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Archives for March 2010

Hanging out

Brian Taylor | 13:08 UK time, Wednesday, 31 March 2010

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With today's announcement of a hung parliament "shopping list", the SNP and their Welsh chums Plaid Cymru are trying to turn a potentially weak position into one of relative strength.

The weakness is that, by dint of simple arithmetic, neither the SNP nor Plaid can win the UK General Election in the conventional sense of seeing their leader entering Downing Street as Prime Minister.

That prompts rival parties to claim that the Nationalists are irrelevant in a UK contest, that the voters should, as a consequence, disregard their appeal for support.

So how to turn that round? By positing a hung parliament - and suggesting that a bloc of SNP and Plaid MPs would be able, in such circumstances, to extract substantial concessions for Scotland and Wales.

By this device, the Nationalists argue that their leaders would indeed be able to enter Downing Street - as invited visitors, to negotiate a deal in the interests of their respective nations.

Today's launch suggests that the two parties would be looking for "fair funding for Wales and Scotland" plus protecting local services, action to help the green economy and support for housing growth.

The document suggests that both would seek to replace the current Barnett formula which determines spending in Wales and Scotland by comparison with changes in relevant English departmental budgets.

Spending advantage

Of course, many English MPs have long regarded Barnett with loathing (the formula, that is, not Lord Joel Barnett who devised it.)

They regard it as feather-bedding the Scots and the Welsh, entrenching higher spending levels.

By contrast, Nationalists in Scotland point to the fact that Barnett is and was designed to be a convergence mechanism, progressively squeezing Scotland's historic spending advantage.

In Wales, Barnett is cordially disliked.

So, for Scotland, the "Celtic Alliance" would seek fiscal autonomy. For Wales, they would seek "fairer funding". Translation: more generous.

It is all eerily reminiscent of the earlier claim by Gordon Brown that his Labour party offered investment while the Tories promised cuts.

Mr Brown finessed this when the extent of the potential spending crisis made this difficult to sustain.

'Disadvantage to gain'

But, of course, the SNP and Plaid don't have to spell out a UK spending programme of their own.

They merely demand concessions from the parties seeking UK power. Again, their relative remoteness from that UK power is turned, they hope, from a disadvantage to a gain.

Problems? Of course. Rival parties will say that the programme is thoroughly unrealistic, given the condition of the accumulated deficit.

The Nationalists will reply that they are entitled to stand up for their own nations' interests.

Further, will the Celtic Alliance be in a position to bargain. Will there be a hung Parliament? Will they win enough seats to get, potentially, to the table?

If they do, will the UK leaders negotiate with them? Or would, say, the Tories prefer to strike a deal with the Liberal Democrats or parties in Northern Ireland?

Challenges ahead. Potentially.

Blair backs Labour

Brian Taylor | 12:39 UK time, Tuesday, 30 March 2010

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And so it's goodbye from him. And it's hello again from him.

Alex Salmond and Tony Blair, that is.

Mr Salmond is making his final speech in the Commons today. He is, of course, stepping down as an MP in order to concentrate on his day job as first minister.

Tony Blair is making his first speech on domestic policy since standing down as PM three years ago.

And, you know what: he's backing Labour. Apparently, he thinks the Conservatives' sloganising is "vacuous".

For both, of course, the focus remains the economy and public spending. And there are some intriguing cross-border thoughts emerging today.

In Scotland, a coalition of forty charities wants a simplified and "fairer" welfare system, condemning the "impossible hoops" which claimants are obliged to leap through in order to secure "meagre benefits".

Election aftermath

In England, Ministers are considering options for levying charges in order to fund a universal system of social care.

After seeking consensus, the parties south of the border are now divided on the approach they would adopt. Scotland, you will recall, adopted free personal care.

Which issue do you think will be most salient in this election and in the immediate aftermath? And why?

Most probably, it will be the provision of care for the elderly - rather than wider benefits for the indigent.

Why? Because the elderly are more inclined to vote than the poor who can frequently be socially and thus politically excluded.

This is not, I stress, to decry or question the entitlement of either sector.

Merely to note that electoral politics, with its differential turnout and differential impact upon parties, is not always the best system for assessing competing claims dispassionately.

Spending review

(Although, remember Churchill's advice that democracy is useless - except when compared with every other system.)

Which brings us back again to the independent review of spending ordered by the Scottish government.

The chair, Crawford Beveridge, was setting out some of his thoughts on Newsnight Scotland last night.

The whole point of an independent review is to think the politically unthinkable - and Mr Beveridge appears to be in an iconoclastic mood.

Universal entitlement may have to be questioned in some areas, he argues.

It would be wrong to ring fence an individual service such as health care. (Politicians tend to do so because the NHS is substantially used by the elderly. For the motivation, see above.)

In the past, these were issues which intrigued and challenged Tony Blair - although now, as an ex-MP, he can perhaps afford to regard them with an intellectual detachment, despite his political intervention today.

In Scotland, these are issues which will undoubtedly arise again for the first minister.

Not perhaps in the short term. Not, substantially, during this election. But thereafter.

Blurring the distinction?

Brian Taylor | 12:01 UK time, Saturday, 27 March 2010

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Scottish Labour conference. Glasgow. Single day. Launch of the party's Scottish pledge card for the coming UK General Election.

It is an intriguing document, straddling reserved and devolved issues.

Labour resolves that, it says, by promising action now on the reserved matters such as the broad economy, action from Opposition at Holyrood where possible on the devolved issues and, finally, inclusion of those devolved promises in the party's manifesto for the 2011 Scottish elections.

You may recall that Labour's Scottish manifesto launch for the UK General Election five years ago was somewhat troubled as a consequence of blending together devolved and reserved issues, largely without clarity.

This is not pure pedantry. This is not an academic point. It is about choice and direction.

When people in Scotland choose an MP, they are selecting an individual to make choices in Westminster on their behalf on reserved issues. Not devolved ones.

Now, of course, the good and sensible people of Scotland want to hear what putative MPs think about devolved matters too.

A candidate who says of health or education that they are "nothing to do with me, mate" is unlikely to thrive or even survive.

Talking up investment

So Labour's launch today tries to address that. Yes, the pledge card still features reserved issues - which MPs control - and devolved ones, which they don't.

But the accompanying message from Labour is that they will tackle these issues in the appropriate manner.

On the economy, they say they will seek to halve Britain's huge deficit through growth, "fair taxes" and "cuts to lower priority spending."

In the coming election, they will be challenged on precisely what they mean by "fairness" in taxation - and what, precisely, those "lower priority" programmes might be.

To date, in common with their rivals, they have been rather more eager to talk up the "frontline investment" which they hope to protect.

Overall direction

But the pledge card also features devolved issues such as health and crime. Challenged on whether that is misleading the voters, Labour says no.

The pledges include halving the waiting time for cancer patients and mandatory jail sentences for carrying a knife.

Labour says it will seek to implement these objectives in Holyrood now, from Opposition. If thwarted, these pledges will feature in the 2011 Holyrood manifesto.

It might be said that this is blurring the distinction between the two parliaments.

Labour's argument is that they are setting out the overall direction they intend to pursue in Scotland - and inviting voters to endorse that.

As to strategy, the talk here is of a twin approach. Invite voters to "take a long, hard look at the Tories".

"Brutal" squeeze

In effect, Labour will run this election in an oppositional approach, positing David Cameron as the virtual incumbent, the one to be brought down.

This is, of course, designed to counter the Tories' main message which is: "Ask yourself, do you really want another five years of Gordon Brown?"

Labour wants voters to make a choice between two parties - not to consider that they are participating in a referendum on Mr Brown.

Track two of the strategy is to attempt to narrow the choice in the voters' minds, to cut out the Liberal Democrats and the SNP.

A "brutal" squeeze, as one MP described it to me.

Street talk

Brian Taylor | 14:34 UK time, Thursday, 25 March 2010

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So now we know. You cannot call your political opponent a "numpty". Nor indeed a "sap".

This election is shaping up to be no fun at all.

To be precise, these were the rulings delivered by Holyrood Presiding Officer Alex Fergusson with regard to Scottish parliamentary exchanges.

Things may be rather more lax during the campaign itself.

So what prompted this torrent of street talk?

MSPs were arguing over the scope of the real terms increase or decrease in Scotland's departmental expenditure limit, as modified by the acceleration of capital expenditure.

I know, I know, doesn't sound like the sort of issue to provoke sound and fury, let alone abuse. But they are sensitive plants, our politicians - or, at least, they are when an election is looming.

'Total fantasy'

The "numpty" insult was hurled at the First Minister Alex Salmond. It came from the Labour front bench, in the neighbourhood of Andy Kerr.

Up with this the PO will not put. Rising magisterially, he demanded a retraction which was swiftly given.

So was the first minister emollient in return? He was not. He called Labour's Iain Gray a "sap" for repeating Budget job-creating claimsm, delivered by the Scotland Office, which, Mr Salmond reckoned, were "total fantasy".

Challenged by a growling PO, Mr Salmond withdrew. He called Mr Gray a "placeman" instead. Much better, I'm sure you'll agree.

The exchanges with the other leaders were comparably sharp. Annabel Goldie for the Tories noted that the Scottish Government's marketing budget appeared to be weighted towards spending in March.

Assuming her most concerned visage, she suggested this was SNP propaganda at the public expense.

Offering reassurance, Mr Salmond insisted it was "vital public information" largely connected with telling the public how to cope with the aftermath of the Big Freeze.

Hasty apology

Tavish Scott for the Lib Dems pursued his complaint about excessive public sector pay.

Mr Salmond said he was doing what he could within the constraint of contracts written by the previous administration (co-proprietor, T. Scott.)

The first minister then went too far. He accused his Lib Dem rival of being a known lawyer. Put right, he hastily apologised and withdrew his remark.

Politicians have faced these problems in the past. Unable to call an opponent a liar in the Commons, Winston Churchill resorted to accusing his counterpart of a "terminological inexactitude".

But, in any case, the best insults are understated. Thus Macmillan saying of his Labour rival: "If Harold Wilson went to school without any boots, it was merely because he was too big for them."

Or - my personal favourite - Ghandi, asked what he thought of Western civilisation.

Quietly, the Mahatma replied that he believed it would be a very good idea.

Election, anyone?

Brian Taylor | 16:14 UK time, Wednesday, 24 March 2010

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Sundry Scottish thoughts to add to the clanjamfrie of commentary anent the Budget.

All Budgets are partisan: they are announced by a senior politician whose motivation, at least in part, is to increase support for his own team and frustrate the opposition.

This one, weeks from an election, went further still. Alistair Darling is not much given to public displays of louche merriment.

But even he was struggling to suppress a wicked grin as he announced a deal to extract tax from the denizens of Belize (including Lord Ashcroft.)

Other measures were deliberately designed to counter Tory policies - or to pinch them.

Or, in the case of stamp duty, both: he's removing stamp duty from houses up to £250k while walloping those in mansions.

Cue much pointing at the Tory front bench.

Holyrood powers

With regard to Scotland, there is also a bout of jousting between the UK and Scottish governments.

The Scottish Secretary Jim Murphy says that there will be Barnett consequentials from the Budget adding up to £82m.

Aye, says John Swinney, the finance secretary, but it's nothing like what was needed in terms of accelerated capital investment. Oh, and £6m of the new money falls outwith the discretionary powers of Holyrood ministers.

Ah, says Mr Murphy, there's to be a tax break for the computer games industry - which will potentially benefit Dundee. Yes, says Mr Swinney, the Treasury has listened at long last.

But, says the SofS, Scots will benefit from £65m worth of increased payments on child tax credits and winter fuel payments.

Fine, says the FS, but that of itself will not drive forward sufficient growth in the economy. That needs productive capital investment.

Then there's the alcohol argument. Not, for once, the duty on whisky - although that is an issue - but the continuing debate over minimum pricing, discussed in committee at Holyrood again today.

Price of cider

Duty on cider will go up, exceptionally, by 10p over inflation from midnight on Sunday.

Labour says to Nicola Sturgeon: that means you can think again about minimum pricing as low-price cider was one of the "problems" identified.

No, say ministers. The 10p increase only pushes up the price of cider by a fraction of the increase which would be enforced by minimum pricing at, say, 40p per unit.

Labour replies: the increasing duty on cider is set to continue, although probably not at this first-year level.

Plus revenue from duty goes to the Treasury, to be diverted to public spending.

Revenue from price hikes goes to the retailer.

'Unfair penalties'

Although this is a UK measure, it appears plain that the Chancellor, an Edinburgh MP, was heavily influenced by that Scottish debate.

There's more. Could Scotland gain substantially from the planned Green Investment Bank, given the relevance of the renewable energy sector north of the border?

Quite possibly, say SNP ministers - but how about those unfair penalties on Scottish energy distribution?

Election, anyone?

Fightback budget?

Brian Taylor | 12:29 UK time, Tuesday, 23 March 2010

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Seldom has a Chancellor required to prise so much political credit from a Budget.

Seldom has a Chancellor had so few levers to tug.

Labour needs all the help it can get to avoid defeat at the forthcoming UK General Election.

Indeed, its organisational strategy, as described in the agenda for this weekend's Scottish party conference, is billed as "Operation Fightback".

Yet Alistair Darling has conceded, in advance, that he has nothing to give away, no sweeties to disburse.

Partly, of course, that is expectation control.

The voters will then be invited to applaud any concessions which he contrives to find - and, Labour hopes, to respond at the ballot box.

Partly, it is simple truth.

The leitmotif of politics going forward will be public spending constraint, not largesse.

However, we can expect the parties - all the parties - to finesse such matters to some extent while they appeal to the voters.

They will fix jaws and talk courageously of the tough decisions to be taken on public spending.

Detail may be a little more limited.

But back to Labour.

Can you imagine the Prime Minister's mood when he was told about the behaviour of Byers, Hoon and Hewitt, caught in a sting showing their apparent willingness to work for a lobbying firm in return for cash?

Is it not enough, he must be asking, that Geoff Hoon and Patricia Hewitt mounted a quasi-coup against him in January? Now this.

Labour is adamant that the former ministers have done nothing wrong - but, nonetheless, they have been suspended from the Parliamentary Labour Party for what Jack Straw called their "stupidity" in focusing upon their own future earnings rather than the current concerns of the electorate.

In Scotland, of course, more joy for Labour. Anne Moffat has been deselected, having lost her appeal against being dropped as the candidate in East Lothian.

Is she going quietly? Far from it.

She has spoken out against what she believes is a "bullying" culture at all levels of the party. She is particularly scathing about Iain Gray, accusing him of cowardice in failing to defend her.

Mr Gray, the MSP for East Lothian, declined to enter a slanging match with his erstwhile colleague. Instead, he said that the decision had been properly taken by a majority of the local party.

And, in Glasgow, more fall-out from the departure of Steven Purcell.

The Herald reports today that City Building, the council's arms length operation, will no longer host a stall at this weekend's Labour conference in the city.

No great surprise, given that such a policy was declared by the council - but a further twist in the tale nevertheless to follow my colleague Raymond Buchanan's disclosure that Glasgow businessman Willie Haughey has invited Scotland's spending watchdog to examine his contracts with the city council.

Mr Haughey is exasperated that he has been drawn into the row, declaring "enough is enough".

Mr Haughey, however, remains a firm Labour supporter and donor.

Labour leaders must simply hope they can prevail upon others to follow his lead.

Gordon Brown will argue at party conference this weekend that the choice is between social justice under Labour and an "age of austerity" under the Tories, with the SNP, he'll say, offering "a change we cannot afford".

To gain an audience with the electorate, to get a hearing for their message at all, politicians need a suitable environment, free from the sort of competing distractions currently besetting Labour.

Mr Brown must feel about sections of his party, as Clement Attlee did towards a troublesome colleague, that a "period of silence" would be welcome.

Money and choice

Brian Taylor | 12:17 UK time, Sunday, 21 March 2010

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It is, as so often, about money and political choice.

With Alistair Darling due to unveil his final pre-election Budget later this week, it could scarcely be otherwise.

But there is a distinct aspect of all this being canvassed here in Aviemore, at the SNP conference.

The prospect of cuts in public spending dominated Alex Salmond's speech yesterday - and dominates the agenda today.

Mr Salmond argued that the election of a substantial bloc of Nationalist MPs could help forestall early and disadvantageous cuts in Scotland.

As noted here before, this is of course about strategic positioning for the election: countering the claim by the SNP's rivals that the party is irrelevant in a UK context.

But there is now a new dimension.

The shadow chancellor George Osborne has suggested that further cuts in the Scottish spending package for 2010/11 could be deferred. Not cancelled, postponed.

Holyrood's overall budget is determined by Westminster.

There is due to be a new Comprehensive Spending Review, implemented from 2011. Nobody expects that to be anything other than hugely challenging.

The immediate dispute concerns John Swinney's Budget plans for the coming year, already negotiated and endorsed by Holyrood.

Mr Swinney and Mr Salmond are pressing hard for that package to be left alone.

This campaign has a dual dimension. Firstly, they - and councils across Scotland - genuinely want to protect the agreed budget.

Secondly, for the SNP, there is again a strategic political dimension in being seen to stand up for Scotland in the face of Westminster constraint.

The Osborne offer is intriguing. He is suggesting that any consequences for Scotland of emergency cuts he might bring in as Chancellor could be deferred until the next CSR is under way. Again, not abandoned. Deferred.

From a Tory point of view, this can be presented as part of David Cameron's declared intent to treat Scotland and the devolved settlement with respect, to deflect claims that he would have a minimal mandate to govern Scotland, given the relative dearth of Tory MPs north of the border which may or may not be altered by ther election.

From an SNP point of view, John Swinney and Alex Salmond are saying that they have their rivals "on the run", that they are recognising the validity of the Scottish government campaign, if not yet responding fully.

Money and choice.

Politics by slogan

Brian Taylor | 16:03 UK time, Thursday, 18 March 2010

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It was largely an exchange of insults; politics by slogan.

But, nonetheless, it was a sustained exchange on the topic which will dominate the coming UK General Election. The economy, that is.

The exchange, between Iain Gray and Alex Salmond, started rather tamely with each claiming the credit for new apprenticeships in Scotland.

That ended in a score draw.

Mr Gray then ambled through other aspects of the economy before arriving at his conclusion: that the jobless rate in Scotland was heading in the wrong direction and that Alex Salmond was to blame.

Enter the slogan: it was "Salmond's slump". Delivered with passion and verve.

Undeterred, the FM fought back with not one but two fervent slogans of his own.

The economic problems, apparently, could be traced to "Brown's bust" and "Darling's downturn".

Beneath it all, a substantive concern - with arguments to be advanced on both sides.

The FM noted, accurately, that in Scotland unemployment is lower and employment higher than in the UK as a whole.

He contrasted that with the situation some eight years earlier when Mr Gray had been Enterprise Minister.

Mr Gray noted, accurately, that the latest jobless figures in Scotland showed that advantage over the rest of the UK narrowing.

Why so, he queried, before offering his own answer. See above.

Mr Gray accused the FM of ditching job-creating projects such as GARL.

The FM accused the UK government of cutting the money available to Scotland and of lacking an economic stimulus package.

Later, Tavish Scott of the Liberal Democrats pursued broadly the same tack as Iain Gray - although he appeared to be allocating blame between Labour and the SNP.

As for the Tories, Annabel Goldie inquired whether the FM would be crossing the picket lines at Holyrood if civil servants strike, as planned, next Wednesday.

She plainly hoped to replicate the challenge laid down to Gordon Brown by David Cameron over the BA strike.

Mr Salmond declined to play. It was wise to be sensitive above such matters.

Still, he averred: "The business of government would continue".

Perhaps sensibly, he did not specify precisely where.

Sources of concern

Brian Taylor | 13:33 UK time, Wednesday, 17 March 2010

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Whichever way you count them - and there are many ways - those Scottish jobless figures are a potential source of concern.

There is, of course, a complex political blame game under way: a form of multi-dimensional chess. (Who said: "with pawns only, instead of kings and queens?" Take that person's name.)

But consider the data first. Overall unemployment in Scotland has risen by 16,000 in the three months to January. That contrasts with a fall of 33,000 in the UK as a whole.

The narrower claimant count in Scotland logged a drop of 600 since January. But it is still up sharply over the year - and contrasts with a much larger proportional drop in the UK claimant count of 32,300.

Some other stats. Long-term unemployment continues to rise. And, crucially, another number has risen. That is the register of those defined as "economically inactive": either because they are out of work or students or on long-term sick leave.

Analysts reckon that one factor is that young people facing the dole are turning to study instead.

In the longer term, that could of course be a plus factor - IF those young people gain additional skills thereby and IF the economy then picks up sufficiently to allow them to deploy those skills.

Economy 'stagnant'

Otherwise, the worry is that they are simply delaying their entry to the dole queue.

Another concern. Looming cuts in public sector spending will affect the jobs market - either directly or indirectly through contracts for suppliers. Scotland, with a substantial dependence on the public sector, could be vulnerable.

To the chess game, then. UK Labour ministers say the overall decline in the jobless total argues for continued effort to sustain the economy - and not, they imply, the early cuts in spending projected by the Conservatives.

The Tories say the economy still appears stagnant: they pin the blame for that upon Labour.

The Liberal Democrats focus upon economic inactivity. They urge the creation of "real jobs" rather than training schemes. And they note those relatively poor figures in Scotland, blaming Labour.

Scottish SNP ministers lay stress upon the "vital importance" of their economic recovery plan, arguing that it would be jeopardised by over-hasty cuts and would be assisted by further capital acceleration.

To conclude, Scotland still has a lower rate of unemployment than the UK as a whole. But the gap is narrowing.

The trend is a source of concern.

Little local difficulties

Brian Taylor | 10:08 UK time, Tuesday, 16 March 2010

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As the UK General Election approaches, the "people's party" in Scotland would appear to be beset by a series of "little local difficulties", to borrow a phrase from Harold Macmillan.

There are murmurs of discontent in Airdrie and Shotts where it is reported that the Labour constituency chair has resigned following the selection of a candidate from an all-women shortlist.

In East Lothian, there is continuing controversy over attempts to oust the sitting MP Anne Moffat as Labour's candidate.

Plus there is the continuing fall-out from the resignation of Steven Purcell as council leader in Glasgow.

The common factor, of course, is power.

Particularly where a single party has been dominant, power tends to be internalised rather than being wielded by the voters.

The key element may become the internal selection among a few - sometimes very few - party members rather than the external choice by the people.

Such a situation can lead to the development of factions, to the exercising of influence by informal networks and to a form of politics which looks inward rather than outwards.

The irony is that Steven Purcell was frequently credited with attempting to counter such forces: to modernise politics in Glasgow, including relations with the unions, to sustain links with the Scottish government, to challenge orthodoxy.

Now Labour's political opponents, the SNP, are urging a wider examination of Mr Purcell's personal behaviour while in office and the exercising of power through sub-groups such as the City Building organisation.

To that end, MP John Mason has approached the police.

In response, Labour is adamant that this is a smear campaign: extrapolating a generalised complaint from an individual, personal tragedy.

As evidence, Labour cites the comments of an SNP internet campaigner who has apologised for comments he made about the death of a young Labour activist Danus McKinlay who was a protégé of Councillor Purcell.

In response, the SNP that says these comments did not reflect the wider view of the party and that a disciplinary process is under way.

Considering the other issues individually, rather than in a collective light, Labour insists that its new candidate in Airdrie and Shotts was endorsed "by some considerable margin".

Rivals say they will let the voters judge.

Turning to East Lothian, Ms Moffat complains that she has faced "bullying" from party colleagues who want to control her.

Her critics stand by their complaints and are content to subject this to a vote of the local party on Friday.

One wonders whether Ms Moffat will regard a negative outcome from that ballot as similarly intimidatory or as a signal to depart.

Back to Supermac who once averred that political careers were dogged by "events, dear boy, events."

Labour is adamant that its overall election preparations and campaign will not be deterred by such developments.

'Give us the tooth!'

Brian Taylor | 14:38 UK time, Thursday, 11 March 2010

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Come the revolution, Denis Healey once opined, we shall abolish teeth.

The former Chancellor was suffering persistent pain from his own choppers at the time.
While (solely) an MP, Alex Salmond was contacted by a constituent, whom he knew well, on the subject of dentistry.

Teeth, Mr Salmond replied, are devolved.

They are indeed - and Annabel Goldie was concerned at their condition. Teeth, she said, are rotting all around us as we speak.

I think she was referring to the nation as a whole rather than MSP molars in particular. Either way, it was a horrid prospect.

In the Holyrood gallery, observers clenched their jaws defensively.

Her concern was with the cost of allowing folk to remain permanently on dental registers even if they never turn up for appointments.

School lessons

She felt this was offering the appearance of widespread dental treatment when the reality might be different.

Mr Salmond polished his incisors and snapped that it was important to retain people on registers, not drive them away.

Earlier, Mr Salmond and Labour's Iain Gray had bared their bicuspids at each other over the subject of the Curriculum for Excellence due to be welcomed by/inflicted upon Scotland's schools.

A former teacher, Mr Gray appeared, for a moment, to be back in the classroom. He repeatedly warned young Salmond to sit up straight and pay attention. (Actually, he said "listen carefully" but generations of school pupils knew what he meant.)

Mr Gray asked Mr Salmond to explain precisely when the new curriculum would be introduced in secondary schools, how many subjects would be offered, what exams would be taken and when.

And to show his working.

After some discussion, the answers were August, the same, the same, and four years.

Modern languages

Labour suggested later that this was wrong: that the subjects and exams would differ substantially and that there were suggestions that pupils might move into the new exam structure in S3.

Not so, says the Scottish government. The method of delivering education is changing with the new curriculum - but the fundamental subjects, such as modern languages, remain unchanged.

Or, as one minister put it to me: "You don't change the laws of physics just because you have introduced a new curriculum."

Scotty from Star Trek will be relieved.

Is it all over for Anne Moffat?

Brian Taylor | 17:56 UK time, Wednesday, 10 March 2010

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It's not looking at all good tonight for Anne Moffat MP.

It's been announced that there's to be a special meeting in her East Lothian constituency to decide whether she remains as the Labour candidate for the forthcoming UK General Election.

I say "forthcoming" - but, of course, that election is all but upon us.

Scarcely the best way, you might think, to prepare for an appeal to the voters.
But then this internal battle has been remarkable throughout, both for its duration and for its ferocity.

To be clear, it is not all over for the MP. In the first instance, she faces a meeting of local members. If that goes against her, she has the right to appeal to Labour's National Executive Committee who can confirm, vary or reverse the decision.

On a previous occasion, she was saved by trade union support from potentially being ousted. As the row escalated in intensity, the local party was temporarily suspended.

Her critics say she has not performed sufficiently effectively as a constituency MP. In response, she argues that she has been the victim of a smear campaign by a vocal minority.

Wonder whether Alex Salmond might find a moment tomorrow to mention all this when he is questioned in Holyrood by Iain Gray, the MSP for East Lothian?

The cost of drink

Brian Taylor | 11:31 UK time, Wednesday, 10 March 2010

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Intriguing exchanges in the health committee today with the drinks industry, mostly, pressing hard against Scottish Government plans for minimum pricing for alcohol.

One exception is Tennent's Caledonian who argued that, if implemented appropriately, minimum pricing could be part of a package aimed at tackling the social problems associated with drink, especially if it was aimed at the high-strength products.

But, for the most part, the drinks industry executives giving evidence to MSPs today argued that minimum pricing was a blunt instrument which would do little to tackle perceived problems and would risk harming their business considerably in the bygoing.

Whyte and Mackay, for example, warned of damage that would be done to their production of low-cost, supermarket own-brand Scotch.

They forecast that between 200 and 300 jobs could go.

Further, the industry argued that minimum pricing was illegal under European law - and would be challenged as such, should the Scottish government proceed.

The discussion this morning ranged far and wide through labelling, health warnings and other issues - as it did later on such issues as the planned social responsibility levy.

Trading laws

It appeared from the general tone of the questioning that MSPs felt the industry could do more to address the social consequences of their products.

But perhaps the sharpest exchanges occurred between Michael Matheson MSP and Gavin Hewitt, the chief executive of the Scotch Whisky Association.

Mr Mathieson was plainly exasperated by Mr Hewitt's repeated insistence that minimum pricing would be illegal in that it interfered with international trading laws on price-setting.

Mr Hewitt asserted that, should an exception be made for Scotland, then other countries might use that precedent in order to impose punitive pricing on imported Scotch in order to protect their home markets.

He gave the example of Korea where, he said, the association had to be perpetually alert to the prospect of discriminatory pricing.

The Koreans, he said, had a health tax waiting in the wings which would affect only spirits that were more 30% alcohol by volume.

That would hit Scotch but would not affect local Korean Soju.

Scotch trade

According to Mr Hewitt, the Korean health tax was only kept at bay because it was internationally illegal to use such devices to interfere with price mechanisms.

Scotland might, inadvertently, create a precedent, potentially affecting £600m in trade for Scotch.

Mr Mathieson disputed that. He said that, if the European Union ruled minimum pricing in Scotland was legal, then such an initiative could not be used as a global precdent.

Mr Hewitt, in turn, disputed that.

UPDATE AT 1440: Clarification re the jobs point which emerged after the committee hearing.

It now appears the assertion by Whyte and Mackay re job losses is based upon an assessment of what might happen if minimum pricing were to be introduced across the UK.

But, of course, the proposal is presently being advanced by the Scottish government. For Scotland only.

All quiet on the Holyrood front

Brian Taylor | 13:16 UK time, Tuesday, 9 March 2010

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Holyrood feels notably quiet today - with the exception of the main front door where there has been a cheerful but determined picket line.

The reason? Members of the Public and Commercial Services union are pursuing strike action in protest at what they argue are unfair changes to their redundancy provision.

The strike of itself did not bring Holyrood to a close - even although some 200 out of the 500 parliamentary staff are supporting the industrial action.

Holyrood conveners concluded that many MSPs would feel sufficiently uncomfortable about taking part in committee business today that they would absent themselves.

It was, consequently, concluded that committee business should be deferred until next week with the exception of one committee which will meet tomorrow.

As to the strike, PCS members say low-paid members stand to lose up to a third of their redundancy entitlement under the changes proposed by the UK government.

In response, UK Ministers say that the redundancy proposals are fair and agreed by five out of six unions.

Fairness in the Fair City

Brian Taylor | 17:53 UK time, Friday, 5 March 2010

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In Perth for the Scottish Liberal Democrat conference.

Attention, at least in part, is elsewhere. Some party eyes wander towards the telly to catch up with what Gordon Brown is saying at the Iraq inquiry.

Nick Clegg is no different. He delayed his speech in order to be able to offer an instantaneous reaction, minutes after Mr Brown's evidence ended.

The PM had defended the Iraq invasion as "right". That, according to Mr Clegg, sums up why Mr Brown cannot be trusted with the continuing leadership of the UK.

But who, then, can? Again, attention elsewhere. Would the LibDems endorse the Labour Party or the Conservative Party in a potential Westminster coalition?

I can understand that this must be exasperating for the LibDems who simply want to say . . . vote for us and here's why.

It remains, however, a cogent question.

Rival support

Fundamentally, of course, the LibDems and everyone else would be driven by the voters. If the sums don't add up, then no deal. If they do, then possible bargain.

The starting point in such circumstances would be for the largest party at Westminster to seek to govern with or without the support of others.

But can the LibDems' rivals all be treated with absolute equity?

In a webcast interview, I posited a particular scenario to Alistair Carmichael, the party's spokesperson on Scottish Affairs at Westminster.

What might happen, I queried, if Labour had lost ground, had lost seats but remained, just, the largest party? Mr Carmichael frankly acknowledged that it would be difficult in such a scenario for the LibDems to restore Mr Brown to power.

I suppose it might also depend on what has happened to voting share. It is conceivable, for example, that Labour retains the largest number of seats while polling below the Tories on overall share.

All entertaining stuff - but for the future. Right now, the LibDems say they will set out the core values upon which they stand - and which, by implication, they'd bring to any negotiating table in the event of a hung parliament.

Green jobs

These are all, they say, motivated by fairness. Support for a child's early years (devolved, of course.) Cleaner politics.

Tax reform to cut the burden on the lowest paid while adding to the imposition on the richest. Breaking up the banks in the longer term, imposing a levy on their profits for now (if, of course, they are making any.) Investment in Green technology to create jobs.

Look into my eyes . . .

Brian Taylor | 13:24 UK time, Thursday, 4 March 2010

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There was a fair touch of the business that is show on offer at Holyrood today.

Any second, one expected Alex Salmond to essay a soft-shoe shuffle, bedecked by a top hat.

Now, Mr Salmond has something of a reputation as a performer. Awed viewers still recall his excellent impersonation of the Rev I.M. Jolly for BBC Children in Need.

And he can seldom resist the temptation to add a little mischievous humour to his speeches.

But today it was Opposition leaders who ventured into the footlights. Firstly, Iain Gray complained that Skills Development Scotland was apparently spending £20,000 to hire the hypnotist Paul McKenna to enthuse unemployed Scots youngsters.

Mr Gray had a core point - that the cash would be better spent on literacy training.

But his satirical efforts to suggest that Mr Salmond was the illusionist, while diverting, were perhaps just a mite laboured.

Black ink

Only a mite, though. And it was perhaps a little cruel of the first minister to suggest that his opponent's delivery was more soporific than any hypnotist.

Annabel Goldie employed a visual gag to aid her performance. She brandished a document released under Freedom of Information - which was all but obliterated in black ink.

This is known in the trade as "redaction". (Translation: cutting out the good bits.)

It was a nifty piece of biz, with good timing. But the first minister appeared to think that it was a device to disguise the lack of substance in her complaint.

This was that Scottish government money had gone to STV as part-sponsorship of programmes on Scottish life, including an initiative linked to the Homecoming drive.

In his best mock-serious voice, Mr Salmond solemnly listed the shows which had benefited in this way. Such as "Make me Happier."

An endeavour, he said, which he pursued personally on a daily basis.

Scottish interests

The suggestion appeared to be that this was SNP propaganda at public expense.

Mr Salmond replied that the list of sponsored programmes had been fronted by or involved such noted Nationalists as Alastair Campbell, Ming Campbell and Charles Kennedy.

Ministers had played no part at all in determining programme content.

TV Sponsorship, he said, was aimed at promoting Scottish interests where that was thought relevant.

The previous Labour/LibDem administrations, he said, had spent twice as much on the same objective.

Still, in response to inquiries, Ofcom is having a look. Which may or may not provide a sequel.

Tavish Scott of the LibDems was concerned at the costs which could confront those taking the show on the road - or rather the hotels which accommodate them.

Good answer

He listed the hotels occupied by the Scottish Cabinet during its 2009 summer tour of Scotland, enthralling the citizenry. (Not sure if the merchandise is still available but, if it is, snap it up.)

Mr Scott pointed out that those hotels and many others were about to face hugely increased bills because of a rates revaluation.

It was a good question and Mr Salmond gave a good answer. However, the good answer was not in response to the good question.

Mr Scott had asked, precisely, about hotels. Mr Salmond replied by stating the benefits brought to firms, particularly of the small variety, by the Scottish government's efforts to curb business rates.

The FM noted further that he was not responsible in any way for the revaluation which was conducted by an independent assessor.

True, of course, absolutely true - but scarcely a comfort to those hotels facing a hike in costs.

A debate about debates

Brian Taylor | 12:02 UK time, Wednesday, 3 March 2010

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So let's have a debate. About debates. Specifically, about the proposals for Prime Ministerial debates in the run-up to the UK General Election, now detailed by ITV, Sky and the BBC.

To recap, it has now been agreed that each broadcaster will stage a 90-minute debate featuring the three main UK party leaders: Gordon Brown, David Cameron and Nick Clegg. Detailed rules govern all three programmes.

The first debate will be screened by ITV and will contain a themed section majoring on domestic matters before moving to general questions.

The second will be broadcast by Sky: its opening theme will be international affairs.

Debate number three will be on BBC One, with the themed section spotlighting the economy.

In Scotland, a substantial controversy has arisen. The SNP object that the proposed package excludes them and, as all three debates will be staged at venues in England, also excludes Scotland.

They are critical, in particular, of the BBC, arguing that the licence fee system entails an additional obligation to offer equity across the whole of the UK.

Peak time

In tandem with the announcement of the three programmes, the BBC has announced a series of initiatives aimed at offering an opportunity for the SNP perspective to be aired.

Firstly, there will, as in past elections, be a BBC Scotland televised debate, featuring the four main Scottish parties.

This will be aired at peak time in Scotland, subsequent to the UK-wide debate.

Secondly, immediately after the BBC's UK-wide debate, there will be an early Scottish opt-out within BBC One's News at Ten, featuring a live interview with the SNP.

Thirdly, Newsnight Scotland will go on air earlier than usual that night to discuss the debate. The SNP will be featured.

Fourthly, the SNP will be invited to take part in the Today programme and Good Morning Scotland the morning after the BBC UK-wide debate.

Finally, BBC network radio channels which take the UK-wide debate will broadcast an analysis programme immediately afterwards, again featuring the SNP.

I am sure you, as respondents, will have views. Probably rather trenchant views, on either side of the argument.

'Fringe' party

Perhaps it might help to reflect upon the various competing points made with regard to this issue.

Those supporting the debate plan as it stands say Alex Salmond is neither a candidate for Westminster nor a contender for Prime Minister because his party only contests the 59 Scottish seats out of Westminster's total of 650.

Pursuing that argument, Labour MP David Cairns told GMS listeners this morning that the SNP was a "fringe minority party" in Westminster terms.

In response, the SNP says that the UK has a Parliamentary system, not a Presidential one, and that it is unfair to reach a conclusion which excludes the party which topped the poll at the last Holyrood and European Elections in Scotland.

Pursuing that point, SNP Westminster leader Angus Robertson told GMS that Nick Clegg had no prospect of being Prime Minister - and yet was included within the debate.

Mr Cairns says that is because the Liberal Democrats will contest all GB seats and, thereby, Mr Clegg is a potential contender for Downing Street.

Mr Robertson says there is a requirement upon broadcasters - and particularly the BBC - to afford equity across the UK.

Those who support the planned arrangements say that the SNP will have ample opportunity to get their points across in other broadcasting arenas, not least in the televised Scottish debates.

Face-to-face

That, they say, is the appropriate treatment for a party which has no UK-wide locus.

In response, the SNP say that the UK-wide debates will be broadcast in Scotland and will, potentially, have an influence upon Scottish voters.

A Scotland-only debate may mitigate that but does not entirely counter the imbalance created, for Scotland, by the UK programmes.

The SNP objects that the BBC, in particular, has not met the party's leadership face-to-face in advance of formulating the plan for UK debates.

The BBC says that there has been repeated contact with the SNP on the issue and that a meeting has now been arranged through Alex Salmond's office.

Finally, critics accuse the SNP of seeking to stifle discussion, of seeking to close down these UK-wide debates in pursuit of their own ends.

The SNP say their attitude is supportive of debates, that they are not seeking to prevent them taking place - but that there should be equitable treatment.

PS: On Friday, I'll be quizzing Liberal Democrat Scottish affairs spokesman Alistair Carmichael in a BBC webcast at the party's conference - please send in your questions by clicking here.

The business of politics

Brian Taylor | 12:48 UK time, Tuesday, 2 March 2010

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Politics can be a brutal business.

In Glasgow City Council, by custom and repute, they have tended to elevate such toughness to an upper level.

Now we learn that the leader of the city council, Steven Purcell, has stepped down, blaming "stress and exhaustion".

It is said further on his behalf that he has agreed to seek medical help and is consequently under doctor's orders.

The origins of Mr Purcell's stress are said to originate in the challenges of dealing with the umpteen pressures at his local authority, the largest in Scotland.

Pressures cited include the upcoming Commonwealth Games and the continuing controversy over Strathclyde Partnership for Transport.

Mr Purcell has hired the PR firm, Media House, to represent his interests.

Here at Holyrood and in the city council itself, there is an effort underway to understand, appreciate and sympathise with the personal challenges which would appear to have beset the leader: at 37, relatively young in local authority terms.

His deputy, Jim Coleman, steps up temporarily, assuring the people of Glasgow that it will be "business as usual".

Curriculum for Mediocrity?

Brian Taylor | 12:29 UK time, Monday, 1 March 2010

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Scotland's education system, it seems to me, has suffered from two fundamental problems.

One, an overblown conceit of itself. Two, a temptation to experiment among people who should know better.

It is almost the direct opposite of the attitudes which pervade with regard to the health service.

There, people voice concern about the general direction of care while acknowledging that their own personal experience has, mostly, been positive.

With education, we cling stubbornly to the view that the Scottish system is the best in the world - while evidence all around us points in a contrary direction.

Is it possible, just possible, that there may be the first signs of a change?

Today, we learn that the teaching union the Scottish Secondary Teachers Association are suggesting the Curriculum for Excellence might have to be delayed.

Fresh thinking?

They note its objective of cross-curricular instruction may be fine and dandy for primary school where such an approach is already the norm.

It may, however, require a little work when one is obliged to blend Mathematics, Modern Languages and PE into the mix.

The danger, they seem to be suggesting, is that over-eager implementation might lead to an unsuitable system for a generation of secondary pupils - to a Curriculum for Mediocrity, in short.

Far from ridiculing this suggestion as the meanderings of class-room Luddites, Education Secretary Mike Russell has indicated he is open to persuasion on this point.

Further, Mr Russell has recently been animadverting on the near-uniformity of our delivery systems in schools.

Why, he has pondered, should we not consider other structures? Fresh thinking?

The SNP are not without their critics in this field. Their ambitious promises re class sizes in early years are now coming back to bite them in decidedly tender zones.

But it is to be hoped that the minister's musings might attract discussion shorn of prejudice and fixed positions.

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