BBC BLOGS - Blether with Brian

Archives for September 2010

What's in a name?

Brian Taylor | 15:34 UK time, Thursday, 30 September 2010


For a man who had just been described as "daft, deluded, deranged and downright dangerous", Alex Salmond appeared remarkably sanguine.

Or, to sustain the alliteration, disinclined to fret.

Why so? Because he had dealt deftly and distinctively with the damnation delivered in his direction.

Indeed, Mr Salmond was able to arrive comfortably at what, for a politician, amounts to apotheosis: his glance at Mr Gray appeared to be one of marshalled pity, rather than contempt.

The attack had been founded, once more, upon Mr Salmond's "arc of prosperity"
comparisons. Which countries, said Mr Gray, now fitted that description?

It must have sounded fine in preparation, in rehearsal.

But, upon delivery, it foundered upon a solid rock of economic and oil statistics constructed by the first minister.

'Brutal' language

More generally, though, isn't the nature of the attack intriguing? With an eye to elections, we already know that the SNP plan to draw a personal contrast between their man and Labour's leader.

This, it would seem, may be the prebuttal: that Alex Salmond is so personally obsessed with independence that he is unfit to govern. No doubt the leaflet is already in draft form.

The language is notably brutal. "Daft?" That's part of the common currency of what passes for political debate in these debased times.

Ditto dangerous and deluded. But "deranged"?

In any event, on the day, Mr Salmond was barely dented by the attack. Just as well, really, because he stumbled into a few minor linguistic problems of his own.

Responding to Tavish Scott on the topic of The Gathering, he was minded to mention the leader of Edinburgh City Council.

But could he remember the name? He knew she was called Jenny. So he tried "Jenny Geddes."

Chair gag

No, first minister, she was the woman who chucked a chair at the Minister of St Giles for using the Anglican Common Prayer Book.

To be fair, the FM - who undoubtedly reads his Sir Walter Scott - instantly recalled the said Geddes and divested himself of a chair gag.

Try again. "Jenny Gilmour?". Nope. Wasn't she one of the organisers of the Gathering?

Eventually, he resorted to "just Jenny" - before recalling that the council leader, a Liberal Democrat, is Jenny Dawe.

Throughout his mind search, the first minister remained in hugely good humour. Indeed, he seemed dapper, diligent, dedicated and diplomatic.

Some might demur but must would say: "FMQs? A dawdle." Today, at least.

Work in progress

Brian Taylor | 16:15 UK time, Tuesday, 28 September 2010


A sensible and sagacious Scottish politician recently observed to me that elections are won, broadly, from three stratagems or combinations thereof.

Those are: time for change; trust the people, not the machine; and the right person for the job.

In his conference speech, Ed Miliband deployed the first two, thereby inviting the audience in the hall in Manchester to infer the third.

Intriguingly, though, those first two stratagems were deployed with regard to his own party, not his opponents.

With regard to the Tories, he cited areas of agreement while stressing his fundamental disagreement on the pace and scope of spending cuts.

With regard to the Lib Dems, he backed the Alternative Vote and, obliquely, praised that party's history by listing Liberals such as Lloyd George among his political heroes.

Think of that change message. It is commonly deployed just before an election.

It was used with obvious success by Alex Salmond at the last Holyrood election.

War 'wrong'

But, as Labour leader at Westminster, Ed Miliband won't face a direct electoral challenge for years.

Rather, the change he envisaged and offered was from the immediate past of his own party.

Labour had become complacent, naïve about the power of the markets, "the prisoner of its own certainties".

In particular, he declared that the Iraq war was plain wrong.

Further, he sought to counter suggestions that he is in hock to the unions by condemning "overblown rhetoric about waves of irresponsible strikes".

On "trusting the people", he suggested that New Labour had been tarnished on occasion by the elite company kept, had become the establishment machine rather than the restless agent of change.

This, though, was an introduction, a declaration of intent, not a substantive essay.

'Living wage'

It told us what he is not, what he hopes to offer - not, yet, his detailed position on, for example, tax, Trident or immigration.

Understandable, given that he has been in post for just three days.

However, there were clear pointers: support for a "living wage", the idea championed by Iain Gray in his conference speech; a declaration (echoes of Robin Cook) that foreign and defence policy must be governed by values, not simply ancient alliances; and a desire to prevent employers from using cheap migrant labour to undermine conditions for others.

On all fronts, though, work still in progress - particularly with regard to that third stratagem.

Getting Scotland

Brian Taylor | 12:45 UK time, Monday, 27 September 2010


Ed, we are conjoined to believe, "gets Scotland".

It is said that Mrs Miliband's younger - and now more prominent - son understands the concept of a distinct Scottish body politic.

This might simply mean, cynics will say, that he is content to treat Scotland with benign neglect, untroubled by developments north of Hadrian's Wall.

Not so, says Iain Gray. Ed "gets Scotland" in two ways: appreciating the need to underline the status of the Scottish party; and appreciating that Scotland will provide the first test of his leadership, with the Holyrood elections in May.

"Getting Scotland", by that interpretation, should mean a place for Mr Gray in the party's National Executive Committee - what we journalists were once pleased to call the "ruling NEC".

It should mean an enhanced emphasis upon policy autonomy for the Scottish party.

As I have noted frequently, the party which legislated for Scottish devolution remains the least devolved of the political parties in spirit.

Longer term, it might even mean a further evolution of Mr Gray's role from the present confines as "leader of Labour in the Scottish Parliament".

Discontented voters

Will Scotland "get Ed?" Depends on what he says, depends on what he offers, most notably in his conference speech here in Manchester tomorrow.

Among delegates, there is a sense of anticipation - but also of apprehension: concern that he may not be able to define his political and economic stance in a fashion which appeals to discontented voters.

Concern, in short, that the party's arcane electoral system has generated the wrong result.

And what of Scotland? Iain Gray produced a policy announcement today. It was one which will cost money rather than save it.

The plan for a "living wage", currently set at £7.15 an hour, is of relatively limited scope.

It would apply to those public sector employees who do not currently receive such a wage.

Labour would then attempt to persuade private sector employers, through such devices as procurement contracts, to follow suit.

Tax credits

It would cost £20m - but Labour argues that the experience in Glasgow, where the city council pursued such a course, is that absenteeism declines, improving efficiency.

It would also involve a fiscal transfer from Edinburgh to London.

That would happen because improving the pay of public servants would, in some cases, lift them out of tax credits.

The Scottish government would face the cost of paying the higher wages while the tax credit money saved would revert to the Treasury.

For Iain Gray, though, this is a declaration of priorities: an assertion that, within difficult economic circumstances, he would still find money for the lowest paid as advance compensation for the cuts to come.

It is a statement of values.

And those cuts? We get the Comprehensive Spending Review from the Chancellor on October 20.

Within a month from that, John Swinney will spell out his consequential Scottish budget decisions.

Balancing books

At that point, Labour will offer a critical narrative upon the Swinney plans, perhaps indicating what they like; certainly stressing what they dislike.

But there will be no shadow Budget from Labour in Scotland.

No full, detailed indication of how they would balance the books, how they would do the sums.

That will be reserved for the party's manifesto in advance of the May elections.

This will be a source of contention.

Unless there is sufficient outline detail in the response to Mr Swinney, Labour will face pressure from their rivals - governmental and opposition - to show more of their hand.

To say what they would do about the economy, about public spending.

"Soporific tendencies"

Brian Taylor | 13:47 UK time, Thursday, 23 September 2010


Few things delight a politician more than being able to cite external support for their arguments.

In that respect, they resemble publishers or theatre producers who quote happily, if sometimes selectively, from reviews of their oeuvres.

You know the sort of thing. "This play is both interesting and new", the billboard will shriek, neglecting to add the rest of the quote: "Sadly, the new bits are not interesting and the interesting bits are not new."

Today at Holyrood Alex Salmond turned to the Sage of the Scotsman to spice up his replies.

The Sage? Bill Jamieson, of course.

The worthy Bill takes a full page in the Scotsperson to diagnose the SNP's electoral problems - but to suggest that they have a counter-weight; to wit, the calibre of their Labour opponents.

In particular, Mr Salmond quoted at length - and with obvious approval - the suggestion by Mr Jamieson that Labour's Iain Gray has soporific tendencies.

No doubt pressed for time, Mr Salmond found himself unable to feature the conclusion of the article in which the bold Bill also questioned the intrinsic purpose of the SNP leader.

Government 'failure'

Still, the quotation, triumphantly delivered, enabled the first minister to land a hit, a very palpable hit, upon the Labour leader.

The exchanges had focused upon the economy and public spending.

Mr Gray suggested that the SNP leader had failed in his government's declared purpose, to grow the economy.

Labour's essential purpose is to plant in the public mind the concept of a "Salmond slump".

That, one supposes, would be in addition to the financial crisis and recession of the past few years.

Again, presumably, it was lack of time which prevented Mr Gray from reminding MSPs which party held sway at the Treasury while those catastrophic events occurred.

Ah, the liberation of opposition. No longer does Iain Gray have to defend UK economic policies.

He can lambast both the Scottish and UK governments simultaneously.

Lambasting governments

To be fair, Mr Gray's core point was that there were cuts in progress now, in nursing and teaching posts, which would impact upon Scotland's economic prospects.

Again, though, the snag for the Labour leader is that Mr Salmond has a ready answer. Two, in fact.

He can lambast the UK governments, past and present, for the overall handling of the economy which, he says, has brought about the cuts in spending.

Plus he can - and did - argue that his government can only make a significant impact upon the post-recession economy by gaining and deploying the full range of fiscal and financial levers currently reserved to Westminster.

As to the others, Tavish Scott pursued the problems with the Commonwealth Games at Delhi.

Both Mr Salmond and, earlier, the Sports Minister Shona Robison were notably emollient, no doubt partly with an eye to preventing any backlash which might damage the Glasgow games in 2014.

And there were intriguing exchanges between the first minister and Annabel Goldie. These confirmed that the Scottish Government is preparing options with regard to the longer-term funding of universities.

"Innovative" plans

Mr Salmond was firm: no to up-front tuition fees. I believe he has also set his face against reviving the graduate endowment.

After all, the abolition of that levy will feature substantially in the SNP's list of claimed gains from their tenure in office.

Instead, a forthcoming Green Paper may feature around five options, including possibly a graduate tax and other "innovative" plans.

Scotland awaits with interest.

'Smoking ban moment' denied

Brian Taylor | 11:25 UK time, Wednesday, 22 September 2010


And so minimum pricing for alcohol has been vetoed by MSPs - or, more precisely, thwarted at committee stage.

It remains open to ministers to seek to reintroduce the plan at stage three, under consideration by the whole parliament.

This they will do: one, because they believe the policy is correct and, two, because it will oblige their opponents, all their opponents, to show their hand - or at least their button-pushing finger - in full open session.

Opponents of the measure say it is impractical; that it would not deter hardened drinkers; that it would simply put money in supermarket tills; and that it might encourage countries elsewhere to introduce a punitive "health tax" on Scotch whisky.

Supporters of the measure point to the backing they have received from senior figures in the health service and the police: those, in short, who deal with the worst consequences of Scotland's alcohol problem.

The electoral consequences? I doubt whether this particular issue, important though it is, will sway substantial numbers of votes at the next Holyrood elections: at least, by comparison with the much bigger impact of public spending cuts.

But it has added to the long-established mistrust between the SNP and Labour in particular.

No majority

Labour says the episode has demonstrated a Nationalist adherence to dogma, pursuing a course of action long after it had been repeatedly signalled that there was no parliamentary majority.

The SNP says that Labour's opposition to the measure was founded not on principle - but on a partisan wish to deny the Nationalist government its "smoking ban moment".

In particular, Nationalists say that Labour has been light on serious, sustainable alternative policies. Labour's commission, they say, was shown to be weak on empirical detail when subjected to committee examination at Holyrood.

The accusations from either side, needless to say, are denied by the other.

Sitting down and sorting it out

Brian Taylor | 13:40 UK time, Monday, 20 September 2010


Intriguing argument from Jo Swinson on the wireless anent the wisdom of forming a coalition.

Intriguing but, partly, specious.

The Scottish Lib Dems deputy leader said that, in ordinary walks of life, folk generally had to get on with their colleagues.

In the workplace, for example, those with a different outlook on matters had to set those differences aside for the common good.

True, true. But, generally, the IT Department and Finance, for example, don't run preceding and subsequent campaigns suggesting that the members of the other lot should be kicked out.

Lib Dem and Tory politicians do exactly that. Indeed, Nick Clegg is rightly taking pains at his party's Liverpool federal conference to stress that the LibDems are a distinctive organisation who fought the Tories at the last UK election and will do so, vigorously, at the next.

It is not, therefore, purely the existence of coalition that is causing strain for the Lib Dems.

It is the contrast with previous statements: for example, with regard to VAT or the speed of spending cuts.

'Sort it out'

Where Ms Swinson is on surer ground is her assertion that folk generally like politicians to co-operate.

True, again. But, customarily, the popular desire for collaboration is inchoate.

They want politicians to "sit down together and sort it out" without always specifying what "it", the end objective, might be.

They want politicians to work together to do nice things, to make the sun shine.

Not to accelerate specific spending cuts, however much they may agree, in very general terms, that constraint is required.

So the LibDems face a tough period ahead, particularly in Scotland where the next electoral test is scheduled for May, the Holyrood elections.

Mr Clegg and his colleagues have three broad messages, each with varying degrees of potency: that the coalition was right and imperative, given the electoral arithmetic; that the people would not have forgiven the Lib Dems had they walked away from the challenge; and that the financial and fiscal medicine, although hard to swallow, will ultimately revive the patient.

His party colleagues must hope that the voters follow his syllogism to the conclusion.

Faith and reconciliation

Brian Taylor | 13:38 UK time, Thursday, 16 September 2010


The foreground, the image presented, is one of reconciliation and dialogue.

That is, of course, deliberately designed to contrast with a background, a history, which is one of conflict and tension.

Firstly, think of the theological and constitutional concatenation involved in the Queen and the Pope addressing each other at Holyrood Palace.

The Queen, Defender of the Faith, head of the Established church in England whose very origin involved a calculated break from Rome.

The Pope, head of that Roman Catholic faith.

Past tension

Some of that intrinsic past tension was reflected. Her Majesty referred to overcoming "old suspicions". His Holiness spoke of the need to stress the "deep Christian roots" present in British life.

Of course, both remarks also reflect the decline in avowed Christian faith generally, regardless of denomination.

In essence, the argument is that the Protestant and Catholic traditions should find ways to co-operate in the face of what the Pope called "aggressive" secularism: That they should recognise that they have an enemy in common rather than regarding each other as opponents.

Specifically, the Queen suggested that there should be a closer working relationship between the Roman Catholic church, the Church of England and the Kirk.

Other tensions, other conflict. It is certainly no accident that both the Queen and the Pope praised efforts to entrench peace in Northern Ireland. Religious conflict there has tended to generate rather more than "old suspicions".

Other tensions, other conflict. The Pope - once a conscripted member of the Hitler Youth - praised Britain's stand against Nazi tyranny.

Sex abuse

Other tensions, newer tensions. The visit has been marred by the sustained scandal over child sex abuse within the Catholic church.

On the plane over, the Pope expressed his shock at these revelations alongside his sadness that the church had not acted with sufficient vigilance or speed.

Other tensions, older tensions. Those "old suspicions" were prominent in Scotland in the past, often virulently.

In the earlier part of the 20th Century, those suspicions had a political dimension. The Tories in Scotland were known as the Unionists and had a distinctly Orange tinge.

Labour cultivated votes among Catholics, some of whom were said to suspect that a distinct Scottish Assembly might resemble the old Stormont and were disquieted as a result.

It is against that background that the Scottish National Party has, for several decades, sought to neutralise and placate that Catholic disquiet, to prise Catholics from the offered embrace of the Labour Party.

That is just one of the reasons why First Minister Alex Salmond has been so effusive in his welcome to the Pope. The others being decency, courtesy, humanity and diplomatic dignity.

Sunny parade
Other tensions, older tensions. In visiting Scotland, the Pope is visiting a nation where the Reformation was intended to end the influence of Catholicism.

The Union of 1707 was designed to entrench the Protestant succession to the throne.

Article Two of the Union Treaty bars "Papists and persons marrying Papists" from wearing the Crown.

Such matters went, quite deliberately, unmentioned: a reflection of an altered, encompassing Scotland.

At Edinburgh Castle earlier this week, Cardinal O'Brien made a passing droll reference to the Reformation. Basily Fawlty style, I think he got away with it.

But these tensions, these conflicts, these old suspicions, these new concerns, are the deep background to the gloriously sunny parade, the Popemobile, the Papal tartan and the rest.

The tone, the endeavour, is of reconciliation - but also a reassertion of the function of faith in an apparently secularised society.

Mutually defending, if you like, not a solitary faith or denomination but the concept of faith itself.

Scottish unemployment - it's up again

Brian Taylor | 15:18 UK time, Wednesday, 15 September 2010


Worrying figures yet again on Scottish unemployment.

The rate is up and the trend is worse than south of the border.

Politically, this has prompted two strands of debate. Firstly, the impact of coming spending cuts.

Secondly, an assessment of the nature of the Scottish economy.

In political circles, debate number one now centres around the depth and pace of cuts: not, mostly, whether those cuts should happen in the first place.

Political parties at Holyrood, as billed previously, are presently jockeying with each other as to which of them will show their hand first on spending strategy - or, more precisely, whether all the opposition parties will have a substantive response to offer to John Swinney's package when it emerges.

Longer term, debate number two may be more germane still. Is Scotland's private sector economy fundamentally stagnant or merely temporarily sluggish?

Enhancing growth

Is growth forever doomed to lag behind the UK average? Would changes in existing policy, within existing devolved powers, alter that? Or enhanced devolution? Or fiscal autonomy? Or independence?

Can a revitalised private sector replace the jobs which are bound to be lost in the public sector, once cuts are in place?

Or will that endeavour be neutralised or even reversed by the very impact of those cuts on, for example, private suppliers?

In response, we have the union sector broadly resisting cuts, most notably at the TUC.

We have the business sector attempting to straddle both debates by arguing that priority must be given within public spending to those programmes which sustain and enhance growth.

Must try harder

Brian Taylor | 12:40 UK time, Tuesday, 14 September 2010


Good start but must try harder.

That will undoubtedly be the verdict of the opposition parties upon the latest plan for class sizes. Or at least the more polite and restrained among them.

More to the point, it will be Michael Russell's verdict upon his own scheme. He knows, he knows, that, as it stands, it falls short of the SNP's manifesto promise.

In summary, the education secretary is proposing to place a lower legal limit on the size of classes in Primary One.

The new limit, at 25, is designed to assist schools in capping class sizes where they face placing requests from parents. It will apply from 2011/12.

In confirming the policy, Mr Russell insisted that the SNP government would continue to pursue the manifesto objective of cutting class sizes to 18 or fewer in P1 to P3.

The contrast between aim and actuality, he said, was driven by "very difficult financial circumstances."

It remained open to individual councis to strive for the 18 target, deploying the "flexibility" inherent in the government's revised approach.

Broadly, Mr Russell's opponents will say to the electorate: "They promised. They failed."

Broadly, SNP Ministers will say to the electorate: "We promised. We made real progress in difficult circumstances. We will make more progress."

As ever, their pitch, your choice.

Good to talk?

Brian Taylor | 13:21 UK time, Monday, 13 September 2010


It is understandable that the political parties in Scotland are seeking to find consensus with regard to the impact of the defence review.

Equally, it is understandable that there are problems standing in the path of that search.

Not least that the parties fundamentally disagree on small matters such as the very future of the United Kingdom which the forces under review are pledged to defend.

Today's cross-party talks focused, in particular, on the jobs impact should one or both of the aircraft carrier orders be cancelled.

There is also concern with regard to RAF bases.

The talks were described on all sides as "constructive" - which is what you say when there has been no agreement but the various parties have contrived to conclude the meeting without falling out openly.

Why can't they just agree? Why cannot they just say: give 'em the money and keep the jobs on the Clyde and at Rosyth?

Differing objectives

Because of party politics - and party political differences.

To stress, these are not minor obstacles, not invented problems. These politicians are in different parties because they pursue differing objectives.

Firstly, the party politics. It is relatively easy for the SNP and Labour to demand that the carrier contracts are maintained without amendment.

It is more tricky for the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats - because those parties form the coalition UK government which is taking the decision on the defence review.

Longer term, they have to be wary of the impact upon their parties' credibility.

That does not mean that this is the defining characteristic ahead of all other considerations such as Scottish employment.

But, for serious parties, it is a factor to be borne in mind.

Next, defence policy. In order to achieve limited consensus on the carrier orders, the parties will have to focus narrowly upon aspects of defence, sidelining others.

Defence strategy

In particular, they will have to sidestep their differences over the Trident nuclear deterrent.

Labour's Iain Gray commented of today's draft document from the Scottish government that "Faslane is not even mentioned", that it does not address "Scotland's crucial role as part of Britain's defence strategy."

From the Scottish government perspective, that is quite deliberate, not accidental neglect.

The SNP team made clear in advance that they would pursue the Trident issue with a separate approach in order to achieve consensus on the carriers, if at all possible.

In other words, their approach was designed, as they saw it, to be co-operative, not obstructive.

I cannot imagine that Nicola Sturgeon, who chaired today's talks, will find Mr Gray's remarks particularly helpful.

The Labour leader, however, also stresses the need to involve the unions in any combined submission.

It seems likely that this point will indeed have to be addressed.

The un-enlightenment

Brian Taylor | 14:07 UK time, Thursday, 9 September 2010


There was, in truth, little to enlighten any of us in this morning's public spending debate at Holyrood - with one or two exceptions.

But I did rather enjoy the sally from Jeremy Purvis of the Lib Dems, aimed at Finance Secretary John Swinney.

Mr Swinney, he averred, was occasionally inclined to "conflate providing a response with answering a question." JS looked suitably ministerial: that is, grim.

Frankly, most of the debate was occupied with responses rather than answers. To be fair, that is because we do not yet have firm figures upon which to base a detailed assessment.

For Labour, Andy Kerr's speech was chiefly dedicated to bemoaning that fact.

He argued the finance secretary should produce figures now - so that Labour could respond constructively/give him a kicking (delete according to which you think is more likely.)

Mr Swinney noted, with dry resignation, that he was unable to produce figures because the Scottish Budget was predicated upon consequentials from the UK Comprehensive Spending Review. Which does not emerge until October 20.

Ah, said Mr Kerr, but you know to within £200m what the figure is likely to be. Go on, have a shottie.

Mr Swinney declined, noting, in the same dry tone, that it was not the business of government to guess.

Mr Kerr persisted - and was only faintly discomfited when he was advised by the wily Bruce Crawford that the Welsh Assembly Government (main proprietor, Labour) was proposing to publish its financial plans in November. After the CSR. In exactly the same fashion as the Scottish government.

To be fair to Mr Kerr, Mr Swinney gave very few pointers either as to how he intended to proceed. To be fair to Mr Swinney, that is because he is still working on his package and has yet to obtain the final details.

To be fair to both - and to the others - they stressed that they were willing to seek consensus where possible.

May be difficult given the extent of the cuts. May be impossible given pending elections.

The minister's argument is that nothing would be gained by providing a draft based on incomplete figures.

Nothing, he argued further, would be gained by offering a detailed response now to the Independent Budget Review which was the topic of the debate.

All would be revealed in his own Budget, in November.

Mr Swinney repeated the bald figures: projections of a £3.7bn real terms reduction in the Scottish DEL budget between this year and 2014-15; a cut of some £1.7bn in real terms for next year.

He stated a determination to enhance efficiency; to protect the economy where possible; to preserve NHS spending, recycling efficiencies internally; to defend free personal care; to streamline the quango network; to consult on the government's wish to maintain the council tax freeze; and to curb public sector pay.

But details in each case would emerge at the time of his response to the CSR. In November.

Perhaps the boldest speech came from Derek Brownlee for the Tories. It was a thoughtful, serious performance.

He dismissed the notion that the finance secretary should have a dry run for the budget. Instead, he focused on what might need to be sacrificed in the real thing.

Mr Brownlee suggested a pay freeze on public sector salaries above £21k; a recruitment freeze, allowing turnover to cut costs; cancellation or delay for some capital projects; measures to curb concessionary fares, if possible by negotiation with transport operators; and opposition to reducing prescription charges.

Of course, the extent of the spending challenge will require more than that. I suspect Mr Brownlee is alert to that fact.

As are the others.

Devolution over?

Brian Taylor | 16:07 UK time, Wednesday, 8 September 2010


Devolution is over. Says who? The first minister, that's who.

Setting out his new legislative programme, Alex Salmond argued that only independence could now reverse economic decline.

In essence, his case was that such gains as there have been under devolved self-government are at an end.

Mr Salmond did not seem quite at his most forceful best. He appeared troubled by a frog in his throat.

Perhaps, too, there was a lingering effect from another beast: the dog that didn't bark.

Because, as billed, the first minister's legislative programme does not include provision for a referendum on independence.

However, I would not wish to overstate all this. Even a little short of max drive, the first minister is a highly effective politician.

Final session

There was substance, too, to the programme: the measures on Scottish Water, double jeopardy, housing, forced marriages.

None, however, quite provides a defining leitmotif for the final session of this SNP government.

That comes in two forms: the attempt to wrestle with spending cuts via the Budget Bill. And the absent referendum.

In essence, Mr Salmond conjoined the two. His government, he said, would cope as capably as possible with the necessity to produce a balanced spending programme within a fixed budget.

At the same time, they would appeal to the voters for an enhanced mandate in order to enable them to to revive the notion of a referendum, thwarted by opponents.

Pointed attack

It would not be independence for its own sake - but to build the economy. In that sense, the SNP campaign will not be purely about independence - but primarily about the economy and public expenditure.

Also as billed, Mr Salmond's move on the referendum left him open to ridicule from his opponents.

Labour's Iain Gray deployed humour to substantial effect in lampooning the FM. The words were well-chosen, the attack pointed and effective.

Of course, oppositional attack has its limits. Sooner or later, as the budget controversy develops, Labour will come under pressure to declare its own hand with regard to spending plans.

Election anyone?

Brian Taylor | 12:39 UK time, Tuesday, 7 September 2010


Perhaps Scotland's cabinet, meeting in Kilmarnock, will permit themselves a few moments of self-congratulation with regard to notably positive crime figures.

Then again, perhaps not. Ministers know that it takes constant, sustained effort in order to peg back crime.

Further, they know that the issue of police numbers is shaping up to be salient at the coming election.

Firstly, those crime stats. The number of crimes recorded in Scotland has fallen to the lowest level for 32 years. Cause for celebration, albeit restrained (see above.)

Against that, the number of sexual crimes is up which may reflect increased prevalence or an increased readiness to report.

Secondly, to the politics. Ever blunt, Kenny MacAskill congratulated the cops for their efforts in tackling "the bevvy and blades culture that continues to blight Scotland."

But, ever alert, he also noted sensibly that there remain far too many victims of crime. In other words, his tone remained cautious.

In response, Labour offered what is becoming a standard theme: that there will be "SNP cuts" to come which could reverse the increase in police numbers and, potentially, the presumably concomitant reduction in crime.

Presumably, Mr MacAskill will note, gently or otherwise, that his government, in cohort with the Tories, has funded the recruitment of 1000 additional officers which, he would argue, would not have occurred under Labour whose manifesto emphasis was slanted rather towards education investment.

But, judging from today's comments, that will not deter Labour from complaining about any subsequent cuts in police strength - despite facing the claim that they did not back such recruitment in the first place.

Equally, the Tories are selective in their congratulations. They condemn the SNP as "soft touch", reserving their words of praise for the police - and for themselves for driving the recruitment demand in the first place.

Election, anyone?

Tactical switch

Brian Taylor | 14:25 UK time, Monday, 6 September 2010


This is about tactics. Not, strictly, about policy.

That Alex Salmond backs independence preceded by a referendum will, I suspect, come as a surprise to few.

I think we may deal relatively briefly with some associated matters.

As elected First Minister, Mr Salmond is entitled to pursue a referendum on independence along with other elements of his manifesto.

As elected FM, he is entitled to commission staff in the Scottish government to work towards that objective.

He is entitled to devote resources, within reason, to sustaining that objective.

Opposition members may argue that the money / staff time has been poorly spent; that it could have been better diverted to other issues.

However, that is a political point, not a constitutional one.

The spending and staff time were both legitimate.

Defining aim

Secondly, it does not seem to me that this is an ego trip by Alex Salmond, as some have suggested.

Independence is the defining aim of his party.

He is entitled to pursue it - just as Labour politicians pursued devolution when there were voices raised by rivals saying that the project was a waste of time and money.

Further, he is entitled to pursue it in his own fashion.

Perhaps, it might be argued, he should have advanced referendum legislation before now.

Mr Salmond might reasonably retort that he had to search for a reasonable prospect of success in such a venture.

So, again, this controversy is not about whether there should or should not be a referendum on independence.

That dispute has run for some time and will, I suspect, run up to and through the next Holyrood elections.

Rather it is about how Alex Salmond and his party deal with the likely - now, inevitable - thwarting of that policy objective by opposition parties at Holyrood who, on this issue, have conjoined to form a majority.

On that, Alex Salmond has changed his mind.

He has, if you like, performed a U-turn.

Previously, he stressed that, eventually, his referendum legislation would be put before the Scottish Parliament in this term.

It was not like the measure to replace the council tax which was dropped in the face of majority opposition in Holyrood.

It was different: MSPs would be given a vote.

Timing tactics

The bill was delayed until Mr Salmond thought the moment propitious; until his government had time to prove its worth to the electorate.

Remember at all times the dual strategy: to govern sensibly and, where possible, consensually within the limits of devolution while simultaneously inviting the voters to conclude how much better things could be under independence.

Opposition critics may object to Mr Salmond's timing tactics. But he chose them with the objective of succeeding.

Then the bill was further delayed while the FM sought to persuade one other major party - in practice, the Liberal Democrats - to tolerate a plebiscite, perhaps with the alternative of enhanced fiscal powers also on the ballot paper.

Again, there may be complaints about this: that it was stretching the process beyond toleration.

But remember again: Mr Salmond chose this course for what he believed to be good reasons. He wanted his referendum to succeed.

Which brings us to the latest indications of ministerial thinking.

The bill will be published but will not now be introduced at Holyrood.

MSPs will not be given a chance to vote upon the measure.

Why? Because, we are told, the bill stands no chance of success, given the views of the SNP's opponents.

They argue that Scotland does not need a referendum on independence at this juncture where every effort should be focused on repairing the economy.

So this latest thinking is a response to the prospect of defeat.

And therein lies the tactical switch.

Fresh mandate

Previously, Mr Salmond believed that his bill might well go down - but that he would use that defeat to condemn wicked Unionists for thwarting the exercise of Scottish popular choice on Scotland's constitutional future.

Now he still says that he will appeal directly to the voters at the next election - but without first confronting Holyrood with the legislation.

He will seek a sufficient fresh mandate for the SNP.

In particular, he will argue at the next election that it is only with the powers of independence that Scotland can seek to reverse economic decline.

This change of tack leaves the first minister vulnerable.

Vulnerable to the most potent weapon in an opposition party's armoury: that of ridicule.

They will lampoon the FM. They will mock him.

Again, Mr Salmond says he will make his pitch directly to the voters, over the heads of Holyrood.

That, he believes, is a powerful position for a political leader: siding with the people against the machine.

Of course, Mr Salmond could have made just such a pitch even if he had chosen to introduce his bill and watch it face defeat at the hands of opponents.

Indeed, some argue that his pitch to the people would have been all the stronger, reinforced by evidence that rival parties were prepared to block a referendum.

In response, Mr Salmond indicates that he feared there would have been a feeling of finality about such a defeat; that it might seem to the electorate that the referendum issue was finished.

His call, your choice.

Not, in the immediate future, at a referendum. But at the elections next year.

The Blair-Brown effect

Brian Taylor | 11:14 UK time, Wednesday, 1 September 2010


David Cairns MP, we salute you. That was a noble performance on the wireless this morning, discussing Tony Blair's memoirs.

According to Mr Cairns, the real interest in the Blair apologia should lie in his prescription for the future of the Labour Party. Aye, as they would say in Mr Cairns constituency, right.

Of course, the thoughtful Mr Cairns knows perfectly well that the Blair memoirs carry weight in direct proportion to their analysis of the author's own past years in government; not future political prospects.

In particular, they are fascinating in their confirmation - if one were needed - that relations were less than cordial between Blair and Brown. The former Chancellor, according to the former PM, could be "maddening".

Right back at you, G Brown might say in his own forthcoming book. Or perhaps not. The word from some is that the Brown tome is an intense dissertation on the economic crisis and his part in tackling it.

Then we have the Third Man, Lord Mandelson. I was in the audience at the Edinburgh Book Festival as he gently dissected those who had exasperated him down the years. Diverting from the true New Labour path, he said, would be to enter a cul de sac.

The best question came right at the end from an audience member who asked him to define the adjective "Mandelsonian". Subtle, he essayed, before adding a few other epithets and ending with "loyal". Loyal, one wondered, to whom.

Two further elements from the Mandelson performance. One, he offered a robust defence of his party's performance in government, citing key policy issues.

Two, he suggested that previous governments - post-war Attlee, Wilson, Major - had similarly featured clashes in personality at the very top.

That is undoubtedly true. But were those contests not largely about policy or raw power? There appears to be an added psychological tension in the emerging stories about the Blair/Brown period.

Does any of this have a continuing impact, other than to market rival books? I believe it does. It has a potential impact upon Labour's performance and upon the leadership contest.

Peter Mandelson, in particular, is inviting the contenders to define themselves at least partly in relation to what has gone before, to the Blairite agenda which, he notes, won three elections.

They have to choose whether to take up that invitation - or whether to seek to shape a new narrative of their own.

Either way, I suspect the contenders and the party in Scotland, facing elections next year, would welcome a pause in these exercises in exculpation. Nae luck, as they might also say down David Cairns' way.

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