is a single transferable prejudice.

In vain did the SNP protest that the accusations were misplaced.

In vain did they try to turn the attack round to complaints about Glasgow Council over schooling.

The Labour attack found a receptive audience.

SNP strategists point to another factor. They say that - unlike in Glasgow East - they couldn't find or motivate sufficient numbers of aspirational voters to conclude that things, in the words of their rival's sometime song, could only get better.

Folk were unhappy. Folk were bitter. Folk were exasperated. But the response was hopelessness and helplessness - rather than anger and a determination to drive change.

Not sure that entirely explains the quite remarkable difference between Glasgow East and Glasgow NE.

But Nationalists are adamant that it was a factor.

What of the respective campaigns? Willie Bain seldom stumbled, cheerfully disowning his own UK government's policies where appropriate.

Without blushing, he declared repeatedly that he was "no politician".

Behind the scenes, the effort was large and sustained.

For the SNP, it sometimes seemed to me that David Kerr was holding back, perhaps fearful of sounding abrasive.

In the various broadcast hustings, it was Ruth Davidson of the Tories (of whom, perhaps, we will now hear more) who appeared to be taking the fight most aggressively to Labour.

Then again, she wasn't facing the ad hominem attacks directed at Mr Kerr. She had less to lose.

In all, this result dents SNP momentum. It buoys Labour. I doubt, however, whether there is a direct, untrammeled read-through from Glasgow NE to the UK General Election or electoral behaviour more generally.

The voters appear to be scunnered with politics: look at the turnout, a record Scottish low in a by-election.

Their trust is still there to be won and lost in a wider contest.

Glasgow North East by-election

Brian Taylor | 22:01 UK time, Thursday, 12 November 2009


UPDATE AT 0213: And so, as billed, a clear victory for Labour.

But bigger than expected, with the Labour vote increasing by more than the SNP.

The BNP came in fourth place - not the anticipated third.

That honour went to Ruth Davidson of the Tories, who is generally thought to have fought a successful campaign.

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UPDATE AT 0045: The SNP's David Kerr has arrived.

Big question for the party is why the seat is so different from Glasgow East, which they won in the summer of 2008.

Party strategists say the big difference is that, in east, they were able to corral aspirational voters and persuade them things could and should be better.

Faced with the hopelessness witnessed in Glasgow North East, that was a much tougher task.

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UPDATE AT 0021: Confirmed turnout is 33.2%. That is the lowest ever in a Scottish by-election.

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UPDATE AT 0018: More still . . .

Seasoned observers at the count from major parties now predicting firmly that the BNP will take third place.

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UPDATE AT 0012: And there's more . . .

Labour's Willie Bain has arrived at the count, looking pretty confident.

Labour now think they may take about 57% of the vote.

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UPDATE AT 2336: More gossip from inside the counting hall.

The first boxes to be counted are from the more deprived, northern part of the constituency.

Looks like Labour is wining comfortably, probably taking more than 50% of the vote.

But boxes from Dennistoun and the southern half could change the pattern.

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UPDATE AT 2318: SNP deputy leader Nicola Sturgeon told BBC Scotland she expected Labour to hold the seat comfortably.

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UPDATE AT 2255: First candidates to arrive in the hall are John Smeaton, hero of Glasow Airport and Mikey Hughes, resplendent in a kilt.

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UPDATE AT 2225: First ballot boxes have arrived in the hall.

Labour camp looking notably happier than the SNP.

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2200:Polling stations closed. We're expecting the result in the Glasgow North East by-election sometime around 00.30 GMT.

Usually, the sole concern is who will win.

In this contest, that looks like a choice between the previously dominant Labour party and the challenging SNP.

This time, though, there is also interest in who comes third.

Folk here at the SECC, where the count is taking place, are wondering whether it is conceivable that the British National Party could oust the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats to take third place.

Stay in touch here or watch the BBC or listen to the wireless to find out.

Who ya gonna call?

Brian Taylor | 12:22 UK time, Wednesday, 11 November 2009


The dole queue has lengthened perceptibly once more.

Unemployment across Scotland rose by 67,000 in the last quarter, compared with the previous year.

And here's the thing. The Glasgow North East constituency area retains its unwanted distinction of having the highest unemployment percentage in Scotland.

There's more. Glasgow NE has the second highest rate of incapacity benefit claims in the UK.

This much we knew. The statistics confirm what the folk in the street have told me repeatedly. They're anxious about joblessness - linked to the attendant crime and disorder.

There are long-term issues to address there. How do we revive the most deprived districts? Does public spending work effectively - or is it partly squandered?

Can jobs be directed to the poorest areas - or does that ultimately fail as the market readjusts?

Can poverty be addressed by reform of the tax system? Or benefits? Or both? How about social enterprise? Might that work better?

'Previous incumbent'

Then, there is a short-term issue - which will undoubtedly exercise the politicians most, at least for now.

Considering the by-election voters, they'll wonder: who ya gonna call? Who will get support in the light of these figures?

For Labour, this ought to be a tough by-election. It is a Westminster contest - and the UK government has not been short of problems of late.

Further, it is an "unnecessary" by-election in that it is caused, not by mortality, but by the elevation of the previous incumbent to the House of Lords.

Folk tend to dislike "unnecessary" by-elections.

Against that, the Labour machine appears to be better organised and better focused than it was during the Glasgow East defeat last year. In that respect, it rather resembles Glenrothes.

So, again, who can convince people they have the answers to today's figures? Is it Labour's Willie Bain who says he will organise a jobs summit, enlisting local employers and others.

'Multiple prejudices'

Mr Bain has fought this by-election like an opposition politician, despite the fact that it is a Westminster contest.

He has targeted what he claims is neglect of Glasgow by what he calls the "Edinburgh" SNP Scottish Government, playing deftly into multiple prejudices at once.

Is is the SNP's David Kerr who says that Labour has run this constituency or its predecessors for 74 years - with no discernible benefit to the citizens?

In particular, he has criticised the record of the Labour local authority.

Is it the Tories' Ruth Davidson who, like Mr Bain, also depicts herself as standing somewhat apart from politics: aware that the profession is in the doghouse.

She argues that this is a British by-election - and that only the Tories can take British power to effect change.

Or is it the LibDems' Eileen Baxendale who says that her experience as a Glasgow social worker equips her to deal with problems of poverty?

She offers tax reform to put more money back in the pockets of the poor.

Or is one of the other candidates standing in this by-election? No forecasts from me.

It is up to the candidates to convince the voters and for the voters to respond.

Gloomy news

Brian Taylor | 13:48 UK time, Tuesday, 10 November 2009


More gloomy news on jobs and the Scottish economy.

The Lloyds Banking Group, which now includes HBOS, is to shed around 1000 Scottish posts - although redeployment may reduce the number of permanents jobs lost to around half that figure.

It follows retrenchment at the Royal Bank of Scotland - with jobs going and to go.

In Glasgow, the city council is preparing to offer voluntary redundancy to staff aged over 50. With an eye to the Westminster by-election in the city, the move has been condemned by the SNP.

The Labour leadership at the council says it has a policy of no compulsory redundancy which will stay in force at least until the end of the fiscal year in March 2010. The policy is annually reviewed.

The council says further that the likely redundancy trawl (it has yet to be formally endorsed) is part of a wider reform package which is intended to shake up what the council does and how it does it.

In Dumfries and Galloway, the local authority has agreed to consult on a package of savings which could, inevitably, mean job losses.

Collectively, Scotland needs to review ways of reviving our economy. Is it to be done primarily by stimulating private enterprise - with all the risks, the attendant ups and downs?

Cutting costs

Or should we continue to place reliance upon our relatively substantial public sector - currently, and for the foreseeable future, beset by pressure to cut costs?

Does the public sector enhance private enterprise - or squeeze the life out of it?

Can we do things differently in the public sector, perhaps in a way which would work more coherently with private business?

Should there be a greater role for the third sector, for social enterprise? Should corporate social responsibility become an intrinsic element of business growth, rather than an adjunct?

Good questions all, when voiced dispassionately. But perhaps rather difficult to hear in the raucous brouhaha which masquerades as political debate.

You will tell me that it is impossible to mount such an analytical discussion while a by-election is pending. I accept that. It has already, and entirely understandably, frozen negotiations over next year's Holyrood budget.

Post Thursday, you may tell me that it is impossible to discuss consensually because there is a UK General Election in the offing. Then there will be elections to the Scottish Parliament. Then . . .

Trust system

Me, I like the sound of the approach being adopted by David Berry, the SNP leader of East Lothian council.

With an eye to spending cuts to come, he asked council officials to "think out of the box."

One idea which emerged - in Mr Berry's "smorgasbord" - was a trust system which would allow schools more control over budgets.

He is adamant that nothing is fixed, nothing settled. He is equally keen to stimulate a coherent debate, free from preconceptions.

David Berry didn't need the realistically gloomy Audit Scotland report to tell him that his local authority budget is tight and getting tighter.

When I chatted to him, he sounded notably - and encouragingly - uninterested in apportioning blame for that.

His concern was with sorting it. It's a fundamental approach which - the partisan row over the Glasgow Airport rail link apart - has been followed by Glasgow's Steven Purcell and some other leaders.

Scotland needs a comparably iconoclastic approach from the entire public and private sector.

The way it's aye been will not be good enough. Not by a mile.

Anything to declare?

Brian Taylor | 14:20 UK time, Monday, 9 November 2009


Are they don't knows? Or won't say? Or couldnae care less?

Those who have yet to declare their allegiance in the Glasgow North East by-election could determine the outcome. If they choose.

Out on the stump with the major parties today, most privately reckon Labour is still clearly in the lead, with polling due on Thursday.

The SNP analysis is that they have recorded a swing in their direction in the past day or so - and could magnify that trend before polling.

The key could lie in differential turnout: can the challengers motivate supporters more than the incumbents?

Plus the issue of those who have yet to state a preference to canvassers.

One SNP insider described it to me thus. Those who won't declare: have they genuinely yet to make up their minds - and are thus open to persuasion?

Or are they habitual Labour voters reluctant, for whatever reason, to state this to Nationalist canvassers?

Or will they absent themselves from the polling stations on Thursday?

Spending challenge looms

Brian Taylor | 13:59 UK time, Thursday, 5 November 2009


It is, I suppose, too much to expect our elected politicians to respond directly and instantaneously to that notably gloomy report from Audit Scotland about the state of Scottish public spending.

For one thing, the extent of the challenge is so huge. For another, there are elections looming: the by-election in Glasgow North East next week, the UK General Election next year.

Doesn't do to frighten the voters with talk of spending cuts - unless, of course, you are talking about the cuts which would inevitably follow in the wake of victory by your wicked opponent.

Sooner or later, though - probably quietly, in private - Scotland collectively will have to address the challenge posed by Audit Scotland.

In short, they say that there will be a tight squeeze on spending levels over the next five years, that efficiency savings alone will not fill the gap and that the public sector in its entirety requires to start thinking about its core priorities with regard to expenditure.

As a start, today's exchanges at Holyrood were far from propitious.

Labour's Iain Gray spotlighted what he suggested was a poor record of attendance by the first minister at the Financial Services Advisory Board, or FiSAB.

Considered as a hit against the FM, it was reasonably effective on the day. Alex Salmond responded by insisting that he and the finance secretary had regular meetings with those involved in the industry.

But why didn't Mr Gray major on the state of Scotland's finances more generally?

Because the FM would then, undoubtedly, have counter-attacked by suggesting that the Labour UK government was the progenitor of the problem, perhaps quoting Audit Scotland to the effect that the UK "has experienced the worst deterioration in its public sector finances of all OECD countries".

Labour's news release on the subject suggests that the FM might start by abandoning what it calls "vanity" projects such as the National Conversation on the constitution.

I haven't the time to calculate the precise percentage of public spending that represents - but it is tiny, fragmentary. Scarcely substantive.

Returning to the chamber, Annabel Goldie challenged the FM over Audit Scotland.

Deploying the tack he would have used against Mr Gray, Alex Salmond said that both Labour and Tory UK governments were preparing to impoverish Scotland.

It was effective rhetoric - but in no way addressed the issue of how to cope with the medium-term challenge identified in today's report.

To be fair, Mr Salmond said both he and John Swinney were focused on making the best use of resources. But again, perhaps understandably, no detail for the future.

Tavish Scott stumbled somewhat. He quoted the FM as describing the Lloyds take-over of HBOS as the "deal of the century".

Mr Salmond produced the full quotation - which made plain he was interpreting Lloyds' view of the deal, while stressing his own considerable reservations.

Questions progressed - with, for example, Bill Aitken of the Tories offering the view that, whatever else is cut, police budgets must be protected. Translate that across Scotland, across other services which MSPs may want to cherish, and you can understand the extent of the challenge.

As to this year's budget, there can be no serious offstage discussions until Glasgow NE is by.

As to the future, this is a problem for MSPs of all parties - and for the whole public sector.

Making the changes

Brian Taylor | 12:29 UK time, Wednesday, 4 November 2009


Will this be enough? Will Sir Christopher Kelly's recommendations, if implemented, be enough to ease public anger over MPs expenses?

You'll have seen what he has in mind: rent or hotels not mortgages, a ban on employing relatives, curbs on what can be claimed, reduced pay-offs for MPs who stand down, receipts and explanations for all travel.

Plus key principles - such as honesty and accountability - upon which public life should be founded.

Does it all sound a bit familiar? It should. It's pretty broadly what happens at Holyrood, including the enlisting of fundamental principles.

The Holyrood system was itself substantially revised while George Reid was in the chair, in the light of earlier discontent.

Indeed, introducing his report, Sir Christopher called Holyrood in evidence, pointing to the system of publishing all expense details which, he said, had assuaged concern north of the Border.

The report itself also notes specific, detailed comparisons.

Lagging behind?

For example, with regard to proposed tight new rules on transport, the report counters critics by pointing out, faintly acidly, that "this transparency will bring the House of Commons in line with the Scottish Parliament, where such arrangements do not appear to be unduly bureaucratic."

However, there could be at least one area where Holyrood may end up lagging behind Westminster.

That concerns the employment by politicians of their relatives, frequently their spouses.

One Westminster spouse has argued that it would be "nice" if these arrangements could continue at least for as long as the other side of the partnership remains an MP.

Nice, it might be. But Sir Christopher is not moved.

He believes that such arrangements do not befit modern employment practice. They won't do. He wants the habit phased out.

In Holyrood, those who employ members of their family have to register the fact. But there is no ban on such employment.

'Double jobbing'

This may now form an element of the review by Sir Neil McIntosh who has been tasked by Holyrood's corporate body with looking at allowances north of the border.

There's another cross-border element examined by Sir Christopher Kelly and his team.

The issue of "double jobbing" - as it is known in Northern Ireland. The practice where a politician sits both at Westminster and in a devolved legislature.

Sir Christopher notes this is most common in Northern Ireland where 16 out of 18 Westminster MPs also sit in Stormont, five of them ministers.

Scotland's first minister, Alex Salmond, also presently holds a dual mandate - although he will resolve that shortly as he is not contesting the UK general election.

The Kelly report suggests the practice should end entirely, ideally in time for the 2011 devolved elections.

Breaking up the banks

Brian Taylor | 10:57 UK time, Tuesday, 3 November 2009


Stephen Hester is not happy.

The RBS chief executive reckons that the latest impositions upon his banking group depart from the course he was steering.

He is not, however, in a strong position to protest. Think beggars. Consider also choosers.

His dispute is with the European Commission which has, among other things, ordered RBS to dispose of insurance interests and other subsidiaries.

Mr Hester feels such an approach will serve neither enhanced competition nor the prospect of speedy repayment to the Treasury.

The demands, he says, were "more material than we had hoped".

Translated into Scots, the RBS has had a skelping for past misdeeds.

And there's more.

Lloyds Banking Group - which includes the grumbling wraith that was once the Bank of Scotland - is also to dispose of parts of its government-encouraged empire.

That includes the 185 Lloyds TSB branches in Scotland.

And that revives the chimerical prospect of recreating a small Scottish bank.

Once more, the ever-affable Bill Jamieson at The Scotsman is to the fore in that regard.

He suggests that the Scots investment banker Ben Thomson might have a role in such an endeavour.

Only a year ago, there was a vigorous campaign to prevent the Bank (or, more accurately, HBOS, its brutally titled modern guise) from being swallowed by Lloyds.

There was much talk of Scottish patriotrism linked to enlightened self-interest.

Perhaps understandably, the Scottish financial sector now seems somewhat cowed, cautious and sullen.

Even more understandably, the Scottish government is declining to comment at this exceptionally early stage.

But others, such as Tavish Scott, are arguing that a distinct new (or recreated) Scottish bank just might "restore some pride and self-confidence".

Lib Dem weekend

Brian Taylor | 17:54 UK time, Sunday, 1 November 2009


Liberal Democrat leaders have frequently found their own party thoroughly exasperating.

Their persistent demands for internal debate; their frequent obsession with the niceties of party rules; their occasional bouts of smugness; their inherent tendency to rebel.

Tavish Scott is, himself, not that far removed in age from the Pestilential Tendency among the youth wing of his party. However, he has always been fearsomely pragmatic.

Hence his evident irritation when some of his fellow members insisted on demanding support for a referendum on Scottish independence.

Why couldn't they just shut up? A period of silence on your part etc etc

As successive Lib and LibDem leaders have found, requests for silence fall on self-stopped ears. Demands for unity simply generate still more insurrection.

So Mr Scott gave in and held an internal party discussion on the referendum issue on Saturday, in private.

Two outcomes. One, support for his position that the LibDems should oppose current SNP plans for a plebiscite. Two, the beast that is internal dissent within the LibDems has probably been sated for a while.

I imagine that, right now, the more fervent Nationalists (and, yes, there are one or two who are welcome contributors to this site) will be deploying rather sharper terms than exasperating to describe the LibDems.

But, from the LibDems' own perspective, they believe they have rebalanced to lay stresss upon their own position: which is to urge further powers for the Scottish Parliament en route to a federal UK.

As I have frequently pointed out on this blog, opposing a referendum is, politically, a very uncomfortable place to be. Hence "bring it on" from Wendy Alexander. Hence the LibDems closed doors discussion in Dunfermline.

Alex Salmond will now proceed with plans to table his Bill for a referendum, disregarding Opposition demands to drop the idea.

For Mr Salmond, this is not like the Local Income Tax Bill which was shelved in the face of sustained opposition and a contrary Parliamentary vote on the issue.

Independence is the primary reason for his party to exist. He will table the Referendum Bill and invite support - or criticism.

Should it fail, as now seems certain, he will use the issue to condemn his rivals at the Holyrood elections in 2011. In practice, that has been his fall-back position all along. In truth, Plan B was never very remote at any point.

But what of the LibDems? Their position is much more nuanced than straightforward opposition to Mr Salmond's Bill.

Of that, they say it is at the wrong recessionary time - and with the wrong question (a mandate to negotiate rather than a blunt Yes or No to independence.)

At Dunfermline, we are told that the issue was canvassed, that there were voices raised for a referendum. But, when Ross Finnie summed up by saying that opposition to the Salmond plan appeared overwhelming in the hall, there was no dissent. That position carried the day by acclaim.

Does that mean there is universal agreement as to how to proceed? No. No more than there is within other parties on this or other issues.

Does that mean that the LibDems are "all over the place" on this topic, as some assert?

No. Things were heading that way. But the critics of the leadership position have got what they demanded. A party discussion, albeit one held behind closed doors.

They have got what liberals everywhere crave: an audience, a hearing, a debate.

I believe Tavish Scott's position has thereby been strengthened on this issue - although he might have gone further and held the debate openly. As, for example, the SNP did when they were confronting a comparable dispute over whether to back the devolution referendum.

But back to those nuances.

Nuance One: the LibDems, like the SNP, hope to hold the balance of power after the UK general election next year. In those circumstances, they would include enhanced powers for Holyrood in their negotiation shopping list.

Lord Wallace of Tankerness has been tasked with dealing with the UK civil service on behalf of the party at Westminster.

It is not thought likely that the former leader of the Scottish LibDems will forget the land of his birth in advising the civil service machine of LibDem prioritites.

Nuance Two: the review of strategy in this field by Ross Finnie continues. It was not devised purely for the Saturday event in Dunfermline. But, for now, it appears that the party will lay stress on its own priorities, both in the field of the constitution and other areas.

That will certainly be the case up to and through the UK general election.

Nuance Three: the LibDems are not saying never to a referendum on independence. However, they are not even saying "maybe" at the moment. Mr Scott believes that a period of simple clarity would be welcome. So, on the constitution, they will talk about their own option of enhanced powers, of federalism.

There will be a new statement from the Scotland Office with regard to implementing the Calman proposals. In practice, it is likely to consist of action which might follow subsequent to a general election.

Mr Scott will be hoping for greater leverage for his preferences from whatever Westminster arithmetic emerges.

Nuance Four: the Scottish LibDems will then develop a position for their 2011 Holyrood manifesto and beyond. That might, in the light of events, include the position of saying maybe to an independence referendum.

But not, post Dunfermline, now. For now, expect the LibDems to argue more vigorously still for their own preference.

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