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Archives for February 2011

Memory lane

Brian Taylor | 10:43 UK time, Friday, 25 February 2011


If you will forgive me, I intend to indulge in a little nostalgia today.

In Inverness for my Big Debate, a glance at the morning TV bulletin was enough to send me back in time.

There was St Salvator's quad where I attended my first English lecture - and later sat my finals.

There was the chapel where I was married.

Many congratulations to St Andrews for securing the support of two of its better known alumni in launching its 600th anniversary campaign.

'Grey toun'

Some of the St Andrews traditions which have evolved during those six centuries can be a little tricky to explain to visitors: pier walks, Raisin Monday, Kate Kennedy.

But now, it seems, the university is to be known globally as a place to meet your spouse, following the example of Prince William and Kate Middleton.

Interviewed this morning, the Principal suggested, with a wry smile, that there were two possible causes for this: the intrinsic romance of the auld grey toun and the essential worth of those who select St Andrews in the first place.

You won't get any disagreement on that from me - or my St Andrean wife.

Global events

Brian Taylor | 14:29 UK time, Thursday, 24 February 2011


It was only a passing grin, a scintilla of a smile.

The first minister was contemplating the prospect that, post election, he might still be in a position to answer questions as . . . first minister.

Otherwise, this was a notably solemn interrogation session. Perhaps that was partly prompted by reflections upon global events.

Jamie Stone told the chamber of a Scottish oil worker trapped in a flat in Tripoli.

The Presiding Officer Alex Fergusson told MSPs that he had written to his New Zealand counterpart to offer sympathy for the earthquake victims.

But also it was those impending elections.

Each of the opposition leaders took the opportunity to pursue issues which they intend to use in the campaign.

In response, Alex Salmond was, quite deliberately, constrained, even subdued. His plain intent was to sound serious and governmental.

The issues? For Labour's Iain Gray, knife crime.

Mr Gray cited individual tragedies which, he said, each argued for mandatory jail sentences for carrying a blade. His pitch was passionate and, he hopes, popular.

In response, Mr Salmond set out action taken by his government which, he said, had successfully reduced violent crime: not least, recruiting more police.

Right at the close of the exchanges with Mr Gray, the first minister adduced evidence from a senior police officer to the effect that prison was far less effective than intervention to tackle Scotland's booze and blade culture.

For the Tories, Annabel Goldie addressed the issue of delayed discharge from hospital.
For the Liberal Democrats, Tavish Scott pursued his argument that local accountability would be threatened by moves to reduce the number of police forces.

To each, Mr Salmond offered a notably measured reply.

No indignation, no counter-attacks.

Poker face

Brian Taylor | 12:23 UK time, Wednesday, 23 February 2011


It has become like a game of poker or, perhaps rather, bridge.

A bid here, a bluff there - but eventually all the political parties will have to show their cards, to play their hand.

I am talking about local authority finance or, more precisely, the council tax.

Scotland's parties are, to varying degrees, still involved in something of a slow shuffle over this.

This protracted debate has been sustained since a rash outburst of righteous indignation in the 1980s prompted the Tories to abandon the rates and to introduce the community charge of poll tax.

There was much talk then of pensioners living alone and in mortal fear of their rates bill.

Spooling forward, we now have an intriguing proposal from the Tories. (I almost wrote "a modest proposal" until I recalled its Swiftian connotations.)

Annabel Goldie, who leads the Scottish Conservatives, says that her party will enter the Holyrood election campaign with a promise to cut £200 annually from the local authority levy faced by pensioner households.

Universal freeze

It is designed to assist pensioners living in mortal fear of their council tax bills.
The Tories dismiss suggestions that this is a targeted bribe for a section of the electorate they hope will back them.

Rather they would argue that the Tories are perfectly entitled to seek to induce people to vote for them. (Indeed, some in the party might feel that it would be a useful innovation, a daring departure from tradition.)

But Miss Goldie insists that the measure is entirely legitimate.

She says it builds upon the universal freeze in council tax rates over the lifetime of the present Parliament, introduced by the SNP government but backed by the Tories.

She argues further that it is aimed at "people who have worked hard, paid their taxes, given to society".

Let us set aside the notion that it may be possible to have reached an advanced age following a lifetime of indolent self-indulgence.

Let us accept that Miss Goldie's definition characterises the majority.

Wider economy

She goes further, noting that it is an attempt to ameliorate conditions for people "for whom low interest rates are not a comfort but a constraint on their income."

In essence, then, she is offering to provide a compensatory Scottish counterpoint for one sector of the community to lessen the impact of spending cuts and low interest rates which are deemed, not least by Conservative ministers at Westminster, to be necessary in the interests of the wider UK economy.

Not an easy one, on the face of it, for Miss Goldie's rivals. Always difficult, politically, to appear to be against measures to assist the elderly.

But there are arguments - and they have been deployed with vigour.

How could it be afforded? Love to do it, says Labour, but the cost would be £492m over four years. Not credible, they say, especially at a time of spending cuts.

Ditto from the SNP and the Liberal Democrats.

The Nationalists say that their freeze has already helped households by trimming £300 from bills.

Poll tax

They plan to extend that during 2011/12 and 2012/13.
The LibDems argue, further, that the measure would subsidise "the richest pensioners in the biggest houses".

Shades, once more, of the arguments which attended the poll tax.

But what will the parties do? For decades, Scotland tolerated the rates, grumbling.

One legacy of the poll tax and its attendant protests is that Scots no longer regarded local authority taxation as immutable - or even mandatory.

We have grown accustomed to demanding change. What change will be on offer?
The SNP and the Liberal Democrats both say their ambition remains to replace the council tax with Local Income Tax.

If you recall, a government Bill to do just that was shelved in the face of opposition.

LIT, of course, has its critics. Does it load too much on one source of revenue?

Should there not be a levy on property? What would happen to council tax benefit?

'Fairer' tax

What about those with low cash incomes but evident wealth? What about collection?

In the interim, the SNP has promised that two year council tax freeze, hoping it will place them in contradistinction to the Labour Party.

The LibDems are philosophically unhappy with a freeze, preferring locally set rates. In practice, though, they did not thwart the freeze.

They say they will produce proposals to make the council tax fairer. Expect those to be, genuinely, modest.

And Labour? There was talk at the last election of reforming the council tax - but the party struggled then to define its plans.

Since then, they have studied options. They looked with interest at the situation in the Northern Ireland. They have "the rates".

Given the SNP position, they are electorally unlikely to favour a simple ending of the freeze - despite various comments deploring its impact on local government.

'Limited' proposals

Rather, they might well seek a negotiated deal with Cosla which would involve an agreed cap on any increases.

At the same time, I believe that any proposals for reform will be decidedly limited.

The argument may be that the economic times, troubled and vulnerable, are not propitious.

Right, whose deal is it?

Why Aitken had to go

Brian Taylor | 17:53 UK time, Monday, 21 February 2011


He had to go. Bill Aitken, that is. He had to step down as convener of Holyrood's Justice Committee.

The issue, that of rape, demanded his departure. Even those who tonight are reflecting upon Mr Aitken's hitherto distinguished political career recognise that there was and is a greater imperative.

That is, no woman should have to wonder whether there is even the scintilla of a suspicion that our lawmakers might adhere to the view that rape victims are, to any extent, responsible for attacks upon them.

In his statement tonight, Mr Aitken insists that rape in any circumstances is "an abhorrent, vile violation".

He insists that the comments made to the Sunday Herald with reference to a particular case in Glasgow city centre have been taken out of context and misrepresented.

In the course of a conversation with a reporter, Mr Aitken had raised the issue of the location of the incident, noting in passing that it had been associated in the past with prostitution - while adding that such a comment might be irrelevant to the particular case.

'Entirely unacceptable'

As Mr Aitken put it, this comment "left open" the prospect of misunderstanding. His critics put it rather more bluntly.

Patrick Harvie of the Greens tabled a motion for him to quit the committee, describing his comments as "entirely unacceptable".

The level of criticism rose substantially as Labour's deputy leader Johann Lamont said that Mr Aitken's reported comments were "appalling".

She noted further that nothing must be said which might deter women from coming forward with complaints of rape and sexual assault.

Tonight she said he had done the right thing by resigning. So did the SNP. So did the Liberal Democrats. They are correct.

Voting system goes to voters

Brian Taylor | 10:17 UK time, Thursday, 17 February 2011


And so the calendrical concatenation, promised or feared, is to take place.

The AV referendum will be on the same day, 5 May, as elections to the Scottish Parliament.

The House of Lords finally backed down at the last moment.

For Nick Clegg, one can understand the timing. He wants, he needs, the referendum on Alternative Voting for the Commons. He desires to demonstrate to his own party a concrete gain from the coalition.

Yet, at the same time, he knows that voting reform is scarcely the talk of the steamie or its modern post-industrial equivalent.

So what to do to ease that mismatch between party dreams and popular focus?

There you have the people, still angry about Commons expenses and disinclined to concentrate on the mechanics of parliamentary elections.

And there you have his party, still taking to the barricades with their ancient cry.

"What do we want???" "The Single Transferable Vote in multi member constituencies!!!"

"When do we want it???" "In due course, following a properly constituted plebiscite!!!"

A snag. The solution, of course, is to hold the AV ballot on the same day as devolved and council elections which might attract a modicum of interest, even from those disenchanted with partisan politics. Plus, it is stressed, it will save money.

But, in Scotland in particular, that has caused some disquiet, on two grounds.

Firstly, it is argued that it will be confusing for voters to be considering both the future devolved governance of Scotland and the future electoral machinery of the Commons in the same time frame.

Secondly, it is feared that there will be potential problems at the ballot box and/or delays at the count.

Mr Clegg and the Scottish Secretary Michael Moore have insisted that these problems have been exaggerated by critics: that the people and officials of Scotland are eminently capable of surmounting such a challenge.

On 6 May, we will know whether they are right.

PS: Wasn't it entertaining to see a 40% rule featuring in the ping pong between the Lords and the Commons over this issue? On this occasion, it was an attempt to insist that the turnout in the referendum must be 40 plus before the result would be valid. Those of us with longer memories will recall the rule imposed on the 1979 Scottish referendum to the effect that 40% of the registered electorate must vote yes for the measure to carry.


Brian Taylor | 11:29 UK time, Wednesday, 16 February 2011


Isn't that an intriguing opinion survey in The Times, suggesting that the SNP may have regained a narrow lead over Labour, their main rivals for Holyrood support?

The observant among you will have noticed the cautious tone in the above lines: "may", "suggesting".

Those of us who lived through the 1992 General Election exit poll developed and have maintained an intuitive caution towards such tests of public opinion.

So why do I mention this poll when I have not mentioned other surveys indicating a Labour lead?

Because the very nature of the apparent switch will, of itself, affect the election preparations.

It will energise the SNP campaign, providing an external stimulus to a team reliant, until now, upon internally generated confidence.

Further, it will remind the Labour campaign that they can take nothing for granted. Not, I suspect, that they needed much reminding.

Health warnings

These effects are despite the health warnings which attach to all polls - including this one by Ipsos MORI with a sample size of 1,000, conducted between 10 and 13 February.

Those warnings? Polls are just that: samples, snapshots. On this sample size, they carry a margin of error of plus or minus 3%.

Further, individual polls can be "rogue", remote from trend. They can, in short, be wrong. Perhaps badly wrong.

But they may be right. They may be partly right. They may be the first indication of an emerging trend.

That level of uncertainty argues for caution in interpreting polls: particularly an individual survey and, even more particularly, one which appears to depart markedly from the trend elsewhere.

Still, the findings will be eagerly scanned in sundry campaign HQs.

Intriguing, no more, no less.

Having a go

Brian Taylor | 12:50 UK time, Thursday, 10 February 2011


Isn't it exasperating when the wrong question comes up?

There you are, thoroughly briefed on the Romantic poets.

And do they feature in the exam paper? They do not. Instead, the examiners, blast them, want to know about Pope and Dryden.

Alex Salmond faced a comparable conundrum today at Holyrood.

He was yearning, just yearning, to have a go at Labour over their stance on the budget or the release of Megrahi or, indeed, almost anything.

Did Iain Gray oblige by raising these topics?

He did not. Instead, he pursued the subject of schools in Renfrewshire and their use of non-teaching staff in classrooms.

Trading insults

Mr Salmond answered extensively and in full detail - about schooling in North Ayrshire where they have been floating such ideas as a four-day week (since rejected.)

Why the disjunction? Because one council is led by the SNP and the other by Labour. Guess which is which.

Mr Gray and Mr Salmond duly traded insults for a spell - to the irritation of Margo MacDonald who later raised a point of order suggesting, broadly, that they might stick to their own responsibilities and leave local councillors to do their job.

As the rhetoric grew still more vehement, Mr Salmond could stand it no more.

He made the point he had been itching to make from the outset: that the Megrahi affair and Labour's no vote in the budget, despite offered compromises, proved that his chief rival led "an organised hypocrisy".

As I recall, that is a jibe first directed at the Conservatives by their own leader, Benjamin Disraeli.

He probably couldn't get Gladstone to ask the right questions either.

'Odious deal'

Mr Salmond's rhetoric drew hoots of derision from the Labour benches - and gentle chiding from the Presiding Officer who said that Mr Gray was perfectly entitled to pick his own topics for question time.

Still, the FM will be content that he got the attack in.

And he was given another opportunity when he was questioned about Megrahi by Annabel Goldie.

She asserted that Scottish ministers had been willing to do "an odious deal" over the potential inclusion of Megrahi in a prisoner transfer agreement.

Mr Salmond was answering the Conservative leader - insisting vehemently that there had been no false dealing whatsoever by his government and that the published documents confirmed as much.

But he kept darting meaningful glances in the direction of Mr Gray who opposed the compassionate liberation of Megrahi while UK Labour Ministers were actively attempting to facilitate his release.

Tavish Scott elevated the tone by pleading for Scottish government support for the National Centre of Excellence in Traditional Music, based in Plockton.

Mr Salmond noted that central funding for the school had been transferred to Highland Council - but, without offering a precise promise, there was a decided warmth in his replies which might indicate possible progress.

Doing the deal

Brian Taylor | 12:09 UK time, Wednesday, 9 February 2011


UPDATE 1700: The budget duly carried by 79 votes to 48, with no abstentions.

The wind-up speeches continued the argument between the SNP and Labour.

For Labour, David Whitton argued that the budget fell short of what was required to boost the economy and jobs.

Closing the debate, John Swinney accused Labour of "hypocrisy", arguing that he had conceded - or exceeded - each of the requests made directly to him by Labour in negotiations.

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UPDATE AT 1530: And so the budget looks secure.

John Swinney has announced £15m extra funding for college bursaries as demanded by the LibDems, together with an extra £8m for 1200 more college places.

For the Tories, enhanced funding for urban regeneration and £16m for housing investment, both designed to bolster private sector growth.

As a consequence, both the LibDems and Tories will vote "yes" tonight.

Given that, the sharpest exchanges were between the SNP and Labour.

Mr Swinney announced that the number of modern apprentices will rise to 25,000 in 2011-12.

This has been a key issue for Labour.

John Swinney challenged Labour's Andy Kerr to say which announcement in the revised budget he opposed.

Mr Kerr replied that the SNP offer only added up to "half-measures" while Labour would provide the full programme of support.

Speaking more loudly to drown out derision from rival parties, Mr Kerr argued that the budget still hit those areas critical for economic growth such as enterprise and higher education.

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UPDATE AT 1420: Labour has just confirmed that the party's MSPs will vote against the budget at decision time this evening.

Their argument is that the heaviest blows from cuts in the budget will fall upon areas required to boost economic growth such as enterprise.

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UPDATE AT 1300: As I write, Labour MSPs are just beginning a group meeting to consider the offer from John Swinney to meet some of their demands.

Signs are that they will vote to reject that offer as insufficient - and consequently to vote "no" at decision time in Holyrood this evening.

Their argument is that they have been offered relatively minor concessions with regard to youth apprenticeships - when what they wanted was substantial restructuring.

Politically, of course, Labour's stance is designed to underpin the narrative which they will pursue at the May elections: to the effect that the SNP has failed and must be replaced.

In short, it was always likely that Labour would end up voting no.

John Swinney can live without their votes - provided he keeps the Tories and LibDems on board.

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Derek Brownlee, of the Conservatives, has spent a fair portion of this morning in talks with Finance Secretary John Swinney.

The outcome should be a deal allowing the Tories to vote for the Scottish government's budget.

The Liberal Democrats moved first, signalling their contentment with an proposed concession to introduce bursaries for struggling young college students.

For obvious reasons not unconnected with events at Westminster, the Scottish LibDems are rather keen to project an image of themselves supporting further and higher education.

The LibDem group meets at lunchtime.

As do Labour MSPs who are considering an offer from Mr Swinney to enhance youth apprenticeships.

More anon. Including, one presumes, information from the Scottish government as to where the necessary further savings to fund these concessions will be found.

Money talks

Brian Taylor | 12:40 UK time, Tuesday, 8 February 2011


UPDATE AT 1647: Further movement on the budget.

John Swinney had hoped to be briefing Cabinet on a deal. That deadline has passed - without agreement.

But the LibDems are now giving a guarded yet positive response to Mr Swinney's earlier offer to them.

As we disclosed, that offer focused upon college bursaries.

Jeremy Purvis of the LibDems is now saying "it looks as if the government has accepted our case" for supporting young people.

Translated into votes, that could mean abstention (he's seeking further detail) or even support for the budget.

Provided Mr Swinney secures support from the Conservatives, he would have the votes needed.

More later as and when . . .

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Signs of movement on the Scottish budget.

Finance secretary John Swinney has been in talks with his opposition counterparts - and he has now followed that up with formal letters offering possible concessions.

Among other things, for Labour, it's movement towards their demands on apprenticeships; for the Liberal Democrats, it's support for college bursaries; and for the Tories, backing for initiatives to foster private sector growth.

Will they respond positively?

Right now, Mr Swinney has no supporters firmly on board - or even indications of acquiescence in the shape of an abstention.

He has to tie up all sides. For example, no gain in striking a bargain with the LibDems if, in so doing, he upsets the Tories.

So he needs to offer each party a little - but not enough to disturb his overall budget calculations or to make another party sufficiently jealous to withdraw their support.

Cabinet update

If I were guessing, I would say Labour end up voting no, the Tories yes and the LibDems abstaining, allowing the budget to carry. But that is by no means certain.

The finance secretary hopes for an answer from the other parties in order to allow him to update Cabinet at 1600 today.

Not sure that timetable will stick. Each of the other parties has to consider its position carefully.

Mr Swinney has also been negotiating with Margo MacDonald who has tabled precise demands.

With regard to the Greens, Mr Swinney's calculation is that they are firmly minded to vote no in any event.

More later as and when.

Aberdeen is hosting Brian Taylor's Big Debate this Friday on BBC Radio Scotland, from 1215 to 1300. You can email to book your place in the audience at Queen's Cross Church.

Pressure and policy

Brian Taylor | 14:17 UK time, Monday, 7 February 2011


And so we know now that the previous Labour UK government set out to "do all it could" from the latter portion of 2008 onwards to secure the release of Abdelbaset ali Mohmed al Megrahi, the convicted Lockerbie bomber.

On 20 August 2009, Megrahi was released from Greenock Prison on compassionate grounds, returning to Libya. QED? Well, no.

We already knew or had grounds to believe that it was thought to be in UK interests for the issue of Megrahi to be addressed and resolved.

We know this not least from the letters sent by Jack Straw to Scottish ministers in late 2007 and early 2008 with regard to the insistence by the Scottish government that Megrahi should be explicitly excluded from a Prisoner Transfer Agreement between the UK and Libya.

Mr Straw notes he had previously sought to exclude Megrahi but that this was not now possible in the light of the pursuit of UK interests and attempts to integrate Libya into the international community.

Release 'preferred'

Today's disclosures in a review of documents by the UK's most senior civil servant, Sir Gus O'Donnell, go further than that by indicating a more active pursuit of Megrahi's release.

But the direction of UK policy travel was already clear. They saw Megrahi's continuing imprisonment in Scotland as a barrier to UK diplomatic and commercial links with Libya, given Tripoli's expressed view.

So Libya wanted Megrahi out. The UK wanted Megrahi out - and sought to facilitate that, according to Sir Gus, via the options of the PTA or compassionate release.

That still does not prove that the decision by Kenny MacAskill, the Scottish Justice Secretary, was made in order to comply with the UK government's wishes or those of commercial interests such as BP.

Indeed, Sir Gus repeatedly stresses that it was well understood that the decision was one for the Scottish government alone.

Further, he notes that the former UK government took pains to avoid pressing the Scottish government to acquiesce in the new UK policy (Megrahi liberation) on the basis that such a move could be "counter-productive".

Beams and motes

The Scottish government has stressed once again that the Megrahi decision stood alone on compassionate grounds - and was not linked to any pressure from the UK government or any deal with Whitehall over other issues.

It stresses further that the published evidence provides absolutely nothing to counter either of these assertions.

Rather, Scottish ministers seek to accuse their former Labour Westminster counterparts of duplicity and hypocrisy in pursuing one policy (Megrahi free) while declining to state such a policy to Scottish ministers (counter-productive).

I understand entirely why that accusation is being made, particularly in the light of the condemnation previously heaped upon Scottish ministers. Think beams and motes.

Not sure that will run, though, at least in terms of real politik. For one thing, Scottish ministers and officials were perfectly well aware of the emerging views in Whitehall.

For another, continuing public interest is still likely to focus upon the Scottish government decision itself, not the concomitant Westminster view at the time, however malleable.
Still and all, Megrahi was released. And he is still alive in Tripoli many months after that release.

Evidence questions

Observers have suggested a range of potential motivations for that release, other than the stated reason of compassion.

For example, that there was continuing doubt over Megrahi's conviction and that it was thought sensible to bring the appeal process to a conclusion by granting compassionate release.

Or, two, that this was a commercial deal to advance UK oil interests. That the Scottish government opted to acquiesce in the pursuit of such interests.

Neither of those options is given any empirical basis from today's publication.

Evidence there is that certain interests, political and commercial, sought Megrahi's release. Evidence there is not that the Scottish government bowed to such interests. To the contrary.

Aberdeen is hosting Brian Taylor's Big Debate this Friday on BBC Radio Scotland, from 1215 to 1300. You can email to book your place in the audience at Queen's Cross Church.

Think Heisenberg

Brian Taylor | 14:33 UK time, Thursday, 3 February 2011


It is, said one close observer, about quantum: which I initially took to be a posh version of the block grant, the system by which Scottish public spending is capped, presently lacking borrowing powers or a usable tax system.

But think on. Perhaps John Swinney, Scotland's Finance Secretary, is currently subject to a Holyrood version of Heisenberg's uncertainty principle.

If he does a deal on his budget with one party, he cannot be sure that the very content of that deal is not simultaneously deterring another lot.

Mr Swinney believes he has one fixed point: that the Greens will vote against his budget, leaving him two votes down.

(The SNP and others calculate that the Green position - demanding higher taxation - is partly owing to their desire to hold on to Patrick Harvie's seat in Glasgow in the face of sundry challenges from the Left.)

Mr Swinney had further talks with opposition party finance leaders today.

Still no deal - but that is not surprising since it is vital to tie up all elements before finalising an agreement. Think quantum. Think Heisenberg.

Not enough

Mr Swinney will be hoping that he can, once again, reach an agreement with the Conservatives.

He will be hoping that he can count upon Margo MacDonald. But, as I have noted previously, that is not enough.

It would leave the chamber tied at 64/64 if all the others voted agin.

The presiding officer would be obliged to declare that the budget had not carried.

Again, think quantum.

Mr Swinney must calculate what level of concession would placate, say, the LibDems without deterring, say, the rival Tories.

Numerically, Labour are the largest opposition party - but, politically, would the SNP want to give the most substantial concessions to their largest rival?

Budget 'gap'

Yes, if it secures the budget. But, no, if the altered version is no longer perceived as an SNP programme.

Mr Swinney feels the opposition parties could usefully start by suggesting ways of plugging the £30m gap left by the defeated large retail levy.

They caused the gap, he argues. In collective spirit, they can close it.

If a deal is to emerge, a spirit of co-operation will need to emerge behind the scenes in tandem with the upfront ethos of confronation.

That latter was well to the fore in questions to the first minister.

Labour's Iain Gray pursued the issue of short sentences - with some good points re the availability (or otherwise) of community alternatives.

Alex Salmond rebutted successfully, pointing out with vigour that recorded crime was at a thirty year low - owing, he argued, to extra police recruitment, opposed by Labour.

Second rendition

For the Conservatives, Annabel Goldie seemed rather discomfited that Mr Gray had pre-empted her planned topic.

She even had the same newspaper headline ready to brandish.

By the time she did so, the audience members were shifting a little uncertainly in their seats like a concert audience in the village church about to be subjected to the second rendition of a doleful ditty.

Mr Salmond contrasted her views with those of Ken Clarke (Con.) In vain did she protest that she was responsible for Scottish policy.

Mr Salmond noted that she had been only too content the previous week to seek to contrast Scottish practice with that in England. A points victory to the FM on this one.

For the LibDems, Tavish Scott suggested that proposals to transfer elements of social care to the NHS was creating uncertainty for local authority staff.

After an initial counter-attack, the FM responded reasonably - I stress, reasonably - emolliently.

Scotland Bill

Perhaps he was reflecting that, in financial matters, his government will need chums to acquire a quantum of solace.

PS: The committee at Holyrood which is scrutinising the Scotland Bill broke with precedent today and opened with a series of detailed questions about . . . the Scotland Bill.

Dropping the satirical note for a moment, this was a notably successful committee session, taking evidence from the Scottish Secretary Michael Moore and David Gauke from the Treasury among others.

The mnisters were pursued on the extent of new borrowing powers and continuing Treasury supervision.

Mr Gauke indicated that the proposed capital borrowing level might be open to review in the light of events and the passage of time.
Serious issues, sensibly pursued by all members of the committee.

PPS: The FM is not pleased at suggestions from Mr Moore, highlighted by others, that his government has failed to provide chapter and verse to the committee re fiscal autonomy.

Mr Salmond is writing to the Prime Minister to protest, detailing the extent of his government's engagement with the issue.

'They despair'

Brian Taylor | 16:06 UK time, Wednesday, 2 February 2011


Sometimes nothing but poetry will do. Percy Bysshe Shelley indeed.

His poem Ozymandias describes an early grandiose construction project which has fallen on hard times.

According to Percy B., Ozymandias counsels: "Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair."

He could have been talking about the Edinburgh trams - had Shelley condescended to deal with anything so mundane and costly.

Lots anent economic growth today: at Holyrood, at Westminster, in the joint ministerial committee.

But you will perhaps forgive me if I also pay heed to that trams project - which would appear to have stopped growing.

The latter is germane, I would argue, to the continuing debate over the former.
At Holyrood, the talk is whether and how the finance secretary's budget will enhance economic growth.

Serious scrutiny

John Swinney indicates that he will table changes to his proposals. Given that they will be blocked as they stand, that is eminent common sense.

At Westminster, the Scottish Select Committee takes evidence on the Scotland Bill from Sir Kenneth Calman (of the commission) and Jim Gallagher (the highly sagacious public servant who assisted the commission.)

Didn't catch all of it - but the bits I did hear amid other tasks sounded like serious scrutiny.

In the JMC, Alex Salmond and his devolved counterparts argue for capital investment to bolster economic recovery.

Each intriguing developments. Each substantive and significant. And I genuinely don't want to undermine such debate.

But alongside all of this is the standing reminder that public spending is not always productive - in the physical shape of that motionless tram, marooned in Edinburgh's Princes Street.

Not a penny more, says John Swinney. And one can understand his perspective, given that he and his party opposed the project and only succumbed to a joint Holyrood vote by rivals.

Bigger role

That was in the very earliest days of minority government when ministers were seeking to provide evidence that, far from ignoring the Holyrood arithmetic, they would bow before it on occasion.

Now Audit Scotland tells us in a report - first disclosed by my estimable colleague David Miller - that the project is in a less than healthy state.

Specifically, they want to see a "clear way ahead" - and suggest that the Scottish government might consider whether its agency Transport Scotland should play a bigger role.

Maybe it will all work out for the best.

Maybe it is like the Dublin transport project where everyone moaned for years - then, when it was finished, wondered how the city had survived without the change.

But right now the trams project is a standing embarrassment for Edinburgh, for Scotland and for public procurement.

It engenders cynicism.

Cynicisism which wells up when Audit Scotland notes that public confidence in the project is very low - and that the city council and project managers need to explain better to the public "how this complex project is progressing."

One can sympathise but my guess is that the public look on that static tram in Princes Street.

They survey the absence of construction.

They calculate, precisely, how much progress is being made. And, as in Shelley's poem, they despair.

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