BBC BLOGS - Blether with Brian

Archives for January 2010

You had to be there

Brian Taylor | 13:58 UK time, Thursday, 28 January 2010

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Best gag of the day?

That came from Annabel Goldie as she traded statistics with the first minister about the extent of physical education available in Scotland's schools.

In their manifesto, the SNP had threatened to subject Scotland's youth to at least two hours of gym per week.

To date, they have fallen somewhat short. Miss Goldie advised the FM that "patting himself on the back didn't count as PE."

OK, I grant you it doesn't read as much of a rib-tickler.

Perhaps comic standards at Holyrood are a little less exacting than they were in the days of the old Glasgow Empire.

But it worked well in the chamber - and it was delivered well, giving the Tory leader a much better week than she's had of late.

There was far less oratory, comic or otherwise, in the exchanges between Alex Salmond and Tavish Scott of the Liberal Democrats.

No slippage

Indeed, their discussion sounded a little like a budgetary negotiation. Which is precisely what it was.

Privately, ministers believe they have the numbers, as things stand, to see their Scottish spending package through its third and final stage next week.

But "as things stand" can swiftly become "how things were".

It did last year. Mr Salmond wants no slippage whatsoever.

So, he was notably consensual towards Mr Scott's well-researched complaint about the numbers of applicants being turned away from Scotland's colleges.

That is because action on this front is a key demand of the Lib Dems if they are to support the budget or at least acquiesce in its passing.

On the topic of the budget, I suspect Mr Salmond may have given up on securing Labour support - although he did suggest that his rival, Iain Gray, might yet recant, like a "sinner that repenteth".

Certainly, the exchanges between the pair were notably vigorous. Mr Gray demanded publication of detailed capital spending plans.

Forthcoming cuts

A similar demand has now been issued by other parties.

Mr Salmond demurred. The capital programme had been published. His government had published more detail than predecessors.

He invited Mr Gray to study another document instead: forthcoming cuts in spending from Westminster.

Mr Gray persisted to good effect, perhaps slightly diluting the impact by diverting into other, related topics. What, he asked, did Ministers have to hide?

The underlying point here concerns those budget plans.

Labour is objecting to the Glasgow Airport Rail Link being withdrawn from the capital spending programme.

Difficult choices

Ah, say ministers, if you want Garl back, you must tell us what you would scrap instead.

Ah, say Labour, show us the monthly figures on capital spending: slippage in other projects may well release enough for Garl.

No, say ministers. We publish our capital programme in full. Those monthly figures are an internal management tool, subject to constant fluctuation as programmes slip or, like the M74, are accelerated.

Labour - and others - say parliament deserves the full facts if it is to judge the budget.

Ministers say that is simply a convenient excuse for ducking difficult choices.

And there it rests, for now.

Give us a clue

Brian Taylor | 16:33 UK time, Wednesday, 27 January 2010

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They never write, they never phone.

The lament of the spurned down the generations was heard at Westminster this afternoon.

MPs on the Scottish Affairs Committee were considering the degree of communication between the UK and Scottish governments.

In general - and with particular regard to the fate of Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed al Megrahi.

Why, asked the SNP's Pete Wishart, didn't the UK Government keep Edinburgh up to speed when a preliminary memorandum of understanding was being negotiated with Libya?

Because, said Jack Straw, the justice secretary, this was a very wide-ranging document, involving very complex and sensitive diplomacy.

The detailed implications for Scotland - the potential transfer of al Megrahi - were, rightly, discussed subsequently with ministers in Scotland.

Prisoner transfer

Mr Straw argued further that it was constantly made clear to Libya - and fully understood by them - that any actual decision with regard to al Megrahi was one for Scotland.

That subsequently, he said, proved to be the case when prisoner transfer was rejected

Further, he said he had tried to have the Megrahi case excluded from the prisoner transfer agreement. No dice, the Libyans wouldn't agree.

Give us a clue, said the committee. Did you support the option - which the Scottish Government ultimately pursued - of releasing al Megrahi on compassionate grounds? Mr Straw, repeatedly, declined to offer his opinion.

Still on the topic of communication, the Scottish Secretary Jim Murphy was asked about relations with the Scottish government.

(Actually, he called them a government; committee members, mostly, referred to the Executive.)

Secretary role

Why, asked Labour's Ian Davidson, did ministers and civil servants in Edinburgh not consistently consult the Scotland Office when they were seeking to clarify an issue with Whitehall departments?

Mr Murphy was emollient. Perhaps, he soothed, they simply didn't want to waste money on a letter to a department which they didn't think should exist.

Despite that, Mr Murphy was adamant that there was a role for a Scottish secretary in the UK Cabinet.

Indeed, he went further, implying that his energy in the post had "repaired the damage and mistake" of previously having a part-time SofS.

Recession woes not over yet

Brian Taylor | 12:17 UK time, Tuesday, 26 January 2010

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And so the UK is finally out of recession, the longest such decline since quarterly figures were first recorded in 1955.

However, the growth rate is lower than some forecast - which leaves the impression of a still sickly patient.

Further, we don't yet know if the economy in Scotland is back on an upward path.

Scottish unemployment has been below the UK average - and employment above.
Still, there remain concerns on a number of fronts.

Firstly, the impact of the crunch upon Scotland's finance sector - although analysts insist that, here, Scotland is more than the sum of its two once mighty banks.

Secondly, the question of whether Scots companies can enhance their global competitiveness.

Not bad just isn't good enough: never was. Are there industrial leaders who can mount a global challenge?

Tough times

Thirdly, there remains political controversy, both at the UK and Scottish levels, with regard to the stimulus of the economy and public spending.

Scotland is relatively dependent upon public sector funding. That has tended to cushion us in tough times but, some argue, undermines our capacity for an agile response to the search for economic upturn.

Either way, with MSPs embroiled in considering next year's Scottish spending plans, the issue is likely to feature substantially in the coming economic discussions.

Not just for next year but, much more significantly, for the decade ahead.

With public spending set to decline, Scotland can grimace and grouse.

Recovery prospects

Or she can opt to reshape the nature of public expenditure, searching afresh for authentic priorities which stimulate the economy and remove unwarranted programmes.

Then, of course, there will be a renewed debate about Scotland's economic powers. Nationalists will advocate fiscal autonomy leading to independence.

Unionists will argue that would jeopardise the prospects of recovery.

Today is very, very far from the end of the story.

Taking the right path

Brian Taylor | 14:14 UK time, Thursday, 21 January 2010

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Do you, like me, recall a wonderful episode of "Dr Finlay's Casebook" in which the tyro medic is fervently protesting his lack of knowledge regarding some particular ailment?

In response, the gruff, experienced Dr Snoddie leans forward and advises, bluntly: "Well, ye ken noo!"

The role of Dr Snoddie was today capably adapted by the First Minister when he was questioned by Labour's Iain Gray about security advice relating to paths on the royal estate of Balmoral.

The police, apparently, had been keen to play down the fact that there is existing public access to these pathways. Unaccountably, Alex Salmond seemed to feel that this desire had been rather countermanded by huge coverage of the issue in The Record and The Press and Journal.

The FM appeared to think that these hitherto obscure walkways would now be sought out by every Record and P&J reader with a pair of usable boots. Or even sandals.

Assuming his very gravest demeanour, the FM said he had asked the Home Office to instigate a leak inquiry. Perish the thought, but Mr Salmond actually seemed to feel that the leaked information re the royal estate had come from the UK Government.

More visitors

So what's it all about? Apparently, there are two paths through Balmoral open to members of the wandering public. It was proposed to transform them into posh paths by giving them core status within the Cairngorm National Park.

This would have advertised them far more widely, by featuring them in well-publicised maps. That would, presumably, have attracted far more visitors.

Balmoral objected, there was a counter-objection, it went to an inquiry, the reporter said they could only be excluded on security grounds.

It fell to the Environment Minister, Roseanna Cunningham. Ms Cunningham, known for her aversion to monarchy, wrote to the Home Office on the 10th of December seeking "additional information", while noting that she was "minded" at that point to proceed with core status.

A reply was sent by the Home Ofice Minister David Hanson on 11 January to the effect that security would be breached - and that he would veto any move to give the paths core status.

Newspaper stories

According to the FM, this letter was received on 14 January. That same day, Ms Cunningham instructed that the paths be excluded from core status. That was communicated and received by the national park on 18 January.

So what remains? According to Mr Gray, Ms Cunningham didn't need any "additional information".

The Home Office view had been made repeatedly clear to her - that security would be jeopardised. Her attitude had been reprehensible.

The snag for Mr Gray is that, on the day, in the chamber, he was roundly and robustly rebutted by Alex Salmond who was on his most combative form.

Mr Salmond said that Mr Gray appeared to think that Ms Cunningham's decision had only followed approaches by newspapers. That was, the FM said, completely wrong. The Environment Minister had, correctly, followed due process - and the paths had been excluded.

By a combination of rhetoric and relentless attention to procedure, Mr Salmond knocked the complaint aside, leaving his own team cheering and Labour looking glum.

Indeed, during the exchanges, one wag on the SNP side shouted out: "Bring back Jack".

Not everyone had heard this sally. So, ever helpful, Mr Salmond repeated it, while
suggesting wickedly that the said Jack (McConnell) had been witnessed, nodding. Cruel, cruel.

The haggling continues

Brian Taylor | 12:06 UK time, Wednesday, 20 January 2010

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UPDATE: In the debate, the frontbench speeches proceeded as anticipated.

Jeremy Purvis of the Lib Dems welcomed Mr Swinney's indications on top salaries - but stressed they would need more.

They want guarantees that the cash thus released would be spent productively on bolstering manufacturing and helping the young jobless.

Andy Kerr for Labour supported GARL.

It was, he said, a "weathervane" for the need to enhance the economy more generally in a time of stress.

I thought Mr Kerr was unwise to go on to accuse Mr Swinney of "arrogance" in presuming that every pound in his budget was wisely spent.

The minister had opened his remarks by insisting precisely the contrary: that he was open to other ideas.

Thoughtful speech

Mr Kerr presumably feels that such openness does not emerge in practice.

Nonetheless, the tone jarred with the remainder of his speech which was characterised by persuasion rather than invective.

Mr Swinney urged the entire chamber to focus upon the coming squeeze in public expenditure as well as the constraints involved in the immediate Bill.

Substantive contributions all - but perhaps the most thoughtful speech came from Wendy Alexander.

The former Labour leader dealt with the power of parliament to alter the capital budget.

She urged ministers to publish full details of the capital spending programme, year by year, while noting Permanent Secretary Sir John Elvidge had last week indicated to Parliament's Audit Committee that four major programmes had slipped in timetable.

These were, she said, the Southern General Hospital in Glasgow, the Borders Railway, the National Arena for the Commonwealth Games and the Gartcosh campus.

Hands 'tied'

Projects, she said, worth a total of £1.2bn.

Such slippage, she argued, might release productive capital for other schemes.

Yet the Scottish government still declined to publish all the details - and parliament had not pushed sufficiently vigorously for publication, effectively tying their own hands.

Now, of course, Ms Alexander has a constituency interest in mind: that Glasgow Airport Rail Link.

But she pursued the wider issue without hammering home the Garl point.

Winding up the debate, John Swinney said that Ms Alexander had made a reasonable point - except that she had neglected to note that some capital projects, such as the M74, had to be accelerated.

He insisted the Scottish government spent close to its capital limit, with minimal slack.

But Mr Swinney indicated he might be open to the notion of an independent review of Scottish expenditure.

This would be following the Irish model.

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

Let's talk directions of travel with regard to public spending.

MSPs vote this evening on the Scottish budget for next year.

But it's only the Stage One vote. Stage Two follows next week. Stage Three the week after.

Much more haggling to come.

But it looks like the Tories and the Liberal Democrats will assist the Bill to pass today - on the grounds that it merits further consideration.

Labour will almost certainly vote against, concerned at the scrapping of the Glasgow Airport Rail Link and other issues such as the housing budget.

On that latter point, Labour says there have been substantial - and potentially damaging - cuts.

Pay constraints

Ministers say no. They say the budget over the three year period is up but that a significant tranch of that capital spending was accelerated, meaning that it isn't available next year.

That makes the case, they say, for further acceleration.

But the most intriguing direction of travel is on pay.

I expect John Swinney this afternoon, opening the debate, to signal support for significant pay constraint in the upper echelons of the public sector.

In the next few weeks, Mr Swinney will outline a full pay policy. But we should get some pointers this afternoon.

He'll back a freeze in top salaries - where he has the power to do so.

He'll urge the public sector to shelve bonuses. And he'll argue that the overall salary bill should be driven down.

Westminster control

Where he has the power to do so? That doesn't include local authorities - who are autonomous - although, of course, Mr Swinney sets much of their budget and will hope and expect that they would follow suit.

It doesn't include those parts of the public sector under reserved Westminster control.

And it doesn't extend to staff on extended pay deals, say over three years.

But it would include ministers, senior civil servants, top NHS managers and those at Government quangos such as Scottish Enterprise, VisitScotland and the like.

That direction is veering towards the Lib Dem position. They want a 5% cut in the wage bill, generated by curbing top salaries.

There's talk that some of that could be achieved by, say, reducing the number of senior managers in a particular division.

In a speech tonight, Scottish Conservative leader Annabel Goldie will follow the direction set by her Westminster colleagues when she'll back a pay freeze for those in the public sector earning more than £18,000.

That would apply from 2011.

Annabel Goldie says that would save the equivalent of funding 10,000 jobs.

But it has no support among other parties who say it is unfair to penalise those on relatively low pay.

Will the budget go through? Yes. There's minimal appetite in the current climate for political grandstanding.

Counting on drama

Brian Taylor | 14:03 UK time, Tuesday, 19 January 2010

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Cast an eye over the Electoral Commission website.

You will find there that "undecided" is polling strongly.

For what? For the UK General Election.

Not between parties - but between counting on polling day or counting a day later.

We all love the overnight drama, don't we? The ballot boxes arrive in the town hall or school gym, their contents tumbling onto trestle tables.

Will there be a challenge? Will there be a recount? Will this ever end?

But, for the coming General Election, a number of returning officers, particularly in England, are concluding that they could do without the dawn declaration.

They will count on Day Two, the Friday after polling.

That means, of course, that the eager hopefuls in those constituencies have to wait.

If enough areas follow that path, then, conceivably, the UK might also have to wait to find out who is going to be Prime Minister.

In Scotland, the pressure is somewhat less.

Unlike in England, there are no council elections on 6 May, the likely Westminster polling day. No double election, in short.

Still, Labour has felt sufficiently moved to issue a statement arguing strongly that the counts in Scotland should take place overnight.

That is also very much the position of the SNP, the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats.

Given such unanimity, why does the issue arise? Firstly, because of memories of the Holyrood elections in 2007 when - for quite distinct reasons at the time - the count was less than universally successful.

Returning officers do not relish anything that might land them with comparable embarrassment.

So some of them are wondering whether it might be better to start afresh on Day Two - rather than counting through the night.

Secondly, the issue of postal votes. New rules mean these now have to be tightly scrutinised and validated, with signatures checked.

In most cases, this can be done in advance of polling day.

However, it is open to voters to lodge an envelope with their ballot paper inside at polling stations right up to the close of poll.

In other words, they can apply for a postal vote, complete it - then choose to lodge it personally, perhaps because they have forgotten.

These late postal votes then have to be fully scrutinised in a separate process.

Returning officers in Scotland vary in their view - but some say that could add one or two hours or even more to the counting time.

Day Two counting has always been the pattern in limited rural parts of Scotland.

The additional constraints might mean that one or two more consider the option.

My guess, though, is that the vast majority of councils in Scotland will go for the traditional overnight count.

Talking drink

Brian Taylor | 14:38 UK time, Monday, 18 January 2010

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Check out those differing political reactions to the BBC Scotland investigation into Buckfast and its potential after-effects.

Check out why they differ.

Firstly, the basics. Our investigation discloses that Buckfast was mentioned in 5,638 crime reports in Strathclyde over the three years from 2006 to 2009.

Labour's comment? That this proves Scotland's problem with booze wouldn't be solved by minimum pricing - because such a strategy wouldn't touch Buckfast.

The SNP comment? Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill - who once described Buckfast as "a designer drink" - argued that outlawing the tonic wine with its high caffeine content would barely dent Scotland's much wider alcohol problem.

They are, of course, both right. And each comment touches upon the weakness of the other side.

Labour is finding it challenging to sustain its opposition to minimum pricing in the face of voluble support for the policy from the medical profession.

Weak point

Witness the tentative support from the Westminster Health Secretary Andy Burnham, later quashed.

The SNP knows Buckfast is a weak point in its minimum pricing initiative.

Buckie, as its west of Scotland fans call it, is "relatively expensive" already, as Mr MacAskill concedes.

It wouldn't be hit by the new policy. But, say ministers, many other problem drinks would be so affected.

There are other aspects to this controversy.

For example, the whisky industry remains gravely worried that minimum pricing here might set a precedent for punitive measures against Scotch in other countries.

A fascinating debate, then. Wonder what the monks of Buckfast Abbey think?

Turning the tide

Brian Taylor | 13:20 UK time, Thursday, 14 January 2010

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Poor King Cnut (or Canute, if you will.)

There he was, the astute Viking ruler of England, setting out to prove the limits of kingly power on earth.

To do this, he plunked himself down on the beach and commanded the tide to hold back, to cease its repeated colonisation of the sands.

Result? Wet, monarchical tootsies.

This apocryphal tale was designed to demonstrate how smart was Cnut.

He knew and appreciated the limitations of human power. See, he was saying, how paltry is man in the face of nature and God.

And what is the outcome? One millennium on, he is constantly traduced as a vain autocrat, buoyed by his own boastful arrogance - in addition to the buoyancy provided by the creeping onset of the irresistible waters.

Cash defecit

Annabel Goldie was at it again today, comparing Alex Salmond to the one-time King.

Like Cnut, she averred, the FM was blithely ignoring the tide of coming cutbacks in public spending prompted by the need to tackle the overall deficit.

Pausing only briefly to correct Miss Goldie on English history (she won't have liked that), Mr Salmond then went on to insist that he was only too well aware of what was coming down the line.

Consensus was restored between the two to some extent in that both happily blamed Labour for the recession.

Viking lore apart, what does this tell us? That the Tories are taking a decidedly different tack in this public spending round with the first vote on the Scottish Budget due next week.

Usually, opposition parties arrive in ministerial offices with a shopping list of demands.

In recent years, for example, the Tories have extracted extra cash for police recruitment and for city centre renewal.

Spending cuts

Those programmes continue in the current year, allowing the Conservatives to claim such expenditure as part of their contribution.

But the times are anything but usual.

The next Comprehensive Spending Review period, due to start in 2011, will herald a prolonged round of spending cuts, whoever wins the UK General Election.

That is because the overall deficit is unsustainable, not least to protect Britain's global credit rating.

With an eye onnext week's vote, the Scottish Tories are now saying that they expect the Finance Secretary John Swinney to prepare what would amount to stand-by plans in the event that there have to be emergency cuts: not from next year, but in the current fiscal year, 2010/11.

It is always a bold strategy, electorally, to call for cuts, rather then enhanced spending.

But, for the Scots Tories, this ticks two boxes.

Health spending

It confronts the reality of spending plans in Scotland. And it matches the UK-wide party message, currently brandished on billboards, that the Tories will set out to cut the deficit, if elected.

Those billboard messages go on to say that NHS spending will be protected.

One might point out, gently, that the Tories are in no position to make any promises whatsoever about health spending in Scotland because that is devolved.

But, for now, let us shelve that issue.

Let us consider the Scottish Budget.

Do I think John Swinney is aware of the constraints facing him and his successors over the next decade or so? Yes, fully.

Do I think that Scotland, collectively, is facing up to the decisions which will be required?

No, not yet - although I understand that an exercise is under way within the Scottish civil service to ensure that senior officials are alert to the need to prepare, intellectually, for the worst possible scenario envisaged by economic forecasters.

Budget votes

To get the mindset right, if you like.

The issue is not whether there will be cuts. Cuts, there will be. The issue is whether Scotland can, collectively, determine genuine priorities and ensure that spending is tailored to meet those priorities.

For example, instead of shaving a few per cent off each programme, regardless of utility, that might mean central and local government withdrawing from some projects altogether.

Re the Budget votes, which will take place over the next three weeks, I expect negotiations between the parties to be as serious and detailed as ever.

Right now, Labour looks like voting agin the budget, at least at stage one, on the grounds that it does not do enough to rebuild the economy.

Labour will cite, as example, the cancellation of the Glasgow Airport rail link.

Mr Swinney seems unmoved on that one, arguing that there can be other transport improvements in Glasgow and that it would be wrong to spend money on preparing the ground for GARL when the spending settlement is guaranteed to get tighter still, making the project less affordable, not more.

The Liberal Democrats are looking for promises to curb top salaries in the public sector to fund support for manufacturing.

(Hence Tavish Scott on the topic of textiles investment today.) Within the limits of his discretion, I believe Mr Swinney will seek to move in their direction.

Power struggle

Brian Taylor | 13:36 UK time, Wednesday, 13 January 2010

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The members of the economy, energy and tourism committee of the Scottish Parliament did their job today.

Big name, minute focus.

They contrived to give Energy Minister Jim Mather a tough time over his granting of consent to the Beauly-Denny replacement power line.

Not, you understand, that they were opposed to the line. It attracts widespread political support on the basis that its importance to the economy outweighs environmental concerns.

All the committee members piled in - but special mention might be made of Wendy Alexander and Lewis Macdonald.

Ms Alexander pursued matters of planning law with the dogged determination and resolve which, no doubt, endeared her to civil servants when she was a minister.

Mr Macdonald spotlighted the "mitigations" which have been announced by the government.

Concentrating minds

These are to the effect that ministers will expect plans from the developers to lessen the visual impact of the new line in a further three areas.

All fine and dandy, said Mr Macdonald - except that the planning inquiry reporter had recommended withholding consent in two of those areas in order to concentrate minds.

The minister had not thought to mention that to MSPs in his parliamentary statement last week.

Mr Mather was obliged to concede that was the case, arguing that he had thought it right, within the limited time available, to set out his own position rather than that of others.

So, close questioning. However, the minister did rally considerably when invited to set out the case for the line.

Its value, he said, would be "monumental", allowing Scotland to take renewable energy to the market and to give a "serious" declaration of intent on climate change targets.

One final thought. No mention, again, today of health worries among communities relatively close to the proposed line.

Such worries have previously been discounted - but, as I heard directly during my Big Debate in Stirling last week, they persist.

Let's do this again sometime

Brian Taylor | 14:48 UK time, Tuesday, 12 January 2010

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Intriguing appearance by Alex Salmond before the Scottish Select Committee at Westminster - the first such showdown involving a First Minister.

Not, I thought, for the exchanges over the Lockerbie bomber. There, it was largely retread ground.

Strictly, the committee should have confined itself to its remit - relations between the UK and Scottish governments in the light of the Calman report.

The release of Abdelbaset al Megrahi obviously impinged upon those relations. But, despite occasional interventions by Mohammed Sarwar in the chair, the questions regularly ranged beyond that aspect.

Perhaps understandably, the MPs sought to challenge the nature of the release itself along with concomitant issues such as the ministerial decision to visit Al Megrahi in jail.

Their interest was understandable but, technically, misplaced. The decision, as Gordon Brown repeatedly stressed, was one for Scottish ministers to take. They answer on such matters to Holyrood, not Westminster.

Structural relations

Still, no matter - and, certainly, neither Mr Salmond nor Kenny MacAskill, the Justice Secretary, raised any protests.

Remember their wider strategy which is to co-operate as palpaply with Westminster within the current devolved set-up while simultaneously inviting the voters to infer how much better things might be under independence.

No, I was more intrigued by Mr Salmond's comments about structural relations across the UK. I know, I know, I should get out more - but bear with me.

When devolution occurred, a system was put in place to foster relations between London and the devolved territories. This was the Joint Ministerial Committee, or JMC, mechanism.

As Mr Salmond described, it fell largely into disuse.

The plenary JMC, intended to involve the heads of government, didn't meet for five years from 2002.

JMCs on domestic policy also flopped. Only the committee considering European policy thrived to any extent.

Govern sensibly

That has largely been reversed - partly at the prompting of Alex Salmond and his fellow devolved bosses and partly at the instigation of Gordon Brown who recognised the need for change.

The motivating factor? The new political map of the United Kingdom where parties of different colours are in power.

Again, remember that overarching Salmond strategy. To govern sensibly within the limits of devolved power - while, concomitantly, drawing attention to those limits.

Sensible governance involves mechanisms for sharing information and policy consideration. Hence Mr Salmond's support for the JMC system. Hence his eagerness to return, regularly, to appear before the Scottish Select.

But Mr Salmond lodged a caveat today. What happens if a deal cannot be done, even by ministers of goodwill working within an established structure? What, in particular, if that deal involves finance?

'You are wrong'

At the moment, there is a simple system. If a devolved government has a disagreement with the Treasury, then there is indeed a final arbiter. That would be the Treasury.

To sum up the FM's argument, the Treasury simply say in the final analysis: "You are wrong. We are right. Matter resolved."

Sundry First Ministers have argued that should be changed. According to Mr Salmond, the prime mover in this regard was Labour's Rhodri Morgan who recently relinquished office as FM in Wales.

Broadly, the devolved leaders want an appeal mechanism, especially over finance. For me, it is difficult to see how that would be legally binding. These are, ultimately, political decisions as well as administrative ones. Further, the Treasury will want to retain control of overall UK funds.

But it might be possible to envisage an arbiter who could issue guidance as to whether the case advanced by a devolved government had merit within the rules.

Mr Salmond said he hoped a settlement of this issue might still be reached before the UK general election. If not, it would be a speck of grit within the pile which would land upon the desk of the next Prime Minister. Whoever that might be.

On ice

Brian Taylor | 16:46 UK time, Thursday, 7 January 2010

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"St Agnes Eve, ah bitter chill it was."

Thus does Keats open his prolonged poem on the remarkable, romantic ritual associated with the January festival.

But it was a seasonal chill of more contemporary origins - the current "blast o' Janwar' win'", if you like - which exercised our elected tribunes at Holyrood.

All three opposition leaders pursued Alex Salmond on the topic of what his government was doing to help Scots sustain themselves against the freeze.

Had he personally dug anyone out of a snow drift? Just how much grit had he scattered on icy pavements? Wasn't it about time he sorted out this weather?

I jest, of course.

But it's always slightly tricky when politics collides with naturally occurring catastrophe.

There is an anecdotal story told about political reaction to the disastrous Glasgow storm of 1968, when roofs were torn from houses.

Pratical action

As opposition politicians demanded statements from the Government, one minister was apparently heard to aver: "Statements? We don't need statements. We need slaters."

In comparable fashion, Mr Salmond suggested to his questioners that government, both local and central, was alert to the need for practical action, rather than rhetoric.

To be fair, Labour's Iain Gray was pursuing that same lightly-gritted path.

He was suggesting that Ministers had been complacent, that there should be more advice offered to the struggling public.

In particular, he seized upon comments made by Finance Secretary John Swinney on "Good Morning Scotland" on Monday.

I have listened (again) to that particular interview. (Wonderful thing, the iPlayer.)

While Mr Swinney might perhaps have phrased his comments a little more judiciously, I don't think it was quite the bloomer suggested by Mr Gray.

Next breath

The minister said that, in a number of the communities he had been out and about in, there had been "perfectly adequate walking conditions".

Cue instant anger from those listeners whose pedestrian facilities are less than perfect.

However, Mr Swinney went on in the next breath to stress that there are parts of Scotland where there are problems.

Annabel Goldie was up next - only to suffer a succession of skilled rebuttals from the FM.

Firstly, she urged ministers to deploy convicts on community sentences to clear the roads.

Mr Salmond duly explained where that was happening already - while noting that, if the Tories had their way, such individuals would be banged up in the centrally heated Bar-L, munching their way through three meals a day.

Ouch! In vain did Miss G. protest that she supported community sentences where real work was involved.

Clear-up effort

But it got worse. Where, she demanded, was the Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill?

His absence from the chamber, she implied, was a slight.

Mr Salmond replied, ever so gently, that his ministerial colleague was in Fife.

Inspecting the deployment of community sentence workers in the clear-up effort. Ouch, twice.

By contrast, Tavish Scott took a more consensual line. Perhaps his Shetland upbringing has inured him to the fact that ferocious weather tends to come along from time to time.

More probably, he had calculated that there is little to be gained by sounding in any respect partisan while folk are struggling with the fundamentals of living.

Either way, the exchanges between Mr Scott and Mr Salmond were polite and solemn.

Leadership game on?

Brian Taylor | 15:40 UK time, Wednesday, 6 January 2010

Comments

Remarkable moves at Westminster. Former ministers Geoff Hoon and Patricia Hewitt have contacted their colleagues in the Parliamentary Labour Party suggesting a "clear the air" ballot on Gordon Brown's leadership.

This is of a different nature to previous challenges to Mr Brown - and also, for those with a longer sense of history, to the leadership contests faced by Margaret Thatcher and John Major.

Mrs Thatcher fell when she failed to win a sufficiently convincing victory in a leadership contest forced by a direct challenge. Mr Major forced a contest himself by inviting challengers to face him.

This move by Hoon and Hewitt rather resembles a confidence motion. It would be a secret ballot of the PLP inviting Labour MPs to declare whether they support the PM or not.

However, as one sagacious Scottish MP said to me, it amounts to the same in the end.

Will anyone of any standing come forward to contest Mr Brown - or even simply to indicate that such a preliminary confidence vote might not be entirely pointless?

Remember June when James Purnell resigned and, in effect, invited others to follow. None did. Crisis deferred.

This is comparable. If anyone who might, seriously, lead Labour indicates that they are not utterly averse to this debate taking place, then it could be game on. Otherwise, crisis called off once more.

Timing may deter those who might otherwise support such a leadership discussion and, ultimately, contest.

But, at the very, very least, this is a somewhat novel way to prepare for a General Election.

No messing

Brian Taylor | 15:31 UK time, Tuesday, 5 January 2010

Comments

A guid New Year to you all.

And they're back in action at Holyrood - with no messing.

There's to be a statement tomorrow on the Beauly-Denny power line.

Will it get the go-ahead? With what conditions, if it does?

Still on environmental matters, another ministerial statement on Thursday re coping with our glorious climate.

Bring your own wellies. And grit.

We'll cover all of that and much more. Here at Holyrood, though, as they digest such matters, the dominant consideration is the coming UK general election.

Coming in March? Maybe, but doubt it. Coming in May? Much more likely. Coming, whatever happens, by June.

PS: Craig, all the very best in your new job as Scotland manager.

Hope you don't get too bored or frustrated. Hope your blazer's a good fit. Seriously, nobody would do a better job for our national squad than you.

Re United, here's hoping they can recover swiftly and win the occasional game. Even the odd goal would be nice.

Perhaps they might start with a victory in the cup. At Firhill, on Saturday. Which just happens to be my birthday.

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