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Archives for October 2010

Balancing the books

Brian Taylor | 16:58 UK time, Saturday, 30 October 2010


Here in Oban, a substantive speech from Iain Gray: with a succession of detailed policy announcements.

A national care service, a single police force for Scotland, fewer health boards, guaranteed apprenticeships, a living wage of £7.15 for the public sector.

So no complaint about an absence of detail. But still key challenges and questions.

Firstly, the new care service and the single police force (matched by one for fire and rescue) will substantially curtail the role of local authorities. They can be expected to kick.

Secondly, while savings can be expected from, for example, removing police HQ functions across Scotland, those will be down the line. Initially, reorganisation tends to cost money.

So Labour will still require to find savings in order to balance the books from next May, should they take power.

Those might come from pay restraint (which Iain Gray endorsed in a BBC interview but did not spell out in his speech).

Or they might come from allowing increases in council tax. Such increases, I believe, would be limited. Labour would only allow a local authority to push up council tax if it had exhausted efficiency savings and could demonstrate a detailed purpose for the rise: in other words, it would effectively be hypothecated.

Still on spending, I expect Labour to follow three broad phases.

Firstly, they will subject John Swinney's budget to critical scrutiny and analysis.

Secondly, probably off stage, there may be cross-party negotiations regarding the shape of that budget.

Finally, in time for the May elections, Labour will put proposals for balancing the budget in its manifesto.

To date, all the parties are stressing the upside of their proposals - while rather sidestepping the downside. The voters - who endured such an approach in the UK General Election - will demand more.

PS Harriet Harman has now withdrawn her attack on Danny Alexander as a "ginger rodent". But not, one notes, her comment that the Lib Dems in Scotland were political mutants who had turned into Tories.

Parties face off on battle lines

Brian Taylor | 15:12 UK time, Thursday, 28 October 2010


Not, all in all, the most comfortable session for Alex Salmond.

He was very far from being cast down - but he was undoubtedly confronted vigorously by his political opponents.

In a sense, you could see the shape of the election campaigns to come from all three of those opponents.

For Labour, Iain Gray majored on teachers. Party research indicates that the education sector is notably disquieted: hence the questioning.

Mr Gray reminded the First Minister of specific SNP pledges on teacher numbers and class sizes. The FM spoke of progress being made - and of an economic crisis created by Labour.

Ah, retorted Mr Gray, but how about those promises...

Therein lies the Labour approach. Analyse, scrutinise and target the SNP by highlighting their specific promises.

Therein lies the SNP approach. Argue that, in government, they have successfully deployed resources made scarce by Labour at the UK level - while pointing to the relative absence of alternative Scottish Labour plans.

Graduate costs

From the Tories, Annabel Goldie went on university funding. She challenged the First Minister to accept, in principle, that there would have to be a graduate contribution in some form.

Mr Salmond declined. There would be a full consultation, he said. There would be a Green Paper before the end of the year.

Then, with all contributing ideas, there would emerge a distinctive Scottish solution "in the second half of 2011".

The astute among you will compare the proposed timetable with the fixed date of the next Holyrood election.

NHS row

Perhaps the most substantive contribution of all came from Tavish Scott of the Liberal Democrats.

His party's research had disclosed a three-fold increase in non-clinical senior staff in the NHS since 2007 - with a concomitant increase in salary costs.

Mr Scott suggested this meant that the cut of 25% proposed by the SNP would scarcely return matters to the status quo.

The LibDems are preparing what will come close to a shadow budget - with heavy emphasis on cutting top public sector pay.

Again, understandably, the First Minister declined to trade specific figures. Rather, he said that his government's aim was to focus on the front line.

The only figure which truly mattered, he averred, was patient satisfaction in the NHS which was at a record high.

Later, after investigation, Mr Scott's figures were challenged by the Scottish Government. The LibDem leader had asked health boards to list senior staff earning more than £50k in 2007 and now. That produced the three-fold increase.

By contrast, the government's independent statisticians say the number of senior managers has declined since 2007 - with the wage bill only rising very slightly. Further, Nicola Sturgeon plans to reduce the number of non-clinical staff.

How to explain this? It is conceivable that the two documents are based on different questions.

The LibDems asked about senior managers earning £50k or more.

Arguably, that excludes managers who, in 2007, were earning just below that level. So, again arguably, they would not feature in the head count or the salary total in that year - but, by salary progression, would be above £50k in 2010 and would be included.
As a public service, here are the two sets of figures.

The LibDems say there were 617 non-clinical staff in the NHS in Scotland earning more than £50k in 2007: a total pay bill of £24,860,218. By 2010, that had risen to 1,790 staff and £104,280,982.

The government's statistics division says that in 2007 there were 1,914 individuals listed as senior managers in the NHS. In 2009, that figure had reduced to 1,377. The wage bill figures are for 2007 and 2010 - and are £98m and £102m.

Human rights

Brian Taylor | 15:59 UK time, Wednesday, 27 October 2010


Took some time for the Holyrood debate on the Cadder-enforced reforms to get going. But, when it did, it was fascinating - and notably lively.

The opening exchanges were Appeal Court dusty. Never mind the rhetoric, counsel, just give me the relevant dates.

But it soon livened up. Firstly, Robert Brown of the Liberal Democrats delivered an impassioned warning that the changes, designed to enhance human rights, might end up eroding them.

How so? Because, coupled to the right to consult a solicitor prior to interview by the police, the detention time is to be extended from six hours to twelve with the option of 24 on the direction of a senior officer in exceptional circumstances.

Mr Brown's contribution was thoughtful, focused and well-argued.

Next, the debate moved onto a constitutional plane. Stewart Maxwell of the SNP noted that the intervention of the UK Supreme Court in this matter involved a diminution of Scots Law.

He noted further that the said Supreme Court - while headed in this instance by two Scots - featured "a majority of English judges", contrary, he said, to assurances that distinctive Scots matters would not be settled in such a form.

Powers 'exceeded'

The argument here, also advanced in somewhat milder form initially by Kenny MacAskill, the Justice Secretary, is that the ultimate court in Scottish criminal cases is supposed to be Scotland's own supreme court.

Previously, it was possible to take "ultra vires" cases to the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council.

Those were cases where it was alleged that the powers in the Scotland Act had been exceeded.

That role was transferred to the new UK Supreme Court - against the advice of those who warned that it would eventually result in that court arrogating further powers to itself.

The Cadder case is just such an "ultra vires" test.

That is because the European Convention on Human Rights was incorporated within the Scotland Act 1998.

At the time, that was trumpeted as an example of Scotland being ahead of the game, of Scotland being in the advance guard of liberal reform.

Evocative argument

Now, doubts are being voiced and voiced strongly.

The UK Supreme Court ruled, themselves, that they were entitled to form a judgement in the Cadder case as to whether the Crown Office in Scotland breached the ECHR element of the Scotland Act by pursuing a case where the suspect had been questioned by police in the absence of a solicitor.

To be clear, the minister made precisely this point in his opening address - although he appeared at that point, understandably, to be suppressing evocative argument in favour of winning the day for his emergency legislation.

He pointed out that seven Scottish judges, sitting in the High Court, had ruled that Scotland's system of interrogation was ECHR compliant, given the substantial checks and balances on offer.

That principle had now been countered.

By virtue of a "devolution minute", the Cadder case had wound its way to the UK Supreme Court.

Mr MacAskill commented acidly that there appeared to be a "small industry" within his own legal profession eager to take such matters to the London court.

He noted further that he planned to seek action from the UK government to ensure that the "centuries old supremacy of the High Court" in Scotland might be restored.

Argument 'nonsense'

As the debate wore on - and the argument intensified - rival arguments were adduced.
Several Labour MSPs complained at the tone of the Nationalist arguments.

This was not, they said, a constitutional matter but a legal and human rights issue. Mr Brown said the Nationalist argument was "nonsense".

Enter Alex Salmond. The first minister intervened to point out that every other signatory to the ECHR was able to put its case directly to the European Court in Strasbourg.

Only Scotland was subject, because of the Scotland Act "anomaly", to an interpretation by the UK Supreme Court.

More heat. Both the Liberal Democrats and Patrick Harvie of the Greens complained at those provisions on time.

Why rush that? Why not consult still further?

Emergency implementation

Plainly exasperated, Mr MacAskill fought back. It was, he said, a question of balance.

The rights of the suspect versus the need to pursue questioning. What if a solicitor could not be contacted in time? What if forensic investigations in serious cases were pending?

Labour and the Tories broadly backed the bill and its emergency implementation.

But Bill Aitken of the Tories said the flaw lay in the endorsement of the ECHR in the first place.

And, in a well-argued contribution, Richard Baker for Labour posed a small point.

While, he stressed, endorsing the ECHR, he rather longed for the day when the controversy would be about a ruling concerning the rights of the victim.

Criminal proceedure

Brian Taylor | 16:46 UK time, Tuesday, 26 October 2010


Multi dimensional stuff, this Cadder ruling.

As the justice secretary notes: "It overturns decades of criminal procedure in Scotland."

Good thing too, some will say, arguing that it is wrong for police interviews to be conducted in the absence of a solicitor.

Kenny MacAskill, unsurprisingly, is less than content with the ruling - especially its implicit claim that there is something inherently unfair at the core of Scottish justice.

The minister insists that, to the contrary, the Scots legal system is "proud and distinctive" and, further, is "predicated on fairness with many rigorous protections for accused persons."

In essence, Mr MacAskill, himself a lawyer, is seeking three remedies.

One, he will seek Holyrood's support in rushing through emergency legislation to prevent the scope of the ruling extending further through other cases emerging.

Examining options

Scottish government insiders are at pains to argue that "emergency" does not mean ill-considered.

They insist that they have been examining options for months.

That will not, however, preclude complaints from some, notably the Liberal Democrats, to the effect that the consideration by parliament will be hasty.

Which brings us to the third strand of the MacAskill package.

He is writing to Ken Clarke, the justice secretary at Westminster, drawing attention to an "anomaly" in devolution.

This is that the European Convention on Human Rights is an intrinsic part of Scots Law, being incorporated via the Scotland Act which established a Scottish Parliament in the first place.

This apparently drives the need for emergency legislation - rather than consideration over, say, three months.

The Scottish system is in breach of its own law rather than an extrinsic code.

Delightful news

Brian Taylor | 15:34 UK time, Monday, 25 October 2010


Holyrood back in action today - or at least in the starting blocks - but only one topic for a blog from me, pending the resumption of hostilities.

And that is the simply delightful news that Elizabeth, John Swinney's wife, has given birth to their son.

All the very, very best to them - and, of course, to little Mattthew whom I am proud to acclaim as a Dundonian on the excellent grounds that he entered the world in Ninewells Hospital.

By contrast, politics - or at least its partisan elements - appears mere piffle.

Number crunching

Brian Taylor | 14:53 UK time, Wednesday, 20 October 2010


UPDATE AT 1730: More anent the row over figures.

In essence, the UK Government says: "Behave yourself."

They say that their baseline is correct, that it strips out depreciation and one-off transient spending and that it provides an accurate comparison for figures in future years.

Further, they say the Scottish Government was well aware of these statistics.

John Swinney says he can only go by what is actually in his budget - and that implies a cut adding up to £1.3bn from this year to next, more than he feared.

He says that the capital cuts alone could threaten 12,000 jobs and risk reversing Scotland's fragile recovery: a recovery evidenced by this morning's GDP figures.

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

Still calculating the impact of the Spending Review upon Scotland. You ask why. You presume that it is all set out clearly.

Up to a point.

As things stand, the Treasury has published a set of figures for the Scottish government budget.

The SG disputes the base line upon which the calculation has been made.

To a degree, this is revisiting the previous controversy when the Scottish baseline was tweaked to take account of changes to health spending in England.

The basics, then.

The Treasury says that Scotland has done better than the UK as a whole from the CSR.


Because health spending has relative protection in England. Health equals one third of SG spending.

Real terms

So Barnett consequentials tend to benefit Scotland, proportionately.

The Treasury sums point to a cash terms increase in day-to-day resource spending, with a 6.8% cut in real terms over the four years of the Spending Review.

For capital, the cut is 38% - with a £900m reduction in year one.

Add that to a standstill in cash terms in resource budgeting for 11/12 - and you get the Treasury calculation that there is a cut of £900m in total for next year, less than forecast by Scottish Ministers. QED.

Ah, say Scottish Ministers, not so fast. They endorse the capital figure, arguing that the capital cut is bigger than they feared, prompting concerns about investment and jobs.

But they are studying the Treasury's figure on resource spending more closely.

They believe it may underestimate the current base line upon which they actually operate by some £1bn, by stripping out depreciation.

Fuel levy

Officials are crunching the numbers now - but the belief in St Andrews House is that the Treasury presentation may mask a still greater cut.

Then there is the offer to sort out the row over fossil fuel levy.

Remember that's the money which Alex Salmond has said is "lying in a London bank" because Treasury rules insist that the money cannot be taken up by Scotland without a comparable cut in block funding.

Today's offer is that there would be at least an additional £250m through the Green Investment Bank for spending on renewables - provided the Scottish government draws down the fossil fuel money and agrees to hypothecate it for said renewable projects.

Again, officials scrutinising. But initial reaction not too positive.

Thinking is that Scotland would be set to get money from the proposed Green Bank anyway - but is being expected to give up a claim on fossil fuel money in order to access that cash.

(There would still be a cut in block cash - counterbalanced, say the Treasury, by that Green match funding.)

More later, if things change.

Being defensive

Brian Taylor | 16:58 UK time, Tuesday, 19 October 2010


It was a seemingly reluctant Prime Minister: avowedly anxious to avoid partisan politics intruding into his defence statement.

However, David Cameron contrived somehow to overcome his diffidence.

He told MPs: "One does wonder how many bases and how much capability there would be if there was an independent Scotland."

From the SNP bench in the Commons came the cry "outrageous". It was one of the few moments of high-temperature indignation among exchanges which generally focused upon precise, even minute, detail.

The exchange was prompted by a question from Angus Robertson as to the future of the RAF bases at Kinloss and Lossiemouth.

None too bright, it would appear, given the decision to retire the Harrier and end the Nimrod replacement programme.

But the PM insisted that this need not mean automatic or instant closure of the facilities.

Fair share

Decisions would be taken later about the possible redeployment of army personnel.

However, the acerbic nature of the PM's reply can be seen as partly an attempt to deflect the criticism being voiced by Moray's Commons representative and his MSP counterpart, both SNP - although, equally, it is a point regularly advanced by politicians who support the Union.

Mr Robertson's argument is that, for as long as Scotland remains in the UK, Scots are entitled to a proportionate share of defence expenditure.

He argues that Scotland is already being short-changed.

He argues further that an independent Scotland would have substantial defence needs.

At another point, the Prime Minister voiced anger. Britain, he said, should be angry at the way the aircraft carrier contracts had been handled by the previous government, arriving at the point where it was cheaper to build the second ship than to cancel it.

He was not, in short, notably proud of announcing that the order will be sustained.

After election

I suspect that workers on the Clyde and at Rosyth can probably live with Prime Ministerial exasperation, provided the orders go ahead.

That satisfaction will be tinged very slightly, perhaps, with concern at the impact of longer term cuts in the Navy.

Then there is another issue which impacts directly upon Scotland: Trident. Work will continue on preparing for a replacement nuclear deterrent.

Money will be spent this year. But the decision on constructing the replacement subs will be deferred until 2016, conveniently after the next UK General Election.

In making this announcement, Mr Cameron indicated that the notion of a nuclear deterrent was accepted on all sides in the House. Cue further sedentary complaints.

Dual strategy

Brian Taylor | 16:33 UK time, Sunday, 17 October 2010


From Alex Salmond, the narrative for the next Holyrood elections: independence is required to give Scotland the financial powers to reverse recessionary decline.

It is, of course, a dual strategy.

As always, the SNP leader is promising to govern Scotland sensibly and consensually, where possible, within the limits of devolution while simultaneously inviting the voters to go further.

Equally, the strategy is tailored to the prevailing circumstances. More commonly, Nationalists have argued that self-confidence will impel people towards supporting independence.

Now they have to deal with economic circumstances which are scarcely conducive to confidence. But they argue that they can offer a compelling pitch to counter those circumstances.

Another notable point from Mr Salmond's speech and, indeed, the entire conference: personal attacks upon his Labour rival, Iain Gray.

Mr Salmond matched Iain Gray's pledge at the Manchester Labour conference of a "living wage" of £7.15 for those employed by the state - and others employed in sectors where the state is influential.

Emerging narrative

But, further than that, he lampooned Mr Gray as "the invisible man".

Plainly, that will be part of the emerging SNP narrative for the election - to pitch their leader against his counterpart.

PS: I came off air from live coverage here in Perth to discover that Celtic had sneaked a lucky late winner at Tannadice. Bet it was offside. Or a foul. Or both.

Don't frighten the voters!

Brian Taylor | 16:38 UK time, Saturday, 16 October 2010


There has been much talk, rightly, of which options in the Beveridge report on public spending might ultimately find favour with the Scottish government.

Amend or cancel free personal care? No. Curb the scope of free bus passes, top in the BBC Scotland poll? No.

How about halting or reversing the steady reduction in prescriptions charges, then?

That's a no, too, as confirmed this afternoon here at the SNP conference in Perth by Nicola Sturgeon.

However, in a webcast interview with me, John Swinney has eagerly endorsed one proposal from Beveridge: the notion of curbing salaries in the public sector.

Mr Swinney stressed, with notable vigour, that this would indeed form a substantial part of his drive to find the savings which will be required post the Chancellor's statement next Wednesday.

I believe there to be two reasons for this: one numerical, one electoral. Firstly, the sums. John Swinney reminded me that pay accounts for 60 per cent of public sector costs.

Curbing pay, potentially, releases real money.

Coalition government

But then there is the electoral calculation. George Osborne, making his statement on Monday, is facing an election in four years or more.

John Swinney faces the electorate in May.

Mr Osborne and the coalition government are attempting to tailor their programme to fit both what the UK can afford and what the populace will tolerate.

How much more pressing is that latter demand upon Swinney, J.

Public sector pay has the advantage of being both a source of substantial savings - and also a slightly nebulous target. Savings can be made in three ways - all of them short of making an actual, instant cut in take-home pay for individuals.

One, you can freeze or slow recruitment, taking on fewer staff, declining to replace. Two, you can attempt, where possible, to constrain career and salary progression.

And, three, you can freeze the pay awards due to be made annually.

Serious money

In her speech, Nicola Sturgeon announced - alongside that move to scrap prescription charges - that she wants to reduce senior management numbers in the NHS by 25 over the next four years.

This could be serious money: £25m a year, £100m when added to other non-clinical efficiency savings.

But, again, it's long-term, it's nebulous. It does not get people out on the streets - or divert voters to rival parties.

Handled carefully - and it will be - the strategy is to find savings which generate cash but don't frighten the voters or inspire populist campaigns of protest.

Holding pattern

Brian Taylor | 16:43 UK time, Friday, 15 October 2010


There is frequently a slightly surreal atmosphere at party conferences. A blend, perhaps, of proximity, intensity and sociability.

Through no fault of their own, that atmosphere appears somewhat enhanced here in Perth for the SNP gathering.

The cause, of course, is the impending round of cuts in public expenditure. There is much talk, much apprehension: but, so far, no precise detail.

Hence the atmosphere. Delegates seem like passengers in a flight holding pattern, uncertain when or even where they will land.

Into that mix, John Swinney attempted to offer a modicum of certainty.

You will not be surprised to hear that this derived from his views as to Scotland's future.
Mr Swinney averred that the economic crisis with its concomitant impact upon public spending meant that Scotland could "no longer afford the Union."

Now, it has occasionally been the case in the past that the SNP has believed that folk would look more kindly upon independence during times of confidence, times of relative certainty.

'Simple arithmetic'

Such a diagnosis would appear to run contrary to the current climate where confidence is relatively low.

Nevertheless, Mr Swinney argued that it was a matter of simple arithmetic as well as politics.

Unionists, he insisted, could no longer credibly argue that the UK provided a solid economic foundation for Scotland.

Never again, he said, must Scotland be "a victim of London's economic mismanagement."

Again though, as I have noted many times in the past, be alert to the SNP's dual strategy.

Even as he condemns the impact of the Union, Mr Swinney stresses that, as Finance Secretary, he will do his best to balance the books within the devolved structure, within the block grant due to be set down by the Chancellor next Wednesday.

In essence, Mr Swinney is arguing that he will seek to manage Scotland's finances sensibly within the current constraints - but he is simultaneously inviting the people of Scotland to infer that things would be much better under fiscal autonomy and independence.

Picking up momentum

Brian Taylor | 16:12 UK time, Thursday, 14 October 2010


Elections tend to develop their own momentum, their own issues.

My guess - and bear with me here - is that the economy and public spending may feature somewhere on the margins of the next Holyrood contest. You read it here first.

But today more anent a key aspect of that wider debate: the council tax.

Nicola Sturgeon told the SNP conference that the party planned to extend their council tax freeze, if returned to power.

Actually, the first minister set out the broad strategy in a video message from Delhi - but it fell to his deputy to set out the details, live and local.

The SNP believe they have found a key vote winner. The BBC Scotland poll this week indicated that folk tended to frown on the notion of increasing local taxation.

But, for the SNP, that only confirmed what they had already discerned from focus group consultation.

Key messages

As you might expect, each of their key messages at this conference has been tested in such a fashion.

To the detail, then. Council tax has already been frozen for three years, since the SNP gained power.

It was intended to be an interim step, pending local income tax. It has now become a strategy in its own right.

Ms Sturgeon said that funding would now be found to extend that for one year, 2011/12, through the election.

And she announced further that, should the SNP be returned to power, there would be one further year of funded freeze, 2012/13.

Nationalists believe it gives them an edge over Labour which is now arguing that the freeze cannot be afforded without adding to the damaging cuts due to be faced by local government.

Labour's response today was to focus upon the SNP's continuing aim of introducing a Local Income Tax.

They said it would place far too great a burden upon income - and would be a "massive bombshell" upon hard-pressed families in troubled times.

Healthy spending?

Brian Taylor | 10:33 UK time, Wednesday, 13 October 2010


I like vox pops.

They are a core part of my trade.

Asking folk in the street what they think about issues, big or small.

Scotland's chances in the Euro 2012 qualifiers? (Rough luck last night, never a penalty.)

The Alcohol Bill? The Edinburgh trams? Job prospects?

Sometimes it can be difficult persuading people to speak.

I'm the guy who once tried to get people in Thurso to speak about Dounreay. (No go, too close to home.)

But sometimes it is charmingly easy. Sometimes folk form a queue to tell you what they think.

Such has been the experience with the public spending cuts. People are genuinely worried - and keen to speak.

That's also reflected in our poll where there are very few "don't knows". People have an opinion: sometimes a strong opinion.

Look at the latest tranche of the poll today. Virtually nobody wants cuts in the NHS.

Never mind that experts say it's irrational to exempt health from cuts.

Scots won't wear it.

That's true of men and women; of all age groups; of all social classes.

The dogs in the park want to protect the NHS.

But glance too at the one which comes just above that in terms of relative public esteem within the 10 options presented by our pollsters, Ipsos MORI.

Seems folk are none too keen on raising more cash by allowing local authorities to increase the council tax.

In terms of basic psephology, that's intuitive.

People generally don't like giving the nod to generic tax hikes without specific details. (Take your cue from Donald Dewar privately fretting that the second question on tax would never get through in the 1997 referendum.)

Politically, though, it's a challenge for Labour. They have said that council tax will have to rise in order to prevent cuts in services being worse than otherwise necessary.

At the very least, it would appear that Labour has some persuading to do with the electorate.

Yes, it can be argued that a council tax freeze cannot be sustained indefinitely.

But, right now, when times are hard, it may be a bold move to try to sell a tax hike, whatever the claimed justification.

Next, glance to the "top of the league": the services that people might be persuaded to cut.

Top of the list is free bus travel for those aged over 60.

The option in our poll, drawn like the rest from the Beveridge Report, is to increase the qualification age to 65.

That draws pretty general support - as does a two year pay freeze in the public sector, except for those on low pay.

Snag is, as was wisely pointed out on the wireless this morning, that it may take most of the 10 poll options and then some to make up the gap in spending which is about to open.

Make cuts - but not just yet

Brian Taylor | 06:45 UK time, Tuesday, 12 October 2010


While at university in Fife, I dallied briefly with the study of theology: an option made available by the estimable Faculty of Divinity to arts students, like me.

Odd memories recur from time to time - and so, when I contemplated the findings of our BBC Scotland poll on attitudes to public spending, my thoughts turned to St Augustine of Hippo and his famous modulated appeal.

Lord, he prayed, make me chaste - but not just yet. (For the scholar, the full Latin version is: Da mihi castitatem et continentiam, sed noli modo.)

Folk, it seems from our poll, back the concept of spending cuts. Sed noli modo.

The poll suggests that a remarkable 81% feel cuts should proceed more slowly.

Such a finding, if replicated in other polls, helps explain the occasional bursts of uncertainty from within the UK coalition camp re the timing, scope and presentation of the coming cuts package.

It also helps explain why the Chancellor has been so adamant that only sustaining the pace of spending cuts will placate global markets.

He is retaliating in advance, aware that the rival case may be appealing when folk are understandably fretting.

Aren't those intriguing findings too re the potential political impact? We opted, quite deliberately, to exclude other options such as blaming the bankers.

Banks may do many things but they do not, commonly, stand for election.

Asked who was most responsible for pending cuts, Scots tended to choose the former UK Labour government over the present UK coalition, with a small proportion pinning the blame on the SNP Scottish Government.

Polls, of course, are a snapshot, not a predictor - and those proportions may change when the cuts are announced and implemented.

But they provide, at the very least, an interesting backdrop to the sundry attempts by political parties to blame various combinations of their rivals.

Alternative scenario

Brian Taylor | 12:38 UK time, Monday, 11 October 2010


And so we have another factor in the public spending story - with my disclosure this morning that the forthcoming Scottish budget document will feature an alternative scenario, based on full fiscal autonomy.

Finance Secretary John Swinney will set out his planned cuts - while noting and arguing, en passant, that he could have been announcing a programme for potential growth, had he the full panoply of fiscal and financial powers at his disposal.

John Swinney's opponents will undoubtedly cry foul.

They will argue that the finance secretary should not be diverting any attention or time to calculations predicated upon a set-up which does not presently exist.

In response, Mr Swinney will say that he will found this section of his document upon existing work by economists Drew Scott and Andrew Hughes Hallett on the subject.

In short, he will argue that this is not a dilatory exercise, avoiding the real task in hand, but a legitimate contribution to the wider debate on Scotland's future.

The Swinney budget document will, of course, follow the Comprehensive Spending Review, to be published by the Chancellor next week.

Mr Swinney has indicated that, within a month, he will assess the consequentials for Holyrood spending and will publish detailed calculations as to how Scotland will cope.

Then will follow negotations with other parties in an effort to steer the package through the Scottish Parliament.

Always difficult, there will be an added edge this time around: the small matter of elections in May.

PS: Watch this online site for the most comprehensive coverage of the public spending issue. Watch BBC Scotland on the telly and listen to the wireless too. Is that a plug? Yep.

PPS: And here's another. BBC Scotland will feature spending debates all this week - and my Big Debate from Perth on Friday will also focus on this topic. Want to be in the audience? Email:

Rebutting robustly

Brian Taylor | 13:08 UK time, Thursday, 7 October 2010


At Holyrood today, the presiding officer noted wryly that he was chairing "first minister's questions", not "first minister's answers".

This was aimed at Mike Rumbles, of the Lib Dems, who was voicing disquiet from a sedentary position at the content of the replies from Alex Salmond.

But I thought there was substance in the FM's words, for those who cared to listen.

There was a pretty clear hint from Mr Salmond that the current structure of eight distinct police forces in Scotland may not last.

But not, I think, signage towards a single Scotland-wide force.

The background is upcoming spending cuts - on which the devolved administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have now voiced shared concerns that the pace and depth is too excessive.

This unanimous approach was foreshadowed by talks at Stormont in which ministers from the three governments agreed to pursue a common course.

Local roots

However, in parallel with protest, there is preparation. Detailed work offstage to get ready for the cuts to come.

Hence the talk about policing. Mr Salmond was being pressed at question time by Tavish Scott, the leader of the Scottish Liberal Democrats.

Mr Scott warned that a single police force would lack local roots and accountability.

Under questioning, Mr Salmond offered two broad responses. One, that the public are more concerned with front-line policing than back-room organisational structures.

Two, that, under the present set-up, some twenty five per cent of the policing budget goes on headquarters functions.

Now, much of that HQ spending is vital: it could not be entirely excised, even with a single force. But perhaps, the FM appeared to be hinting, it could be reduced.

The issue is currently under scrutiny by the Scottish government, local authorities and police chiefs.

Single force

They have to balance community and regional concerns with effectiveness and, of course, cost.

I see no particular sign that the FM is intuitively attracted by the concept of a single force for the whole of Scotland.

Equally, however, he is not ruling out mergers. His line is that the public are interested in bobbies, not borders.

As an alternative, there could be sharing of back-room functions, with the retention of distinct police boards. Or combinations thereof.

Also at question time, Labour's Iain Gray attacked proposed changes to nursing employment conditions in Grampian.

Mr Salmond rebutted robustly.

More to come. Much more.

Kitchener's call

Brian Taylor | 16:56 UK time, Wednesday, 6 October 2010


After incipient disquiet and hints of wobbling on child benefit cuts, David Cameron plainly wanted to sound a note of certainty in his speech today.

Indeed, it was notable how frequently he turned to military metaphor.

On the subject of the economy and public spending, he was not, he said, delivering a cry for help but "a call to arms."

You could see the audience visibly stiffening their shoulders and sinews for coming strife as he declared: "We're all in this together."

They looked positively ready to enlist, at least for political conflict, as he echoed Kitchener's call: "Your country needs you."

And there was thunderous applause as he said: "I will take no risks with Britain's security."

For the avoidance of doubt, he immediately spelled out what that meant in practice: the renewal of the Trident nuclear missile system.

Dog-whistle politics

Partly, of course, that's firm Conservative policy. However, in the context of this speech - and the coalition with the LibDems - it was an attempted assertion of political certainty in the face of contention.

And there was also a note of dog-whistle politics about his attack on the release of Megrahi.

Neatly side-stepping the small point that this was not a decision taken by the UK government, he declared: "Never again."

All in all, an attempt by the prime minister to offer a series of fixed points for the faithful to cling to as they enter the miasma of uncertainty and disquiet which the spending cuts are likely to engender.

Bring it on or call it off?

Brian Taylor | 10:26 UK time, Tuesday, 5 October 2010


So which is it? Bring it on or call it off?

Call it off, apparently.

We are talking independence referendum once more. The prime minister was addressing Scots representatives at their conference reception here in Birmingham.

He said the Tories would be ready and willing to fight for the Union if Alex Salmond ever had the courage to call such a ballot.

But hang on. Mr Salmond only shelved such a proposal because it faced vigorous opposition from, among others, the Tories, and was certain to be defeated at holyrood.

Tories here insist there is no inconsistency.

David Cameron does not want a referendum on independence but feels entitled to lampoon the first minister for what he believes is his vacillation.

Is that absolutely clear then? Well, no, not quite. Mr Cameron stressed on the wireless this morning that he is not challenging the SNP to call a referendum - yet his conference fringe tone was redolent of challenge, albeit deferred.

Was he perhaps inspired by jingoism when confronted with the Scots Tory faithful?

You remember: "We don't want to fight but, by jingo, if we do . . ."

The pact

Brian Taylor | 15:17 UK time, Monday, 4 October 2010


Question is: who will come to Annabel's party?

The Scottish Conservative leader says she is no longer institutionally averse to joining a Holyrood coalition with others.

At the Tory conference in Birmingham, Annabel Goldie argues that the Westminster coalition has now pointed a possible way.

It has been - and here I paraphrase her verdict - a triumph, an unalloyed success, a source of joy and delight to all who witness its work.

Why, she ponders, should such a prospect not now be possible at Holyrood, after the next election?

You will recall that the Tories have entered previous Holyrood elections indicating that they would form either a victorious government or a robust opposition.

No messing with coalition.

But things have apparently changed. The Tories are still seeking every conceivable vote, every conceivable seat.

Suggestion 'ludicrous'

But, in the event that they do not sweep to complete power, cheered by an adoring electorate, they are now ready to consider the option of coalition.

However, things have not changed that much. The Tories' rivals seem stubbornly reluctant to consider the prospect of forming a pact.

A Labour insider describes the idea as "utterly inconceivable". The Lib Dems privately describe the concept as "not on the radar" - even if the sums added up.

Which, to date, they have not.

And the SNP? They describe the suggestion as ludicrous, pointing out that they retain a constitutional bar on working with the Tories at Holyrood.

If this was a wooing, it would appear to have had a fairly rough response.

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