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Archives for January 2011

Devolution dance

Brian Taylor | 13:08 UK time, Thursday, 27 January 2011


Welcome to the devolution dance: an elegant gavotte between Holyrood and Westminster.

The object? In part, it is believed, to ensure that substantial advance is made with the Scotland Bill in the Commons before MSPs arise from their law-making toil for the troublesome business of seeking re-election.

Why? In order, arguably, to enhance the status of the offer to counter the SNP project of fiscal autonomy and independence: to stress the progress recorded.

According to taste, the bill itself is either a significant enhancement of Holyrood's financial accountability or a back-door device to impoverish the Scots or a missed opportunity.

It is receiving its Second Reading in the Commons today in the aftermath of (occasionally contentious) scrutiny at Holyrood. Which is where the concept of choreography comes in.

The constitution of the United Kingdom is explicity reserved as an issue for Westminster to handle in Schedule V of the Scotland Act 1998. (I know, I know, but bear with me.)

The new Scotland Bill builds upon that 1998 Act: altering the balance of reserved and devolved powers and amending the arrangements by which Holyrood is financed.

Westminster's hands

But the constitution of the United Kingdom remains reserved. The Scotland Act 1998 is a Westminster measure. It lies in Westminster's hands to change it.

Actually, everything still lies in Westminster's hands - but, by convention, they stay away from the devolved stuff.

I well recall the anguished debates in the Constitutional Convention as to how the devolution settlement could be entrenched against future predations from Westminster. The conclusion?

It couldn't.

Or, at least, it was concluded that any such entrenchment was political rather than constitutional. On the lines of "they wouldn't dare."

That was formalised a little through the device which came to be known as the Sewel convention, after the estimable and droll Lord Sewel, then a Scottish Office Minister who proposed that Westminster should not legislate in devolved areas without prior consent from Holyrood.

But only a little. Westminster remains sovereign, Holyrood remains its devolved creature.

Present bill

Sensibly from its perspective, Westminster avoids stressing this relative status. Unionist politicians at Holyrood comply. Nationalist politicians raise the issue regularly.

Which brings us (patience, patience) back to the present Scotland Bill.

How does Westminster alter the constitutional arrangements in the Scottish Parliament without highlighting Holyrood's subordinate status overmuch?

Answer: that gavotte, the reform reel. Will you, won't you, join the dance?

And so the Scotland Bill is first subjected to debate at Holyrood, not Westminster.

On the 9th of December, Labour, Conservative and Liberal Democrat MSPs combined to support the general principles of the bill.

Incidentally, the phrase "general principles" quite deliberately echoes the term used when, as today, MPs give a Second Reading to a piece of legislation at Westminster.

Onto the next phase.

A special committee under the convenership of Wendy Alexander has been taking evidence on the Scotland Bill prior to preparing a report.

Committee stages

They began work ahead of today's Second Reading.

It is anticipated that the Alexander committee will produce their report before Westminster begins its committee stages on the bill.

Those will be taken over three days on the floor of the Commons, this being a constitutional bill.

Then it is envisaged that there will be a formal Legislative Consent Motion at Holyrood (an LCM or Sewel motion).

Without that, says the Scottish Secretary Michael Moore, the Commons would not proceed to final approval.

Views arising. The UK government and parties adhering to the Union in the Scottish Parliament say that it is a deft and sensible way of ensuring that Holyrood is fully involved in scrutinising what remains a Westminster Bill.

Mr Moore made such points on Good Morning Scotland this morning.

Fiscal autonomy

The alternative perspective, from Nationalists and others supporting fiscal autonomy, is that the Bill is receiving insufficient scrutiny in relation to what are substantial changes to the financial regime (which they dislike for a range of reasons.)

That is, partly, why such a fuss was raised over the reception afforded by the committee to Professors Andrew Hughes Hallett and Drew Scott.

Yes, it is argued, it was reasonable to question them on their advocacy of fiscal autonomy but they should have been questioned first on the principles of the Bill before the committee.

In response to the general point about scrutiny, those advocating the bill say that the issue was extensively discussed by the Calman Commission and its offshoot teams, that it is being examined at Holyrood and that it will undergo a full legislative process at Westminster.

Further, those advocating the bill say that the SNP complaints about scrutiny are bogus: that they want to block the bill, not study it.

In response, Nationalists insist that they welcome enhanced powers for Holyrood - but that the financial proposals are misplaced.

Among all the other issues, this will be a choice to be placed before the people.

Not just at Westminster, not just at Holyrood, but at the forthcoming election.

Budget afterlife

Brian Taylor | 16:50 UK time, Wednesday, 26 January 2011


Despite a contented year studying theology at St Andrews, I am not, I confess, an expert in the terminology of the afterlife.

Perhaps that is because I was a mere passing tourist in the divinity faculty en route to an arts degree.

Still, something stirred as I heard Derek Brownlee of the Conservatives declare that the Scottish Government's Budget Bill presently resides in "purgatory".

Presumably, that means that it remains open to Finance Secretary John Swinney to expiate his sins and so attract the votes he needs in a fortnight's time, at Stage Three.

Not sure Mr Swinney looked in a particularly devotional mood.

He had spent a pretty turgid morning trawling through his plan to impose a levy on large retailers in the company of the local government committee. (Limbo, perhaps?)

He then spent the afternoon urging sceptical and hostile MSPs to support his budget.


The session opened with a point of order from Mike Rumbles. Joy unbounding for Swinney, J.

Firstly, that levy.

It has now been opposed in committee. It will presumably be opposed when the same arithmetic is constructed in the full chamber. It has had it. It is an ex levy.

Unless. Unless Ministers can think of some way, any way, to persuade a rival party, perhaps Labour, that the levy is the least miserable option in the age of austerity.

Might they offer, for example, to hypothecate the thirty million quid raised by the levy for a key Labour project, such as apprenticeships for young people?

They might - but Labour still sound mightily sceptical about the levy, about the way it was introduced, about its economic equity and, frankly, about the entire budget.

Election dates are influential here.

Urban regeneration

All the opposition parties are currently stressing the need to enhance growth. Fine, says Mr Swinney, but how. Precisely, how.

Answers are beginning to emerge. From Labour, retain the future jobs fund, boost urban regeneration.

From the Tories, boost housing to support contruction and reshape public services. From the LibDems, bolster college bursaries and trim top pay to release resources.

But, self-evidently, more negotiation is required before Mr Swinney's budget can enter a state of grace.

Weathering the economy

Brian Taylor | 12:53 UK time, Tuesday, 25 January 2011


Not good. Not good at all.

The expectation was for sluggish, even anaemic, growth: not for a fall in output, a contraction of 0.5 per cent in the last three months of 2010 (Q4).

These figures are for the UK as a whole. Scotland's cycle is distinct - with the latest figures, for the third quarter of 2010 (Q3), showing a growth of 0.5 per cent in the economy.

And the next tranche of Scottish figures? Expect them around April 20. Yes, that's right, just before the scheduled date for the Holyrood elections.

Firstly, those UK figures.

Blame is being attached in some quarters to the severe winter weather. It is suggested this constrained consumer demand and economic activity.

Which, of course, was a factor considered by those forecasting the likely out-turn.

'Austerity programme'

They did not, however, expect a significant decline in construction in the UK figures. They did not anticipate a fall in output overall, despite the harsh meteorological climate.

Chancellor, George Osborne, says that he will not be deflected from his "austerity" programme with regard to public spending.

But, with the VAT increase just about to bite, there will be enhanced political pressure upon Mr Osborne to make growth a priority in his next Budget - perhaps through addressing issues such as business taxation and fuel duty.

To Scotland, next. The Finance Secretary, John Swinney, argues that the latest Scottish figures - which include a rise in construction - reflect "robust action" taken by ministers.

That is, of course, disputed by his opponents who say that it scarcely sits with, for example, the proposal to impose an additional levy upon large retailers in Scotland.

The UK growth figures will also reignite the debate over the impact of spending constraint - especially with the Scottish budget due to face its Stage One vote tomorrow.

Leadership contender

PS: A personal note of sympathy to the family of Phil Gallie who has died aged 71.

Phil was an MP and an MSP during his career: a leadership contender when Holyrood was first elected.

In both parliaments, he was a tireless and enthusiastic public servant - on the front bench, in committee, in open debate.

Much more than that, he was a good man: friendly, open and warm. A caring husband, father and grandfather.

He will be much missed.

[ . . .]

Brian Taylor | 14:56 UK time, Thursday, 20 January 2011


Much greenery at Holyrood today as the party's two MSPs each led debates, with entirely different tones.

Firstly, Patrick Harvie harangued and hectored his colleagues in fine style on the topic of their alleged pusillanimity in the face of Westminster-imposed cuts.

A prelude, one presumes, to the Greens voting against the Scottish budget.

As he sat down, the beads of indignation still fresh on his brow, up rose his colleague Robin Harper, he of the permanent smile and gloriously dappled ties.

Quivering MSPs relaxed. No more tough talk. Tenderness all round as Robin argued for action to help young people prosper.

Sundry members paid warm tribute to Britain's first Green parliamentarian who, he said, was probably leading his last debate before standing down in May.

Alex Salmond appeared to be taking lessons from this tough and tender combination: except that he contrived to offer both in a single session.

Extended period

To Iain Gray, he offered uncompromising scorn, even suggesting at one point that Mr Gray was not sufficiently charismatic to appear on Desert Island Discs (guess who was on this week?).

Mr Gray suggested in return that Scotland would be the better should Mr Salmond be marooned for an extended period.

To Annabel Goldie and still more Tavish Scott, Mr Salmond was the concerned first minister: keen to address the issues they raised but obliged to point out, with gentle regret, that there were alternative considerations.

Mr Gray was pursuing the controversy surrounding the academics who gave evidence to the committee considering the Scotland Bill - and the use made of that evidence. (Dongate, anyone?)

According to Mr Gray, a quotation from a document drawn up by Professors Andrew Hughes Hallett and Drew Scott had been "doctored" by the Scottish government to strengthen their case for fiscal autonomy.

Regular readers will have encountered all this stuff on this site earlier this week.

But the essence is that the quote from the profs referred, in square brackets, to devolution of spending while the SG version talked, in square brackets, of spending and taxation.

Bracketed explanation

The Scottish government has already attempted to answer this point, advising me that the quote (with brackets) was not reshaped.

Apparently, they used a comparable quote from later in the document - and inserted their own bracketed explanation.

Not since Gordon Brown talked of neo-endogenous economic growth theory has a debate seemed so arcane.

But Mr Gray insisted that it mattered because it was about fundamental trust: trust in the office of first minister.

Incidentally, on the subject of neo etc, you may recall Michael Heseltine exclaiming that this masterpiece was actually the work of Mr Brown's then adviser, Ed Balls.

It was, according to Hezza, all Balls'.

Mr Salmond deployed a comparably dismissive tone, albeit with less drollery.

Authentic place

He swiped Mr Gray's complaint aside, disdaining even to use the explanation offered to the media by his own government team.

He noted, further, that the academics concerned accepted that both elements, spending and tax, had an authentic place in the debate.

Then to the crescendo.

Scotland, he roared, did not want a debate about square brackets.

It wanted a discussion on the merits of fiscal autonomy versus the Calman option.

Annabel Goldie rose to complain about the proposed levy on big retailers.

Mr Salmond argued, with notable restraint, that those with the broadest shoulders had to bear the greatest burden.

Tavish Scott drew upon his party's estimable research department once more to produce updated figures on the large sums being expended in the Scottish public service on those earning more than £100k.

More in sorrow than anger, Mr Salmond said his government was attempting to introduce wage restraint for all those earning more than £21k in an effort to protect services and (his "dearest wish") to avoid compulsory redundancies.

Budget vote approaches

Brian Taylor | 14:49 UK time, Wednesday, 19 January 2011


At Holyrood, they are assiduously talking money - with the Stage One vote on the Scottish government's budget due next Wednesday.

Plenty happening. Parliament's finance committee will pronounce tomorrow, John Swinney will outline forward thinking on spending early next week - and, as ever, he is seeking to negotiate with his opponents in order to secure passage of the Budget Bill.

The committee first. This will be Andrew Welsh's valedictory performance as the distinguished convener - and observers expect him to attempt to advance medium to long-term thinking, in contrast to the inevitable short-term focus of members seeking re-election.

So one might expect talk, for example, of preventative spending: a strategy whereby public resources are devoted to forestalling social problems rather than the more expensive task of tackling them when they have become entrenched.

More immediately, it is also thought likely that the committee will convey concerns raised with them and other Holyrood subject committees as to whether the government's primary purpose is being fulfilled.

You've forgotten the primary purpose? No, it is not to get re-elected: take that person's name.

And it is not independence - although that is, of course, the fundamental objective of the governing SNP.

Ring fencing

Within the ambit of present devolved powers, the stated Purpose (always with a capital P) is "to focus government and public services on creating a more successful country, with opportunities for all of Scotland to flourish, through increasing sustainable economic growth."

I expect the finance committee report to question, in broad terms, whether that Purpose is being enhanced by the budgetary plans - or whether, for example, there is over-emphasis on ring fencing expenditure on the NHS.

Committee members, I expect, will go their own ways with regard to the emphasis to be placed upon this.

Opposition party members may view it as criticism of the Scottish government.

SNP members may see it as simply highlighting a potential concern raised by others.

I expect that there may also be a balancing act in the committee report on revenue.

The committee make-up would indicate support, just, for the council tax freeze - but the arithmetic would also indicate opposition to the new levy on large retailers.

We shall see.

Next, Mr Swinney's forward thinking. He has been obliged by opponents to announce this in greater detail but, in essence, all of the budgetary planning is posited upon post-election considerations.

Multi-dimensional chess

It is all about a forward offer with an eye to the present electoral challenge.

Which brings us to the votes on the budget.

As ever, Mr Swinney is involved in a game of multi-dimensional chess with his opponents. Talks have been under way for some time.

Again as ever, he has to tread cautiously. For example, the Greens, with two votes, are arguing that Scotland should not simply live with the cuts handed down from Westminster but should seek to mitigate those by raising further revenue.

That might include, for example, ending the council tax freeze and imposing rates on vacant business properties.

Given his stance on the council tax, Mr Swinney is institutionally averse to this package. But, in any event, if he were to move in the direction of the Greens, he would risk losing the potential support of the sixteen Tories.

SNP strategists reckon that Labour is virtually certain to vote against the Budget for electoral reasons.

Extracting concessions

Their core narrative is that the SNP is exacerbating the impact of Westminster cuts. They would scarcely tell that story by voting for the budget.

And what of the Liberal Democrats? They have set out suggested changes, such as replacing the enterprise network with regional investment banks.

But would they vote for the budget, perhaps extracting concessions where they can? Or might they, as in the past, veer towards opposition?

One consideration might be the relatively remote prospect of causing an early election if Alex Salmond decided that losing his budget was sufficient to prompt resignation - and a successor could not be elected in time.

Would the LibDems really want to risk going to the polls early, given their current travails at Westminster?

Do the sums. Forty seven Nationalists plus (if a deal can be done) 16 Tories plus (ditto) Margo MacDonald equals 64.

Forty six Labour members plus (if no deal is done) 16 LibDems plus (ditto) two Greens equals 64.

Deadlock risk

That would then bring the Presiding Officer into play.

At Stage One, he would vote to allow the Bill to proceed in order to permit parliament a further opportunity to consider the matter.

However, should that deadlock persist until Stage Three, he would be obliged to rule that the new proposition (the Bill) had failed to command support in parliament and that the status quo ante - in this case, the existing budget - should be maintained.

Given that the current annual budget is higher than the new one, that would be intriguing.

In the short term, ministers would still have a mandate to pay the bills. In the medium term, of course, the money would run out as spending exceeded the cash available.

But then, presumably, the election would provide a fresh opportunity to address the issue, whoever wins.

To stress, we are not there yet. The Budget may well carry, particularly as the voters may be impatient with what they might see as political game-playing.

But, again as ever, it is fascinating.

PS: Many congratulations to Liz Lochhead who has just been appointed as Scotland's Makar to succeed the late, great Edwin Morgan. She is an exceptionally gifted writer and a warm personality. An excellent choice.

PPS: A knighthood at least for Steve Banks after his heroics in Dingwall last night.

'Academic ping pong'

Brian Taylor | 14:27 UK time, Tuesday, 18 January 2011


"Academic ping pong": thus Brian Adam of the SNP on the exchanges at the Scotland Bill committee last week with Professors Drew Scott and Andrew Hughes Hallett.

Mr Adam apologised for what he believed was aggressive questioning directed at the profs by committee members from other parties.

No such apology from the presiding officer who has just replied to a complaint from Prof Scott. Indeed, from Alex Fergusson, notable caution on all fronts.

He notes that conduct in committee is the responsibility of conveners, he notes that "robust conclusions" require the testing of all evidence and he expresses a hope that relations with the academic world will not be damaged.

Which offers a little of something for everyone - as was presumably the intention - without cutting across the committee or suggesting that the questioning was inappropriate.

So what was the row all about? Fiscal autonomy / independence / responsibility.

Wherein lay the complaint from the academics who said they had prepared to answer questions on the Scotland Bill: the subject of the investitation.

Fiscal autonomy

It might have been better, perhaps, had the questioning at the committee started with the bill itself - which suggests further devolution of income tax - rather than instantly pouncing on the two professors' adherence to broader fiscal autonomy.

However, it was entirely legitimate to pursue the issue of fiscal autonomy, given that it is the suggested alternative to the measures in the Scotland Bill and has been advocated by the Scottish Government, drawing upon work by the two profs.

More to the point, there is now a substantial argument about the evidence offered - and the Scottish government interpretation.

In an academic paper in March, Prof Hughes Hallett and Prof Scott noted that "a 1% point increase in fiscal devolution {share of local expenditures in total government spending for that region} . . . might be expected to raise GDP by 1.3% after 5 years above what would otherwise have been the case."

However, in quoting this point, the Scottish government would appear to have altered the wording slightly, saying that "a 1% increase in fiscal devolution {the proportion of revenue and expenditure devolved} might be expected to raise GDP by 1.3% after five years above what would otherwise have been the case."

Version one talks of spending. Version two talks of spending and revenue. Labour has now asked the permanent secretary at the SG to explain the difference.

We will await that answer but it probably lies in a clarification offered to the committee by the profs themselves who argued it was implicit that the new devolution involved both spending and tax-varying; that is the broad panoply of government financial control.

Footnote controversy

Prof Hughes Hallett offered to revise his terminology with a new footnote in the original document.

Enter controversy number two. The evidence cited by the two profs is drawn from work by Professor Lars Feld of the University of Freiburg.

Labour and the Tories are now drawing attention to evidence Prof Feld has himself submitted to the Bill committee.

This notes that that he has been unable to discern "any robust significant effect of decentralisation on economic growth."

Which means, say the SNP's opponents, that the evidence presented to the committee was not well-founded and was further damaged by the change of wording.

However, Prof Feld is not against economic decentralisation per se.

He argues rather that it must be balanced between expenditure and tax (as in Switzerland) rather than weighted towards expenditure (as in Germany.)

Economic performance

Here is his summary conclusion in full: "Decentralised taxing powers are advantageous because financial responsibility is enhanced, political accountability regarding the relation between voters (taxpayers) and parliaments/governments in-creases.

"Decentralisation of taxes and spending leads to a more efficient public sector and it enhances economic performance.

"Fiscal decentralisation does not lead to higher economic growth because economic growth is much more driven by factors other than taxes and spending, e.g., by increases in technological progress and improved human capital. "

In committee, Prof Hughes Hallett insisted there was evidence of a growth bounce from decentralisation in comparable OECD countries (that is, taking out developing countries.)

Prof Scott noted that it was not his contention that devolving tax would automatically boost GDP. David McLetchie of the Conservatives said that was precisely the suggestion made repeatedly by the first minister and others.

Which leaves us where? In dispute, that's where.

Prof Feld says of the Scotland Bill that "the goal of financial accountability of the Parliament and Government in Scotland will be enhanced by the proposals in the Bill and the White paper.

Tax control

"A decentralisation of taxing powers will meet an already existing decentralisation of spending."

Professors Scott and Hughes Hallett argue that enhancement of accountability will be more limited than is suggested by the UK government and that the proclaimed advantages are outweighed by the relative risk of devolving further control of a single tax, on income.

This afternoon the committee will be taking evidence from, among others, Sir Kenneth Calman.

Going to the polls

Brian Taylor | 14:05 UK time, Thursday, 13 January 2011


There is, I suppose, a degree of entertaining symmetry in the possible delay to the AV referendum: the unelected House of Lords dealing with potential reform to the method by which members are elected in the Other Place.

In Scotland, certainly, it will be a source of innocent merriment for members of the Scottish Parliament - or, at least, for most of them.

That is because the AV referendum is presently scheduled to be held on the 5th of May: the day when, among sundry other democratic exercises in these islands, Holyrood goes to the polls.

MSPs from the SNP and Labour have protested long and loud about that concatenation of events.

Voters, they said, did not need their minds muddled by thoughts of Commons reform when they should be concentrating upon Holyrood's future.

In response, the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats argued that the good and sensible people of Scotland and elsewhere were perfectly capable of encompassing both challenges.

Plus it would save money.

Avoid clash

There is precedent here although it is, by no means, a precise one.

Scottish local elections were also due to be held on the 5th of May. But they have been time-shifted to next year in order to avoid clashing with Holyrood.

However, that owes more to the confusion which occurred at the count four years ago when both Holyrood and Scottish councils held elections on the same day.

Changes to the design of ballot papers, allied to those multiple elections, led to a record number of votes being declared invalid.

I well recall that, at some point during the emerging controversy, I informed an astonished nation that the ballot had been a "bourach". Splendid, Gaelic word - meaning a total guddle, an utter mess.

Now, it is by no means guaranteed that holding the AV referendum on the same day as the Holyrood polls would generate Bourach Two, the sequel.

Care and caution would presumably be exercised.

Lessons would be learned.

However, there is now an established folk memory in much of the Scottish body politic to the effect that dual elections can be trouble.

Hence the close attention being paid in Scotland to their Lordships' deliberations.

'Apparent clarity'

Brian Taylor | 13:28 UK time, Thursday, 13 January 2011


A somewhat staid session of questions to the First Minister, enlivened by occasional linguistic and oratorical techniques.

Iain Gray's attack was choreographed to reach the conclusion that the FM was indecisive - with regard to policing structures and other matters.

It was a little, indeed, like a police interrogator trying to get a suspect to confess with persistent questioning.

C'mon, Salmond, your prints are all over this single force business. And you've got form. Public sector reform, higher education, climate change - all mouth, no action. Look, just sign this and it'll all be over.

Patiently, the accused man explained that it was important to get things right with police reform, given that it was the "greatest change in policing in a generation."

He repeated that defence later. Twice.

To Mr Gray, he listed a rival sequence of decisions taken by his government: the council tax freeze, the end to prescription charges, 1000 extra police.

Big hit

Mr Gray's attack was carefully structured and part of an emerging Labour narrative.

But he occasionally seems burdened by the requirement to pose umpteen questions: it can sometimes appear a little contrived rather than constructed.

By contrast, the Tory and LibDem leaders are more restricted in their question opportunities. So they tend to get the big hit right up front.

Today, Annabel Goldie and Tavish Scott both pursued the issue of policing. Mr Salmond dealt with both, deftly.

Miss Goldie, assuming her most stern demeanour, inquired whether the FM would continue to match the Tories' pledge on police numbers.

Mock meekly, Mr Salmond replied: "Yes I will." And promptly sat down, grinning happily.

Only faintly discomfited, Miss Goldie praised his "apparent clarity."

Budget votes

Apparent? What bit of "yes I will" was opaque? Ah, continued Miss Goldie, the FM had tried to break a comparable commitment four years ago - "and that was naughty."

Duly chided, the FM - still in mock meek mode - conceded that "matron knows best."

Mr Salmond has resolutely ruled out a post-election coalition with the Tories, despite Miss Goldie's new-found readiness to coalesce.

But, hey, he might still need their votes to get the Budget through. Doesn't do to be rude to Matron.

Tavish Scott for the LibDems pursued the party's line on policing - which is that the cost case for a single force has yet to be made and may not trump the loss of democratic accountability which they say would result.

He did so forcibly and effectively.

But, with equal force and effect, the FM deflected his comments into an attack upon what, he said, was the mishandling of police reorganisation by the former Labour UK Government in England.

If, he said, the LibDem leader was referring to that (he wasn't), then the FM was able to declare: "I agree with Tavish Scott." It was, of course, a conscious echo of Gordon "I agree with Nick" Brown.

May the force be with you

Brian Taylor | 14:48 UK time, Wednesday, 12 January 2011


Few platitudes are as comforting and beguiling as the demand for "bobbies on the beat".

Even in the days of Dixon of Dock Green, there was a potential inherent snag.

What use were bobbies pounding the pavements when the crooks were racing away from the crime scene in a stolen Zephyr? Send for Z Cars.

All of which is simply a way of saying that the provision of policing in Scotland is not a straightforward matter.

There are balances to be struck which go beyond cliché.

The Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill performed something of a balancing act himself when he offered options to MSPs for the future structure of police and fire services in Scotland.

There were, he said, "compelling arguments" for a single fire and rescue service. Despite that, the government will continue to consult on options.

Equal options

But, with regard to policing, the matter, he argued, was much more complex.

The three options, he said, were the current eight forces but with more collaboration; three or four regional forces; a single force.

However, as Labour's Richard Baker pointed out, not all of these options are equal.

The Minister was casting notable doubt upon the validity of option one. Mr Baker urged the Minister to pursue Labour's option of a single force.

By which point, the search for consensus had evaporated.

Mr MacAskill plainly disliked the suggestion that he was trailing Labour's heels.

He noted that senior Labour figures had spoken out against their own party's plan.

Policing philosophy

The Tories urged a single force - but with elected police commissioners, US style.

Perhaps the most thoughtful contribution came from Robert Brown of the Liberal Democrats who, in opposing a single force, invited MSPs to consider the philosophy of policing.

Was it local? Was it national? To whom would a Scotland-wide force be accountable? Quis, as he nearly said, custodiet ipsos custodes?

Mr MacAskill replied that policing required to be both local and national, to serve both the needs of communities and the challenges of global crime.

That, he said, was precisely the core of the consultation: how to preserve a substantive degree of local involvement and accountability while driving forward efficiency.

Money must be saved.

In all, then, intriguing exchanges on a matter of real substance.

May the force be with you. Or, indeed, forces.

New year, new parliament

Brian Taylor | 11:16 UK time, Monday, 10 January 2011


Is it too late to wish you all a guid New Year in this, my first blog outing of 2011? No? Duly wished, then, duly wished.

In any case, I celebrated an anniversary of my own only yesterday. My latest birthday.
Such turns of the tide have left me in contemplative mood.

That plus the fact that the very few Dundee United players who are not ill, injured or suspended contrived to generate mighty little of note in the weekend cup game against our old rivals, Ross County.

"Old rivals" in the sense that we also played them in the last United game I truly enjoyed, the Scottish Cup Final.

Our MSPs, who return to their legislating toil this week, face a stern competitive test of their own in the near future: the Holyrood elections.

Not a knock-out, though, more a protracted, iterative, incremental champions league - where there can be prizes for second, third or even fourth place, depending on coalition talks.

The current visit by the Chinese vice-premier Li Keqiang is a potent reminder of what can be on offer - as he endorses a significant renewable energy deal with Scotland, with more to come.

Securing the prize

The holder of the office of first minister can do stuff, both at home and in overseas links.

To govern is to choose. But it is also to influence, to persuade, to spend, to drive, to direct. It is a prize worth having.

Hence the eagerness of the sundry contenders to secure that prize - and hence the emergence of several competing and interconnected narratives.

Already, there has been some excitement over the fact that Alex Salmond and Iain Gray have criticised each other personally.

From memory, Mr Salmond said that Mr Gray wasn't very good and Mr Gray said something rude about Mr Salmond's hat.

This, we are solemnly assured, means that the contest in the spring (ah, blessed, snow free season) will be down there and dirty, the downest and dirtiest since, well, the last one.

It is, of course, perfectly sensible and reasonable for the chief contenders for the office of FM to target each other directly.

Holyrood matters

A political leader is not an automaton, churning out sections of the party manifesto in strictly timed, digestible bites. He or she must respond to events as they arise.

So character, talent and personality matter. Even headgear.

Politics, of course, is overlapping. This will not be an election dominated purely by devolved, Holyrood issues.

On which topic, I recall being witness to a conversation in which an MP and an MSP of the same party were gently chiding each other over the extent to which each parliament influenced the other.

The MP was muttering that his voters were endlessly complaining to him about health, education and the like: matters determined by Holyrood.

Aye, replied his devolved chum, but at least we didn't fight a war while you were facing an election.

So this Holyrood contest will be, inevitably, affected by matters directed or heavily influenced by Westminster.

Scottish budget

Two, in particular. The broad economy/public spending. And the constitution/Scotland Bill.

Of the two, I would suggest that the former is more likely to be uppermost in the minds of non-partisan voters.

But the SNP will seek to draw a link between the two.

The Greens have already set out their position in a submission related to the Scottish budget.

They say that innovative, progressive ways of raising revenue, such as a Land Tax, should be explored.

If this is to be a Westminster-influenced contest, then that would appear to place the Liberal Democrats at a starting disadvantage.

Their role and actions in the UK coalition have not left them, shall we say, universally popular.

Local targeting

Indeed, Nick Clegg is fast becoming a target of easy, instant satire: a position he, naturally, hopes and requires to remedy.

In Scotland, the autonomous LibDem leader Tavish Scott can do four things: stress the devolved nature of this campaign, majoring on devolved issues; cite the good things he believes the coalition has done; disavow his Westminster colleagues where necessary; and rely heavily upon local targeting.

With regard to the UK coalition, the Scottish Tory narrative is rather different.

Annabel Goldie will stress that she is running her own campaign, on Scottish issues. But she will firmly endorse David Cameron's approach.

She will say that a tough approach is required with regard to public spending. She will attempt to turn potentially unpopular policies - such as retaining prescription charges - to her advantage by arguing that a weary, sceptical public will welcome straight talking.

There will be, as she told me in an interview for BBC Radio 4, broadcast during the Festive Season, an absence of "bull***t."

By contrast again, Labour is presently liberated from the constraints and responsibilities of government, both at Westminster and Holyrood.

'Broken' promises

Without ministerial actions to defend, expect Iain Gray to attack.

He will argue that the spending cuts laid down by the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats are being amplified in agony by economic decisions taken by the SNP at Holyrood.

He will argue further that the SNP has broken key promises, for example in education.

It is, if you like, a single transferable attack.

It will be allied to Labour policies such as a national care service and a Scottish future jobs fund.

But it would be little surprise if the predominant narrative is one that involves the alleged failure of Labour's rivals.

Do not be surprised if, in return, those rivals seek to source the economic recession in the Labour UK years.

As billed above, the SNP will construct a multi-faceted narrative.

Everyday concerns

Alex Salmond will argue that his governance has been successful, particularly given the constraints laid down by minority status.

He will argue that his government has sought to protect the hard-pressed, for example through the council tax freeze.

Mr Salmond will argue that it is only through fiscal autonomy and independence that Scotland will gain the clout to revive the economy: thereby, he hopes, linking in the voters' minds the constitutional question and everyday financial concerns.

And he will argue that, person for person, his front bench offer is better than that deployed by Labour.

Should be fascinating.

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