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Archives for November 2010

Paying for the bill

Brian Taylor | 15:10 UK time, Tuesday, 30 November 2010


Quick question for you all to ponder about the Scotland Bill - are the new tax powers an opportunity or a threat?

Supporters of the Bill say they are an opportunity - that they would incentivise Scotland to enhance the income tax take and so bolster the money available to Holyrood.

Detractors - including those of a Nationalist persuasion - find it a threat.

They say that it matches a long-held Treasury aspiration - which is to cut Scotland's cash as currently available via the Barnett Formula.

How so? How to explain the difference?

Consider the basics. Scotland would take charge of half the basic rate tax (10p out of 20p) and a lower proportion of the upper bands. (Still 10p, but out of 40p and 50p.)

During an interim handover period, starting in 2015, there should be minimal potential variation, either way.

The Treasury would calculate a notional tax take from the product of 10p in Scotland.
So if Scotland reinstates the whole 10p then the entirety of the cash would be reinstated too.

The opportunity/threat emerges when the calculation is founded upon actual tax revenues in Scotland. That might be, say, four or five years after 2015 implementation.

Then Scotland receives what Scotland actually earns in income tax. Supporters say that would incentivise Holyrood and the Scottish Government to bolster income tax. Hence, the opportunity.

Detractors say there is a deflationary problem inherent in the system: partly because income tax revenues are currently depressed but, more fundamentally, because Scotland would gain a relatively limited proportion of the upper tax bands where, arguably, growth would be highest.

Further, those detractors say that growth would be hard to sustain without being able to deploy the full range of economic and fiscal levers - including other taxes.

Branching out

Brian Taylor | 08:04 UK time, Friday, 26 November 2010


You know what jumps out at me from the Sanderson Commission report on the Scottish Tories? It's not the leadership stuff, intriguing though that is.

It's not the excoriating tone: the many "moribund" local associations; the declining membership; the "lack of clarity" over who's in charge; the members "disenfranchised" when it comes to policy formulation.

It's a little section where they admit they are moving beyond their strict remit which was to report on the state of the party, with suggested remedies.

At the close of the section on the means of devising policy, they turn to a policy issue itself: fiscal devolution.

Tory-led government

Lord Sanderson's team note that they "cannot ignore the quantity of submissions on whether or not Scotland should have greater fiscal accountability."

This matter, they note further, is of "enormous significance to the future of Scotland" and merits widespread debate within the Scottish Tories and the UK party: which debate they duly recommend.

Fascinating - especially with the Calman Commission proposals due to be turned into a Bill next week by the Conservative-led UK Government.

The Tories in Scotland did not decline solely because of their antipathy to self-government.

But it damaged them: it placed them outwith what swiftly became the new conventional wisdom.
Parties of the Right commonly attach themselves to a patriotic appeal.

Enhanced devolution

In Scotland, the Tories picked the "wrong" patriotism for their electoral prospects. They were brandishing the Union flag while Scotland was clutching the Saltire.

It was, arguably, an honourable decision - they genuinely disliked and distrusted devolution. But it was disastrous for their electoral hopes.

Tories duly turned to devolution, with varying degrees of conviction - and hoped that Scots would duly return to them. That has not - yet - happened.

It could therefore be argued that the next logical step is for the Tories to back enhanced devolution - within which they could propose a more substantive Right of centre offer.

If, for example, Scotland had substantial fiscal autonomy then, perhaps, it would be credible for a party to argue for a low tax, low spending economy.

Talk is folly

Such an approach is harder to sustain when there are very few economic levers to pull.

There are Scots Tories who think that way. There are Scots Tories who think such talk is folly, that it is quasi-Nationalism.

The Sanderson report is remarkably thorough and wide-reaching. It has major reform to recommend for virtually every aspect of the party's organisation and structure. Dull, it is not.

I understand why the Commission said a future leader need not be an MSP: it envisages a period in which the Scots Tories have revived and have umpteen MPs from whom to choose.

Report in principle

But does that message sit entirely comfortably with the stress elsewhere in the document on the relative primacy of Holyrood within the Scottish body politic?

Is it entirely helpful to Annabel Goldie? Ditto the suggestion that the election of a new all-potent Scottish leader should "take place directly after the next Scottish Parliament election in May 2011".

At Holyrood, the party talk is that - while a leader might emerge from outwith the Scottish Parliamentary ranks - such a prospect is not envisaged in the near future.

And that the current incumbent, while enthused by the report in principle, feels that the immediate focus must be upon those elections.

I'm Spartacus!

Brian Taylor | 13:47 UK time, Thursday, 25 November 2010


Alex Salmond's friends and critics (including those who occasionally move from one camp to the other) are wont to try to define their man, to pin him down.

Is he statesman? Is he passionate patriot? Or economic calculator? Is he mischief-maker? Is he ballad singer, manqué?

Today, facing first minister's questions, he offered his own answer.

Turning to Annabel Goldie, he declared: "I am Spartacus."

Spartacus? You know, the novel? Turned into a film by Stanley Kubrick? Starred Kirk Douglas as the eponymous hero? Spartacus.

Today's movie was a rerun. Swinney 2: the FM Strikes Back.

Each opposition leader pounced, understandably, upon the apology delivered by the finance secretary for failing to disclose to parliament the condition of the Tartan Tax (none too healthy.)

Revolt leader

Iain Gray wanted Mr Salmond to apologise too. He duly shared in the (limited) contrition offered by his colleague.

Then Annabel Goldie had a go. Sorry wasn't enough: Mr Salmond should abase himself before the people of Scotland.

Which prompted Mr Salmond's Spartacist statement.

You remember the scene in the film, I am sure, where, one by one, the slaves declare that they are Spartacus in order to confuse the Romans in their search for the leader of the revolt.

Mr Salmond was, I think, identifying himself closely with the actions taken by his finance secretary.

Either that or he thinks he is Kirk Douglas.

Whichever, there were some pretty angry opposition legions in the amphitheatre today. They sense weakness and, again understandably, pursued it.

Lots of money

In response, Mr Salmond made three broad points. Yes, the state of unreadiness of the tartan tax should have been disclosed to parliament.

But the issue could be traced back before 2007. And it would have been wrong to spend money, lots of money, on sustaining a tax which was not going to be used.

Against which, opposition leaders - entirely rightly - stress that was a decision which should have been placed before parliament.

It was Holyrood's call.

Where does this go now? Again rightly, to a committee investigation in order to establish the facts. Culpability, perhaps, but primarily the facts.

Also to an investigation by the former Presiding Officers, David Steel and George Reid? Maybe: Alex Salmond says he will study the request from Labour and the Liberal Democrats (not, in this one, joined by the Tories.)

But maybe not. There have been three such referrals, each covering Mr Salmond himself, on the constitutional grounds that he rules on the ministerial code - and, therefore, has nobody to rule with regard to him. He has been exonerated on each occasion.

Committee hearing

From his remarks, Mr Salmond does not appear to feel that a ministerial code question arises. His opponents dissent.

Perhaps it is an issue which might be encompassed within the committee hearing.

So, while the heat of the issue may abate somewhat, the issue has not vanished.
Next up, in the same vein, the Calman report with its plans to alter Holyrood's tax powers, extending the proportion of income tax under devolved control.

Mr Salmond said he was seeking urgent talks with both the prime minister and the Scottish Secretary to discuss the implications.

Intriguingly, he also noted in passing that, while he could not disclose any details, he knew what was in the Scotland Bill to be published next week. And what was not.

A suggestion, perhaps, that certain of the tax powers proposed in the original Calman Commission report may not survive into the UK Government Bill?

PS: What happened to the slaves who supported Spartacus? Crucified, every one.

Shutting the gate

Brian Taylor | 10:37 UK time, Wednesday, 24 November 2010


UPDATE AT 1805:Regrets? He had a few. But, in the first instance, decidedly too few to mention for his opposition critics.

But by this evening - after Mr Swinney's closing speech in the debate - the atmosphere has changed somewhat.

Early talk of a motion of no confidence has not gone away entirely - but seems clearly to be slipping down the agenda.

That is because he closed by repeatedly stressing his regrets - and by apologising twice.

For the critics, the attention now shifts to digging further into the episode. Expect a committee hearing, a demand for the publication of all relevant documents.

Expect the Scottish government to comply fully with any such hearings and demands.

That, they say, is what parliament is for. Ministers are adamant that they acted with honour and in Scotland's interests at all times.

Expect Labour and the LibDems to urge a referral to the two former presiding officers, David Steel and George Reid, on the issue of whether Mr Swinney misled Parliament when he stated last week that he chose not to use a tax power (when, say critics, it was effectively suspended.)

UPDATE AT 1514: In the debate, a strong performance by John Swinney, insisting that the tax power was not in a suitable state of readiness when his party took power in 2007 - while regretting that he had not informed Parliament as the issue developed.

Re the readiness issue, was that because of neglect by the previous Executive, as Mr Swinney implied or was it rather because HMRC had conducted a review in the light of changes to its own IT structure?

The document produced by the Scottish Government dates from 14 May 2007, just after Mr Swinney entered office.

From that, we learn that the Tartan Tax would not be ready until April 2009 - but could be prepared by April 2008 at higher cost.

In other words, it was feasible, at a price, to re-establish the 10 month readiness (from a decision to implement the tax in June 2007.)

In response to Mr Swinney's strong performance, equally strong counter-attacks from Iain Gray, Annabel Goldie and Tavish Scott.

While Mr Scott was fiery, Mr Gray was coldly precise. Mr Swinney's apology, he said, had been grudging, his overall behaviour unacceptable.

As things stand, the SNP will lose tonight's vote - because, in terms of simple arithmetic, the Opposition parties will combine.

But further, in terms of momentum, the finance secretary may have more to do to persuade parliament to let the matter drop.

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

Unaccountably, it hasn't yet become a "gate".

I suppose "HMRC-gate" doesn't quite cut it. And yet the political challenge to John Swinney has perceptibly strengthened.

The issue? The Scottish government's decision to suspend payments to Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs which led to the effective lapsing of Holyrood's power to vary the standard rate of income tax.

Where are we this morning, ahead of this afternoon's debate? Opposition parties have tabled an amendment to the government motion defending Mr Swinney's actions.

The amendment accuses ministers of "an abuse of power" and of misleading Parliament. Given that this is backed by all the Opposition parties, it will carry.
Labour goes further, noting in a statement that Mr Swinney should "consider his position" - the standard code for "think about quitting."

Offstage, the SNP's opponents are preparing a motion of no confidence in the event that they are not satisfied following the debate.

So is John Swinney a goner? No. His tone this afternoon may shape the next phase.

Continuing negotiations

There were indications from his appearance before the finance committee yesterday that he recognises the need for an element of contrition.

Further, this remains a party political row, a Holyrood issue. It has, I would suggest, minimal salience at this point with the wider public.

Further still, nobody has been harmed. The tax power has not been used. No major party is proposing to use it.

Further still, it is at least arguable that HMRC's demands were unreasonable: that Ministers were right to resist.

I suspect, however, that Mr Swinney appreciates that he should have updated Parliament on the continuing negotiations with HMRC.

That is because decisions on taxation rest with parliament, not an individual minister.

More later.

Wedding woes

Brian Taylor | 14:45 UK time, Tuesday, 23 November 2010


And so the Royal Wedding on 29th of April next year - and all the questions fall out, tumbling around us.

The dress? The bridesmaids? The vows? The guest list? The impact on the Scottish Parliamentary elections?

What? The last one didn't occur to you? You can bet that it occurred pretty sharply to political parties.

After all, the elections are presently fixed for the 5th of May - the week after the Royal nuptials.

Tiny point first.

Royal Wedding almost certainly means extra public holiday in Scotland - which means dissolution of Parliament one day earlier than scheduled.

Bigger point next.

'More British'

Will the wedding affect turnout / voting in any perceptible way? Might it, for example, make people feel more "British" - and hence less inclined to vote SNP?

Possible, I suppose, but, in my view, highly unlikely.

For two reasons.

One, Alex Salmond has taken considerable care not to offend Royalists in Scotland: He was among the first to congratulate the couple on their engagement.

Two, I believe that the good and sensible people of Scotland are eminently capable of absorbing a Royal wedding in their own, individual fashion - then moving on to consider their devolved voting choice.

The electorate - and the political parties - may frankly welcome a pause in the relentless campaigning.

Then again, John Swinney's budget may be defeated, the budget may fall - and we could have an election in March. Not.

Taxing times

Brian Taylor | 14:42 UK time, Monday, 22 November 2010


This, lest it had escaped your notice, is apparently shaping up to be "the most difficult week" of John Swinney's Ministerial career. According to the Labour Party.

It should be noted that the said J. Swinney looks and sounds remarkably sanguine for someone allegedly poised for the political guillotine.

That said, the Scottish Government has appeared less than entirely comfortable in its handling of the vanishing tax power (disclosed to an astonished nation by me, among others, last Thursday.)

In summary, then. The Scottish Parliament has the power to vary the standard rate of income tax up or down by a maximum of 3p in the pound.

This is set out in the Scotland Act 1998 (Part V, if you need to find it in the copy by your bedside.)

'They say no'

This power, once so contentious that it merited a separate question in the 1997 referendum, has never been used for the good and sensible political reason that it would generate more grief than revenue.

As things stand, it does not look like being used any time soon. The governing SNP once flirted with a "penny for Scotland". Now - and for the future - they say no.

Ditto Labour, the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats who propose instead to reform the tax powers of Holyrood, as set out in the Calman Report.

Enter Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs. In order to prepare for the prospect of the Tartan Tax in the first instance, they extracted £12m from the Scottish budget. (They're good at that sort of thing.)

That down payment at the onset of devolution was followed by £50k per annum up to 2007 when, according to the Scottish Government, the contract ran out.

Again according to Scottish Ministers, HMRC then indicated they planned to upgrade their IT (not, again, an unknown event at the Queen's revenue.) Scottish dosh was seemingly demanded.

It is there that interpretations differ. According to the Scottish Secretary Michael Moore, there was neglect and delay on the part of the SG. Finally, according to the SofS, the SG vetoed any payment in August this year, thus causing the tax power finally to lapse.
Mr Swinney's version, in a letter today, is that his officials were still seeking talks and clarification in August 2010. As I disclosed last week, the bill presented by HMRC at that point was £7m.

Real questions

Enter Labour. Why, they ask, did John Swinney not disclose details of the emerging problem? Did he mislead Parliament when he told MSPs in his Budget statement that he had ruled out resorting to the Tartan Tax - when he knew at the time that the tax was in limbo?

Intriguing questions. Enter Team Swinney in response. See the letter, they say. We were still seeking clarification from HMRC.

It has always been the case that it would take an extended period to put the Tartan Tax into action.
Further, from Team Swinney.
Now that Michael Moore has put the issue on the table, perhaps he might care to explain who would pay for implementation costs of the Calman Tax?

Would it be the Scottish Government, as with the Tartan Tax. Or would we follow the precept that he who orders a functional change, bears the cost? (Think tunes and pipers.)

To conclude. Mr Swinney has questions to answer. Real questions as well as partisan questions. (The two are seldom the same.)

He may face some of those from the Finance Committee tomorrow - although it is thought more likely that the substantive exchange will occur when the Minister makes a statement to the full Parliament.

Cats and lions

Brian Taylor | 15:39 UK time, Thursday, 18 November 2010


If Alex Salmond is the "Cowardly Lion", as Iain Gray avers, then who will fill the other roles in Holyrood's remake of "The Wizard of Oz?"

I suppose Annabel Goldie might audition for the role of Dorothy. Or maybe Aunt Em. (Never, just never, the Wicked Witch of the West: too composed, too demure, too dignified.)

But who is to fill the straw shoes of the Scarecrow? Who will rattle around in the metallic frame of the Tin Man? And where will we find our Munchkins?

There was real venom and vitriol in Iain Gray's demeanour as he accused the FM of being a scaredy-feline.

A Big Cat - but a Bad One.

The substance of his attack was that Ministers had side-stepped tough decisions by only announcing a budget for a single year: just enough, he snarled, to get them through the election.

Union demo

Alex Salmond seemed more interested in what was to be done in that single year.

On pay, for example. Iain Gray told Good Morning Scotland this morning that he backed pay restraint - yet yesterday he had joined a union demo which featured prominent placards condemning the planned pay freeze.

Mr Gray retorted that he was happy to join workers fearing for their jobs. Ministers argue that the pay freeze is designed to cut costs and thereby protect jobs.

But there was little scope for even such minimal subtlety. Mr Gray condemned the absence of answers from the government.

SNP members, including a plainly exercised John Swinney, taunted loudly about motes and beams (or would have done had they been feeling Biblical.)

At which point the Presiding Officer rose, magisterially. The boss of the Emerald City - and, unlike the Wizard, possessed of authentic power.

He was less than pleased. Up with this he would not put. He understood the emotion generated by forthcoming elections. But order there would be.

Pending damage

The members subsided, discernibly, like chided pupils. Rather than yelling, they muttered, unhappily.

Annabel Goldie and Tavish Scott saw their chance and, rascals that they are, opted to question Mr Salmond on the content of his government's budget, rather than the proclaimed gaps therein.

The Tory leader warned of pending damage from cuts in university funding. The LibDem boss complained that top salaries were running out of control in Scotland.

Both substantive issues. Both well delivered. Both rebutted by Mr Salmond. Plainly, we are fully in election territory now. Not Kansas.

Doing the deal

Brian Taylor | 18:31 UK time, Wednesday, 17 November 2010


In the event, it was an assured and confident performance by the Finance Secretary John Swinney - even as he announced £1bn in cuts.

For why? Well, for one, because he is a skilled politician. For another, because he contrived to transfer blame to the present and previous UK governments.

And, for a third, because he was able to vaunt a deal with Scotland's local authority leaders - I stress, leaders, not necessarily each and every council.
That deal paves the way to providing Scotland with the one thousand extra police officers which now stands out as the core SNP policy pledge to be redeemed (albeit one that was driven by the Tories.)

You could argue that the councils have surrendered a degree of their much trumpeted independence in agreeing to strive towards central government objectives.

But you could also argue that the cash return - in terms of cuts foregone - is so substantial that it is a relatively advantageous deal for local authorities.

Certainly, given the penalty for derogating from the deal, it will be hard for individual authorities to say no.

Winners and losers

The winner? The NHS with a real terms increase - although health staff would undoubtedly tell you that rising demand and rising costs cancel that out.

The losers? Housing, colleges and universities (although the big cut is in capital, not revenue), prisons.

There are cuts too in rail services and motorway maintenance among the spread pain.

Will the Budget get through? As of tonight, no.

Each of the opposition parties is declaring that it falls short - with Labour particularly vituperative about the absence of detailed planning beyond next year.

Making it clear

There is even bold murmuring in one or two corners about defeating not just the Budget - but the Government, precipitating a possible early election.

Certainly, as Ministers make clear, a government cannot continue if it cannot win support for its financial plans.

So do I think this will happen? No. There is one political impulse - which is to make life difficult for an incumbent government.

But there is another - which is to match the mood of the people. And that mood, I suspect, would not countenance what might be seen as political "game playing".

Budget day

Brian Taylor | 10:40 UK time, Wednesday, 17 November 2010


Overture and beginners.

Unemployment figures out this morning form the backdrop to this afternoon's spending statement.

They show a rise in employment and an easing rate of increase in unemployment: a "fragile" recovery, according to the Scottish government.

That interpretation is accompanied by comments from the Enterprise Minister Jim Mather to the effect that the UK government is "imposing massive cuts" which are too fast and too deep.

This is part of an exercise undertaken by Scottish ministers to disavow the budget in advance - or, more precisely, to stress that its political origins lie elsewhere; with the current and previous UK governments.

John Swinney, therefore, will commend his budget to the Holyrood house with notable discontent.

He will argue it is merely the best possible within the prevailing constraints.

Opposition discontent

The core elements remain: a pay freeze except for the lowest earners; a switch from revenue to capital; one billion plus worth of apportioned cuts; a retention of share for local authorities linked to a council tax freeze and efforts to maintain police numbers; protection of the NHS budget.

Remember, also, that today's statement is very far from being the end of the libretto. Hard bargaining and Holyrood votes to follow.

Again in advance, there is opposition discontent over a one year Scottish budget, when the Treasury provided a four year plan.

There is even some muttering in Labour ranks to the effect that, if Mr Swinney will not provide long-term thinking, then perhaps the Scottish government should be obliged to step aside, allowing an early election to generate stability.

Do I think that will happen? Highly unlikely. The more probable prospect is that a deal emerges - possibly, as in the past, with the Conservatives.

'Blood sport'

Brian Taylor | 13:43 UK time, Tuesday, 16 November 2010


Aneurin Bevan was seldom shy at generating a blunt, pithy expression.

Politics, he averred, was a "blood sport"; his contribution to this brutal combat being to describe the Tories as "lower than vermin".

He categorised Britain as an island "made mainly of coal and surrounded by fish", noting acerbically that "only an organising genius" could produce a shortage of both at the same time.

The tempestuous Bevan was also the health minister who forged the NHS, noting that he had overcome opposition from senior members of the medical profession by "stuffing their mouths with gold."

No more, it seems. Well, up to a point. Nicola Sturgeon has announced that she intends to put "a further and more extensive freeze" on bonuses paid to consultants.

In these grey, mundane times, the language may be far more pallid than that deployed by Nye Bevan.

But the intent is serious, the purpose substantive. Ms Sturgeon wants to signal that the pay freeze due to be imposed upon those earning more than £21,000 in the public sector will be matched by bonus restraint at the top.

Pay settlements

So what is she doing? She is curbing the consultants bonus bill by £2m - down from £28m to £26m.

Not, therefore, entirely the advent of a new dawn in pay settlements.

To be fair to Ms Sturgeon, she notes that distinction awards have been extant since the foundation of the NHS, since Nye was around.

Her measure is designed to prevent the awarding of new bonuses, following comparable constraint in the current year - and pending a UK review of the whole system.

This issue is comparable to the sporadic arguments at Holyrood over the extent of bonuses paid to quango executives.

Opposition leaders, understandably, demand action. Ministers, equally fairly, point out that these bonus payments are often tied to legally binding contracts signed by previous administrations.

So there is a series of interlocking issues. Do we need bonuses at all to motivate and reward senior staff?

Pay freeze

If so, on what basis should they be paid? Should they be mandated or discretionary? If discretionary, at whose discretion? Managers? Ministers?

On the matter of pay and costs, closer to home, MSPs and parliamentary staff are setting an example. Holyrood's budget will be cut by £9m in real terms by 2014/15, including a pay freeze.

A relatively small amount, perhaps, by contrast with £1bn of cuts presaged for the coming year.

But an exhortation pour encourager les autres. As Bevan said: "This is my truth. Tell me yours."

Showing restraint

Brian Taylor | 10:49 UK time, Monday, 15 November 2010


Given that pay is such a substantial element of public sector spending, it was all but inevitable that pay constraint would play a part in efforts to rebalance Scotland's budget.

On John Swinney's part, it may be seen as direct, combative and potentially productive. It is also, however, part of an emerging pattern - which is to seek to share the responsibility for the cuts.

How so? Think back to the Beveridge report, commissioned by ministers.

Alongside pay restraint, it suggested the Scottish government might consider scrapping free personal care and other costly universal services.

If John Swinney were to stand up on Wednesday and scrap free personal care, then that decision rebounds directly upon him. It is an immediate decision - with, potentially, immediate electoral impact in May.

Ditto if Mr Swinney were to scrap free bus passes or reverse the cut in prescription charges or . . . you get the concept.

Ditto if Mr Swinney were to announce that the hugely popular NHS budget (see our poll) would face cuts in line with other areas of spending.

Obvious cuts

He would make the cut. His party would take the hit.

Mr Swinney will, of course, not be making any such announcements. Cuts there will be: do not misunderstand me. Overt, obvious cuts.

But, equally, there will be strategic moves which involve, to some extent, sharing the responsibility for implementation.

John Swinney cannot order a pay freeze. He can fund public services on the presumption that pay has been frozen (for those earning more than £21k.)

He can then drive forward such a settlement in the employment sectors for which his government is directly responsible - and urge such a settlement in others, such as local government, where it is not in direct control.

That involves a big challenge for central government - but also for councils, unions and employees. It involves shared responsibility.

Ditto the possible search for higher efficiency savings. Mr Swinney may budget on the presumption that such savings are found.

Collective effort

If they are, victory. If they are not, then the fault does not lie directly with him.

Ditto the notion of a prolonged council tax freeze. If councils agree, they will get money from central government - and there will thereby be a collective effort to ease the pressure on households.

However, if one or two councils break ranks and impose an increase, then that is their call, not John Swinney's, and they will take the electoral consequences.

Bear in mind Mr Swinney's fundamental approach: that this is not the budget of his choice; that he will not accept the blame for the global financial crisis; that he believes the UK government is cutting far too rapidly and deeply.

Given that analysis, it is understandable that he should seek to spread the pain around.

Both financially and politically.

For the regular viewers

Brian Taylor | 14:47 UK time, Thursday, 11 November 2010


It was loud, it was rumbustious, it was raucous, it was funny (in parts) - but, to my ears, it was also a notably substantive series of exchanges.

Questions to the first minister, that is.

Aimed at whom? At "regular viewers", according to Labour's Iain Gray; a phrase echoed, ironically, by Alex Salmond.

So, not the presiding officer then? Not the other MSPs? Instead, Mr Gray acknowledged, with disarming frankness, that he was addressing that portion of the astonished nation which witnesses FMQs via the BBC.

It is, in short, a weekly exercise in pitching for the votes which will up for grabs in May.

Twas, of course, always thus. Just good to have it stated.

Regular viewers, then, found Mr Gray pursuing a regular topic: that of waste in the public sector. In particular, he was exasperated at money spent on consultants by the Scottish Futures Trust, Skills Development Scotland and Scottish Enterprise.

Capital acceleration

The attack was well delivered: an iterative series of questions pursuing the FM.

Mr Salmond, though, was undisturbed and, by the close, had found a useful narrative to the effect that Labour was now citing advantages (such as extra apprentices) from a spending Budget which they had opposed.

The FM also argued that such growth as there is currently in the Scottish economy was due, at least in part, to capital acceleration.

Hence the prospect, which I disclosed this morning, that money will be shifted from revenue to capital in next week's Budget. (A story which, incidentally, did not result from SNP spin, despite wicked accusations to the contrary.)

Annabel Goldie is at her best when she is at her funniest. Today, she was distinctly droll.

Offered an in-point by the FM who was speaking about Scandinavian experiences, the bold Bella declared with charming self-deprecation that she was "no competiton for a Finnish model".

She then moved on to envisage Mike Russell constrained by a leash (a prospect which might have cheered Mr Salmond in earlier, more disquieting days.)

'Small posse'

Tavish Scott seemed on good form too - spoiling it just a mite by complaining that the FM's answers always followed the same tack.

He brandished what looked like a holiday poster. On closer examination, it was the billing for a conference in Miami, attended apparently by a small posse of Scottish quangocrats.

Mr Scott thought the visit of dubious value. Mr Salmond demurred - while noting that his Ministers had advised all quangos to trim unnecessary expenditure.

That is a message which will be reinforced next week by John Swinney.

Regular viewers and listeners should tune in to the BBC.

Drinks bill watered down

Brian Taylor | 16:27 UK time, Wednesday, 10 November 2010


Vigour, passion, serious scrutiny - but ultimately little in the shape of substantial change as MSPs finally decided their position on measures to curb alcohol this afternoon.

The health secretary, Nicola Sturgeon, was at her blunt, outspoken best.

She had plainly concluded that there was no point in trying to wheedle her opponents into voting for minimum pricing.

So instead she accused them of making up their minds not on the content of the measure - but on the party allegiance of the minister advancing it.

That provoked angry responses from her opponents who said they were against minimum pricing because it was possibly illegal, would not deter problem drinkers and would merely add to supermarket profits.

Ms Sturgeon countered all three points - but the votes went against her.

By contrast with the debate, the declaration of defeat for minimum pricing was greeted with a sussuration rather than a shout, with a mere murmur of discontent from the SNP benches.

Debate farce

Understandable, perhaps. This has been an exceptionally prolonged and bitter argument. At the close, all passion spent.

Indeed, instead of drama, the debate ended in farce.

MSPs contrived to vote to append a "sunset clause" to the minimum pricing plan - which they had just removed from the bill.

Other elements have gone: the proposal to limit off sales to those aged 21 and over was shelved at an earlier stage.

Labour's plan to target high caffeine drinks like Buckfast was defeated.

There are measures in the bill which survive such as a ban on quantity discount offers in off licences.

But the core plan was minimum pricing - and tonight that has gone.

Shame, say supporters. Good thing too, say critics.

Pay attention at the back!

Brian Taylor | 11:38 UK time, Tuesday, 9 November 2010


Hands up those who think our local authority schools are well run. Thank you, hands down.

Now hands up those who think they could be better. Yes, no surprise there. But hands up those who know how to make them better.

Keir Bloomer thinks he knows. Who he?

Among many things, an education consultant, the co-architect of Curriculum for Excellence, an adviser to the Scottish government, a former director of education and local authority chief executive, that's who.

And a former depute general secretary of the Educational Institute for Scotland.

He says council control is inclined to promote stultifying bureaucracy rather than innovation and excellence.

He suggests schools might be better run by trusts or non-profit companies with more direct control for head teachers.

Opting out

Cue dismissive comments from those who presently run schools (the councils) and Mr Bloomer's former colleagues in the EIS.

In essence, the argument is about accountability. Mr Bloomer envisages a trust and head teacher answerable directly to parents and the local community.

Cosla and the EIS say accountability is better delivered via elected local authority representatives and their officials.

The weak practical point in Mr Bloomer's approach is that "opting out" - the rather inept phrase then chosen - met with resolute disdain and apathy when previously tried by the Conservatives.

Not to mince words, the weak practical point in the Cosla/EIS axis is their tendency to sound as if they are studying for a Masters in complacency.

All is for the best in the best of all possible worlds. They could make Pangloss sound like a sceptic.

That is, of course, deliberately over-stated.

Pragmatic issue

There will be many in both union and council circles who recognise that Scottish education requires reform or at least quizzical scrutiny.

But the public statements tend to sound dismissive, perhaps motivated by a genuine and understandable desire to defend those currently working in Scotland's schools.

There is another pragmatic issue under consideration here. Pay. Money.

On GMS this morning, the notion of 32 councils negotiating different salary rates was, understandably, rubbished by the EIS.

But what about the concept of merit awards disbursed at the discretion of the head teacher and/or schools trust in order to keep skilled teachers teaching, rather than promoting them away from the classroom?

Again, one can see practical objections. Would the awards system be fair? Would it not tend to create two tiers of teachers, with awards perhaps going mainly to those in core subjects? Would it create jealousy and internal school tension?

Maybe, maybe. But, at the very least, it seems possible that those who support the current arrangements may need to say more than: things are fine, settle down at the back.

Always room for poetry

Brian Taylor | 13:44 UK time, Monday, 8 November 2010


Poets laureate have frequently struggled. Some have found it hard to deliver, to versify to order.

Other poets, despite their evident skills, have been over-looked for the post, often because of their dubious reputation.

They have been, as was said of Byron, "mad, bad and dangerous to know".

These twin factors - exclusion and writers' block - have generated some stupendously awful poetry down the decades. However, against stiff competition, the prize must go to Alfred Austin.

Bewailing the illness of the Prince of Wales, he intoned: "Across the wires the electric message came; He is no better, he is much the same." Oh, dearie, dearie, me.

I thought of the bold Alfred when I scanned the information in the latest Bank of Scotland Purchasing Managers' Index. (Trust me, one can find poetry in anything.)

According to the PMI, economic activity in Scotland was "broadly static" during the period under survey, October.

Economy 'slowed'

Donald Macrae, the chief economist at the Bank, added: "Scottish firms continued to add to their workforces during October."

Lest we became over-excited, he went on to note that the "rate of job creation remained weak".

Mr Macrae concluded: "The Scottish economy has slowed but not gone into reverse."

The laconic Mr Macrae - who, for all I know, may have poetry in his soul - has summarised perfectly the gloomy message we are hearing from politicians in Scotland as we await John Swinney's pronouncements on public spending.

Scottish government ministers, in particular, have taken pains to stress that such recovery as there has been is frail and fragile.

Which might argue, if Mr Swinney had but world enough and time, for measures to attempt to protect those elements of public spending which tend to bolster the economy, including capital investment, skills training and higher eduction (or, to be frank, the more productive parts of HE.)

Prosaic concerns, inevitably.

However, even in such troubled times, there is always room for poetry. Even A. Austin.

Time and money

Brian Taylor | 14:18 UK time, Thursday, 4 November 2010


All a matter of time. And, of course, money.

But, somehow, at first minister's questions today, time seemed to predominate.

According to Labour's Iain Gray, the Scottish government had been dilatory over the issue of university funding.

It had been evident for some time, Mr Gray averred, that Scotland would require to change tack in order to match the challenge posed by enhanced tuition fee cash available to universities in England.

Yet, he argued, Alex Salmond and his education ministers had done nothing until now.

Their present consultation, he said, would not generate any solution until August of next year.

Mr Salmond was unimpressed. He argued that a "Scottish solution" would be in place in tandem with the implementation of the new fees structure in England.

Wizard wheeze

But just what might that solution be? Mr Salmond has ruled out up-front tuition fees.

A permanent graduate income tax finds little favour.

Which presumably leaves some form of limited graduate contribution - not a million miles away from the endowment which Mr Salmond's government scrapped.

Unless, of course, someone can come up with a wizard wheeze in the meantime. That someone, it seems, will not be Iain Gray. At least not for now.

He declined Mr Salmond's invitation to state his policy preference, noting that it was his role to ask questions in the chamber, not to answer them.

Timing, too, dominated the exchanges with Annabel Goldie and Tavish Scott.

Miss Goldie was exercised by the prospect that prisoners might be given the right to vote.

Disenfranchised villain

She wanted this limited, suggesting that, as an interim, judges might indicate whether the sentence they were handing down carried an entitlement to vote or not.

You can just see it, can't you? "Hector MacSwick, you are a miserable wretch.

You will go to prison for the rest of your life - and, what is more, you will never again be able to vote, not even for the European Parliament. Take him down."

Cue helpless sobbing from disenfranchised villain.

Mr Salmond seemed less than keen on the prospect. He suggested, fairly gently, that it might make sense to wait until the UK government had decided what, exactly, it was going to do - elections policy is reserved - before issuing guidance to Scottish judges.

As for Tavish Scott, he accused Mr Salmond of delaying a deal on ferry services between Gourock and Dunoon.

Mr Salmond demurred. And so the day wore on.

History matters

Brian Taylor | 08:37 UK time, Wednesday, 3 November 2010


In my youth, the images of the Reformation were all around me, when I cared to look. The Wishart Arch in my native Dundee where the Protestant Reformer, George of that ilk, is said to have preached.

Its defiant survival is probably owing to that presumed connection.

The remainder of glorious, old Dundee was cheerfully demolished by enlightened, progressive civic leaders.

In St Andrews, we youthful students were conjoined to avoid stepping on the initials PH carved into the pavement outside St Salvator's Chapel (the site commemorates Patrick Hamilton, a martyr.)

Cathedral and castle

Stand on the letters, we were told, and you would fail your finals. Even now, decades after that particular challenge, I steer well clear.

Then also in the Auld Grey Toon there is the Cathedral whose decline, if not final fall, can be dated to the Reformation when iconoclastic opinion turned against idols.

And the Castle, home to Cardinal Beaton who was, let us say, less than keen on what he believed was "heresy".

It was always about politics as much as religion. Or rather the religion of those times WAS politics. It was power, it was law, it was punishment.

But it was also social provision, discipline, education.

So you can look back to the Reformation - and you can see a disruption which still echoes today, if you choose.

Or you can look back to the Reformation - and you can see a radical new approach to governance, including nation-wide education. Again, if you choose.

Leading figures

Whatever vision is uppermost in your thinking, it is indisputable that the Reformation is hugely signficant in Scottish history, an intrinsic part of this nation.

A prime motivation for the 1707 Parliamentary Union was securing the Protestant succession to the British throne.

Which is why it is right that the First Minister should today be marking the 450th anniversary of the Reformation at an event in Edinburgh.

And why it is particularly pleasing to see that modern Scotland will commemorate that distant event in the presence of leading figures from the Kirk and the Catholic Church.

And why it is pleasing, further, to note that each of Scotland's prominent contemporary faith groups will be invited to a reception at Edinburgh Castle, also today. History matters. So does today's Scotland.

A right is a right

Brian Taylor | 16:25 UK time, Tuesday, 2 November 2010


Can you picture the scene? Can you?

The knife-edge by-election turned when the last ballot box arrives from . . . Barlinnie?

Or the hustings meeting with a captive audience, warmed up by a recording of Johnny Cash singing "San Quentin"?

Or the canvassing? I can assure you, sir, that we plan to be very tough on crime indeed.

Or, rather, when I say tough . . .

Idle speculation prompted by the prospect that prisoners will now get the right to vote, in line with advice from the European Court of Human Rights (who seem to be looming large in Scottish legal circles at the moment.)

The UK coalition government has reportedly concluded that it will cost too much in money and person-power to continue to resist the ECHR ruling.

Partial retreat

Cue outrage - and concomitant suggestions that it may be possible to restrict this concession to those on shorter sentences while continuing to withhold the right from those convicted of the most serious offences.

Myself, I find it hard to follow that particular piece of reasoning.

One can argue that prisoners deprive themselves of voting rights by the very fact of incarceration.

But how can one sustain an argument that involves a partial retreat?

If voting is an elemental right for those in the slammer, then that is it, isn't it?

A right is a right.

Those who advocate such a concession say that the purpose of prison is to seek to reintegrate convicts within society - and that the exercise of democracy can form part of that effort.

Serious offenders

They argue, further, that punishment is meted out by the simple deprivation of liberty: that there should not be further infringements of rights which would be available outside the walls of prison.

Politically, among the major parties, only the Lib Dems seem to be backing this move in Scotland - and even they don't sound notably enthusiastic and lodge a caveat re serious offenders.

The SNP are against. As are Labour. As are the Tories - who stepped up the volume of their criticism of the ECHR and its incorporation into Scots Law.

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