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Archives for March 2011

Tax battle

Brian Taylor | 14:49 UK time, Wednesday, 30 March 2011


Another day, another offer to peg back the council tax.

The Liberal Democrats say they'd exempt low-income pensioners from paying the charge at all.

Hang on, say their critics. Do low-income pensioners pay at the moment? Don't they get credits to cover the bills?

According to the LibDems, some 20,000 Scottish pensioners earn less than £10,000 - but still face a partial council tax payment.

Under their plan, the Scottish government would pick up the tab at an estimated cost of £4m.

Second rate, say the Tories. A pale imitation. The Conservatives plan a £200 discount for every household where all the adult residents are pensioners.

In response, the LibDems say their plan targets help where it's most needed.

They rebut Tory claims that the system would be complex, saying councils already have to calculate benefit for individuals.

Notice a common theme from the sundry council tax policy offers?

As far as the major parties go, they're all about holding tax down: the talk is of freezes
and discounts.

Tax freeze

So you have the SNP saying that they have a proven record on constraining taxation, given the sustained freeze throughout their term in power.

They'd extend that - and Labour now say they'd match that.

As do the Tories who, unlike Labour, supported the freeze in the past parliament.

As do the LibDems, albeit more reluctantly given their philosophical adherence to local council choice.

The Greens dissent from this perspective.

They back local decision making by councils - and, ultimately, want to replace the council tax with land value taxation.

Council taxation has become central to this Holyrood election campaign - as evident from last night's STV leaders debate.

But let's try to think longer term for a second: a challenge, I know, during the frenzy of a political contest.

Sooner or later, during the next Holyrood term, one or both of two things must happen. Either the freeze ends and/or the council tax is reformed or replaced entirely.

Pegging increases

It is simply not sustainable for a property based tax to be frozen in time indefinitely.

Income tax revenue increases with rising living standards and wage inflation even though the rate may stay static. A frozen property tax - based on notional rather than actual valuations - stays frozen.

If the freeze ends, the various parties have various offers with regard to pegging the increases which can then be levied by councils.

The underlying problem with local taxation remains that it raises a small proportion of council expenditure.

That means that, because of gearing, a small increase in demand by councils leads to a large additional imposition upon council tax payers.

So does the system need reform? Labour looked long and hard - but concluded that the time was not propitious for change.

More, they have ruled out a revaluation for the next Parliament: memories presumably still fresh of the revaluation under the Tories in the 1980s which heralded the Poll Tax.

How about replacement then?

Stumbling block

LibDems favour the Local Income Tax. So do the SNP - although they baulked at introducing it in the last Parliament, in the light of opposition determination to thwart it.

Now, the SNP say that Local Income Tax will still be in their manifesto but, I believe, the timing of implementation will be linked to tax changes coming down the line from Westminster.

Not the income tax plans in the Scotland Bill but the proposal to devolve council tax benefit to Scotland and to local authorities.

If you remember, the absence of discretion over council tax was one of the key stumbling blocks to the introduction of LIT in the last Parliament.

The SNP manifesto, I believe, will argue that LIT can follow the successful transfer of council tax benefit.

Party politics

Brian Taylor | 12:56 UK time, Sunday, 27 March 2011


Damn your principles, counselled Disraeli, stick to your party.

But what happens when your party won't stick to you?

Two candidates have departed from their party's favours - one Conservative, one Liberal Democrat - in rather different circumstances.

Hugh O' Donnell has chosen to quit the Liberal Democrats to stand as an independent, arguing that his party now prefers to quash dissent rather than adhere to fundamental beliefs.

Malcolm Macaskill was stood down by the Tories after endorsement was withdrawn by the party's candidates selection board.

He was top of the list in Glasgow and hence, potentially, set for a seat.

Each case is damaging to the party concerned.

Financial backing

Political leaders like to project a sense of unity, of contented lieges. These cases, in their different ways, run counter to that depiction.

The extent of the damage depends largely upon the containment exercise. Can the parties close the issues down? Will others rally to support the disquieted and departing?

Mr O'Donnell has been discontented, indeed semi-detached, for some time, since before the formation of the UK coalition.

His departure in this fashion would appear to be planned and calculating rather than whimsical.

The issue for the LibDems is this: can he be dismissed and sidelined as a maverick - or will he be seen as reflecting wider discontent within the party over the consequences of sharing power at Westminster even though his own disquiet partly predates that event?

The Macaskill case is potentially messier. It would appear he has influential - and wealthy - support.

The Tories may stand to lose financial backing from this.

Tory insiders say his endorsement was withdrawn by the all-Scotland candidates board following information which came to light subsequent to his being selected to top the party's list in Glasgow.

He says he is being denied natural justice and an opportunity to state his case.

This follows the disclosure that he has twice faced bankruptcy in the past in his business career.

Wider reform

Mr Macaskill says his business background was made known to the party a decade ago.

But he goes further, linking the handling of his case to suggestions that the party requires wider reform.

Again potentially, that is tapping into subterranean grumbling within the party over the future of the Scottish leadership.

Will that fly as an issue? Or will ranks close?

The immediate rawness of controversy tends to suggest the former.

That applies equally to the LibDem case.

Disraeli's advice, generally followed avidly or reluctantly by those who choose to adhere to parties in the first place, suggests the latter.

Budgeting for recovery

Brian Taylor | 17:40 UK time, Wednesday, 23 March 2011


As you might expect, the parties in Scotland match the coalition division in their response to the Budget: an indication, perhaps, of a key element to come in these Holyrood elections.

I conducted a couple of "round the houses" interviews on the green sward outside the Scottish Parliament, known to us affectionately as "Telly Tubby" land.

My introduction to one of these was to suggest that the Tories and Liberal Democrats would make the most of the budget - while the SNP and Labour would view it as "mince".

Cue discreet grinning from my assembled guests. But, of course, the forecast proved accurate.

Not, I stress, that it was hard.

On fuel duty, the Tories and the LibDems praised the cut for hard-pressed motorists.

The SNP and Labour noted that it scarcely countered the impact of big rises in the cost of fuel over the past year.

Coalition perspective

In addition, the SNP noted, with chagrin, that the Chancellor's big budget announcement is predicated upon additional tax drawn from North Sea oil.

Ditto on growth.

The Tories and LibDems, entirely understandably from their perspective, argue that what the UK coalition government is doing will stimulate the economy.

Labour and the SNP point to those revised growth estimates. Downwards, lest you were unsure.

And the Greens dispute the entire logic of the budget, dismissing it as tax cuts for big business while the squeeze on public spending continues.

It has been evident for some time that there would be a large Westminster overspill into the Holyrood elections because of the relative salience of public spending cuts coming down the line from the UK Treasury.

Presumably at some point, though, the parties will line up in alternative formations, not wholly dependent on the Westminster allegiances.

Election time

Brian Taylor | 14:44 UK time, Tuesday, 22 March 2011


Among the departing - the volunteer departures, that is - Robin Harper looked easily the most cheerful. Indeed, as ever, he seemed ineffably, gloriously happy.

When I encountered him at Holyrood, he performed a little buck and wing, as I believed it is called in the biz.

According to legend, this is the guy who, as a young folkie, introduced Paul Simon to the tune Scarborough Fair. Today at Holyrood, he looked as if about to burst into song at any moment. (R. Harper, that is, not P. Simon. )

In all, 20 MSPs are standing down, moving on, moving up or just generally departing.

Today Holyrood praised them all (having paused briefly to tear lumps out of each other during questions to the first minister.)

Emotional stuff it was at times.

The Presiding Officer Alex Fergusson seemed close to tears as tributes were paid to him - and he's hoping to come back, albeit in his former party colours.

Devolution campaign

Of the others, most note was paid, understandably, to former party leaders Nicol Stephen and Wendy Alexander, volunteer departures both.

And, in particular, to Jack McConnell, the former first minister.

Warmly praised by Alex Salmond and others, Mr McConnell looked solemn as he contemplated leaving the parliament where has has served for 12 years after campaiging for devolution for much of his adult life.

I rather liked his comment that self-government had encouraged "more Scots to walk a little taller, cringe a little less and have ideas above their station."

Back to the lump-tearing.

Labour's Iain Gray offered us one theme for his election campaign, accusing the SNP of abandoning key pledges from their manifesto such as the "crazy" local income tax, the abolition of student debt - and the referendum on independence.

Grinning constantly, Alex Salmond counter-attacked.

Government 'on fire'

Labour's pledge card, he said, was largely derivative: borrowed from SNP action such as the council tax freeze and free tertiary education.

These were notably robust exchanges. "Time's up", said Mr Gray to his rival. No chance, returned Mr Salmond, suggesting that his government was "on fire" with ideas to help Scotland.

For the Tories, Annabel Goldie recited the issues where her party had ensured progress: more police on the beat, that council tax freeze.

It fell to Tavish Scott of the Liberal Democrats to amplify a point introduced by Miss Goldie: that this election campaign begins with British troops involved in conflict. Again.

Bella backs common sense

Brian Taylor | 15:22 UK time, Saturday, 19 March 2011


Scotland has contributed hugely to global intellectual history: think Adam Smith and the peerless David Hume. But there are others, including Thomas Reid, Dugald Stewart and others from the self-styled Common Sense school.

They held for pragmatic beliefs, based upon the world around us and disavowing the temptations of philosophical paradox so beloved of others.

Now, that school - which flourished in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries - has a contemporary political advocate. Bella backs Common Sense.

Which means what? That, in her self-image, Annabel Goldie "tells it as it is", that she is frank about the scope of the crisis afflicting the economy and hence public spending, that there are limits to the goodies which can be on offer to the voters at this coming Holyrood election.

To a degree, she is simply coping with the hand she has been dealt. It is political pragmatism.

A Conservative-led UK Government is delivering spending cuts to address the deficit.
She chooses to back that Government, aware that any dissent would meet with scepticism from the voters.

But there is more. It is calculated to build upon her character, the impression she appears to leave with the voters.

Rival attack

David Cameron once called her his "favourite Scottish auntie".

I'm not sure she was hugely chuffed at the time - but it is the image which has since become her own: a cheery, droll, trustworthy personality.

Certainly, she dwelt heavily upon that in her speech to the conference here in Perth.

She sought to contrast her own approach with that of her rivals - notably Iain Gray.

Intriguingly, there was no mention of the Liberal Democrats. The constraints of UK coalition, perhaps? Earlier, the Scotland Office Minister David Mundell had similarly steered clear of attacking - or even mildly satirising - the party with which he coalesces in government.

But back to Bella. Her attack on Iain Gray was prolonged and pointed, drawing in particular upon his newly-announced support for a continuing council tax freeze.

Mr Gray, she said, was "the master of the cartwheel, the political gymnast extraordinaire."

Economic strategy

Meanwhile, at the Labour gig in Glasgow, Ed Miliband was returning the compliment with a direct attack upon the Tories: the UK Tories, David Cameron's Tories.

Which fits their narrative: that Labour is best placed to defend Scotland from the depredations of Westminster Tory cuts and economic strategy.

Labour's hope is that this positioning which worked in the UK election in Scotland can be replicated for the Holyrood poll, turning voters' heads to some extent away from the Scottish government and towards the UK government.

That proposed council tax freeze will feature on Labour's pledge card for this election, reflecting, says Labour, their determination to protect hard-pressed families.

Back to Bella, again.

She says such a promise is (literally) incredible - and will seem so to the voters.

By contrast, she says the Tories will address potentially unpalatable issues - such as the need for graduate contributions to help fund universities.

Tax freeze

Once more, this is making a virtue of necessity.

Offering a tough perspective in tough times. But there are some goodies too: maintaining police numbers, funding the health service, continuing the council tax freeze with an added bonus of a £200 cut for every pensioner household.

Why that latter policy?

Support, say the Tories, for people who have worked hard all their days. Plus pensioners tend to vote.

And, the Tories hope, may be prevailed upon to vote Conservative in disproportionate numbers.

In the speech, there were sharp words for Alex Salmond too, a reminder of promises which he had failed to deliver.

But the rhetoric was notably milder than that addressed at Iain Gray. A reflection, partly, of the budget deals which the Tories have done with the SNP over the last four years - and, just perhaps, the prospect of comparable dealing in the future.

Subterranean grumbling

Here, at the conference, the Common Sense strategy - or pragmatism - wins overwhelming support.

Tories like tough talking. But there is some subterranean grumbling too - which surfaced on the fringe.

There is some disquiet over the party's avowed support for the Scotland Bill which will introduce greater tax and borrowing powers for the Scottish Parliament.

That disquiet was voiced in forceful fashion by Lord Forsyth, the former Scottish Secretary.

That's a policy issue. But it's also a leadership question.. Some MSPs are murmuring that the Holyrood group should have been given a bigger say as the policy was promulgated.

Others counter that the party's membership of the Calman Commission - and the subsequent inclusion of a Calman pledge in the manifesto - were overt, upfront and involved substantial consultation.

Overwhelmingly, the party representatives here are keen to see their party, led by Annabel Goldie, make a distinctive, united pitch to the voters. It's only common sense.

Moment of Menace

Brian Taylor | 14:47 UK time, Thursday, 17 March 2011


Many happy returns to Dennis the Menace, a springlike 60 today.

Perhaps it was the anniversary but the spirit of the Dundonian rascal seemed to hover over the Holyrood chamber, tempting the first minister.

Now don't get me wrong, Alex Salmond was not kitted out in red and black stripes.

Nor was his hair spiky and defiant. But his mojo was mischief once more.

You'll recall that, in recent weeks, there has been a conscious attempt by the first minister, guided by advisers, to tone down his act, to sound governmental rather than gladiatorial.

Not today. I suspect it was because Labour's Iain Gray chose to major on the economy - a subject which Mr Salmond, a former Royal Bank economist, regards as his natural territory.

Getting to his feet, the FM offered an introductory: "Right!" You could sense he was metaphorically rolling up his sleeves - or even getting his jacket off in preparation for combat.

Sardonic tone

And conflict there was. As Alex Salmond piled in, at his side sat Mike Russell growling supportively, like an intellectual Gnasher.

However, Mr Gray resolutely declined to play the role of Walter the Softy.

Instead, he adopted an angry and sardonic tone as he accused the FM of sounding complacent in the face of high unemployment, particularly among young people.

Mr Salmond responded by insisting that Scottish government efforts had helped ensure that employment had risen for eight successive months while unemployment had fallen for four.

The big spat, though, came over construction investment. (I know, I know, not one to entice Dennis and Gnasher - but it matters.)

Mr Gray cited one set of figures with regard to capital investment, showing a decline.

Mr Salmond said those were PFI figures only, not the total picture. Mr Gray said people out of work didn't believe the FM.

At which point, Mr Salmond played what he plainly believed was his trump card.

University funding

The assertive grin was back, the voice was loud, his whole demeanour dismissive.

On the topic of credibility, he said that Iain Gray had pinched a succession of policies from the SNP.

University funding, the council tax freeze, Monklands A&E.

In the chamber, on the day, it was effective.

Certainly, the FM's chums roared appreciatively. They like Menace.

But Mr Gray wasn't finished.

He reminded the chamber that the SNP had dumped manifesto pledges such as a promise to pay off student debts. (In addition, Labour argues that the SNP has lifted Labour policies, such as an integrated care service and cutting the number of police forces.)

Early release

More fundamentally, Iain Gray argued that the SNP would leave office with unemployment in Scotland higher than when they entered.

The FM, in response, turned to satire, noting that some accountability for that might just perhaps rest upon the shoulders of the former PM and Chancellor, Gordon Brown. Labour, he said, could not be trusted on the economy.

On then to the exchanges with the Tories and the Liberal Democrats which were notably more gentle, covering the serious topics of automatic early prison release and business rates.

The moment of Menace had passed.

Labour trends

Brian Taylor | 12:36 UK time, Wednesday, 16 March 2011


This is getting to be a habit.

First, university funding; then council tax; now the future of A&E departments.

In each case, Labour has matched or copied a policy pledge advanced by the Scottish National Party.

Sundry wise quotations come to mind.

The first minister resorted to the Bible (Luke 15:7) to note that there was more joy in heaven over one repenting sinner than over 99 steadfastly righteous souls; the conclusion to the parable of the lost sheep.

Others might note that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.

However, still others might look to John Maynard Keynes who said: "When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, Sir?"

With regard to that last one, what material facts have changed?

Beyond, presumably, an altered or enhanced perception within Labour as to which policies might do them good and which might affect them adversely.

To be fair, Labour never said explicitly or finally that it would rule out graduate contributions to university funding.

Party figures indicated they were wrestling with options in the light of the financial challenge - and that it might well be difficult to avoid a personal payment of some sort.

Tax freeze

Plus, in terms of strict timing, they got there first. But, in doing so, they were pre-empting the obvious and declared direction of travel plainly signalled by Education Secretary Michael Russell.

Then the council tax.

There were two aspects to Labour's policy announcement.

One, that they were offering to match the SNP and the Tories in promising a further two year freeze (thus obliging the LibDems to confirm that, while sceptical, they would not block such a move.)

The second element was to sing the final chorus, for now, on what has become a notably auld sang - the prospect of Labour reforming the system of local taxation.

If you will recall, such reform was signalled by Jack McConnell at the last Holyrood election - with the absence of any detail generally thought to be an electoral weakness.

Since then, Labour has been sporadically reviewing the council tax.

There was talk of new bands at the top and bottom, in order to spread the burden more evenly.

Policy focus

There was even talk of looking at the system in Northern Ireland - which they call "the rates". Remember them here?

But now reform is seemingly on hold. The policy focus is on the freeze.

The material change which Labour would cite is the impact of recession and the need to protect low-paid families.

The electoral motivation is that the SNP - which has implemented a freeze since winning power - had found a popular position.

Caution and apprehension, in short, is driving policy.

On the other side, one detects some emerging evidence of caution within the SNP over their avowed ambition of replacing council tax with local income tax.

I would not want to overstate that but, for now, their prime focus is also on the freeze.
Then comes today's announcement by Labour that they will "guarantee the future of the A&E departments at Monklands Hospital and Ayr Hospital".

Hospital closures

The SNP's overall record on health, they say, is "not good enough and Labour will do better."

In response, the SNP notes sardonically that these hospitals have "only ever been threatened with closure by Labour itself."

Their reprieve was an early act of the SNP in office.

All a source of innocent merriment to the wicked media.

We mustered in Bute House this morning to hear the first minister pronounce on labour trends, offering his view that next week's UK Budget must not destabilise efforts in Scotland to secure economic growth.

We duly asked several questions on that topic - before moving to another Labour trend.

Grinning as only he can, Alex Salmond advised his rivals to be careful lest their U-turns become boomerangs - as voters, he suggested, might tend to question Labour's credibility.

In response, Labour say that they are dealing with difficult economic circumstances as they find them in Scotland and seeking to provide a composite policy offer which helps those in the greatest difficulty.

Leadership character

Mr Salmond suggested that Labour appeared to be pursuing a strategy of Clintonian triangulation, seeking to gain from policies or positions more commonly associated with their rivals.

In which case, the FM suggested further, the election might hinge upon leadership character.

Who is the best leader, who leads the best team, not who has the best policy. (See my post on this blog on Saturday.)

Mr Salmond has repeatedly suggested in the past that he stands to gain in such a contest.

Labour, naturally, dissents.

The FM was also at his deft best in sidestepping a question from the esteemed Robbie Dinwoodie of The Herald.

The bold Robbie posited that this was the FM's last full media conference before the dissolution of Parliament.

Would he consequently care to comment one last time upon the electoral consequences of Megrahi?

Mr Salmond's reply was succinct. It wasn't his last media gig.

He's having another one on Friday.

Power play

Brian Taylor | 16:51 UK time, Tuesday, 15 March 2011


It remains one of the mini-marvels of politics that the Treasury has been conjoined to concede new borrowing and additional tax powers to the Scottish Parliament in the Scotland Bill.

In Scotland, at Holyrood, the debate may be over whether these powers will be successful in bolstering fiscal responsibility - or whether, as the SNP asserts, they may be so inadequate that they end up causing Scotland to lose out financially.

Within the grandiose HQ of the Treasury in Whitehall's Great George Street, these matters are seen in rather simpler terms. Devolution means the Treasury giving up power. Which they are now doing, reluctantly.

However, it seems that there are limits to the Treasury's new found sense of liberal detachment. Up with Scottish bonds they will not put.

Bonds? An idea, remember, advanced by the Holyrood committee under Wendy Alexander as part of a plan for extending the proposed borrowing powers for the Scottish Parliament.

The idea was that Holyrood would be able, should MSPs choose, to issue bonds in order to raise funds in the money markets.

The Bill to revise Holyrood's powers is presently under scrutiny by the Commons. Its committee stage, as a constitutional Bill, is being taken on the floor of the House itself with all MPs potentially involved, rather than "upstairs" in a limited membership committee.

As I write, MPs are debating the issue of the voting system at Holyrood with a cadre of Labour back-benchers advocating First Past the Post (they dislike list MSPs). Their chances of success are limited.

But the bigger issue remains finance. And last night the Treasury Minister David Gauke said no to bonds, for now.

Snag is, he said, that bonds would be currently a relatively bad financial deal - and would add to the UK's borrowing requirement.

To be fair to Ms Alexander, she and her committee acknowledged that precise point. She did not envisage bonds being used instantly. Rather, it was an issue of long-term trust.

The response of the Treasury still remains one of pained disquiet. Look, you can almost hear them saying, is it not enough that we are conceding borrowing powers at all? But bonds?

Salmond's vision

Brian Taylor | 16:33 UK time, Saturday, 12 March 2011


For medieval kings, the court jester had an added function - beyond entertaining the lieges and making them forget how miserable their lives were.

This was to provide a running commentary upon events and remind the monarch of his foibles.

I am now in my medieval period - albeit still very far from regal (although I felt like a king when Daly banged in the winner in injury time on Thursday).

However, I benefited hugely from a running commentary as I sat in the front row at the SNP conference to hear Alex Salmond's speech.

A woman in the row behind me offered what appeared to be involuntary sotto voce reactions as the speech progressed.

She giggled at the funnies. She muttered outrage at the various alleged iniquities of the party's opponents.

And she voiced quiet sympathy as Mr Salmond described his encounter with Nancy, a Kilmarnock woman concerned at the possible loss of her disability allowance.

Now, of course, the woman in the row behind me was a supporter, a Nationalist.

But her audible reactions reminded me that the purpose of a political speech - especially one this close to an election - is to push certain buttons: to find the keys that will persuade people to vote for your party.

Council tax

It would seem that Labour suspect, within themselves, that Mr Salmond has already found some crucial keys. How else to explain their declared conversion to the notion of freezing the council tax for a further two years?

Iain Gray says that now is not the time to sanction an increase in council tax: people have suffered enough.

The parties, of course, will argue the case.

The SNP - and others - say that Labour's promise lacks credibility. Labour denies that and counters by criticising SNP plans for a local income tax.

But it could be claimed that the policy ground has perceptibly narrowed.

The two big parties are now pledged to a council tax freeze. The two big parties are now pledged to avoid university tuition fees or graduate charges.

There are, of course, substantial policy differences - not least over the very constitutional future of Scotland.

But perhaps the economic circumstances are counselling policy caution, instead of boldness.

Perhaps that means that the election will be determined not solely or wholly on narrow policy but on wider perceptions by the voters.

'Top team'

Alex Salmond seemed to recognise that.

He set out, quite deliberately, to go beyond individual policy detail. His template was record, team and vision.

Again, each will be contested by rivals.

Mr Salmond said his government had achieved much: rivals will point to the gaps. Mr Salmond said he led the best team for Scotland: rivals will dissent.

But the "vision thing" is often the trickiest element in a speech. At its worst, it can sound maudlin and mawkish.

The simplistic option for an SNP leader is to yell freedom.

Independence gains a guaranteed ovation in the hall - and is easily understood by the wider audience as the party's emblem.

Mr Salmond went further.

Firstly, as he has done in the past, he attempted to link independence with the current economic circumstances, arguing that enhanced powers and oil revenues would enable Scotland to boost growth.

Big society

At the close, he went further still, attempting to offer a concept of nationhood founded on "a community of people with a shared commitment to their culture and to their children." A sense of self conjoined to a sense of society.

It was, in a way, a version of the Big Society debate begun by David Cameron.

The first minister even made a sideways reference to the Cameron vision, albeit by saying that he wanted a fair society, not merely an encompassing one.

The watching voters will, of course, make their own mind up.

But, in the hall, the reception was exceptionally warm, even for avowed supporters like my conference neighbour.

In the presence of Balls

Brian Taylor | 12:58 UK time, Thursday, 10 March 2011


Perhaps it was the presence of Ed Balls, watching from the public gallery, but Labour's Iain Gray seemed in a notably combative mood for his weekly contest with the first minister.

Indeed, at one point, Mr Gray appeared to be suggesting that intellectual interrogation might be replaced by a square go as he declared, with menace, that he was ready to "take on" Alex Salmond any time.

Were we about to witness a McCoist and Lennon moment?

But no. On mature reflection, it appeared that Mr Gray was referring to the remaining two sessions of First Minister's Questions and, of course, the encounters which will follow during the Holyrood election campaign.

Each seemed discontented with the other's tone.

Mr Gray noted sardonically that the FM had again adopted his sonorous, governmental "I'm in charge" voice. You know, the one where he turns down the volume and sounds sad.

According to Mr Gray, spin in a quiet voice remained spin.

In response, the FM looked more downcast than ever as if he could scarcely credit that his answers failed to elicit instant admiration.

Health spending

As is customary, he closed with a sting, advising his rival that "appearing every week as Mr Angry" wouldn't make the Labour leader look "tough or effective or respected."

Cue chamber hubbub.

The exchanges were about health spending and staffing.

Mr Gray said that acute beds had been cut. Mr Salmond said that the SNP had ring fenced health spending: would Labour do the same?

Mr Gray said that health staffing had been reduced in the past year.

Police forces

Mr Salmond said that there were more working in the NHS now than when the SNP took power.

Statistics dominated the remainder of the time. Annabel Goldie for the Conservatives asked how many health visitors there were in Scotland.

Tavish Scott for the Liberal Democrats asked for the figures on the presumed cost savings from cutting the number of police forces.

Unaccountably, neither seemed content with the replies which, boiled down, amounted to "loads" and "I'll tell you soon".

Teaching the teachers

Brian Taylor | 15:16 UK time, Wednesday, 9 March 2011


It is, I suppose, a comfort that literacy and numeracy will be given greater primacy in selecting students for teacher training.

Is there not, however, something intrinsically depressing in the very fact that such a statement has to be made?

This afternoon at Holyrood, Schools Minister Angela Constance stood in for her boss, Michael Russell, in announcing that the Scottish government broadly accepts recommendations for reform outlined in a review.

These include the gradual phasing out of the B.Ed degree and its replacement by academic studies which do not place sole emphasis upon school teaching.

Further, teachers are to be encouraged to work towards a Masters degree as part of continuing development.

However, I was particularly struck by the recommendation - now endorsed by ministers - that there should be "diagnostic testing" as to the capacity of potential teachers to read, write and count.

In its full response, the government notes the "current high standard" in such fundamental skills displayed by the teaching workforce, stressing only that the objective is to ensure that all teachers "model the highest standards".

Potential pupils

To that end, there will now be further work done to "determine the standard that teachers should meet in both literacy and numeracy."

The trite answer to this might be: "higher than their potential pupils." Semi-advanced skills gaps can be remedied by further training, for example by employers.

But such remedies will be virtually impossible to apply if the basics are absent or lacking.

So it is encouraging, genuinely encouraging, to find a firm stress laid upon these basics in the reform of teacher training.

But still somehow sad.

Common sense

Brian Taylor | 11:15 UK time, Tuesday, 8 March 2011


Like "Tsar", the word "summit" is somewhat overused in the field of public policy.

And it is probably inappropriate with regard to today's talks concerning the aftermath of the latest Old Firm fixture.

Even when it is used in the context of meetings between heads of state and/or government, it can tend to increase expectations beyond what is reasonable.

One can presume that, like most summits, the main participants will already have drafted proposals which can form the basis of conclusions and dispel any curmudgeonly suggestions that the event is/was a waste of time.

Because such suggestions are already being made - not least by those who have participated in Old Firm encounters in the past. What, they argue, has it got to do with politicians?

There was a rather splendid radio pundit of old who used to demand of callers: "Were you at the match?"

Comparable challenges may be made to politicians today. What do you know? Back off. Keep out.

Public order

While maintaining a sense of perspective - somewhat lacking to date - it is to be hoped that our politicians respond firmly.

Ask yourselves a few questions. Is this just about football? No. It is also about policing and public order.

Very definitely within the realm of public policy. That is, politics.

Remember too that today's meeting was suggested not by the politicians but by the police.

Yes, social disorder is far more widely grounded in Scottish society.

It is not remotely the sole preserve of football, far less the Old Firm.

However, it still may be reasonable to examine, rationally and calmly, whether the Old Firm fixtures and their attendant passions contribute to disorder and whether that can be remedied.

Potential hazard

Why get at the Old Firm? Why not other clubs? Because the Glasgow pair have by far the largest support and, consequently, pose the largest potential hazard to public order.

Because, further, a section of their support is motivated, at least in part, by what the charitable would call tradition and the critical would call bigotry.

Yes, that is a wider problem in Scottish society.

Yes, Scotland must consider wider steps to eradicate said problem. Yes, it is not confined to these two clubs.

But, as above, it still may be reasonable to examine, rationally and calmly, whether, with support, more can be done beyond the current praiseworthy efforts to challenge the potential links between support for the Old Firm and sectarianism.

No more, no less. No summit, just common sense.

What now for devolution?

Brian Taylor | 13:14 UK time, Thursday, 3 March 2011


It remains the fundamental fault line in Scottish politics: the distinction between those who advocate independence and those who favour the Union.

That fault line was to the fore as the Holyrood committee which has been considering the Scotland Bill presented its conclusions.

There were no histrionics, no raised voices, no red cards, no need to send for the stewards, no angry scenes.

But there was palpable tension nonetheless: that tends to happen when the disagreement is basic, even visceral.

The subject? Proposals by the UK government, derived from the Calman Commission, to enhance the financial powers of the Scottish government, primarily via extra shared responsibility for income tax.

These are UK proposals. They will be enacted via the UK Parliament. But, under established convention, Westminster does not act on such matters without first gaining consent from Holyrood.

Hence the Holyrood committee investigation. Hence today's report.

Hence, subsequently, the prospect of a full vote in the Scottish Parliament in which the majority, presumably, will prevail.

Borrowing powers

That majority representing those who support the Union.

There are several areas of agreement in today's committee report. Those were acknowledged openly by both the convener, Labour's Wendy Alexander, and the deputy convener, Brian Adam of the SNP.

All sides at Holyrood believe that the borrowing powers proposed in the Bill should be extended still further.

There is common ground on several non-financial matters.

But fundamental division remains. Ms Alexander believes that the shared income tax package provides an opportunity to Holyrood to move into a new phase of self-government, with greater financial responsibility and entrenched incentives to create growth and thus higher tax revenues.

In this, she was supported by the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats.

Mr Adam believes that the powers are inadequate and might well leave Scotland short in revenue. He and his party advocate full fiscal responsibility as part of independence.

Both sides, all parties, made their views plain today. This contest will form one of the key aspects of the coming election.

Polite opening

It had already been rehearsed in committee hearings - most notably the tetchy exchanges over whether or not devolution of tax responsibility is inherently connected with growth.

From the formal, polite opening, those divisions again steadily appeared today.

Supporters of the Union said that the case for intrinsic growth had been demolished.

Nationalists regretted the treatment given by the committee to academics on this point.

SNP member Tricia Marwick went further: castigating committee advisers whom, she said, had previously worked with the Calman Commission and had been, she implied, inimical to alternative views.

This perspective was disputed later by Ms Alexander who insisted that she and her committee had carefully examined all aspects of the evidence, assisted by expert advisers.

Which leaves us where?

With the knowledge that Unionists and Nationalists disgree.

But also with proposals for further strengthening the devolved package which, I believe, the UK Government will be under considerable pressure to agree.

Core issue

It might, indeed, fit with the perceived choreography between Westminster and Holyrood on this matter for that agreement to be given, admittedly after consideration.

There remains though another basic question at the core of this issue.

The new tax powers substitute for grant which will be withheld. On what basis will that withdrawn grant be calculated?

The committee notes that it has yet to receive a detailed proposal on that point from the UK Government - or indeed the Scottish government.

But, in a lengthy annexe, the committee itself sets out the basis upon which that calculation might be done.

This is, indeed, fundamental to the issue of whether grant for tax will be a good trade. Presumably the UK government will set out their position clearly before an absolutely final decision is taken.

Tuition Quandary

Brian Taylor | 18:22 UK time, Tuesday, 1 March 2011


A quandary for Scotland's political parties as they meet today to consider the future of university funding. What to do?

The introduction of upfront tuition fees is a non-starter: electorally impossible on all sides. But what about a graduate contribution?

The Tories, pursuing their self-created blunt image, say that such a charge is inevitable and sensible in the light of overall spending constraint.

The perceived gap in funding between Scottish and English universities is now costed at a minum of £93m, based upon likely fees.

Other scenarios, of course, produce other costings.

Tories say these figures understate the real problem. They say it is essential to guarantee that Scotland's universities can compete - and that they need, consequently, an additional source of funding.

It would appear pretty plain that the SNP is likely to steer clear of a graduate contribution.

The Education Secretary Mike Russell promises a statement by the end of this month - but his comments to the effect that the gap is less than feared in some quarters would suggest that he and his party will follow their instinctive approach. No fees, no graduate charge.

Which lands Labour and the Liberal Democrats with a particular challenge.

If the SNP says no to a graduate contribution, are they really going to align themselves with the stated Conservative approach?

Again, each promises to absorb the latest figures - which is entirely reasonable.

But electoral politics would suggest that they also might well steer clear of promising/threatening any charges.

For the LibDems, this issue is toxic, given events in England.

Might they not wish to set themselves clearly apart from their Westminster colleagues - on the very issue which has caused them such trouble south of the Border?

Ditto Labour. If the gap really is £93m - which some dispute - would they really risk a potentially vote-losing move towards announcing a graduate charge?

We will know, of course, in due course as this intriguing election continues to take shape.

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