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Archives for December 2010

In our end is our beginning

Brian Taylor | 13:11 UK time, Thursday, 23 December 2010


At Holyrood today, Tavish Scott was exercised by the vulnerability of families with new-born infants in this trying weather.

At Christmas, how topical. As I glanced outside the window, the snow was deep and crisp and even more persistent than usual.

As the first minister reminded us, this is now officially the coldest and harshest December on record.

Given that, the exchanges were mostly serious, sonorous and weather-related: discussion of issues like the fatal accident on the A9, broken bones from pavement falls, the lack of heating oil, the demand for salt and grit.

Mr Scott and Annabel Goldie pursued the FM on such matters.

Alex Salmond responded calmly - while noting, en passant, that there had now been incidents in England where roads, railways and airports had been closed.

Perhaps, he reflected, opposition leaders might care to reconsider the attacks which obliged Stewart Stevenson to stand down as transport minister when such closures afflicted Scotland.

Role models

I said "mostly". Iain Gray opted to pursue the issue of independence, drawing attention to the SNP website which cited the example of other small nations.

He used the familiar examples of Iceland and Ireland, suggesting that their recent economic problems undermined their potential as role-models for Scotland.

Then he turned to Montenegro - which declared independence in 2006.

Far from following an easy route to independence, he argued, the story of Montenegro was one of conflict, global and Balkan.

At the core of Mr Gray's argument was a suggestion that Mr Salmond was not just a rotten FM, but also a rotten Nationalist - by shelving the independence referendum.

At all points during Mr Gray's repeated, iterative questioning, Mr Salmond appeared utterly undisturbed.

Serene, in fact. Pausing once to suggest that Mr Gray might care to truncate the list of countries he chose to insult, pausing a second time to exemplify Norway, the first minister argued that folk in oil-wealthy Scotland would choose independence when, eventually, given the chance.

And there we have it for 2010. In our end is our beginning.

Have a wonderful Christmas and a guid New Year.

Lib Dems have a stinker

Brian Taylor | 15:25 UK time, Wednesday, 22 December 2010


Bit of a stinker all round for the Liberal Democrats.

Not wonderful for the Scottish Secretary Michael Moore - although the Vince Cable stuff is of an entirely different order.

Let us deal with Mr Moore first. He is making no overt complaints about the method by which he was secretly taped - only too well aware that such complaints would sound limp.

Instead, his defence is that it is scarcely a secret that, as a Liberal Democrat, he does not pursue the precise path mapped out by the Conservatives.

So, on child benefit, he says it is the anomalies in the change - and not the change itself - which concern him.

On tuition fees, he says it is well known that this has been painful for Liberal Democrats.

To which one might well respond that it will be a sight more painful for those students in England who end up paying increased charges - when they believed they had a pledge from the LibDems to thwart those increases if they could: not to assist their passage.

Face value

Again, though, Mr Moore told the bogus "constituents" what he insists he is telling everyone: that the gains of stable government, with LibDem influence, outweigh the political agony of a particular U-turn.

Even if one accepts that argument at face value - and many will not - it would appear that Mr Moore still faces a fundamental question.

One which I posed to him openly, on camera.

If, as he tells his "constituents", he entered politics partly because he "hated" what the Tories were doing to Scotland, why on earth is he in coalition with them?

His answer was that times and circumstances have changed: that, again, it is advantageous to the UK at this time of economic uncertainty to have a government with a stable majority and an agreed programme; that there have been gains for the LibDems as well as the Tories in the coalition agreement.

To turn now to Mr Cable. What did he think he was doing? Bad enough that he is heard apparently boasting that he could bring down the government by resigning (a scenario which he later discounted.)

He sounded for all the world like a grumpy junior clerk in a dead-end job declaring: I could walk away, you know - just see how they'd get on then.

Sentence pronounced

Far worse that he is recorded declaring war on Rupert Murdoch - when he was, at the time of recording, in the process of considering and judging the media tycoon's application to take over the whole of BSkyB.

Let us be clear what does - and does not - matter about this.

It does not matter, at this stage, whether Mr Cable was right or wrong to oppose Mr Murdoch.

It is not a question of the verdict - but that the sentence was pronounced, Alice in Wonderland style, before the verdict or even the court hearing.

It is a question of process. Which truly matters in government. And the law.

As one LibDem MSP said to me, even the most junior councillor would know not to comment on a planning application - if they were members of the planning committee.

Let alone the sole final arbiter. Even if approached by "constituents".

The cost of education

Brian Taylor | 17:28 UK time, Thursday, 16 December 2010


So where are we on university funding?

More to the point, will there be the much-trumpeted consensus - or will the different parties arrive at different options by the Holyrood elections in May?

Looks like the latter - inasmuch as one can offer any precision in a situation where most of the parties, with the exception of the Tories, are moving gently and sedately towards policy formulation, aware of the sensitivity.

We know that the Tories back a graduate contribution: that is a debt falling due when the individual is earning a certain amount. Details to follow.

We know that the SNP hope to avoid a graduate contribution - although it is listed as one of the six funding options within their Green Paper.

They hope that the others will fill the gap in funding potential between Scotland and England, obviating the need to levy a charge on graduates.

We know that Labour believe, as things stand, that a graduate contribution will be required.

Des McNulty argued in the chamber that the Minister was deluding the people of Scotland by suggesting that such a charge could be avoided.

We know that the Liberal Democrats are working towards precise policy with an emphasis upon enhancing university access for those from the most deprived backgrounds.

Why consider all the parties - rather than simply the Scottish government?

Funding gap

Because the timetable following the Green Paper means that this will be an election issue, not a decision to be settled in the present Parliament by the present administration.

The debate hinges on the expected funding gap between Scotland and England - once higher fees kick in south of the border.

SNP ministers say that gap may be less than feared because the higher fees in England are not purely additional income but replace funding which will be withdrawn from central government contributions.

That means, they argue, that it is feasible that the gap which ultimately emerges may be made up by other elements - including higher fees for students from England, Wales and Northern Ireland who go to Scottish universities.

Education Secretary Michael Russell also hopes that it may be possible to end the present bar on Scottish universities levying fees on students from elsewhere in the EU - which is enforced because Scottish students pay no fees. (You can discriminate within a state but not, it is argued, across state boundaries in the EU.)

But there is a connected issue. If government cash is withdrawn from English universities, then - through the Barnett Formula - there will be reduction in the cash available to the totality of the Scottish block.

Therefore, if Scottish universities are to be sustained in their central funding then that money will have to be found from elsewhere in the Scottish budget.

Taken together, opposition parties say that leads them to question the Scottish Government's sums - and the presumption that a graduate contribution may be avoided.

Government and universities will now work on costing the various options in the Green Paper.

After that, the parties will specify their offers to the electorate.

Black humour

Brian Taylor | 14:47 UK time, Wednesday, 15 December 2010


Warm applause at Holyrood. For what?

For the installation of Angela Constance as schools minister.

It is one of Holyrood's more endearing idiosyncrasies to oblige newly appointed ministers to win the support of parliament prior to taking office.

In practice, down the years, there has been no serious attempt to block such appointments.

MSPs tend to recognise that government is tough enough without obstacles being placed in the way of First Ministerial choice.

In fact, a tradition has emerged that such debates are short and, mostly, droll.

Today, the best gags by far came from the first minister who deployed elegant, black humour at the expense of his rivals.

Brief debate

In the event, Ms Constance was installed without a vote. Her elevation follows the resignation of Stewart Stevenson as transport minister - and the transfer of Keith Brown to that post.

It is to the credit of Mr Stevenson that he sat in the chamber throughout the brief debate on the new ministerial deployment, smiling benignly.

Perhaps he knew that he could rely upon the deft repartee of his chum, Alex Salmond, to deflect such criticism as came his way.

For Ms Constance, it is now down to work, dealing with the Byzantine intricacies of Scottish education politics.

In the immediate future, though, the dominant issue in this area of policy concerns higher education, with tomorrow's scheduled publication of a Green Paper on future prospects for the sector.

Expect all funding options, apart from tuition fees, to be canvassed.

Expect a working party, involving the universities, to be set the task of costing said options - with the prospect that the sum of several of these parts might, arguably, fill the funding gap between Scotland and England, thus pre-empting the need for a graduate contribution.

More, of course, tomorrow.

Stuck in Edinburgh

Brian Taylor | 16:36 UK time, Tuesday, 14 December 2010


Politics can sometimes seem remote; divorced from popular concerns.

That is emphatically not the case with the current controversy over the weather.

Everybody has a story to tell, including MSPs. Labour's Charlie Gordon disclosed that he had, personally, been marooned by the snow. For two nights. In Edinburgh.

Which was, he said, a cause of some grief "for a dyed in the wool Glaswegian."

Worse, he had been obliged to subsist "in the clothes I stood up in." Enough, enough.

Perhaps it was personal experiences like this, perhaps it was a reflection of public fury but the session was notably tetchy in points.

Mr Gordon argued with the witnesses and with the convener, Patrick Harvie, who indicated fairly plainly that he had heard more than enough from his Glaswegian colleague.

Settling down

Even with a change of suit.

Jackson Carlaw of the Tories also seemed to dislike the tone of the exchanges - and made his feelings evident.

But things settled down in time for John Swinney to assume his most reassuring, bank managerial demeanour. (Actually, strike that: banks aren't what they were. Fill in your own reassuring profession.)

Mr Swinney apologised - again. He stressed - again - that the snow had been much worse than forecast.

Then he outlined a six-point action plan which was being worked up by the new Transport Minister Keith Brown.

(Mr Brown wasn't in post last week so didn't have to defend the government before the committee.)

It was a confident, competent performance by Mr Swinney.

Next storm

He stayed calm - only becoming mildly animated when suggesting, ever so gently, that folk (especially folk driving HGVs) might care to pay a little more heed to warnings that the roads were tricky.

As far as it went, it was fine. Questions were asked. Answers were given. The formalities were observed.

But this was, quite literally, the calm before the next storm.

Scotland's revised preparations will be tested not in committee, but on the roads and rails.

Send in the marine

Brian Taylor | 14:15 UK time, Sunday, 12 December 2010


We have had servicemen and women clearing the streets in Edinburgh.

Now, with further snow forecast, Scotland has sent for the marines. Or, more precisely, a former marine in the shape of Keith Brown MSP who is to be the new transport minister.

Not since John Reid allegedly greeted a new role in Cabinet with "Oh f . . ., not health!" can a ministerial appointment have been such an overt challenge to the lucky winner. Last week's snow closed the airports, clogged the roads and railways - and, ultimately, ended a ministerial career.

Keith Brown has been seen as an effective operator in his previous post as schools minister.

He has been resolute, declining to flap in the face of substantial opposition pressure and troublesome statistics.

Good training for the new task.

From a Scottish government point of view, it is sensible to hand the transport brief to an MSP with ministerial experience, albeit relatively limited.

Full attention

To borrow a phrase from an ex-PM, this is no time for a novice. It is equally sensible to divest Mr Brown of the climate change role held by his predecessor Stewart Stevenson.

(That goes to Roseanna Cunningham.) Transport needs his full attention at the moment. One suspects it will get it - along with that of his Cabinet boss, John Swinney, and indeed the FM.

It is a Holyrood welcome too - depending upon parliamentary approval - to a new Minister: Angela Constance.

She has been a sound, if undemonstrative, presence on the backbenches and in committee.

Might be a good combination - especially as she can leave any required flamboyance to her Cabinet boss, Michael Russell.

The entire episode is a reminder, if one were needed, that Alex Salmond does not have a majority in Holyrood.

The moment the opposition parties threatened to combine over a confidence motion, Mr Stevenson's position became untenable, despite support from Mr Salmond.

SNP rivals

In addition, it would appear that Mr Stevenson took an honourable stance. He was badly hurt by the opposition taunts and the concomitant press lampooning.

He concluded that he was no longer serving his government or his party by remaining in office and chose to depart, albeit in the face of a threatened kick from the SNP's rivals in parliament.

A victim of the climate

Brian Taylor | 17:42 UK time, Saturday, 11 December 2010


And so he has gone: a victim of the climate, in two senses.

Stewart Stevenson has resigned as Scotland's Transport Minister, admitting to failures of communication during the harsh snow last week.

Equally, he blames a political campaign, presumably enhanced by the pre-election atmosphere at Holyrood.

Labour and the other opposition parties are building a narrative for that election which is based upon depicting the SNP as stranded in office, unable to act.

Challenging the Scottish government - and Mr Stevenson in particular - over the transport problems suits that narrative admirably.

Equally, though, several backbench SNP MSPs found themselves squirming somewhat as their party found itself obliged to defend Mr Stevenson.

Privately, several thought that he had not helped his own case by initially praising the efforts to keep traffic moving as "first class".

More than one said to me that, had the roles been reversed with the SNP in opposition and Labour in power, they would have mounted a sustained attack.

The First Minister Alex Salmond feels that the resignation is unwarranted.

Indeed, he persuaded his colleague and close friend to think again when resignation was offered on Thursday - after sharp exchanges on the issue at Holyrood.

Mr Salmond's statement tonight speaks of "reprehensible" parliamentary game-playing by the party's opponents.

He praises Mr Stevenson's "diligence and devotion".

Speaking for the party, Shirley-Anne Somerville MSP goes further.

She says a "decent and dedicated man" has been "hounded from office".

His critics, she says, should hang their heads in shame.

Among other comments, Friends of the Earth praise the departing minister's contribution to addressing climate change.

But, on the same topic, Patrick Harvie of the Greens says that Mr Stevenson appeared to enjoy ministerial status without truly understanding the issues.

As to preparing for Scotland's winter, Part Two, John Swinney is in direct charge - with a replacement minister due to be appointed tomorrow (Sunday).

Court of Holyrood opinion

Brian Taylor | 14:59 UK time, Thursday, 9 December 2010


There he was, the first minister, boldly arguing his case before the court of public opinion - when up pops a Lib Dem to call him "the prisoner".

Seems a bit harsh. Can it be right? Do "shades of the prison house begin to close upon the growing boy?" Does the slammer beckon?

Of course not. Robert Brown, for it was he, was on about justice and simply mis-spoke. (He meant to say "first minister".)

You know how it is. It's easily done. For example, you say "I am completely against tuition fees" - and forget to add the caveat "unless I am in power."

Anyway, rather than an inmate, Alex Salmond was acting the role of defence counsel.

Behind him, looking just a little sheepish, was Stewart Stevenson. Aka "the accused".

His opponents were convinced. He was guilty as charged.

Minister backed

Indeed, Labour's Iain Gray appeared to be donning a metaphorical black cap as he pronounced sentence.

Mr Salmond dissented. Yes, communication could have been better.

But the weather had been extraordinary, surpassing the forecast. He backed his minister.

The FM then suggested that Scotland might require to enhance its preparations for such hideous weather on a more regular basis.

That did not mean, he stressed, that the government would neglect the immediate challenge.

Far from it. Rather, in tandem, they had to consider the longer term challenge.

Years, as Wordsworth would have it, "that bring the philosophic mind".

Snow delay

Brian Taylor | 18:19 UK time, Wednesday, 8 December 2010


It didn't help that the statement about road delays was, itself, delayed.

This was for an honourable reason: getting the latest update from the M8 meant the normal courtesy of supplying a text to opposition front benches would not have been possible in time.

But, in the chilly atmosphere at Holyrood, it added to an impression of drift and uncertainty: an impression which, naturally, Ministers are keen to dispel.

The transport minister, Stewart Stevenson, was up against it from the start.

Folk don't like being stuck in cars. Folk don't like their trains cancelled.

MSPs, despite rumours to the contrary, are folk.

They too have spent hours struggling personfully to get to their toil. And they are reflecting the fury around Scotland.

White hell

Mr Stevenson owned up (within limits.) He took responsibility for those matters - such as communication - which lie within the ambit of government.

Ministers, he said, should have spread the word about the white hell more speedily and more robustly.

Perhaps, in future, the phrase "avoid travelling unless absolutely necessary" will be shelved in favour of something more robust. Like health warnings, it has become too formulaic, easily discounted.

But Mr Stevenson was understandably to take the blame for the weather or, more precisely, for the weather forecasts.

The Met Office, he said, had delivered forecasts which fell short by several centimetres of the snow which actually fell.

Further, it fell over a prolonged period and an extensive area of central Scotland.

Hang on, though, say opposition MSPs. Mr Stevenson's list of forecasts didn't include a severe weather warning issued at 2040 GMT, on Sunday evening.

The government reply is that the information offered in that warning was in line with other bulletins: two to five cm of snow, locally 10cm over the hills.

Ruby-cheeked youth apart, I expect we would all welcome a break in the snow.

Stewart Stevenson more than most.

Eye of the storm

Brian Taylor | 12:37 UK time, Tuesday, 7 December 2010


It was once infamously said of British Rail that they had been caught out by the wrong type of snow.

(They were on standby for wet stuff. The soft, fluffy variety left them -and their ploughs - stumped.)

Now Scotland's transport minister, Stewart Stevenson, has landed in trouble as a result of the wrong type of weather forecast.

Apparently, the Scottish government had "prepared for one set of weather".

Along came 10cm of snow or therabouts. Result? A mass involuntary roadside sleep-over.

Just what, one wonders, are they expecting now? Light, airy clouds and unseasonable warmth? Look out the hurricane boards immediately.

To be fair, Mr Stevenson has apologised.

To be fair further, the weather has been exceptionally hideous.

But, as he has now learned, folk who have spent a night in their cars or have seen schools open only to close shortly thereafter or have struggled for hours to get nowhere are less than inclined to be generous in their sentiments.

They have to blame someone and, right now, the transport minister is in the eye of a storm (which, presumably, his forecasters did not see coming.)

Christmas mischief

Brian Taylor | 12:05 UK time, Monday, 6 December 2010


Jack Vettriano picture

Jack Vettriano's Let's twist again"

There are many reasons for despatching a Christmas card.

These can include duty - we always include Auntie Rose. And guilt - we haven't seen Auntie Rose since last December.

Plus, of course, the simple joy of corresponding with your friends and family during what is deemed to be the Festive Season.

To these various motives, we must now add mischief.

At least, in the case of the First Minister Alex Salmond.

The image on this blog is a canvas entitled "Let's Twist Again", by Jack Vettriano.

It is to form the first minister's official Yuletide card.

Signed prints

The principal motivation - apart from the understandable desire to alert Mr Salmond's mailing list to the impending festivities - is to raise cash for charity.

As well as the original work, limited edition signed prints will be sold.

Similar endeavours over the past three years have raised around £50,000 for good causes.

So why mischief? Because this year's canvas is to be unveiled this evening at the National Gallery of Scotland in Edinburgh - which has resolutely declined to display Vettriano works, despite (because of?) the artist's popularity.

Mr Salmond is, of course, only too well aware of this.

I suspect that, together with his festive sentiments of goodwill, there is a tiny portion of him which relishes the slighly roguish gesture involved in unveiling a Vettriano on the Mound.

Certainly, the FM declares himself a "huge fan" of Jack Vettriano's work. In return, the artist says that it was a "tremendous honour" to assist.

The charities to benefit this year are Bethany Christian Trust, Maggie's Cancer Caring Centres, Quarriers and Teenage Cancer Trust.

I feel certain that the good folk at the National Gallery will appreciate entirely that they are being gently ribbed and will succumb contentedly in the interests of charity - and Christmas.

Terms and conditions apply

Brian Taylor | 13:38 UK time, Thursday, 2 December 2010


Ever been caught out by one of those exclusion clauses in offers?

You know the sort of thing? "Conditions apply: this deal is not available to left-handed customers who have holidayed in Azerbaijan."

Alex Salmond plainly thinks he has detected a new version - "except for the Labour Party".

Mr Salmond deployed versions of this phrase regularly during his weekly q&a at Holyrood, assuming a cod-solemn voice on each occasion.

The point he was seeking to make was that Labour-led councils may seek an opt-out from Scottish government objectives such as police numbers (also insert here "the council tax freeze" or "class sizes", according to circumstances.)

You can see the tactic, can't you? It is to depict Scottish ministers as heroically leading a consensual battle against evil - thwarted at every turn by curmudgeonly Labourites.

Naturally, Labour's Iain Gray is disinclined to engage on these terms.

Rather, on police numbers, he was concerned to depict the Scottish government's success in meeting its self-imposed target as a "con" - made up, for example, by replacing civilian staff.

Public spirit

Mr Salmond counter-attacked by declaring that rising police numbers under the SNP meant falling crime.

However, on the day, Mr Salmond need not have bothered in seeking to isolate his opponent. Mr Gray's question set him apart from the rest of the chamber in any case.

Everyone else wanted to moan about the weather.

I suspect in this regard they were in keeping with the public spirit. Is it ever going to stop . . . snowing?

As I glance out the window here at Holyrood, I see a descending white menace which Online forecasts conjoin me to believe is a "light snow shower".

Looks like an apprentice blizzard to me.

Anyway, Annabel Goldie of the Tories paid tribute to those workers who have continued to toil, especially care workers. Cue empathetic applause.

Tough circumstances

But she was less than content with "blanket" closure of schools. Better to leave it to head teachers.

Mr Salmond very broadly concurred while, in emollient mood, noting that local authorities were having to take very tough decisions in very tough circumstances.

Tavish Scott seemed upset with Edinburgh Airport for sporadic runway closures. Aberdeen and Dundee Airports, he said, had stayed open.

As had Highland and Island airports.

By contrast, he said, Edinburgh seemed to lay greater stress on shopping facilities and charging drivers for dropping off their passengers.

Again, Mr Salmond was emollient. Edinburgh, he said, had suffered five times the level of snow as Glasgow Airport.

There might be longer-term lessons for Edinburgh but, right now, they were dealing with "exceptional conditions."

White mountain

Patrick Harvie of the Greens voiced outrage at the prospect that some workers might be threatened with disciplinary procedures if they failed to turn up for work.

Mr Salmond declined to comment without firm evidence.

And then we heard from Christine Grahame. Wasn't it wonderful, she trilled, that Scotland's youngsters were able to get out in the fresh air, to revel in the snow?

It's just all you need, isn't it? As you dig your car out of a white mountain. As the feet-deep drifts start to freeze. Somebody that likes it.

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